I’m not sure what’s more impressive in The Woman in White: Max Steiner’s exceptional score or Sidney Greenstreet’s performance. Both are phenomenal–it’s probably Steiner’s finest score. Greenstreet’s performance of the film’s cogent, ruthless villain is not just one of his finest performances, but one of the finest villains in film history. I’ve seem the film before, but somehow Greenstreet’s endless supply of sinisterness made me frequently question the ending I remembered.
Almost everything else about The Woman in White is excellent–not on the level of those two particulars–but, overall, excellent. Peter Godfrey knows how to construct a shot–and especially how to move a camera–and there’s some great comic moments in the film, which is not, overall, comical at all. John Abbott is great as a wacky recluse, John Emery is great as Greenstreet’s sidekick. Great’s a word I’d use a lot to describe aspects of The Woman in White… like Agnes Moorehead, she’s great in a difficult role. (No surprise). However–I was just going to say the editing isn’t great, but it isn’t just the editing–The Woman in White has some drastic changes in its narrative and they hamstring the film.
The first half of The Woman in White, with Gig Young starting a new job as a drawing instructor for wealthy Eleanor Parker who comes across a strange girl, recently escaped from an asylum (also Parker), is fantastic. Absolutely wonderful. Here’s the best direction in the film, the best part of Young’s performance and two good roles for Parker. Alexis Smith is good as the friend who’s got the crush on Young, even though Young and Parker (as the wealthy heiress, not the escaped mental patient) are getting romantic. Young and Parker have great chemistry, regardless of the role Parker’s playing. Young’s new to the estate, just like the viewer, and the film draws them both in at the same time. It’s masterful.
Then it skips ahead some months and now it’s Smith the film’s following, except not really, because Greenstreet eventually locks her in a room and then it follows Greenstreet for a long time. Parker’s wealthy heiress is poisoned so that role is made inessential and the mental patient role doesn’t have quite enough for her to do (though there are some nice special effects of the two of them in the same frame). Young and Smith have no chemistry as their romance takes off and the film drags on and on. Greenstreet’s great in this part, best in this part, and his scenes with Smith do a lot for the picture. Young’s almost useless, a long fall from the beginning, when he’s absolutely fantastic.
Overall, The Woman in White‘s best parts–with the exception of Greenstreet and Steiner–don’t make it to the end. Parker’s performance as the cursed mental patient is wonderful, but the romantic stuff with her and Young in the first half–which goes away–is just as good. By the end, it’s hard to believe Young started out so strong and even Steiner’s score, for the last bit, isn’t as good as it had been. So, disappointing as a whole, but its pieces are stellar.
Directed by Peter Godfrey; screenplay by Stephen Morehouse Avery, based on the novel by Wilkie Collins; director of photography, Carl E. Guthrie; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Max Steiner; produced by Henry Blanke; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Alexis Smith (Marian Halcombe), Eleanor Parker (Laura Fairlie/Ann Catherick), Sydney Greenstreet (Count Alessandro Fosco), Gig Young (Walter Hartright), Agnes Moorehead (Countess Fosco), John Abbott (Frederick Fairlie), John Emery (Sir Percival Glyde) and Curt Bois (Louis).