A dark and stormy Brit-noir from the late-classic period, ‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ stars Dirk Bogarde, once referred to as the screen’s ‘quintessential gentleman’s pervert’. Decadents and the morally suspect certainly were well within Bogarde’s range. He’s best remembered for his roles as someone in thrall to the possibilities of money, power, or sex in films such as ‘The Servant’, ‘Accident’, ‘The Damned’, ‘Death in Venice’ and ‘The Night Porter’.
In ‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ - based on a play ‘Murder Mistaken’ by Janet Green – it’s easy solvency and the mean assurances of social standing he after. Bogarde plays the aptly-named Edward or “Teddy” Bare, a handsome but louche charmer married to a wealthy widow, played by Mona Washbourne (a consummate character actress who appeared in vivid supporting roles and cameos in dozens of movies including ‘Billy Liar’, ‘The Collector’ and ‘Stevie’.
Although Bare appears to dote on his Monica, we don’t believe it for a minute. Beneath the surface affection, there’s only impatience and contempt (working the sub-text was what Bogarde did best and why he was so startlingly wonderful an actor).
Believing he is to inherit his wife’s fortunes, Bare’s real intentions are made clear soon enough. He murders her and stages the death to appear as an accident. The family lawyer (Robert Flemyng) suspects foul play but the coroner’s inquest rules otherwise. As it turns out, Monica has willed her loving husband only the house they shared. Other than that, he’s been left skint.
Lockwood’s Freda Jeffries is as tough as an old steak. She’s a blowsy, ex-barmaid who ‘married the guv’nor’ and is now well-off and ready to get on with it. There had been one or two gents she’d thought about settling down with - until she figured out that “it was just the moneybags, they were after, not the old bag herself”.
She also has Bare figured out but is prepared to marry him if he can show her the money and is ready to come to the marriage “pound for pound”. Bare manages to convince her that he has wealth by borrowing from a friend just as smarmy and dubious as he is. While he’s is able to keep up the pretense for a while, eventually Bare is forced to confess to Freda that he doesn’t have ten shillings to rub together. Despite it all, she decides to stick with him because she knows that they’re both as ‘common as dirt’ and she’ll likely do no better.
English class consciousness and social distinctions fester near the heart of ‘Cast a Dark Shadow”. It’s apparent that much of lawyer Phillip Mortimer’s dislike of Bare is due to Bare’s obvious lack of breeding. Bare, for his part, deliberately provokes those he resents as his betters, confronting them with slouching insolence. Washbourne, resigned to the social strictures manages still to mock them. Coming out of the beauty parlour, she says dryly to Bogarde, “I was going to go blonde but I thought that it might make me look common”.
It’s a brilliantly-realized and telling moment, both within the narrative and as a marker of realism’s ascent in British noir. There’s increasingly less room left for melodrama, anticipating the gritty and unsparing social realism soon to qualify the British New Wave and so-called ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas.
As one suspects he will, Bare soon begins to plot an untimely demise for Freda. However, complications arise. Both the situation and Bare start to unravel. Yet Bogarde manages to evoke sympathy and evince a vindicating dignity nearly up until the end. As criminally venal as he is – unlike ‘Night and the City’s Harry Fabian who is merely a pathetic scammer– Bogard is still able to make something more of Bare.
‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ is a movie layered with sharply-observed characters filmed by a director who frequently brought insight in to the lives of ordinary people as lived under extraordinary circumstances. In a career that has spanned more than six decades and over 40 films, Louis Gilbert (born in 1920) transported audiences to more and different dreamlands than almost anyone else in the history of film: from the post-war cycle of stirring WW II dramas ‘The Sea Shall Not Have Them’, ‘Reach for the Sky’, ‘Carve Her Name with Pride’, and 'Sink the Bismarck’; to ‘Alfie’, a film that helped change censorship laws; the James Bond trilogy ‘You Only Live Twice’, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’,and ‘Moonraker’; and popular celebrations of female spiritedness, ‘Educating Rita’and ‘Shirley Valentine’.
Working on low-budget programmers to big international co-productions, Gilbert was long recognized for his professionalism and efficient craftsmanship. He has done nearly everything and most of it well (leaving aside the fiasco, "The Adventurers"). His raison d’etre was primarily to entertain and is the kind of director who defies auteurist attention. With ‘Cast a Dark Shadow,’ however, Gilbert made a memorable contribution to British film noir assisted by cinematographer Jack Asher (Asher would later be lauded for his phtography in many of the films of the late ‘50’s/ early ‘60’s British horror cycle).
That said, ‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ remains a underestimated film, receiving less attention and credit than it ought despite a compelling story, a taut construction broken loose of its theatrical origins and a showcase of pitch-perfect performances.