Friday, April 17, 2020

Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1945)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s first feature film, from 1946, is a gothic romance, set in upstate New York in the eighteen-forties. With its blend of historically accurate political debates and macabre mysteries, it plays like a blend of Poe and Tocqueville. The story concerns young Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney), a pious Yankee farmer’s daughter, who enters service as a nanny in the lavish (and haunted) Hudson Valley mansion of Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price). But Van Ryn has designs on the young woman and plans to marry her—once he disposes of his wife. As “patroons” (descendants of the region’s original Dutch settlers), Van Ryn and his wealthy peers ludicrously re-create European court culture—and feudal dominion—in the foothills of the Catskills, but the local farmers rebel. Mankiewicz builds the drama around real-life events in New York State’s violent Anti-Rent War, including a famous murder trial, the election of Governor John Young on a land-reform platform, and a doctor (played by Glenn Langan) who leads the strikers. Mankiewicz’s incisive visual prose deftly parses the characters’ political psychology along with the lurid romance; he reserves his most poetic flourishes for the whirling dance that snares Miranda in Van Ryn’s web of intrigue. --The New Yorker