Like most people, my first exposure to Vincent Price was through horror films, and the only early film of his that I really knew was Dragonwyck. But over the years, as my appreciation for classic film has continued to grow and mature, I’ve sought out more films from his pre-horror career, such as the two other classics he made with Gene Tierney, Leave Her To Heaven and Laura. Thanks to the Attaboy Clarence Podcast, I recently discovered another wonderful pre-horror venture of Vincent’s, the wonderfully titled Shock, from 1946.
The film tells the story of a young woman, Janet (played by Anabel Shaw), who goes to a hotel to finally be reunited with her husband after thinking he was killed in the war a few years before. Whilst there, she has the atrocious luck of witnessing Dr Richard Cross (played by Vincent Price) savagely beat his wife to death with a candlestick, in the room adjacent to hers.
Due to witnessing this Janet goes into, you guessed it, shock! Cross quickly discovers, due to being called in by the hotel doctor and Janet’s husband, that she witnessed his misdeed. In order to keep his homicidal impulse a secret, Cross conspires with his head nurse and lover, Elaine (played by Lynn Bari), to keep Janet in a state of shock and eventually declare her insane. Things are not so simple, however, and Cross and Elaine become more and more desperate to silence such a potentially dangerous witness, culminating in a very shocking (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself) ending.
What I really like about this film is that while it’s clearly a “b picture”, it has an A class cast. Not only does Vincent give a great, measured performance, but Anabel Shaw gives a brilliant and exhausting performance as poor, persecuted Janet, and Lynn Bari is so good that you want to murder her due to how scheming and conniving she is. This film does not stop for breath. Only about five minutes in does Cross bash his wife’s head in, and the next minute, he’s whisking Janet away to his “convalescent home”, where he and Elaine try to work out how to drive the poor woman out of her bracket.
There are also subplots involving other patients at the home which further infuriates you as a viewer, and also throws other characters, like a colleague of Cross, and Janet’s husband, off the scent of what the bad doctor and his even worse nurse are trying to do! This adds to the film’s suspense and also makes it more believable that the film is actually taking place in an institution, rather than solely taking place in Janet’s room.
The script by Eugene Ling and Martin Berkeley is well plotted and at seventy minutes doesn’t overstay its welcome, or needlessly try and draw the story out for an extra twenty minutes (I’m looking at you modern psychological thrillers). The ending of the film is particularly good as it ties up loose ends, or rather loose lips, very well, and doesn’t leave the viewer in doubt about what will happen to Janet, Elaine or Dr Cross.
Alfred L. Werker’s direction also helps to move the proceedings along in a well paced and atmospheric way. The lighting by Joseph MacDonald and Glen MacWilliams creates a world of deep shadows, which intensifies the paranoia of the main character’s, especially Price’s, with close ups on his face and lighting that becomes increasingly from overhead as the film goes on. The supposedly welcoming convalescent home becomes a place of nightmares thanks to Werker’s moody direction and MacDonald and MacWilliams’ clever use of light and shadow. This is particularly apparent in the scene where one of the other patients breaks in Janet’s room and attacks Elaine, replicating the scene which she witnessed earlier on in the film.
But it’s Vincent Price’s central performance that really moors the film. He runs the gambit of emotions from guilt to madness and eventually to terrible resignation and melancholy at the wicked web he and Elaine have weaved. My father, who is very rarely easily impressed, said that he felt Vincent should have been at least nominated for some kind of award. I agree with this assessment, as Price avoids the hamminess that could easily have been imbued in such a role. Dr Cross is a more reserved, and far more remorseful version of the mad scientists and doctors that Price would play later on in his career. But it’s a role that also shows his wonderful range, and why he had such a long career, because he was able to play complex, and not always likeable characters, in a believable way.
This is my contribution for The Vincent Price Blogathon being hosted by Gill of Realweegiemidget Reviews and Barry of Cinematic Catharsis. Please visit their wonderful blogs to read all of the contributions about this wonderful actor.