Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In short: Weird Woman (1944)

When Professor Norman Reed (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns from a research and book writing year somewhere in “jungles” of what I can only assume isn’t supposed to be Hawaii or Honolulu, even if the little we get to see of it in flashback suggest a really silly Hollywood version of one of these places, with his new wife Paula (Anne Gwynne), his star is on the rise. His book is a huge success, and he seems to be a shoe-in for the post of the department head of sociology. But are his actual achievements the reason for his success, or is it the magic Paula has brought with her from the island, and whose practice she hides from the unpleasantly rationalistic Norman? (Yes, I’m still a laissez-faire atheist and am perfectly alright with the people in my life having different beliefs than myself, Richard Dawkins and his ilk be damned, so Norman’s conniptions about Paula’s activities once he learns about them still make him look like a patronizing ass to me).

Be the working of magic as it may, his new fast-lane career is bound to make Norman some enemies. The worst of them is Illona Carr (Evelyn Ankers), the college librarian he once had a – seemingly quite public – “flirtation” with, and who learned of his marriage only when he and Paula arrived at the party she gave in honour of his return. Illona does her worst to drive Paula out and/or ruin Norman’s life, and given that people on that campus really fall for the most obvious attempts at manipulation, she just might succeed.

Usually, I don’t find it very difficult to separate movie adaptations of books that diverge heftily from their sources in my mind from the novels they don’t do justice to, and can try to appreciate them as their own entities.

In the case of this first adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s “Conjure Wife”, I find this approach a rather difficult one to take. Watching Weird Woman, I spent most of my time groaning about the changes to the book that devalue the supernatural content in a way which also turns a complex treatment of the connections between superstition and rationality, that is also doing ironic work on 40s concepts of marriage, the supposed differences between men and women, and campus politics, into a simple case of a morally and intellectually black and white thriller. Gone are the ambiguities of Leiber’s book, gone are some excellent moments of supernatural menace, and gone is much of the characterization, all to be replaced by a melodramatic thriller about campus politics that goes through a lot of plot beats of the novel while completely ignoring their meaning, simplifying everything for no reason apart from Universal’s mid-40s hatred of anything supernatural.

If I could get over my problems with these weaknesses, I would probably find something good to say about the film. At the very least, its preposterous melodramatic finale is a thing of perfection in its own little way, carried by performances of Ankers and a wildly, effectively, overacting Elizabeth Russell in tandem with blunt, yet wonderful, noir-expressionist editing and camera work. Director Reginald Le Borg does one of his finer jobs here anyway, providing Weird Woman with many a scene of shadowy moodiness, which makes it probably quite the effective film for anyone not as grumpy about Scott Darling’s adaptation of Leiber’s novel as I am. Of course that mood in the service of an actual supernatural tale would have been quite the thing.

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