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Granger in the night
Stewart Granger is a wife-murderer and Jean Simmons is a maid who attempts to blackmail him in the unexpectedly dark and impressively unpredictable 1955 gaslight noir, FOOTSTEPS IN THE FOG. Slarek takes a trip to foggy Victorian London with Indicator's fine new Blu-ray.
 

Don Ross' too often undervalued 1998 comedy-drama The Opposite of Sex is jam packed with witty banter, but there's one specific exchange that always makes me smile. When his boyfriend Matt unexpectedly runs away with the sister of his previous partner, high school teacher Bill is confronted by his former student Jason, who was also seeing Matt and is convinced that Bill had something to do with his disappearance. "For all I know, you killed him," says Jason smarmily, to which Bill calmly responds, "For all you know, I'm just getting started." It's a moment that came immediately to mind during the opening five minutes of the 1955 Footsteps in the Fog, when young housemaid Lily Watkins (Jean Simmons) realises that Stephen Lowry (Stewart Granger), the recently widowed gentleman for whom she works, has murdered his wife, and somehow thinks the smart move would be to blackmail him with this information.

If you come to Footsteps in the Fog with no knowledge of its content, then there's a good chance you'll be wrong-footed by the opening credits, whose Palace Script typeface, Technicolor silk backdrop and melodic orchestral score all seem to be promising a full-blown romantic melodrama. Hell, I'd read a brief synopsis of the film before sitting down for it, and after that opening even I was expecting to watch devoted housemaid Lily and her well-to-do and newly widowed employer fall head-over-heels in love and live happily ever after. This air of romantic optimism is not seriously dented by the opening funeral of Stephen's recently deceased wife. Everyone feels for him, but when Lily discovers that Mrs. Lowry's medicine has laid waste to a whole family of rats, she quickly determines that she did not die of gastroenteritis after all but was poisoned by her husband. Instead of running to the police, however, she informs her employer of her discovery and that the price of her silence is that she be allowed to keep the jewellery she has stolen and that she be promoted to housekeeper.

Lily outlines her demands to Stephen

Now at this point it did strike me that Lily had set her sights a little low, given the serious nature of the dirt she has on her wealthy employer. We have, however, already been given good reason to understand her desire to be promoted to housekeeper, having watched her be repeatedly bullied by the older cook, Mrs. Park (Marjorie Rhodes), who believes that as the senior staff member she will automatically land the position herself. For Lily, this upgrade is as much an act of personal revenge on Mrs. Park – who is predictably outraged by the decision – as it is career advancement, and once Lily starts dressing in the late Mrs. Lowry's clothing and wearing her jewellery, the prime motivation for her decision to remain close to Stephen soon becomes clear. Yet while his first reaction to Lily's hijacking of his late wife's identity is one of understandable shock, after pulling off her earrings and necklace he grasps her by the throat and warns her, "Don't ever use her perfume" before passionately kissing her. It would seem that the destiny hinted at by the opening credits will come to pass after all. Or will it? You see, shortly before confronting Lily in his late wife's bedroom, Stephen paid a call on family friend and future business partner Alfred Travers (Ronald Squire), whose pretty daughter Elizabeth (Belinda Lee) is clearly attracted to Stephen, something he responds to, but which irritates the hell out of her current suitor, David Macdonald Bill Travers).

And that is as much as I'm prepared to reveal, as one of the very real pleasures of Footsteps in the Fog is that you can't ever be certain just where it's going to go next. This is a film with more than its share of unexpected and occasionally startling plot twists, and long before the final scene you'll be hit by the realisation that this is unlikely to end well either for Stephen or Lily, both of whom have committed criminal acts in a film made back when no bad deed was allowed to go unpunished. And for Stephen especially, there is no act of redemption that can balance the books for his crime, and his predicament is worsened when a spontaneous and ill-thought-out move to dig himself out of a hole spectacularly backfires and has consequences that not only threaten his liberty but tear at his conscience – seriously, even an old cynic like me was watching open-mouthed in disbelief when the full impact of his action was revealed. This all peaks around the halfway mark when the story takes the sort of turn that would usually be reserved for the final act, effectively throwing all early predictions about how it will conclude to the four winds.

