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The Woman in White

CritiqueQuotes • At the movies

1948, 1982

First one-volume edition, 18711889 yellowback edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
1859–1860, serialized in magazines All the Year Round and Harper's Weekly

First book publication

Literary form

Literary, mystery

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 247,000 words

Woman in White scene
Gig Young and Alexis Smith have a rare unspeaking moment in 1948's The Woman in White.

A sensation for the ages

The Woman in White (1948): Film, 109 minutes; director Peter Godfrey; writer Stephen Morehouse Avery; featuring Alexis Smith, Gig Young, Eleanor Parker, Sydney Greenstreet, Agnes Morehead

Wilkie Coillins's seminal mystery thriller, The Woman in White, has appealed to filmmakers around the world since the early days of silent cinema well into the twenty-first century. Among the more than a dozen adaptations for movies and television series are, of course, numerous British efforts, but also treatments from Germany, Austria, Russia and America. This makes sense, as the novel offers an intriguing plot, chills, romance and characters we care for—everything needed for a sensational tale in any era.

The book is also quite long, so each screenwriter can make a different selection of plot points and personalities from which to construct their own necessarily condensed story for the large or small screen.

Eleanor Parker in scene from the Woman in White
Eleanor Parker as the woman in white.

The 1948 Hollywood adaption, The Woman in White, is considered the classic version by many. Partly because the black-and-white film manages to cover so much of the novel into its less than two-hour running time and partly because of its terrific cast, especially one stout old fellow.

Gothic horror

This is a very talky film, which may be necessary to cram in all the needed exposition. And one of the finest talkers in American cinema is Sydney Greenstreet (probably best known for his films with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, like The Maltese Falcon).

His sonorous voice and his menacing presence practically steal the movie. His character of Count Fosco, along with Agnes Morehead's disturbed Countess Fosco, are vital to Collins's story but they get an even greater proportion of the screen time than of the novel's pages, and they make the most of it, exuding wicked intentions much more obviously than in the book, practically twirling moustaches. Great Gothic horror villains.

And it is a Gothic horror story in style, if not in content. No actual supernatural elements and not really much horror. But plenty of dramatic shots in shadow and light and a swelling melodramatic score.

Less time is left for the supposed leads in the film—Gig Young as the painter Walter Hartright who encounters and falls in love with the mysteriously appearing figure in white and Alexis Smith as the clever Marian Halcombe who leads their their investigations, first into the identity of the mysteriously appearing woman in white and later into the Fosco's conspiracy.

Young and Smith are fine, perhaps on the bland side, but their team leaps forward in appeal when a radiant Eleanor Parker in a dual role, including the woman in white, joins them.

Trailer for the classic 1948 adaptation of The Woman in White.

The whole subplot from the book about the involvement of Italian secret societies is ignored and Fosco's motivations are simplified without that huge back-story.

Some have complained about the complexity of the film's plot, but they obviously haven't read the source materials from which this story has been expertly distilled.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotes • At the movies

1948, 1982