The Mid-Century Modern Did It

SF

My initial reaction to Shadow of Fear, a dim little British mystery film (British title: Before I Wake), released circa 1955, was:  Nothing to write home about.   One of those standard The-Nurse-Did-It (or, Who Slipped Cyanide Into the Syringe?) murder tales, with a menaced heroine, a menacing stepmother, a non-menacing block of wood for the heroine’s romantic interest, and various tut-tutting characters, menaced or not (a sneering maid, an obtuse physician), stuck into the plot like currants in a pudding to add Color, Background, and Red Herrings (“So devoted to the Old Squire, she was, and now…”).  The kind of cozy mystery in which Evil Step-Mamá serves tea to the Vicar while murmuring What A Pity Poor Hermione Has Taken To Drink.  Or some such guff, meant, of course, to make sure no one believes Hermione’s wild accusations that t’was Step-Mamá who poisoned Dear Old Dad.

Pretty standard guff for the genre.  And for this film.

That is, until Jean Kent and the Mid-Century-Modern Parlor popped up.

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I will clarify the above statement (at least its second half).  I’m a (near-obsessive) watcher of YouTube how-to videos on Interior Design: Mid-Century Modern, Minimalism, French Provincial, Farmhouse, you name it.  If something materializes in my algorithm, something about What Is Japandi And How To Go About It, or Why You Need To Get Rid Of Word Art Now, or How Chalk Paint And Raised Stenciling Will Transform Your Out-of-Date Kitchen Cabinets Into…er, Something Not So Out-of-Date, Kitchen-Cabinet-Wise—well, I’m there.  Glued to my laptop screen, absorbing the latest on furniture flipping, Ikea hacking, and the Cottagecore trend.  Toss in a paintbrush, a floor plan, and a triumphant video house tour at the finish, and you have my full, unadulterated attention.  It would take a West Elm Going-Out-Of-Business-Prices-Slashed-to-the-Bone sale to pry me from my screen.

(As an aside, Kitchens in Green are definitely in for 2021.)

But, how does this dovetail (maybe with rounded corners, Waterfall-style) with Shadow of Fear?  The film starts off pretty standard mystery-wise, with Mona Freeman as our Plucky Young Heroine returning to England from four years abroad at a California college to attend her wealthy dad’s funeral.  (Presumably, an American actress was cast as a lure for the U.S. market, with California thrown in to explain her American accent.)  Seems Dad died in a convenient boating accident and, once back on Blighty’s shores, our pluck-filled heroine starts to think Something’s Mighty Suspicious about the whole too-convenient set-up, what with Dad being an expert sailor, there being a suspicious bump on the bow, and Step-Mamá being curiously reticent on the details…

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Step-Mamá is played by Jean Kent, and lemme tell you, if you want a reason to send postcards to the folks back home about this film, this lady is it.  Jean steals every damned scene she’s in, commanding the screen with a smile that could freeze oil and a clipped, upper-crust accent that could slice steel.  She knows exactly what she’s doing, every calculated bit, down to how much smirk to smirk when the cards fall your way (a little, a very little, but just enough to let us catch the meaning). So of course you start to root for her.  She’s having fun, and she wants us to have it, too.  By gum, is she good. 

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Coincidentally (and maybe by design?), this is where the Mid-Century-Modern Parlor jumps in. And where I started to take notice.

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You see, while our Plucky Heroine was away, Step-Mamá redesigned the entire house in MCM style, and now Plucky Heroine objects. She doesn’t like it that all the old, beloved, traditional furniture has been hauled out of the front parlor and and all this MCM stuff hauled in. Everything was so “warm and inviting” before, but now it’s all so…severe. To which criticism Step-Mamá hauls up her slacks and lays down the law.  Her MCM knock-offs, she insists, are “so much cleaner and healthier” than all that musty junk she expelled upon marrying Dear, Departed Dad. “Dust collectors,” Step-Mamá murmurs through pursed lips, pronouncing the words with a shudderingly indecent relish that made me wonder if the thought of all that collected dust delighted her in a way about which I didn’t care to think.

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Whatever you might think of MCM interior design (if you think of it at all), I bet you never thought of it as an Objective Correlative. Yet that seems its purpose in this film.  All those simple, stark lines, that almost puritan restraint…it’s kind of like…prim and proper Step-Mamá herself. Could Interior Design stand as an outward Signifier of Step-Mamá’s own interior state? Are those crazy-looking paintings on the walls, for instance, meant to indicate, sotto voce, that Step-Mamá might just be nuts?  (Though my first thought was that she should change her interior decorator. Maybe a touch of BoHo instead.)

