Saturday, September 3, 2011

Blithe Spirit (1945)

NetFlix 3.5/5
IMDB 7.1/10
My Rating: 6/10

During a lark of a seance, a twice-married Englishman accidentally has the spirit of his first wife summoned to live in the house with his second wife and himself.  Bowl of milk, perhaps?

If there is any theme at all to this blog, this is it - The search for cinematic oddities that are overlooked or forgotten.  Despite being a fan of older films, I'd never seen or heard of this until I stumbled across it in the Netflix streaming library, and it sounded like a perfect way to smoothly transition into the Autumn spooky movie season.  This isn't a horror film, though... Well, perhaps a bit, but it's more of a comedy-ghost story with some scary relationship undertones for both genders.  (Note - This film ranks high on the, "Likely to get you into an argument with your wife" scale due to the less-than-noble behavior of all the characters involved in this unearthly threesome)  So, what have we got here?

The film opens on the marriage of an upper-middle class English novelist.  Charles and his wife have invited local medium Mrs. Arcati (Irrepressibly fun and the best character in the film) to do a dinner seance for friends, essentially as a prank, as the husband's real interest is to observe a "faker" at work for his current novel.  As these things go, however, everyone gets more than they bargained for when the seance turns real and latches onto the ghost of his first wife, who ends up summoned into our world to haunt him and his current marriage.  The rest of the film unspools from there, as new wife Ruth matches wits with dead wife Elvira to see who will be the ongoing Mrs, while at the same time starting to wonder if either of them really want the unscrupulous Mr. Charles, or he them.

I have to give special marks to ex-wife Elvira, a bubbly lover of life who's simultaneously witty, wanton, cunning, catty, sexy, and completely untrustworthy.  Her performance is enjoyable every time she's on the screen, from her constant sniping at shrewish current wife Ruth to her merciless teasing of medium Arcati.  Also, not to overstate it in this age of bloody masked killers, but she looks marvelously creepy in her billowing gown and pale green everything.  It's a simple look that works well, from the age before computer FX, and the actors do a grand job of acting as if the floaty green lady isn't really in the room with them.

No one, except possibly Mrs. Arcati, comes off heroically in this.  Present wife Ruth is severe, unsympathetic, won't listen to her husband's obvious distress, and when she's eventually forced to accept the reality of the ghostly presence, she morphs into an embittered tigress defending a marriage she doesn't seem to love much anyway.  I've mentioned the foibles of ghost-wife Elvira already.  Charles himself is the iconic lazy upper crust type who views everything and everyone as accessories to himself.  I mentioned spousal arguments above - When Elvira first appears, I immediately liked her and my wife immediately hated her.  As the film progresses, the wife hate bent toward Charles and I began to dislike both of the women, even though Elvira is the sort that nearly every man will have a certain soft spot for, even if he wouldn't want to have to live with her.  The relationship becomes more and more strained until all parties concerned turn towards the "fake" medium again in desperation to put the errant spirit back where she belongs.

As a comedy, it's cute but never laugh-out-loud.  It's an understated drawing room humor with some fairly spicy and black jokes for its day, not the sort of comic hijinks of something like "The Ghost and Mister Chicken".  Unfortunately, the Netflix streaming video has some annoying drawbacks that detract from overall enjoyment.  It's a restored print of damaged stock.  There are a few points in the film where the frame rate goes very stuttery and uneven, and picture quality takes a dive.  Also, and no fault of the restoration, but the British RP accents and dialog are delivered so quickly and so crisply that I was often catching only half of what was said - And this is after 7 years of watching only British TV.  It's one of those rare English films where you'll wish there were subtitles.

Despite these problems, it's a fine and frothy way to ring in the Halloween season, especially for those looking for something a little more biting than the typical family-friendly ghost comedy.

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