30 March 2010 | mstomaso
Anne Baxter comes for a visit
Many IMDb luminaries have written very good analyses of this movie and its relationship to Ms. Baxter's Oscar-Winning performance in All About Eve. And surely, at least in hindsight, Guest in the House is one of the vehicles that delivered Baxter to what many consider to be her masterwork. Since I am not an expert on Ms. Baxter or All About Eve, I do not wish to contribute either negatively or positively to that discussion. Instead, I will review Guest in the House (AKA Satan in Skirts) as an example of what it historically was - a disturbing, suspenseful and unusual film noir.
Baxter's character - Evelyn Heath - is, of course, the central element in this single-set piece. Ms Heath is a pretty young thing whose grace, beauty and charm thinly mask the truth. In fact, Ms. Heath is a manipulative, emotionally unbalanced sociopath. Unlike most noir film's the nature of the protagonist is revealed to the audience in the first few scenes as she enters the House Proctor with Fiancé Doctor Dan (Scott McKay) and immediately sets her sights on the older, married, artist and head of the household - Douglas (Ralph Bellamy). Evelyn allegedly has a heart condition and is engaged to Dan - a hard working doctor. Dan has set her up in the family home to rest and recuperate. So it's not hard to imagine why the rest of the family does not expect a thing, even after Evelyn encourages Dan to depart for the remainder of the summer and begins subtly sowing the seeds of suspicion and jealousy around her prey.
The Proctor family begins unraveling with the puritanical servants (nicely played by Margaret Hamilton and Percy Kilbride) and young Lee (Connie Laird) - who are the most vulnerable characters. As the accusations begin, each character falls under Evelyn's diabolical enchantment - with the exception of Aunt Martha (Alice MacMahon), Douglas's world-weary spinster of a sister.
If this all sounds atypical for noir - it should. John Brahm's parlor play A Guest in The House, is not a run-of-the-mill noir in most respects. The film is dark only in the figurative sense, most of the plot is transparent, the lines of good and evil are clearly defined, and there is neither a car nor a murder weapon anywhere in sight. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that the entire film takes place in one set - a large house on the rocky coast of New England. But in intensity, fatalism and theme, A Guest in the House is entirely film noir. There are two significant noir ingredients which also appear, but I won't given them away so that I can avoid presenting a spoiler.
Journeyman Director John (or Hans) Brahm is probably best known to American audiences for having directed the well-regarded Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last". His long and modestly prolific career (35 years and somewhat fewer features) could be characterized as wandering or - more positively - diverse. He dabbled in religion (Our The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima), Psychological Horror (The Lodger), pulp action (Hotrods to Hell) and even Westerns (Face to Face), yet managed to bring a respectable quality to all of his efforts. That quality is present in A Guest in the House. And the director deserves some praise for pulling off a film which successfully challenges the experimental boundaries of what was, at the time of its production, a very popular genre.
The cast is superb and the casting is perfect. The film is well- directed, although at times the pace is a little difficult. And the story-line is interesting but disturbing enough to put off many if not most. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for its good, though not very memorable, score.
Despite my respect for this film, however, I can only modestly promote it. Most audiences will not have the patience to endure the entire film and will fail to recognize the transparency of the plot as an important departure from its genre. Keep this warning in mind if you decide to give it a go. The ending is well worth the wait and may not be what you expect.