One of Agatha Christie’s first forays into the world of film was 1937’s Love From A Stranger, adapted by Frances Marion from a play by Frank Vosper, based on Christie’s short story Philomel Cottage. Love From A Stranger is a wry, well-conceived psychological thriller which proves that – even 75 years on – movies haven’t really changed.
Carol Howard (Ann Harding) lives an average life working for her stuck-up boss, teaching piano lessons to children, and earning just enough to keep her head above water, living with her cousin Kate (Binnie Hale) and their hypochondriac Aunt Lou (Jean Cadell). Carol wants more in life, and she gets her chance when she unexpectedly wins the lottery. The win produces much good fortune – she quits her job, ships Aunt Lou off to a life of her own, and hilariously tells her piano student to “go home and never come back” – but it also drives a wedge between her and her fiance Ronnie Bruce (Bruce Seton), who has been working hard to give Carol the life he wants to provide. Ultimately, the pair have a fight from which they are too stubborn to step down, and Ronnie walks out.
Things take a turn, however, when Carol meets a potential tenant for her vacated apartment: the dapper, mysterious Gerald Lovell (Basil Rathbone). After several chance meetings, Carol and Gerald become an item and – despite Ronnie’s belated attempts to win her back – they are soon married, living off her wealth. Neither Ronnie nor Kate trust Gerald, and Carol herself is a little uncertain, but she loves him, and she ultimately chooses to retreat with him to their cottage, where she truly begins to fear that something is wrong.
Love From A Stranger could be easily remade today, in my opinion, without changing almost any of the plot structure. Sure, the production values, generous amount of make-up, and other aspects flag it as a ’30s film, but instead it feels remarkably modern. The argument between Carol and Ronnie over their respective financial positions would not be out of place in 2011, and the basic structure – the lottery, Carol’s rise, the courtship, and the growing distrust leading to a showdown between the two leads – could be easily replicated by two Hollywood stars in this day and age. Rowland V. Lee‘s direction certainly has a large part to play, as he restrains the broad comedy – only early moments with Aunt Lou and Carol’s boss feel like the kind of comedy which was still playing out in the aftermath of the silent film era – while still allowing the entire film to have a conversational tone, which never becomes po-faced. It helps, also, that we know it’s an Agatha Christie film and, by extension, that the director knows this. Although there is really no reason to be alarmed until the last, say, 25 minutes, little moments get us on edge throughout. Gerald is the only character we ever have any reason to distrust, which makes adapting a short story to an 80 minute film quite a presumption. Yet it works, because a) Carol herself isn’t deluded into thinking he’s a white knight and b) in spite of the little moments, we really have no reason to assume that he is untrustworthy. So, when at last he starts requiring money from Carol, and the pair find themselves in an isolated cottage with only the locals for company, we’re certain Gerald has ulterior motives, yet a more rational part is telling us that this is all an illusion. Perhaps he’s just a tormented, post-war soul?
Beyond this, though, much of the glory is down to the actors, all of whom exude a nice naturalism in their performances. As the best friend, Hale is the epitome of the “gal-pal”, while Rathbone – who could certainly go over the top when he wanted to – remains creepy throughout, but with a realistic edge. Surprisingly, for me at least, the film doesn’t really censor his urges, and we understand fully Gerald’s alcoholism, and the urges that he simply can’t control. As Carol, Ann Harding is the emotional centre of the film and her strong, nuanced portrayal is very welcome in what could easily have been a melodramatic part. We often deride the ’20s and ’30s as an era of external acting, but, for my money, the performances in this film are probably more underplayed than many of the bigger Hollywood performances that would dominate the ’40s.
The climactic sequence of the film features just Harding and Rathbone alone in their cottage, where the truth comes out about their respective pasts, and the character development that has been seeded throughout the entire film comes into play. It’s a wonderful climax to a truly psychological thriller, as we’re never sure to the final moment whether to trust either husband or wife, or whether either of them will make it out of the house alive.
Doing well in supporting roles in the final third of the film are Donald Calthorp as the gardener, Bryan Powley as Doctor Gribble, and the future Miss Marple, Joan Hickson, as the less-than-clever maid Emmy. (What a range of eras Hickson saw!) All in all, Love From A Stranger is a great little thriller, ably directed and powerfully acted. The film was remade in 1947 with John Hodiak and Sylvia Sidney in the lead roles and I’m actually surprised it hasn’t been updated for the big screen since. (While I believe it could be adapted almost verbatim, I’m sure Hollywood would have other plans in mind…) A great film from a different era, and further proof that Christie’s stories will live on.