A dark and stormy Brit-noir from the late-classic period, Cast a Dark Shadow stars Dirk Bogarde, once referred to as the screen’s "quintessential gentleman’s pervert."
Certainly it was well within Bogarde’s range to portray decadents and others morally or intellectually doubtful. He’s often best remembered for his roles as someone in thrall to the possibilities of money, power, or sex in later films such as The Servant, Accident, The Damned, Death in Venice and The Night Porter.
In Cast a Dark Shadow--based on the play Murder Mistaken by Janet Green--it’s easy solvency and the mean assurances of social standing that he's after.
Bogarde plays the aptly-named Edward “Teddy” Bare, a handsome but louche charmer married to a wealthy widow, played by Mona Washbourne (a consummate character actress who appeared in vivid supporting roles and cameos in dozens of movies including Billy Liar, The Collector and Stevie).
Although Bare appears to dote on his Monica, we don’t believe it for a minute. Beneath the surface solicitousness and affection, there’s only impatience and contempt (working and playing below in the sub-text was what Bogarde did best).
Believing he is to inherit his wife’s fortunes, Bare’s real intentions are made clear soon enough. He murders her and stages the death to appear as an accident. The family lawyer (Robert Flemyng) suspects foul play but the coroner’s inquest rules otherwise. As it turns out, Monica has willed her loving husband only the house they shared. Other than that, he’s been left skint.
Bare quickly regroups and reverts to form. As he notes: “I tripped up that time. But one thing’s for sure, somebody’s going to have pay my passage”.
Bare goes about looking for that somebody in a sea-side resort town and it doesn’t take him long to find her--a Mrs. Jeffries--a brazenly griefless widow played by Margaret Lockwood, once called “the next Joan Bennett.”
Lockwood’s Freda Jeffries is as tough as an old steak. She’s a blowsy, ex-barmaid who "married the guv’nor" and is now well-off and ready to get on with it. There had been one or two gents she’d thought about settling down with--until she figured out that “it was just the moneybags, they were after, not the old bag herself.”
She also has Bare almost figured out but is prepared to marry him if he can show her the money and is ready to come to the marriage “pound for pound”. Bare manages to convince her that he has wealth by borrowing from a friend as smarmy and dubious as he is. While he’s able to keep up the pretense for a while, eventually Bare is forced to come clean and confess to Freda that in fact he doesn’t have ten shillings to rub together.
Despite it all, she decides to stick with him because she knows full well that they’re both as "common" as dirt and she’ll likely do no better.
English class consciousness and social distinctions, as in a number of Brit-noirs, fester near the heart of Cast a Dark Shadow. It’s apparent that much of lawyer Phillip Mortimer’s dislike of Bare is due to Bare’s obvious lack of breeding. Bare, for his part, deliberately provokes those he resents as his betters by meeting them with a slouching insolence.
Washbourne, on the other hand, is resigned to the social strictures but manages to make mock of them. Coming out of the beauty parlor, she says dryly to Bogarde, “I was going to go blonde but I thought that it might make me look common”.
It’s a brilliantly realized and telling moment, both as narrative and as a marker of realism’s ascent in British noir. There’s increasingly less room left for melodrama, anticipating the gritty and unsparing social realism soon to manifest itself in the "kitchen-sink" dramas of the early 60s.
Of course, it's only a matter of time before Teddy begins to plot an untimely demise for Freda. However, complications arise: both the situation and Bare himself start to unravel.
Yet, Bogarde’s Bare manages to evoke sympathy and even evince a vindicating dignity nearly up until the end. As criminally venal as he is--unlike Harry Fabian in Night and the City, who is merely a pathetic scammer--Bogarde is still able to give Bare an extra dimension.
Cast a Dark Shadow is a movie brimming with sharply-observed characters, filmed by a director (Lewis Gilbert) who frequently brought insight into the lives of ordinary people living under extraordinary circumstances.
In a career that has spanned more than six decades and over forty films, Gilbert (1920-2018) transported audiences via a surprisingly varied combination of genres: from the post-war cycle of stirring WWII dramas The Sea Shall Not Have Them, Reach for the Sky, Carve Her Name with Pride, and Sink the Bismarck; to Alfie, a film that helped change British censorship laws; to the James Bond trilogy You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker; and more recently, in popular celebrations of female spiritedness, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine.
With Cast a Dark Shadow, however, Gilbert made an estimable contribution to film noir, assisted by cinematographer Jack Asher who appears in control of the full noir register (Asher would subsequently be lauded for his cinematographic contribution to many of the films of the late ‘50’s/early ‘60’s British horror cycle).
Cast a Dark Shadow remains an underestimated film, receiving less attention and credit than it deserves--all despite a compelling story, a taut construction broken loose of all theatrical origins, and a mitt-full of memorable performances.