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Some plot filler is also given here.  Step-Mamá was previously our Heroine’s mother’s nurse, taking care of that lady through months of boozing and DT’s, though Mum, oddly, never drank before.  After Mum’s demise, broken-hearted Dad married Step-Mamá, who then redid the house with all this wall décor no self-respecting heap of dust would care to collect on.  But, as it turns out, although Step-Mamá has Dad’s house and its contents, she doesn’t have Dad’s dough.  That’s the real haul to collect, but it’s to go to Plucky Heroine on her 21st birthday—coming up in three weeks. Which means Step-Mamá’s only got a fortnight and a bit to dispatch our Birthday Girl before Birthday Girl collects big (and it won’t be dust, either).  And that’s when Step-Mamá spits on her hands (metaphorically speaking, she’s too prim and proper for real hawking) and gets to work.

So Step-Mamá smiles—prim and proper-like, enough to ice the wax on the floor beneath her neatly clad feet—and hints to the gossipy townsfolk that our Heroine is in a “nervous” state, poor child, just like her alky mum. Meanwhile, Plucky Heroine, announcing that Stepmom is a murderess (blabbing to anyone standing within three feet, including Stepmom), sets out to investigate, and makes a thorough nuisance of herself.  Maybe there’s something ‘real’ in how badly this silly girl goes about her quest—she’s young and naïve and has no idea what she’s doing—but a Spring-Break mob might’ve been more subtle.  Is the point of loudly accusing your foe to her face meant to heighten the drama or to spell out plot developments for a slow-thinking audience?  Step-Mamá, of course, looks like a pained plaster saint whenever Step-Daughter goes off on one of her You-Did-It-And-I’ll-Prove-It rampages, until I began wishing that Step-Daughter would just shut up and cool it.  The set-up’s not helped by Mona Freeman’s squealy and insistent performance, emphasizing the role’s clichés, whereas Jean Kent is elegant and calm, underplaying her part while wearing black to kill.  Never mind the film; this lady could’ve stolen all the dust in Fort Knox. And then some.

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The movie is static to watch, visually unimpressive, and slow-moving and predictable. It’s low budget on a dime and I wouldn’t care to see a YouTube house-tour video on how it was done.  Mona Freeman shows no Englishness at all (I don’t buy that four-years-in-Sunny-Cal-and-lose-your-country excuse) and the fellow who plays her boyfriend, a Max Somebody, who’s about 8 feet tall and wears his hair in a puff, is dull.  Everyone’s dull.  Everyone except bonnie Jean, who has the whole thing twirled round one chic finger.  She was only in her early-to-mid 30s when she made this flick, but she’s as worldly and suave as late-age Dietrich, and as slim and attractive to boot, her army-straight torso proudly bearing an elegantly poised head.  Kent would later play Elizabeth Tudor in a 1960s TV show and wouldn’t I LOVE to see her in that.  Just place her in an Elizabeth-styled interior, by gum, and she’d be right at home. 

Anyway, without giving more away, I sure hoped Step-Mamá would get away with it, if only because she’s so entertaining.  Maybe end the film with her frozen smile and an eye flick of triumph, murmuring piously about Stepdaughter’s sad fate, the poor dear, while she collects the dust-free key to the bonds-stuffed safe-deposit box in the bank.  Jean should’ve gotten away with it because she was the only one not taking this guff seriously.  I suspect she was all the time winking at us viewers:  Yes, my character’s a Bad ‘Un, all right, but I’m going to play her with Unmelted Butter in My Mouth and let poor Mona flail like a snaffled fish so that all those wonderful people out there in the dark remember Me

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As a final aside, what wouldn’t I have given to have watched Step-Mamá in her own YouTube house-makeover video, complete with a parlor tour via cell phone camera and a list of those darling items she picked up for pennies at the Dollar Store but look as good as anything you’d pay through the nose to get at Restoration Hardware.  Not all the settling dust there is could have wrenched me away from my laptop screen for that one.

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You can watch Shadow of Fear right here on YouTube, while available. Maybe not as good as a house tour, but, hey, I’ll take design tips where I can get ’em.

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