The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Ronald Millar & Leonard Spigelgass
Based on the novel “For Her to See” by Marjorie Bowen
Director: Lewis Allen
Cast: Ann Todd, Ray Milland, Geraldine Fitzgerald
Cinematography: Mutz Greenbaum
Music: William Alwyn, Additional Music by Victor Young
Company: Paramount Pictures
Release: March 3, 1948
Percent Noir: 60%
In this genre, there are almost infinite variations of the gullible guy being preyed upon by a femme fatale, and “So Evil My Love” (it kills me that there isn’t a comma in there) reverses the genders, in the process making everything feel a little fresher than you would expect.
Ann Todd plays Olivia Harwood, a grieving widow in the 1890s who has played it safe her entire life… doing as she is supposed to because she’s told it’s what is right. We first meet her travelling home to England from the West Indies, rightfully angry and bitter over her loss but still willing to help a malaria patient on the ship. That patient is Mark (Ray Milland), an art thief and sometimes murderer who is very wanted by authorities in several countries. He inserts himself into Olivia’s life, makes her fall for him and then systematically begins to tear her soul apart with his schemes.
Olivia becomes a companion for the batty Susan (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Susan’s awful husband Henry (Raymond Huntley) doesn’t like Olivia… and also has a heart condition. As soon as you hear the words “heart” and “condition” together in any film, you might as well start a timer because that character is going to be dead in a reel or three, guaranteed. That is the case here as well, with Henry suffering a heart attack after Olivia tries to blackmail him and Henry decides to blackmail her right back. Ever resilient, Olivia poisons his medicine and then manipulates Susan into feeding him that medicine, keeping her hands clean even as she loses the last of her innocence.
Milland is exceptional as the likeable monster, convincing the viewer in one conversation that he really might be falling for Olivia and then whispering those same nothings into the ear of his side piece… while offering her one of Olivia’s necklaces for good measure. He was built for this type of role, and really seems to be relishing the opportunity to unleash his bad side. Let’s face it – a story like this is predictable from minute one – so it’s nice to know the actor is having a lot of fun along the way.
His work is so good that it more than makes up for Todd’s slight miscasting. She pulls off the brittle nature of Olivia quite well and shares ample chemistry with Milland… but stumbles in the moments she’s supposed to bond with Susan or wage war with Henry. It’s so rare to have a female character lead a noir (Milland is first billed, but this is Olivia’s story through and through) that I wish Todd had knocked it out of the park… and it’s a shame she doesn’t quite pull it off. Still, she does excellent work in the climactic carriage scene between Olivia and Mark, so there is that.
That final scene, where Olivia stabs Mark to death, owes a bit of a depth to a similar sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Sabotage” where a wife who has just lost her little brother chooses to stab her husband to death after finding out he was behind the killing. The director here is the excellent Lewis Allen (“Desert Fury,” “Suddenly!”), who leans quite a bit into Hitchcock’s style throughout. Note the moment Mark asks to rest his head against Olivia’s shoulder in order to avoid being noticed by police. Or the way he uses shadows to show Olivia poisoning the medication. It’s quite a departure from his usual style, but quite welcome here because the story calls for it.
The screenplay, credited to Ronald Miller and Leonard Spigelgass (“The Accused”), is leisurely paced… which is sometimes an asset and sometimes a detriment. The extra space really helps the duo flesh out Olivia’s character – it makes us understand who she was before the movie fades in and goes to great lengths to have us understand why she is making each decision she makes. But at the same time, they exploit Mark’s badness way too early. It’s clear he’s a bad guy from minute five and then doesn’t do much to convince us he’s anything but. It’s almost entirely Milland’s inherent likeability at the center of why Mark is watchable, because the screenplay does him no favors.
Then there’s the actual murder, which doesn’t take place until an hour and twenty minutes in… far too long. And after it happens, the pace significantly increases as the writers race for the finish line, when the movie could have lived in the tension and paranoia of them being caught much longer.
Still, the above problems don’t come close to sinking “So Evil My Love.” It works better than one expects, and its period setting and gender flipping give the film a freshness that is hard to come by in this well-worn genre. Little known but ripe for rediscovery: it’s worth seeking out and spending the extra few bucks on the rewritable DVD.