Twilight Time: Dragonwyck (1946) - Reviewed

Future All About Eve writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s feature film debut Dragonwyck is another one of those Golden Age of Hollywood produced gothic costumed period thrillers spoken of the same breath as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the Joan Fontaine starring Jane Eyre.  Typically involving an heiress whose inheritance comes in the form of a mysterious mansion or estate whose mercurial owner houses many secrets inside, this subgenre became increasingly popular after Hitchcock’s film took home the Best Picture Academy Award. 

What separates the rarely seen yet ripe for rediscovery Dragonwyck from the pack is the casting of then-unknown actor Vincent Price in the leading role of the brooding manager of the titular estate, forever changing Price’s life and career as one of cinema’s most unforgettable villains.  For any Vincent Price fans out there interested in his life’s work, Dragonwyck is best remembered as a pivotal turning point for the young actor.  Though the character of distant cousin/aristocrat Nicholas Van Ryn (Price) isn’t outright evil here, the actor projects an aura of menace so stern he manages to steer the film dangerously close to becoming a horror thriller.

Miranda (Gene Tierney), a God-fearing farmer’s daughter in a puritanical upbringing, dreams of more than a “provincial life” and unexpectedly gets her chance upon being summoned to her cousin Nicholas’ estate in need of a governess to care for his daughter.   Starstruck by Nicholas’ elegant lifestyle, Miranda comes aboard Dragonwyck but quickly learns the idyllic way of life is beset by ongoing conflicts with the locals and further complicated by his then-wife Johanna’s (Vivienne Osborne) untimely death as murkier intentions Nicholas has for Miranda start to surface.

Originally slated for production under famed filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch’s direction before falling ill and having to drop out, Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Anya Seton’s novel proves to be a sumptuous production tinged with mystery lurking in the shadows and a gifted central performance from Price who runs the full gamut of distinguished gentleman to disheveled sociopath.  Reportedly Price had to fight tooth and nail for the role of Nicholas, as producers at the time just couldn’t picture a guy as nice as Price in the role of a villain.  As the history books will show, Price left an altogether different and unexpected mark on film history.

The show isn’t purely Price’s, however, with Gene Tierney serving up a memorable performance as the plucky heroine getting in over her head with more than she bargained for.  Technically speaking the film boasts a splendid original score by multiple Academy Award winning composer Alfred Newman, best known for his work on The King and I.  Then there’s the moody and lush cinematography by How Green Was My Valley director of photography Arthur Miller which includes some spooky set pieces including a hidden tower bathed in eerie lights, giving viewers a sense of luxury with something off about it.

Unfortunately, despite the role the film played in shaping the career of one of horror cinema’s greatest icons, Dragonwyck remained curiously unavailable for almost a century until 2008 when it was grouped together in the DVD boxed set Fox Horror Classics Vol. 2.  Not long thereafter, limited-edition companies Twilight Time and Indicator would bring the rarely-seen title to a special edition blu-ray disc.  

Seen now, yes the film tends to get lost in the shuffle of gothic mansion titles mentioned earlier but as it stands it remains a fascinating look at one of horror’s greatest actors in the art of finding his wings.  To think Mr. Price had such an uphill battle ahead of him making this film when his name is almost synonymous with silver screen villainy. 

--Andrew Kotwicki