A Place Of One’s Own: A subdued but highly effective British ghost story

A Place Of One’s One directed by Bernard KnowlesA Place Of One’s One directed by Bernard Knowles

A Place Of One’s One directed by Bernard KnowlesIn October 1945, the horror anthology film Dead of Night was released in England, and to this day, almost 75 years later, it remains one of the scariest pictures ever to come out of that country. But Dead of Night was hardly the first shuddery cinematic exercise to be released there that year. Some five months earlier, in May ’45, a smaller and admittedly less frightening cinematic offering had been released to the public, and that film was A Place of One’s Own, based on the Osbert Sitwell novel of 1940. A subdued and only intermittently scary ghost story, the film yet offers the viewer of today a beautifully produced and supremely well acted 90 minutes, highlighted by some beautiful period decor and a literate script. Though little discussed in recent years, the picture surely remains ripe for modern-day reappraisal by the discriminating viewer.

In the film, the viewer meets the advanced-in-years Henry Smedhurst, played by the 36-year-old James Mason, who, by dint of his great craft and some effective makeup work, manages to convince as a man a good 20 years older. Smedhurst had been a draper in Leeds for the previous 40 years, and is now about to retire. He and his wife, Emily (American actress Barbara Mullen … although nobody would ever suspect her country of birth, given the oh-so convincing Scottish accent that she sports here), decide to buy the abandoned Bellingham House in Newborough. The old place had been unoccupied, coincidentally enough, since 1860 — 40 years earlier — when its previous occupant, the young Elizabeth Harkness, had died under mysterious circumstances. All seems to go well as the Smedhursts settle in, until strange noises are heard issuing from the home’s “speaking tube,” as well as faint voices asking for one “Dr. Marsham.” And when Emily hires a young woman named Annette Allenby (the hugely popular English actress Margaret Lockwood) to be her companion, even stranger things begin to transpire.

Annette is soon seen to evince abilities on the piano that she never had before; she orders the gardener to dig in the garden for a locket and later has no memory of having done so; and, most distressingly, she even begins to speak in another’s voice, telling of a 40-year-old tragedy in that same house. The viewer, of course, immediately realizes that poor Annette is being possessed by the spirit of the late Elizabeth, and while Emily is quick to catch on, Smedhurst himself is harder to convince. Annette’s fiancé, the kindly Dr. Selbie (Dennis Price, here in one of his earliest roles, and a good four years prior to his wonderful turn in Kind Hearts and Coronets), is at a loss to help the woman as she sinks into torpor and increasing debility, until Smedhurst himself is finally convinced of the supernatural nature of recent events, and decides to take action, as the history of four decades earlier threatens to repeat itself…

While never as scary as Dead of Night would prove to be, A Place of One’s Own yet manages to deliver one or two scenes that should just manage to send a chill down the spines of modern-day viewers. In the first and perhaps most impressive in the entire film, Annette awakens in the middle of the night, and walks trancelike down the stairs of Bellingham House, while the strains of Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, Number 4” (perhaps the most effective use of this classical piece in film history, at least until Bobby Dupea played the same melody 25 years later in Five Easy Pieces) are heard being played by someone or something on the piano downstairs, and creepy voices whisper in the background. In this extended sequence, the camera follows Annette down the intricate stairway (it is a most impressive piece of work here by cinematographer Stephen Dade) and into the piano room.

In the second shuddery scene, Dr. Marsham himself, the suitor of Elizabeth Harkness four decades earlier, arrives at the house in the, um, dead of night, and we see him, from behind and at a discreet distance, ascend those same stairs to give assistance in Annette’s sickroom. Marsham is played by the great Ernest Thesiger, here in his first outright horror film since he had essayed the memorable role of Dr. Pretorius in the classic Bride of Frankenstein, a full 10 years before. Again, this scene is a quiet one, and the shudders elicited are small ones. This is a film that never goes for big scares or startling shocks, but rather a slow and understated accretion of sinister unease.

Very much in the tradition of British quality, the film has been expertly helmed by director Bernard Knowles, who had earlier served as DOP for no fewer than five of Alfred Hitchcock’s U.K. classics. The script, by Brock Williams, is a pleasing one, and as I have mentioned, the acting, down to the smallest bit parts (such as pretty Dulcie Gray as the flighty maid Sarah), is, unsurprisingly, impeccable; Mason, in particular, is a wonder.

Although the film’s resolution may prove a little underwhelming for the casual viewer, for all those who love an effective ghost story well told, A Place of One’s Own should surely fit the bill. More than highly recommended…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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3 comments

  1. This sounds like a good psychological thriller.

    By the way, note to house hunters everywhere; words that should always pop up a red flag: “Fixer-upper w/good bones,” and “Abandoned since the mysterious death of previous owner.”

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