The Woman in White

Novel, 1860
Movies
The Woman in White (1948)

Director Peter Godfrey; writer Stephen Morehouse Avery; featuring Alexis Smith, Gig Young, Eleanor Parker, Sydney Greenstreet, Agnes Morehead

Woman in White scene

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

The Woman in White

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

A sensation for the ages

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. It 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.

Classic take on The Woman in White

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.

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 higher 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. Though 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 Foscos' 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.

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

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

Related:

Author
Wilkie Collins

Novel
The Woman in White

See also:

Movies
The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Movies
The Maltese Falcon

On Amazon:

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The Woman in White

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