UNDERCURRENT most certainly isn't a typical Katharine Hepburn film. In between films with Spencer Tracy, she tries her hand at a suspense thriller, playing the supposedly dowdy Ann Hamilton, an apparently confirmed spinster who quickly finds herself in love and married to Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor), a rich scientist who is hiding a far greater and darker secret than she could ever have imagined. It isn't long before Ann the gregarious tomboy becomes the cookie-cutter-perfect Mrs Alan Garroway... except for one thing. She just can't seem to shake off that darker, malevolent undercurrent of obsession and hate she senses in her husband. Nor can she ignore the shadow of her brother-in-law Michael Garroway (Robert Mitchum), whom she's never met but has been told so much about. As Alan's apparent normalcy begins to fall away before Ann's eyes, the audience also realises that his deadly obsession with his brother Michael has shifted onto Ann. Now that Alan has staked his possessive claim on her, can Ann free herself from his love for her... and more importantly, her own love for him?
Sounds good? Well, the premise is certainly there. And you've got to admire what must have started out as a far more ambitious project altogether. You've got at least four powerhouses in this film--Hepburn, the Roberts Taylor and Mitchum, and the direction of Vincente Minelli. Unfortunately, UNDERCURRENT only makes an adequate attempt at putting this story together on the screen. There are moments and characters in the film that had so much potential, an example being the mysterious figure of Mother Garroway, who seems as sinister as either of her sons, and yet is quickly forgotten once she seems redundant to the plot. But she isn't, really--the circumstances of her death are just as intriguing as those surrounding Michael's death/disappearance... and yet not picked up on. Nor is the suggestion that Michael is as much Ann's obsession as Ann is Alan's expanded upon.
While Minelli is brilliant in capturing the rhythm and mood of a scene when it comes to colourful MGM musicals, he only manages to create a mediocre level of suspense in this film--there are no heart-pounding moments in UNDERCURRENT; when the lights go out as Ann is stuck in the closet, one only feels annoyed and mildly curious at the completely black screen. There's hardly any pace to it either, since the supposedly climactic ending only comes off rather half-hearted and a bit lame with the less-than-expert editing between Taylor's face and Hepburn's reactions. And yet Minelli is nothing if not an accomplished director; some shots are beautifully dark and capture the ambiguous relationship of Alan and Ann quite well.
Similarly, the performances in this film showcase both its good points and its problems. Starting with the two Roberts: Robert Taylor makes a commendable effort to transform Alan into something remotely human, and almost succeeds. He mostly underplays his part, except for one great scene when he truly goes all out to look deranged, and that really helps. Alan *is* supposed to be perfectly normal... at least on the outside. The trouble with Taylor is that his underplaying isn't as skilful as, for example, Spencer Tracy's--Taylor tends to fade into a monotone, making it just the kind of under-acting performance that would galvanize La Hepburn into *over*-acting to fill up a scene. As for Robert Mitchum: he's hardly onscreen enough to warrant much of a review. Still, considering that he's playing the pivotal role of the mysterious, back-from-the-dead brother of Alan Garroway, Mitchum and his character mostly look stoned beyond caring about what's happening around them. Shame.
As for Ms. Hepburn: although this isn't usually her film genre of choice (film noir is really something one doesn't expect Hepburn's name to ever be associated with), she turns in quite a credible performance. Ann Hamilton starts out as the giddy independent gal in love, a prototype from Hepburn's romantic comedies, but also progresses (or should that be degenerates?) into a woman haunted by fear and obsession--that of her husband's, surely... but possibly her own as well. Even a Hepburn fan must admit that she has a tendency to mug, to overact to fill a perceived void, and unless reined in by a director or co-star, tends to overpower everything around her through sheer force of will (and personality). Mercifully, this only happens in the first few scenes when Ann is still the happy independent girl she is before meeting and marrying Alan--odd that it should happen with a type of character Hepburn has arguably played so many times before. If it hasn't already been made clear, in this film Hepburn is in fact at her best when she plays the scenes with Ann constantly doubting her husband, worrying at his family mystery as a dog would a bone. She portrays the right level of frenzy, of worry, of muted suspicion and unspoken doubt. Her performance on this occasion suggests that there is much more to Hepburn as an actress than simply 'playing herself', although this isn't realised immediately after UNDERCURRENT which, as I gather, flopped rather mightily at the box office. She returns to romantic comedies to lick her wounds for a decade or so, forestalling the revelation of her potential as a dramatic actress to later in her career. The only problems this character gives her are when Ann is called on to be truly helpless--two occasions on which histrionics have been deemed necessary. Both times, when she has to cry but most especially when she has to scream, Hepburn fares rather badly. Other than that, she turns in a performance that does manage to rein the largely ordinary bits of the film together.
All in all, it's rather a shame that UNDERCURRENT doesn't make full use of the considerable talent at its disposal. Minelli and the writers don't see the potential in the script and characters, nor, I suspect, does Minelli know just how to handle Hepburn to draw a more rounded performance from her. UNDERCURRENT isn't a bad piece of film-making or story-telling, but it is far from a great one. Unfortunately, considering the names involved in this production, adequacy is the last thing they should have achieved in making this film.