Undercurrent (1947) is definitely not a film that many mention in connection with any of its three stars, which really is a shame, because it’s a film that deserves more attention. I’ve read some reviews that have called it a Gaslight knock off, and while Undercurrent shares some elements with that film, it is decidedly different in others. For me, Undercurrent can more readily be compared to Rebecca, both the film and the novel, with its focus on obsession, and especially the obsession with someone who is absent.
The film tells the story of Ann Hamilton (Katherine Hepburn), the daughter of a chemist, who has lived a simple, but contented existence with her father. She is considered on the shelf by the housekeeper (good old Marjorie Main), and so when handsome industrialist, Alan Garroway (played by Robert Taylor), comes along, everyone thinks it’s a rather good idea that they get married. And they do in a short period of time. But this rapid marriage means that Ann knows little about her husband, and she soon begins to discover that he is paranoid and obsessively jealous of his younger brother, Michael (played by Robert Mitchum). Michael has been missing for two years, and Ann begins to think that he may have been permanently put out of commission by Alan. However, things go far deeper than that, and may involve Alan taking credit for a dead German engineer’s work.
What this film has going for it is its slow, building pace, the sense of dread, and the multiple red herrings that appear. You feel genuinely frightened for Ann, and want her to realise that she is in grave (emphasis on grave) danger. She is a naïve woman, quite different from Hepburn’s other roles, who has little experience with men, and no experience of life outside of her small world. But you do not feel annoyed with Ann for this. That may seem a strange remark to make, but what can sometimes happen in films with naïve heroines, is that you begin to put your head in your hands because they just seem to be wandering about completely unaware of everything, to a point of ridiculous unbelievability.
This, thankfully, does not happen with Ann. She is intelligent throughout. Naïvety does not mean stupidity, and she undertakes multiple actions in order to get George, the old groundskeeper for her husband’s family home, to tell her things. She also speaks to a girl who feels unrequited love for Michael, as well as piecing information together until she figures things out for herself. Although things get a bit shaky towards the end in terms of how Ann goes about things, you never feel that she’s stupid or that the screenplay wants us to go “oh poor, pathetic female”.
Who you end up disliking is Sylvia (played by Jayne Meadows), a lovely looking girl who is as deep as a paddle pool. She seems to initially be there to act as a counterpoint to the more reserved, less socially experienced Ann. But it becomes clear later on that she plays far more of an important role than that in terms of not only giving Ann information about Michael that makes her realise some unsavoury facts about Alan; but also as a way of showing how pitiless women can be to other women. Yes that seems to have been a stable in post 1940 cinema, and one that was probably best and most iconically done in The Women, but in this film it’s necessary to show certain facts about the world in which Ann finds herself in. One that lacks pity for those who do not conform to its assigned image. A fact which we can still all relate to over seventy years later.
This is best shown in the first part of the film when Ann is first introduced to Alan’s society friends, most of whom are vacuous to the point of being headache inducing. As Ann describes it, all the woman are wearing diamond necklaces and they’re all dressed in black. A colour which seems to symbolise the lack of individuality amongst them, giving the impression of a great mass in the room, threatening to swallow poor Ann up. Ann realises later that Alan had subjected her to this so that he could get the credit for her transformation into a sophisticated society wife. More evidence of his obsession for recognition over others, and also his cruelty towards her.
In terms of performance, Robert Taylor is adequate as Alan. This is not one of his best performances. For that, one must watch his work in Waterloo Bridge. This could perhaps be explained by looking at Taylor’s feelings during the making of Undercurrent. He and Hepburn did not like each other, and Taylor also felt that Minnelli was focusing too much on Hepburn (despite this really being her movie, but anyway). He did eventually realise that Minnelli managed to coax out a better performance than he would have given on his own, but not even Minnelli can make Taylor look sinister or threatening enough in the role.
His transformation from the kind of image that one probably associates most often with Taylor now: the smooth, handsome, pleasant young man, to the psychopath who has probably killed and is likely to again, is rather impressive and quite fascinating. But somehow it does not reach the peak that Anthony Perkins’ would over a decade later in Psycho, or Denis O’ Keefe’s in Woman on the Run. There is a feeling of a lack of completion, which is a pity, because it is rather enjoyable to see Taylor playing against type. There is also a lack of chemistry between he and Hepburn, as she largely subsumes him in scenes, and makes the workings of his acting show rather more than it should.
Robert Mitchum is not afforded much screen time, and this would not be his breakout role, as the following year he would really show his true capabilities in Out of the Past. But when he is onscreen, he is fascinating to watch, with his usual natural, reserved technique. And although his character isn’t developed as much as it could have been, probably because as Ann says, he is a man made shadow for much of the story; he still imbues his character with an impressive amount of depth. You come to feel as drawn to him as Michael as Ann does, and this is because Mitchum firmly positions himself opposite, in both character and acting technique, to Taylor.
Despite sharing not more than perhaps fifteen minutes of screen time, he and Hepburn have very good chemistry. Despite being far less experienced in the industry than his leading lady, and also being ten years her junior, he shows a remarkable amount of self assurance. And also the right kind of worldliness and sadness that makes Michael seem like a rather tragic figure, one who has had to live with his brother’s hatred and psychosis for many years.
But this is, quite rightly, Katherine Hepburn’s film. Thankfully there are very few scenes that do not feature her, as it is her performance that moors the entire film. Although she is, as always, incredibly self assured in her performance, she imbues Ann with vulnerability, and makes it believable that she is in danger. But she acts out the emotions of a woman in Ann’s situation in a very believable and well paced manner. Not for a moment do you feel that she is not doing the character or the story justice. She moves from happiness, to fear, to insecurity with incredible fluidity. She shows the transformation of her character in its completion, especially when Ann begins to realise how dangerous Alan really is.
There is a scene where it seems certain that Ann will meet her death whilst riding a horse along a mountain pass, and Hepburn acts out the scene with such magnetism and believability that you are shouting at the screen and hoping that Ann will overcome. She shows the terrible hopelessness and panic that Ann feels to wonderfully vivid effect, and she manages to keep the vitality of her performance throughout, not just in high drama scenes such as that one, or when she feels utterly humiliated after the party her husband subjected her to.
It is because of Hepburn’s performance, and the fact that it is clear that she is working in tandem with Minnelli’s direction, that the tonal shift of the film is not jarring. It is all within the portrayal of her character, and you feel grounded because she makes you feel assured as an audience member that there will be no false notes in her embodiment of Ann. And that is just the thing, she doesn’t act out the role of Ann, she becomes her. While she is the epitome of sophistication in Philadelphia Story, in Undercurrent she is a girl who is grappling with self esteem issues and worries that threaten to decimate her sanity.
Hepburn elevates a film that could have easily been a solid, but unremarkable B picture, to one that I think really deserves far more praise than it gets. In this film, Hepburn shows that she is a certified film noir actress, and that she should have been given more roles in the genre. She also shows that she would have been perfectly suited to a Hitchcock film, as one of his beleaguered women.
She also looks lovely in this film, with Minnelli focusing on her large eyes. She transforms herself physically, although she always maintains that wonderfully athletic stride and carriage throughout, but transmutes it somewhat to show that Ann is quite the opposite of the assured actress.
Even though Hepburn’s filmography is an embarrassment of riches, I highly recommend this film, as she gives a performance that deserves to be more widely recognised. And I am most pleased that I was able to write about it for this Blogathon, and hopefully get some more people to give it a chance.
This is my contribution for The Second Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn Blogathon being hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Please stop by these lovely ladies’ blogs for more information and to read more articles about this legendary pair.