Fatal Charm: Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)

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On Monday, October 12th TCM is airing a batch of suspenseful films focusing on “Treacherous Spouses.” Most critics wouldn’t classify any of these films as horror but some of them contain genuinely horrific moments. The impressive line-up includes Experiment Perilous (1944), Suspicion (1941), Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and the day’s programming commences at 6am EST/3am PST with Cast a Dark Shadow (1955).

You can’t go wrong with any of these fine thrillers but today I’d like to single out Cast a Dark Shadow, a gripping and remarkably grim British production starring Dirk Bogarde as a suave young Romeo who seduces wealthy older women for financial gain and then murders them in cold blood. Clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes and featuring some stellar talent behind and in front of the camera, Cast a Dark Shadow presents an interesting early example of a seductive and unscrupulous serial killer who will stop at nothing to satisfy his basest urges.

I first saw Cast a Dark Shadow on late night TV when I was an impressionable preteen. It was my introduction to Dirk Bogarde and the film terrified me but it also made me a lifelong fan of the actor. The picture opens with a striking scene shot inside a funhouse ride at a carnival. Bogarde’s character is sharing his seat with his wife and future murder victim (Mona Washbourne) when the camera focuses in on his face hidden by shadows while his pupils appear to light-up. It’s a startling effect that makes Bogarde look like a hungry demon with hellfire in his eyes. In this clever title sequence, director Lewis Gilbert and cinematographer Jack Asher signal to film audiences that their male protagonist is a monster before he ever opens his mouth.

The monster in question is the boyishly handsome, extremely well-dressed, effortlessly charming and exceptionally witty, Edward ‘Teddy’ Bare played by Bogarde in one of his earliest “bad boy” roles. It’s not hard to figure out why lonely women are drawn to him although Bare’s sexuality remains rather ambiguous throughout the film due to the casting of Bogarde and his character’s choice of reading materials (magazines featuring scantily clad muscle men). After we’re introduced to Bare via the funhouse sequence, we learn about his complicated relationship with his elderly wife who he rids himself of rather quickly. Her murder is a cruel and utterly heartless bit of nastiness that Bare performs with chilling bravado. With sharply arched eyebrows, a wicked side-eye and bone-chilling laugh, Bogarde makes a formidable villain. He may be just another Bluebeard-style lady-killer in this somewhat predictably plotted suspenser but much like Robert Montgomery in Night Must Fall (1937) and Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Bogarde’s tightly wound performance is strikingly modern and makes a lasting impression that has influenced countless imitators.

He is matched by his female costars, the lovely Margaret Lockwood and Kay Walsh, two talented British actresses who are both exceptional here. Lockwood, who typically starred in lush historic melodramas plays a tough-as-nails working class dame who falls for Bare but demands a measure of his respect and Walsh is the suspicious sister of his murdered wife who maneuvers her way into their lives. A messy love-triangle threatens to emerge from the chaos but the egotistical Bare has murder on his mind and believes he can outsmart them both in an effort to fulfill his money-fueled fantasies.

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The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert who made a number of British Noirs and war films before helming Cast a Dark Shadow. It did not garner much attention outside of Britain but Gilbert would eventually win worldwide acclaim for his work on Alfie (1966), which made Michael Caine an international star. At first glance, Alfie and Cast a Shadow may not appear to have much in common but both films center around self-satisfied and amoral young men who seduce gullible woman for personal gain. Alfie and ‘Teddy’ are similarly witty, well-groomed and wise to the more unsavory ways of the world but their outward appeal masks a noxious interior. Both could be certifiable sociopaths and although the fun-loving Alfie never murders anyone, he does leave a trail of bruised and broken hearts in his wake.

Besides its entertainment value, this is also a great looking little thriller and that has a lot to do with cinematographer Jack Asher. Based on a stage play by Janet Green (she would go on to write the script for Victim in 1961; a groundbreaking film about a gay man played by Dirk Bogarde who is the victim of blackmail) with a minimal cast and limited locations, the film could have easily been a much more formal and drearily composed affair but Asher and director Lewis Gilbert breath lots of life into the producton. Before working on Cast a Dark Shadow, Asher shot some interesting British Noirs and afterward he went on to work with Hammer studios on many exceptional horror films that employed his pioneering use of color including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Mummy (1959) and The Brides of Dracula (1960). Some of these Hammer horrors will be airing on TCM this month so if you want to see more of Asher’s work you’ll have ample opportunity.

For some unknown reason Cast a Dark Shadow is only available on VHS and PAL DVD but bootleg copies are floating around. TCM will undoubtedly air the crisp print they’ve run in previous years so if you want to see this highly recommended thriller I suggest tuning in on October 12th. And if you can’t manage the early morning hours consider setting your DVRs (or whatever recording devices you have on hand) so you can watch at your convenience.