Mrs. Park hands in her resignation and delivers a warning

Particularly intriguing are the games the film plays with our uncertain and continually shifting allegiance to characters whose actions we disapprove of, fearing for Lily's safety one minute and then concerned that Stephen's secret is in danger of being exposed the next. And despite his easy charm, at no point does the film try to make a case for Stephen as a decent man who has somehow just lost his way, or Lily as a woman who is justly turning the tables on a man who has wronged her. Complicating matters further is the cheery Elizabeth, whose fondness for Stephen becomes strong enough to have us wondering if his feelings for her are genuinely mutual, or whether he is taking advantage of her affections for financial advancement. That's certainly what he tells the dangerously envious Lily he's up to but given the gravity of the hold she has on him, he would say that, wouldn't he. The abandoned David, meanwhile, has his own doubts about Stephen's integrity, and is certainly quicker than the police to suspect that he may not be the grieving widower he presents himself as. My pledge to avoid spoilers means I can't even get started on Lilly's sister Rose (Sheila Manahan) and her opportunistically-minded husband Herbert (William Hartnell).

Stewart Granger is sublime casting as Stephen Lowry, equally adept as he is at playing a charmer and a reprehensible cad, a duality neatly encapsulated when he returns home after the funeral, slowly walking into the house, his head hung in sorrow and looking for all the world like a heartbroken man, then laughingly drinking a toast to a portrait of his late wife. It's a delicate balance that Granger maintains throughout, which has us sympathising with his predicament one minute and then appalled by his actions the next. He's well matched by his then wife Jean Simmons as Lily as she quietly relishes the control her discovery gives her over her employer. This first manifests itself immediately following her request to be made housekeeper, when she stands by an open door expectantly waiting for Stephen to walk ahead and break the news to her unhappy colleagues, like a mother who has commanded her naughty child to lead her to the site of a shameful transgression. And while she is prepared to take Stephen's later pledges of love at face value, she's also canny enough to understand the implications of that above-quoted exchange from The Opposite of Sex and take appropriate precautions to protect her safety. Strong backup is provided by a consistently good supporting cast, with Belinda Lee vibrant as the trusting Elizabeth and enjoyably large-than-life turns from Marjorie Rhodes as the vindictive Mrs. Park and William Hartnell as Lily's avaricious brother-in-law Herbert.

A love-struck Lily

But what makes Footsteps in the Fog so distinctive within the gaslight melodrama subgenre relates to my earlier point about how it has the look and feel of a far lighter film. As noir-tinged tales (the subgenre is also referred to as ‘gaslight noir'), these films tended to be in black and white and make unsettling use of the format's high key lighting and concealing shadows, but Footsteps in the Fog discards this in favour of the lush Technicolor and evenly lit sets of a romantic drama. This initially gives the period setting an air of inviting sophistication, one in which gentlemen smoke cigars, drink bandy and discuss impending unions and monetary affairs, seemingly insulated from dangers they perceive as existing exclusively outside of their financially walled world. Footsteps in the Fog fractures that image and undermines its cosy familiarity with a tale in which dark deeds eat away from within. And while not a socio-political film per se, it's worth noting that its biggest emotional gut-punch (I'm being non-specific to avoid spoilers here) comes as the result of a wealthy individual robbing an honest and thoroughly decent working man of everything he holds dear in a callous effort to protect his own evil deeds from discovery. Despite its period setting, for my money this gives this dark and compellingly executed drama a discomfortingly contemporary edge.

sound and vision

Another strong HD transfer from Indicator, albeit in the slightly surprising 1.75:1 aspect ratio.* It looks consistently lovely, nonetheless, from its warm and sometimes vibrant Technicolor palette to the absolutely spot-on contrast and crisp rendering of detail. The image is spotless and there's no trace of any damage, and there are no digital artefacts or banding in the scenes set in dense fog, always one of the biggest challenges for standard definition digital transfers.

The walls start to close in on Stephen

The Linear PCM mono 1.0 transfer is also in excellent shape, with clear and distortion-free reproduction of dialogue and music, and no background fluff or hiss even in the quietest scenes.

