|Ladies in Retirement (1941)
Run time: 91 min
Genres: Crime | Drama
Director: Charles Vidor
Writers: Garrett Fort, Reginald Denham
Stars: Ida Lupino, Louis Hayward, Evelyn Keyes
Housekeeper Lupino attempts to cover up a murder in an eccentric British household, in this gripping suspense drama. Excellent acting from a top-notch cast.
Release Date: 9 September 1941 (USA)
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LADIES IN RETIREMENT is an unjustly neglected film. It is a very absorbing little thriller, obviously a play adaptation with its one set, but consistently involving and interesting. Lupino plays housekeeper to a retired actress (Elsom) and persuades her to let her two sisters come for a visit. The two are batty and soon get on Elsom’s nerves. She orders the lot of them out of the house, so Lupino with no avenue of escape, offs her and hides the body. Then begins a cat and mouse game – will she be exposed and who by or will she retain the upper hand? The acting by Lupino and Elsom is excellent as is the wonderfully batty interpretations of the sisters by Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett. The marvellous cottage interiors earned a deserved Art Direction Oscar nom as did the atmospheric Musical Score. For my money it also deserved a nod for its beautifully composed Cinematography. This is available from private collectors, by the way, on video. Very worth seeking out – most enjoyable and top notch of the genre.
Here we have a very watchable Gothic suspense tale with IDA LUPINO giving one of her most restrained, yet brilliant performances in the leading role as a woman who is willing to commit murder for the sake of keeping her two dotty sisters out of an insane asylum. ISOBEL ELSOM is the foolish, rich English lady living on the moors with a maid (EVELYN KEYES) and agreeing only to a short visit from Lupino's sisters but soon finding herself in the position of having to order them away after a prolonged stay.
Lupino has a stormy confrontation with Elsom in order to convince her that her siblings must stay, but she loses the argument and decides the next day to settle things her own way. LOUIS HAYWARD is excellent as a charming scoundrel, a young nephew who begins to suspect that something has happened to Elsom and prowls around trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance The storyline bears similarities to NIGHT MUST FALL, the Robert Montgomery/Rosalind Russell/Dame May Witty thriller, another psychological tale involving a psychotic who wins over a rich old lady with his charm. But it is IDA LUPINO and her powerful portrait of a woman in jeopardy of losing everything she has worked for, that really stands out here.
And that's quite a compliment considering she is surrounded by expert actresses like ELSA LANCHESTER, EDITH BARRETT, ISOBEL ELSOM and EVELYN KEYES. She is the pivotal character in the grim tale, perhaps a shade too young to be cast as Louis Hayward's aunt, but she inhabits the role with all the force of her personality. The film is really a showcase for her undeniable talent and it's a shame that she never received an Oscar nomination for her role.
Summing up: Chilling atmosphere, superior B&W art direction, and a good score help make it an engrossing experience.
A huge stone bake oven, a curly blonde wig, a dead crow, and an old ink blotter are all elements that propel the drama in Charles Vidor's "Ladies in Retirement". This terrific — and now largely forgotten — piece of Victorian noir certainly deserves to find a new audience among classic film buffs.
Actually, "Ladies in Retirement" plays much like a "set piece" with almost all the action occurring inside a British country home. And the dramatic structure of the film is lifted faithfully from the stage play, but like the similar "Night Must Fall", the dialog, the characters, and the plot machinations make it an absorbing and suspenseful, and for those not familiar with the play, fairly unpredictable. Director Charles Vidor manages to keep it vital and visually interesting by setting some action on the dim and dank marshes that surround the house, and certainly the set designer and set dressers did a spectacular job in imagining the marshes of England, in a very subjective and ominous manner. The black and white cinematography makes the most of the foggy mist, the twisted trees and shrubs, craggy rocks, and the myriad birds that enliven the scenery. You can almost smell the mold and stagnant water in these scenes.
What makes "Ladies in Retirement" so terrific is the performances by the expert ensemble cast. First mention should go to veteran performer Isobel Elsom, who recreated her Broadway role in this movie, and certainly hits all the right notes as the retired showgirl Leonora Fiske. She's wonderful and perfectly cast, and lends a depth and sincerity to a character that played by a lesser actress would have seemed buffoonish. But Elsom can appear both flighty and silly, but also steely in her determination and cold and unyielding as a iceberg.
