Friday, April 2, 2021



Paul sees through a glass darkly, his impotence mirrored by the jealous and vengeful man whose very life he must defend in court. Director James Whale and DP Karl Freund are able to transform a somewhat cliched premise of cheating wives into a tale of emotional doppelgangers and refracted intentions, skewed by Dutch angles and doubled (and tripled) reflections. The sound design is wonderful too.

The first act surprises as we see a woman drift ghost-like into a beautiful home, her black dress and veil like funeral attire foreshadowing her fate. A handsome man embraces her and we quickly learn that this is her lover, fearful that her husband suspects their affair. But soon their passion swells towards the bedroom as another figure appears as a shadow, stalking towards the house. We see the woman begin to undress in silhouette as this stranger clutches a revolver and fires three fatal shots through the glass door: one shot drops her to the floor while two more complete the Actus Reus. Walter has just murdered his wife Lucy in a fit of meretricious matrimony.

Paul Held is a well-renowned Defense attorney and personal friend of Walter and makes his own vow to save Walter’s life. As Paul learns more about his friend’s Mens Rea he begins to see Walter’s fears and concerns about Lucy mirrored in his own relationship with his younger wife. This doubling affect is soon proven beyond a reasonable doubt as Paul witnesses his wife Maria perform before her mirror as if possessed by Lucy’s cruel intent: she powders her nose, plucks her eyebrows, darkens her lashes and puckers her full lips under the guise of a date with her Bridge Club but now Paul’s suspicions are aroused. He follows her and of course, she’s having an affair. And this is why I fucking love crazy Pre-Code films so much: his plan is to murder his wife after winning the acquittal of his friend and use the same defense to spare himself! That is a rather obtuse legal and moral justification yet keeps us riveted to the closing argument. We see Maria wiggle and squirm as Paul proclaims his clients innocence based upon his deceased wife’s betrayal, that his passion was overwhelming; damn, Paul actually says that Walter just loved her so much he HAD to kill her! Sounds like domestic violence to me. This is a story about Patriarchal authority in marriage and its absolute Right to own not only the body of their partner but their very life.

James Whale contrasts the two cheating wives with Hilda, an unmarried rather plain looking attorney who works with Paul. Hilda is a voice of reason offering an objective feminist perspective to her cuckolded cohort. But this disparity isn’t explored in depth and she remains on the periphery of the melodrama. Paul indeed wins the acquittal of his friend and when he’s about to deliver his own violent penalty to his wife, Maria admits her wrongdoing thus saving herself. Damn, the men never even consider their part in the infidelity, consider their own actions (or lack thereof) that pushed their spouses away, but only excrete their own toxic masculinity. Which may be Whale’s point, I suspect.

Now Paul wanders home, revolver in pocket, and looks hard at himself in the mirror. Another Pre-Code suicide? No. He grips the weapon and throws it, shattering the mirror. Freund captures the last scene in a visual reverse as Maria appears behind Paul as their relationship ends in a cracked and fractured verdict.

Final Grade: (B+)