Director: David Lean
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In its sheer ubiquity throughout the world, there has never been any murder trial as sensational as O. J. Simpson’s. Although the basic facts of the case weren’t all that unique, it was the circumstance of a black celebrity being accused of killing two beautiful white people that made the trial a crucible for the social tensions that had reached a crucial flashpoint in the United States. In a similar way, the murder trial that gripped all of Scotland in 1857 involving a beautiful, young woman from high society who appeared to have poisoned her socially inferior French lover tore at the veil of Victorian propriety and social rigidity. David Lean filmed the story of Madeleine Smith as a gift to his new bride, Ann Todd, who played the suspected murderess at a repressed simmer that is a wonder to behold.
A rather banal voiceover opens the film: “In this great city of Glasgow, there is a square which has nothing remarkable about its appearance. But there is one house that is exceptional: number seven.” In the spirit that has animated many a ghost story, Lean seeks to attach the echo of infamy to the image he puts before us—the tantalizingly real home of Madeleine Smith. His narrator and camera direct us to a sidewalk-level window covered with bars, the very window behind which Madeleine slept each night and occasionally signaled Emile L’Anglier (Ivan Desny) with a lighted candle that she would soon be able to meet him in the shadows of her respectable home.
When we first meet the Smith family they are inspecting the home they will eventually inhabit. Madeleine notices a spiral staircase that leads to the basement bedroom the real estate agent has just mentioned. Magnetically drawn to investigate it, she descends, walks through the spacious room, and stares as if transfixed at the barred windows slightly above her head. Thematically, Lean will return to the POV perspective—Madeleine, already a fallen women in the midst of the affair that will ruin her, will be seen, variously, looking up and being looked down upon at important moments of her life.
The vacant bedroom is transformed into a plush bastion of privilege. An utterly conventional scene of family life ensues, as Madeleine, her stern father (Leslie Banks), compliant mother (Barbara Everest), and middle sister Bessie (Patricia Raine) receive William Minnoch (Norman Wooland) in their fussy Victorian drawing room. The Smiths hope Minnoch will renew his interest in Madeleine, which was interrupted by a long residence in parts unknown. Madeleine sits at the piano forte, plays, and sings a song in French, secretly targeted toward L’Anglier, who is standing in the street outside her home. She closes up the house for the night, steals down to her room carefully so as not to awaken her youngest sister Janet (Susan Stranks), finds L’Anglier’s note in the window well (“10 o’clock”), and lights the candle. At the appointed time, he bangs his metal-handled cane on the window bars. She opens the window, hands him the key to the house’s gate, and runs to meet his embrace.
Eventually, pressure from both her father and her lover will squeeze Madeleine into perhaps thinking the unthinkable. Mr. Smith, impatient for her to behave “naturally” and get engaged to Minnoch, scolds her to encourage his attentions—a request that she responds to with a seemingly uncharacteristic vulgarity that earns her father’s wrath. L’Anglier considers that he and Madeleine are already engaged—they have already been sleeping together—and becomes insistent that she introduce him to her father so that the marriage can proceed. Rightfully fearing her father’s disapproval, she begs Emile to run away with her, but he sees no reason to hide in the shadows any longer and refuses. She breaks off her affair, accepts Minnoch’s proposal, and seeks to retrieve the love letters she has sent to L’Anglier. The Frenchman refuses to let her go. Not long thereafter, he becomes ill with severe stomach pains. He recovers, but a second bout kills him. An autopsy reveals arsenic poisoning, and Madeleine is arrested and brought to trial for murder.