Ida Lupino plays Ellen Creed as repressed woman, desperate, and almost ready to explode at any moment, and she appears in sharp contrast to Elsom's blowzy Miss Fiske . From the first shot in the movie, Ellen's face is dark and tormented, as she reads her mail and then tortuously twists the letter in her hands before stuffing into her apron. She then expertly hides her distress over the plight of her sisters before Miss Fiske and her domestic Lucy, in a scene that showcases Lupino's command of the character. Ellen Creed thinks, plots and even connives at how to keep her family together, and the stress certainly reads in her face as she controls every scene by subtly hinting at her stifled emotions and repressed hostility. Even her affection for her poor sisters seems measured, restrained and qualified.
There's also great entertainment in the supporting performances. The inimitable Elsa Lanchester scowls and grumps, becoming a truly remarkable Emily. She seems to favor her sister Ellen, since she can be decidedly serious and dark, then lighting up only at rare times. Lanchester's persona was perfect for this role, as she can tiptoe the line between pathetic and frightening. She's a formidable presence with her angular features and bellowing voice, certainly enough to cause pause in any sensible person.
As the fragile and flighty sister Louisa, Edith Barrett may come off as a bit too broad and over-played, but she certainly endears herself to the audience. Her character is girlish, flirtatious and also quite wide-eyed and deranged, and her exchanges with a coachman supply great comic relief. Barrett makes her scenes so amusing that you really do care for the fate of her character. This actress is certainly one who should have achieved greater acclaim in supporting roles.
Louis Hayward portrays Ellen Creed's crafty "nephew" Albert Feather. He charms and flirts his way into the Fiske household like a low-rent Cary Grant, with a cockney accent and very winning ways. Hayward and Lupino were married at the time of filming and there scenes are electric with sexual tension. Albert provides a great temptation to Evelyn Keyes' innocent housemaid Lucy, who also deserves mention as an important member of the ensemble. Her accent is perfect, she glows with youthful beauty, and her tiny tantrums and sly flirtations still enliven every scene in which she appears.
"Ladies in Retirement" exemplifies classic Hollywood film-making at its apex of artistry by the great performances of its players, the refined and expert vision of its director, and the wonderful imagination of its designers. From the Columbia Studio fanfare until the end credits roll, classic film enthusiasts should find enjoyment in every frame.
Why so many British spinsters took to spending their twilight years in old houses at the edge of the moors, all gnarled trees and lowering skies, remains one of life’s enduring mysteries: Didn’t they know they were sitting ducks? Those crusty old cruets of malt vinegar weren’t averse, however, to the occasional taste of honey to sweeten their vanity, especially if it came from charming young drifters harboring antisocial personality disorders. Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall remains the classic example, but another is Ladies in Retirement, which also started out on stage before Charles Vidor started the cameras rolling.
Isolbel Elsom takes on the part of the vain old biddy with a theatrical past (and her disappearance comes far too quickly). The beguiling drifter is Louis Hayward, who comes to the door hoping to cadge 12 quid to make up for a shortfall in the teller’s drawer in the bank he works for. He gets it from her, though he really hoped to hit up her housekeeper and his aunt Ida Lupino (the two were married at the time).
Lupino, alas, was off in London at the time, packing up her two dotty sisters (Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett) who were evicted from the last of their lodgings for their shenanigans. They park at Elsom’s house `for a day or two,’ but after six weeks Elsom comes to the end of her tether and gives them, and Lupino, their walking papers. At which point, Lupino decides that blood is thicker than water and acts accordingly. But her crafty nephew grows suspicious when the old lady’s `travels’ seem to be coming to no foreseeable end….
Vidor chooses not to ventilate the play, keeping the action squarely in the moldering old homestead which affords him opportunity for strangely angled and shadowed shots in the rabbit-warren of rooms and staircases. The cast does the piece proud, with Hayward, Elsom, Lanchester and Evelyn Keyes, as the maid, all chewing a good portion of the scenery. Lupino wisely opts to underplay, giving the tight and wary performance of a woman with too many secrets to keep.
Ladies in Retirement shows its age in its conventions and attitudes, but it’s still reasonably spry; it’s fun to settle into, and offers a preview of the noir style that was just starting to develop. It’s a hell of a lot fresher and easier to swallow than the distantly similar Arsenic and Old Lace, that overwrought farce which coaxed out of Cary Grant the worst performance of his career.