We are at it yet again – another post on movies and the law. This time, in honor of a year with two Friday the 13ths, I looked for movies that inspire horror, fear and terror. But when I began to pull this list together, I realized that real terror can be found in stories where the victim is being mentally tormented – chainsaws are child’s play compared to the tricks our minds can play on us! The last pick however, is a more lighthearted take on horror.
The first movie in the list is Gaslight, which starred Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotton. In this movie, Bergman plays Paula Alquist, heir to her murdered aunt’s fortune and house. The nine-year-old Paula was the one who discovered her aunt’s body. She is then shipped off to live in Italy where she follows in her aunt’s footsteps and trains as an opera singer. While living in Italy, Paula meets and marries the charming, and older Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). After their marriage they return to London to live in her aunt’s house. As time goes on, it appears that Paula is losing her mind: items disappear and reappear, she hears footsteps in the sealed off attic, and she is the only person to see the gaslights flickering. Her husband keeps her isolated, averring that her forgetfulness and kleptomania make her unfit for company. The climax occurs when Paula insists on attending a musical performance and her husband persuades her that she has stolen his watch – they leave with Paula in hysterics. When they get back home, Gregory tells her that her mother died in an insane asylum. At this point, the audience begins to realize that Gregory’s plan is to drive Paula mad in order to have her institutionalized and gain control of her property.
This is necessary because under the 1870 and 1882 Married Women’s Property Acts women had gained control over both real and personal property. Prior to these acts, when a woman married, she and her husband became one person under the law and any property she brought into the marriage was surrendered to her husband. Fortunately, Paula has attracted the attention of a Scotland Yard detective, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), who unravels the mystery, solves her aunt’s murder and ultimately promises her a happier future.
The next movie is a much lesser known film noir, titled The House on Telegraph Hill, starring Richard Basehart and Valentina Cortese. This film deals with a number of different legal issues including identity and immigration not to mention attempted murder and inadvertent suicide. The film begins in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where Cortese’s character, Victoria had been imprisoned. She meets Karin Dernakova who confides in her about her young son Christopher who was sent to live with her Aunt Sophie in the United States. Despite support from Victoria, Karin dies, and Victoria, who now has no family, assumes Karin’s identity. Victoria spends several years in a displaced persons camp attempting to come to the United States. World War II displaced thousands of persons in Europe whom, when the war ended, did not have homes or families to return to. President Truman recognized this when he issued Executive Order 225, which provided for the immigration of refugees and displaced persons. In 1948, Congress passed legislation (62 Stat. 1009) allowing for the immigration of an additional number of displaced persons from Europe by adjusting the immigration quotas.
A beneficiary of this program, Victoria arrives in the U.S. in 1950 on an United Nations refugee boat and visits the family lawyer who tells her that “her son” Christopher is under the guardianship of Alan Spender (Richard Basehart). Spender is also at the lawyer’s office and shows interest in Victoria, who admits to the audience that she believes her best plan would be to marry an American. She flirts with Alan who then proposes to her. After being married, they go to San Francisco where she learns that her husband and “her son’s” governess were having an affair. She comes to believe her husband is trying to kill her and “her son.” She confides her fears in a friend of Alan’s, Marc Bennett, whom she had already met when Bergen-Belsen was liberated, and tells him her true identity. By the end of the movie her husband has her isolated in the house, unable to call on anyone and he ultimately attempts to poison her with their nightly glass of orange juice. However, she is able to switch the juice and ensure that he gets poisoned. He flees to the governess for help, but she refuses as he had tried to kill Christopher whom she loves. The police and Marc arrive and the governess is taken in for questioning for not summoning help for Alan. Victoria’s happy fate is also alluded to – she will marry Marc and together with Christopher they become a happy family.
The final movie on this list is somewhat more lighthearted, Kind Hearts and Coronets which deals with the issues of inheritance and the line of descent. In this film, the protagonist is Louis, the 10th Duke of Chalfont, who has murdered seven of the eight members of the D’Ascoyne family in order to inherit the dukedom. Much of the comedy in the film derives from the fact that Alec Guinness plays all eight members of the D’Acoyne family. Louis has embarked on his murderous career to avenge his mother who was a daughter of the seventh duke and had been disinherited by her family when she married a poor Italian opera singer. Although Louis is successful in murdering members of his family, after he becomes the Duke he is charged with the murder of the husband of an old flame. Since he is a peer of the realm, a trial by his peers means that he is tried by the House of Lords. He is convicted of the one murder which he did not commit. However his old love “finds” a suicide note by her husband and Louis is freed from prison only to remember, as the film closes, that he has left his memoirs of his murderous career in his jail cell!