17 Responses Fatal Charm: Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)
Posted By Steve Burrus : October 8, 2015 5:23 pm

there’s anpother movie from the late 1950′s called [I think] “Murders at the Rue Morgue” in which early on in the movie a young w oman suddenly gets this package, she unwraps it. it is a pair of binoculars, she puts it up to her eyes and suddenly 2 steel blades jam into her eyes, supposedly killing her! The movie stars Michael Gough, who went on to play “Alfred” in one of the Batman movies. Have you ever heard of this movie?

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 8, 2015 5:38 pm

Steve – You’re thinking of Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). A great British horror film produced by Anglo-Amalgamated who also produced Peeping Tom a year later.

Posted By kingrat : October 8, 2015 5:44 pm

Kimberly, thanks for writing about this film, which I like very much. Four top performances. Bogarde tells Margaret Lockwood that he and Mona Washbourne had separate bedrooms (hint, hint), and Lockwood makes it clear that she’s having none of that.

Kay Walsh (the third Mrs. David Lean of six) was a strong, intelligent actress; to see her in CAST A DARK SHADOW and THE HORSE’S MOUTH shows what a range she had. I’ve always been a big fan of Dirk Bogarde, Margaret Lockwood, and Mona Washbourne, too.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 8, 2015 6:54 pm

kingrat – Thanks! I think its easy to overlook how great the women are in this film since Bogarde is amazing & knows how to steal a scene but they really are his equals here. Everyone is in top form. Great point about the “sleeping arrangement” chat. There’s more than a few hints about Bograde’s sexuality in the film, which is really interesting. Especially considering the time it was made.

Posted By Emgee : October 8, 2015 7:18 pm

Sounds like my kind of movie; Dirk Bogarde probably thought it was wise to show he could play other roles than that of lovable doctor Simon Sparrow.

Posted By Michael Kronenberg : October 8, 2015 7:27 pm

Wonderful piece, Kimberly! One of my favorite British noirs. IMHO Bogarde was at his best playing scoundrels. His performances in this and THE SERVANT are nothing short of brilliant.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 8, 2015 9:34 pm

Emgee – Bogarde was definitely interested in breaking out of the “matinee idol” mold at the time. If you get a chance, I also recommend him in Sleeping Tiger made a year or two earlier. It’s also a world away from his lovable doctor character.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 8, 2015 9:37 pm

Michael – Thanks so much! Must agree that Bogarde is terrific at playing unsavory characters and is amazing in The Servant. He really had amazing range. I also enjoy his dramatic roles & even find his light comedy parts fun.

Posted By Steve Burrus : October 9, 2015 2:42 am

was dirk bogarde in “Peeping Tom”?

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 9, 2015 4:33 am

Steve Burrus – No.

Posted By Emgee : October 9, 2015 7:04 am

“was dirk bogarde in “Peeping Tom”?”No, that was German actor Karlheinz Böhm, another matinee idol who wanted to break away from his saccharine screen image. But in his case the public was so revolted by the movie that it nearly finished his career.

Posted By Steve Burrus : October 9, 2015 3:43 pm

Whsat’s this “Peeping Tom” about and is it available on youtube.com maybe?

Posted By Jenni : October 9, 2015 10:24 pm

Good film-saw it on TCM a year ago, glad they’re reshowing it. Now to get my teens to tune in and give it a go.

Posted By Alfredo : October 10, 2015 7:04 am

Heinz Bohm has a great second career working with Fassbinder in movies like Martha or Fox and his friends

Posted By Alfredo : October 10, 2015 5:39 pm

And Dirk Bogarde was the star of Despair from R W Fassbinder adapted from the book of Nabokov

Posted By joe : October 13, 2015 1:38 pm

why didn’t this go on the on demand site? really wanted to see it but missed it. :(

Posted By swac44 : October 15, 2015 10:40 am

Steve: Peeping Tom is a remarkable Michael Powell thriller (working without his usual “Archers” partner Emeric Pressburger) about a young man who kills with a movie camera. The Criterion DVD appears to be out of print, although you can view it through Amazon Video. Doesn’t appear to be on YouTube. There is a UK Region B blu-ray available, but if you live in North America you’ll need a region-switchable player to watch it.

You can see the trailer here.

The film came up in my own life recently when I remarked to a friend that I’d always admired the impressive Albatross scooter that Karl Boehm rides in Peeping Tom (you catch a quick glimpse of it at the end of the trailer), and he informed me that the father of a mutual friend had one stowed away in his garage! Haven’t been out to see it yet, but for me it’s as exciting as seeing a Dodge Challenger like the one in Vanishing Point or a Bullitt-style fastback Mustang.

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