Judge Ike Oden is actually the sixth or seventh Mr. Oden.
"I have a feeling this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful hatred."
Artist Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon) meets Sally Morton (Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity) on a Scottish fishing trip. They fall in love and break up when it's revealed Carroll is already married. Fortunately for the lovebirds, the wife dies and Carroll remarries Sally. The only problem: Geoffrey murdered his first wife in frustration after she stopped inspiring his paintings. Smash cut to a few years later: Carroll takes a job painting a portrait for sultry neighbor Cecily (Alexis Smith, Of Human Bondage). At the same time, new wife Sally becomes bedridden, wracked with migraines mysteriously similar to those of the first Mrs. Carroll before her death. Geoffrey becomes obsessed with Cecily, and you can imagine what that means for the second Mrs. Carroll, what with her husband's latest bout of painter's block.
Peter Godfrey (Christmas In Conneticut) combines the best aspects of gothic horror (an isolated English mansion housing dark secrets) and film noir (a murderous husband whose intentions are always in question) into a very striking hybrid. While the film may have maintained a higher level of suspense by remaining ambiguous about the murders, Godfrey deliberately exposes slivers of Bogart's killer instincts. You can't help but sympathize with him—he's stricken with poverty, tending to his dying wife and put-upon daughter all while being lovesick over Sally. The murder of the first Mrs. Carroll has a moral grayness that suggests a mercy killing, casting Geoffrey as a noir anti-hero, Bogart's bread and butter. The genius of The Two Mrs. Carrolls is when we realize the murder was his plan the whole time. The switch in perspective is a genuinely frightening one, making the audience something of an accomplice in the process. This switcheroo is detracted only by Bogart's ham-fisted interpretation of Carroll's true colors.
Much like John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart found his stardom by perfectly personifying distinctive traits of heroic masculinity. Bogart's onscreen persona had a slow burning intensity layered by coolly detached, smartass mannerisms that made heroes and anti-heroes like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe iconic. Unfortunately, this cinematic persona didn't carry over so well with villains. With the exception of his reluctant killer in The Petrified Forest, the man never could excel at playing a cutthroat, gangster, or psychopath. He isn't given many favors by the film's script either, which gives Geoffrey zero psychological texture beyond the lame excuse that he goes crazy when he can't paint (which only happens once every few years, apparently).
The Two Mrs. Carrolls works when Bogart plays to his strengths, embedding the film's homicidal husband with an air of reluctance. Seeing Bogart devolve into a horror movie-style archetype in the final act just doesn't work. His screen presence is too subdued and his physicality too slight to make a truly menacing villain. That's okay, though, as Bogart manages to keep Geoffrey's mental meltdown believable and enthralling for the preceding acts. Combining his knack for grouchy flirtation and mean spirited quips, Bogart makes Geoffrey the most interesting, if incomplete, character in the cast.
The same cannot be said of Stanwyck's goody-goody Sally, whose housewife-in-danger archetype detracts from the film's dramatic climax. Stanwyck's Sally unravels Geoffrey's plot with believable terror, but I can't help but wish she had a bit more personality up till that point. Far more interesting is Alexis Smith as femme fatale Cecily, whose downbeat flirtation with Bogart's Geoffrey is much more at home in the film noir genre than the Stanwyck/Bogart dynamic. Call me crazy, but I would have much rather see these two lovebirds get together by film's end, if only to murder each other in cold blood. Like the best noir lovers they trade barbs and quips with delicious chemistry that, if focused on, would make for a far more interesting movie.
The DVD is a fine contribution to the Warner Archive collection. Boasting a newly remastered transfer, The Two Mrs. Carrolls looks quite nice on DVD. There is some minor artifacting and the expected nicks and scratches that accompany a film this old, but the overall effect is rock solid. An equally adequate mono soundtrack accompanies the film. The only extras are a trailer.
If you're a Bogart collector or film noir enthusiast, The Two Mrs. Carrolls is a film that will be right up your alley. For everyone else, I'd recommend a pass in favor one of Bogart's more dependable noirs.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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