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are available.

extra features

The Guardian Interview with Stewart Granger (68:25)
An audio recording of Granger delivering a lively talk about his career at the National Film Theatre on 30 September 1990, which runs under the first 68 minutes of the film in the manner of an audio commentary. As so often with such extras, there's an up-front warning about the audio quality, but for the most part it's clear enough, with only a couple of the questions rendered inaudible. Granger is consistently entertaining here, regaling the audience with amusing stories from his film career (just so you know, Footsteps in the Fog doesn't get a mention), including roles that he didn't get that he ordinally wanted (that he was up for the lead in Ben-Hur really caught me out). He even jokily berates an audience member who has to leave early, calling out to them loudly, "Am I boring you?"

Belinda, Goddess of Devon (27:00)
Author and Professor of British Cinema and Director of the Cinema and Television History Centre Steve Chibnall provides a detailed biography of actor Belinda Lee, who plays Elizabeth in the film and who died at the ludicrously young age of 25. Chibnall has an easy-going delivery that at first had me making those hand movements you use when you want someone to speed up a bit, but once I settled into his groove, so to speak, I got completely caught up in what he had to say and learned a lot about an actor whose work I was until then largely unfamiliar with.

Dire deeds afoot in the fog

Something in the Air (26:30)
The BFI's Josephine Botting, whose enthusiastic delivery and encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema is in full force here, as she explores in considerable detail the development of the gaslight melodrama/noir subgenre and key elements of Footsteps in the Fog, including W.W. Jacobs' original short story, the costume design, the Technicolor cinematography, the supporting cast and more.

Gothic Imprints (17:00)
The always welcome Kat Ellinger makes the case for the film as a gothic melodrama, exploring the elements that cast it as a such and outlining the development of non-horror gothic cinema of the 30s and 40s. She also makes a strong case for why Footsteps in the Fog is a standout example of the subgenre.

Theatrical Trailer (2:07)
A solidly assembled trailer with whacking great spoilers, so I'd steer clear of this until after watching the film.

Image Gallery
75 pristine quality HD scans of promotional photos, posters and press materials for the film.

Booklet
Another terrific booklet from Indicator. Included in this one are: a detailed essay on the film by Steve Chibnall; an educational piece on The Interruption by W.W. Jacobs, the short story on which the screenplay was based; a well-sourced article on the making of the film; extracts from contemporary reviews. Full credits and a sprinkling of promotional images are also on board.

summary

A splendid example of smartly structured gaslight noir, one that neatly wrong-foots you with its Technicolor visuals and whose twists genuinely catch you on the hop. The transfer is well up to Indicator's usual standard, and the special features are all first-rate. What's not to love? Warmly recommended.

 


* Since posting this review, Michael Brooke has contacted me and assured me that 1.75:1 was the standard British widescreen ratio from the mid-1950s until well into the 60s, and that it subsequently fell out of favour. This I did not know.

Footsteps in the Fog Blu-ray cover
Footsteps in the Fog

UK 1955
90 mins
directed by
Arthur Lubin
produced by
Maxwell Setton
M.J. Frankovich
written by
Dorothy Reid
Lenore Coffee
adapted by
Arthur Pierson
from the short story The Interruption by
W.W. Jacobs
cinematography
Christopher Challis
editing
Alan Osbiston
music
Benjamin Frankel
art director
Wilfred Shingleton
starring
Stewart Granger
Jean Simmons
Bill Travers
Belinda Lee
Ronald Squire
Finlay Currie
William Hartnell
Frederick Leister
Percy Marmont
Marjorie Rhodes
Peter Bull

disc details
region ABC
video
1.75:1
sound
LPCM 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
The Guardian Interview with Stewart Granger
Steve Chibnall on Belinda Lee
Josephine Botting on Footsteps in the Fog
Kat Ellinger on the gothic elements of Footsteps in the Fog
Trailer
Image gallery
Booklet

distributor
Indicator
release date
23 July 2018
review posted
22 July 2018

See all of Slarek's reviews