Monday, January 28, 2013

Uncle Silas (1947): Gothic Thriller, British Style

Filmmaking in England during the 1940's, in many cases, was an adventure in visual design. Whether strong crayon coated Technicolor or chiroscuro laden black and white, the photography was exquisite and historical dramas were draped with period costumes and interiors that displayed the most intricate detail. Uncle Silas (1947), known in the United States as The Inheritance, is a perfect example of how these creative elements came together, along with atmospheric music and distinctive acting to fashion a stylized installment of 40's British cinema. It is an English Gothic thriller in the most traditional "Gothic" sense, with a dark, mysterious castle, hidden passages, and danger lurking around every musty, candle lit corner for its young and unsuspecting herione.

The film's star, Jean Simmons, was in the bloom of youthful beauty in 1947. She had played young Estella in David Lean's Great Expectations the previous year, appeared in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus the same year as this picture and would star as Ophelia in Olivier's Hamlet the following year, quite a resume for an 18 year old young lady. In Uncle Silas Simmons plays Caroline Ruthyn, a teenaged heiress who goes to live with her mysterious uncle upon her beloved father's death. Silas (Derrick De Marney) is a creepy degenerate, shady past and all, who is after his niece's sizable fortune, unbeknownst to her. The damsel only sees a loving and exciting uncle until the veneer starts to crumble and her existence becomes one of a prisoner, her jailor the weird and rambuncteous Madame de la Rougierre (Katina Paxinou). Throw in Silas' amoral son and you have our fair maiden facing danger at every turn, with only Lord Richard Ilbury (Derek Bond) and a boy hero to come to her aid.

Uncle Silas is based on a novel of the same name by writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish author of eerie ghost stories. Directed by Charles Frank, who also directed the Simmons Victorian suspenser So Long at the Fair (1950), it features the moody cinematography of Robert Krasker (an Oscar winner in 1949 for The Third Man), whose lighting and camera shots produce pieces of Gothic art. Sharing the front of the camera with Simmons were scenery chewers Derrick De Marney and Katina Paxinou. A madwoman on speed, Paxinou is a Greek fireball letting it all hang out, literally eating every scene she is in with over the top face mugging and gesturing. These two make a ham dinner look like an after school snack. Seriously, De Marney's performance is more irritating than menacing. His character is supposed to reek of evil, but instead comes off silly and annoying. The pair are cut some slack merely because the story itself is a melodrama of the old order, so that their pantomime performances seem to fit right in with all the shenanigans.

There are times when the movie's pacing is a bit slow, others where the suspense is high. With high marks on the visual and creative elements, mediocre ratings for De Marney and Paxinou's cartoon caricatures and fair to low scores for overall pacing, the film is still very watchable. As previously stated, it is a great example of the British playbill in the mid to late 40's and early 50's.


  1. I will have to track this one down! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Hi there,

    I just wanted to let you know that Classic Movies Digest in Pretty Clever Films Blog O' the Day. You can see the post here, if you wish

    Thanks for the great blog!

    Brandy, prettycleverfilms

  3. Hi Rupert!
    I was on a hunt to find as many Simmon's films a few years ago in preparation for doing a bio on her. This was one of the films I watched. I agree with your assessments here. Pacing, slow but it was enjoyable and I appreciated the effort, time taken on the visuals, plot development.

    I still haven't gotten to Jean's bio so this was a reminder that I'm way behind on everything. ha ha

    Another interesting review of a film that I hope others will give a chance.

    1. Hi Page!
      I saw this, along with a few of her other films from her youth in England, several years ago. I knew of Simmons' American movies for decades, but never had the opportunity to see those from across the pond. Really enjoyed them.

      You need to pick that bio idea back up.

  4. Uncle Silas is Sheridan LeFanu's masterpiece. We have gothic terror and Victorian settings. There is suspense. When I first read this book, in the Dover reprint, I had to stay up all night to finish it.



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