This very well-written and subtly acted film laces every one of Madeleine’s actions with ambiguity. Madeleine uses arsenic as a cosmetic treatment for her skin. Before she is to receive L’Anglier in her home—her parents and Bessie are out for the evening—she pours what remains of a bottle of arsenic into a wash basin, submerges her hands, and pats her face. The Smiths’ maid Christina (Elizabeth Sellars) leaves the kitchen where Madeleine is freshening up to let L’Anglier in. When she returns, Madeleine instructs her to make cocoa and serve it in the silver pot. Lean shoots a close-up of the cocoa tin and sauce pan warming on the stove. These close-ups are the only clues we will get that this evening will be used in mounting the case against Madeleine. In light of the arguments made by the prosecutor (Barry Jones) and Madeleine’s defense attorney (André Morell) and flashbacks to Christina’s testimony, we must revisit this very ordinary scene in our minds for hints of treachery.
It seems perfectly conceivable that Madeleine is both in love with L’Anglier and narcissistic enough to poison him when he interferes with her plans. Once she decides to marry Minnoch, she becomes the very picture of a conventional bride-to-be, fussing over her wedding dress and all the wedding details. Before she is about to hear the verdict, she smooths the new frock made especially for her. A servant brings her a forbidden mirror to check herself in; Madeleine comments that the dress really looks wonderful and laments the judge’s decision to clear the courtroom because her appearance would have been good advertising for the dressmaker. Madeleine sounds a bit like Roxie Hart at this moment, though the comment sounds superficially selfless.
Lean is coy in suggesting sex between L’Anglier and Madeleine (no doubt in deference to British censors). Emile and Madeleine rendezvous on a hill overlooking the village. They seem as giants looking down on the housing of the common folk. Madeleine gets caught up in the music emanating from below, a Scottish reel. Lean cuts between the vigorous dancing in town and Madeleine’s growing abandon when she starts dancing with a reluctant Emile. She throws herself to the ground and looks up at a shooting star crossing between the clouds that seem always to blanket Scotland. At the climax of the dance, a young couple wildly writhe in each other’s arms and escape from the music hall. We next see Madeleine’s lace shawl lying on the ground. Emile’s hand moves into the frame and scoops it up to put around Madeleine’s shoulders.
Another scene suggests forcible sex and another motive for murder never suspected by the court. The balance of power between the two lovers tips when Emile refuses to return Madeleine’s letters. Emile pushes a frantic Madeleine to the ground, and stands over her as she cries impotently. Lean frames her feet, turned sideways, between Emile’s flanking legs. Then her body turns, her feet pointed upwards. Emile bends over her and seizes her in a violent kiss. Next we see his cane smash violently to the floor. Is it rape? Is it Madeleine trying to get what she wants by having sex with Emile? Is it a wild sexuality at play between the two of them? While Lean superficially stacks the deck to make Madeleine appear innocent of the charges, the cumulative effect of these ambiguous gestures and scenes shows a keen intelligence at work.
A chamber drama such as this gives Lean little room to display his skill with large-scale action. Nonetheless, Madeleine has some wonderfully grand set pieces. For example, Glaswegians teeming in the streets hectoring Madeleine as the police wagon takes her to prison and then waiting expectantly outside the courthouse for the verdict to be read suggest a nation mesmerized by the scandal. Lean continually changes his camera perspective to shoot up at the crowds looking down on the duplicitous Madeleine at the ball where she accepts Minnoch’s proposal and then down on the crowds for their bloodthirstiness in consuming the trial. There is no question that more is being judged here than Madeleine Smith.
The film has the classic look of any of Lean’s black-and-white triumphs, and the period details, from gaslights to letters as the only means of long-distance communication to juries composed entirely of men, create a world very different from our own, yet still recognizable. The acting, with the exception of a rather palely realized L’Anglier, is first rate. Special kudos go to Banks, whose severe Mr. Smith threw a scare into me as I watched him, Sellars as a somewhat impudent servant, and Eugène Deckers as Thuau, from the French embassy, whose skepticism about Madeleine’s innocence throws our natural sympathies into disarray. Most especially, Ann Todd’s performance gives little away, maintaining the mystery of Madeleine Smith within a script that strains to satisfy the audience’s desire to know the truth.