The Strange Door (1951)

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*. You know when you see the name Charles Laughton in the credits that the movie is at least going to be worth watching. Not that all his films were good, but he was always good in them.
*. He’s terrific here, hamming it up as the sly, soft-spoken Sire de Maletroit, affecting a nervous hand and punctuating his lines with all kinds of pregnant beats. It’s a great performance, but Laughton so rarely delivered anything less.
*. The story is loosely, very loosely, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short: “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door.” The film has little in common with its source. All that happens in the Stevenson story is that Denis is captured by de Maletroit and made to marry Blanche, who has compromised herself by carrying on an affair, thus bringing the Maletroit name into disrepute. After a (chaste) night spent commiserating together, Blanche and Denis fall in love and are happily married the next morning. There is no back story involving Blanche’s mother and her father is long dead.
*. There’s also no character of Voltan, the dim but honest jailor played by Boris Karloff in the movie. It’s not much of a part and one suspects they were just trying to come up with something to get Karloff in the picture (it would reunite him with Laughton for the first time since 1932’s The Old Dark House).

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*. I wonder what film was the first to use that “walls-are-getting-closer” trap. Something from the silent era no doubt. It’s probably best known today from the scene in the Death Star’s garbage compactor in Star Wars.
*. It’s a good-looking production, but aside from Laughton’s character there isn’t much to care about. Luckily, he’s given lots of chances to shine. Given how little there was to work with in Stevenson’s story the script tosses him a treasury of juicy lines. I think my favourite is when Denis reproaches him for killing Count Grassin (another character not in the source story), saying that he could have saved himself an unprovoked murder. De Maletroit responds: “‘Unprovoked?’ Well, I won’t dispute that point, but it did upset me.” That’s gold!
*. 1951 seems late for a film like this, and it doesn’t show up on many radars today. But it is worth hunting down, and if you’re like me you’ll want to come back to it every now and then just to savour Laughton doing his inimitable thing.

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