Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Maze (1953)

Americanised Scot Gerald McTeam (Richard Carlson) and Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst) are eloped to be married in two weeks. Things in the happy relationship change when a letter for Gerald arrives asking for his return to his Scottish uncle’s castle as quickly as possible. Reluctantly, Gerald does got to Scotland, leaving Kitty and her aunt Edith (Katherine Emery) behind awaiting a quick return.

However, Gerald does not return; neither does he telegraph nor write (phoning would be right out in the notoriously primitive castle). Only after weeks do the Murrays hear from him in form of a letter to Edith telling of the death of his uncle. In this letter, Gerald breaks off the engagement, declaring he will never be able to see Kitty again while at the same time swearing eternal love. Not terribly surprisingly, this sort of thing doesn’t cut the mustard with the pleasantly strong-minded Kitty, so she decides to grab her aunt and travel to Gerald’s freshly inherited castle to find out what the heck is going on with him.

On their first encounter, Gerald is visibly aged and attempts stone-faced reticence towards his unwanted visitors, wanting them out of the house at once. After some effective pushing by Kitty “at once” turns into “the very next morning”, and soon Gerald finds himself with the Murrays as house guests for a rather longer amount of time. Kitty’s pretty relentless, as you can see. She needs to be, too, for there is some sort of terrible secret hanging over the house like an appropriately gothic shroud. Gerald and his two servants seem to conspire to hide something from the two women, and follow strange house rules that see guests in the house locked in their rooms for the night, treat a certain tower room as taboo, and so on and so forth.

Kitty’s pretty sure there’s something particularly weird going on in the castle’s maze, too, and she’s certainly the kind of woman who’ll do whatever it takes to find out what it is that haunts the man she inexplicably wants to marry.

Despite an ending that is at once a bit too harmless and a bit too pat, and a deep dark secret that looks about as horrifying as the one in Lovecraft’s “Arthur Jermyn” – which is to say, not at all in the most hilarious manner - to my 2016 eyes, William Cameron Menzies’s The Maze is a minor gem, certainly one of the highlights of the cheapest side of Allied Artist’s (which were once Monogram pictures and still often enough shooting on the tiny budgets of their Poverty Row tradition) output.

Many of the film’s virtues are in fact a product of the film’s cheapness, or rather the way its veteran director and production designer chose to film around it. Clearly, if one can’t afford naturalistic (or really, even mildly realistic) sets or locations, then it’s best to not even try for them and instead use a technique that’s a better fit to make much out of little; or I imagine something of that sort to have gone through Menzies’s mind. In any case, the director chose to use very classic expressionist techniques, turning out a film that gains an oppressive mood through many a weirdly angled shadow of the sort that seems to trap the characters in corners (as well as seeming to turn everything into a corner), and framing that should look cramped but feels claustrophobic thanks to the director’s subtle use of peculiar camera angles as well as the man’s tendency to use background and foreground images in much more inventive ways than was usually done in 50’s horror films. It’s one of the handful of American movies of its age that does aim for the gothic instead of the blandly “realistic” and for most of the running time, this approach turns The Maze into a fascinating and effective film.

There are some weaknesses of course. The script – ignoring the ending – is rather good and even well-paced, but there’s a somewhat dubious monster suit to survive for the discerning viewer – even though Menzies makes as much out of it as is humanly possible – and some truly ropy acting in minor roles. Additionally, Carlson seems to have, in one or two scenes to a nearly comical degree, not the faintest idea what his character is about nor how to express it.

Fortunately, Carlson is really more of a plot prop than a character here, for this is certainly Kitty’s tale, not his. And Kitty, well, she’s the very rare example of an independent, head-strong female heroine in a 50s genre film who actually is the audience’s viewpoint character throughout, isn’t “tamed” (shudder) by her man, and is only breaking down as much as is believable. Not surprisingly, Hurst makes the most out of this rare opportunity and together with Emery dominates proceedings for once in her career. Even if the film’s mood wasn’t as strong as it is, Kitty would be reason enough to watch it. As it happens, she’s just one of two very sturdy legs The Maze stands on.

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