My raging cinematic love affair with Humphrey Bogart does not blind me to the fact that, like most actors, he sometimes chose the wrong part (or had the wrong part chosen for him by short-sighted studio honchos). This is most obvious, perhaps, in 1947’s The Two Mrs. Carrolls, costarring Barbara Stanwyck (another personal favorite), Alexis Smith, and Nigel Bruce.
In the film, Bogart plays Geoffrey Carroll, an American painter living in London who meets and falls in love with a young woman named Sally (Stanwyck). When Sally discovers that Geoffrey is married with a child, she leaves him, and he unhappily returns home to his family. Though his work has been suffering as of late, Geoffrey finds himself inspired to paint his sickly wife as an “angel of death.” But Mrs. Carroll is not merely ill–her husband has been poisoning her nightly glass of milk. When his wife finally dies, Geoffrey returns to Sally and marries her, and though they are initially happy, Geoffrey’s lack of inspiration returns, until he meets Cecily Latham (Smith), a flirty young heiress who wants Geoffrey to leave Sally and move to Rio with her. As his affair with Cecily blossoms, and he deals with the blackmailing chemist who provided the poison that killed the first Mrs. Carroll, the second Mrs. Carroll begins to suffer from sudden, splitting headaches …
Though the film was based on a play by Martin Vale and was completed in 1945, the release was held for two years because of studio fears that the plot was too similar to two other recent Hollywood productions. The first of these, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 film Suspicion, features Cary Grant as a shady young husband suspected of poisoning his wife’s milk in the same manner. The second, 1944’s Gaslight, revolves around a husband (Charles Boyer) who attempts to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) mad in order to gain access to a fortune in stolen jewels.
The similarities are many, to be sure, but the film differs in that Bogart’s evil behavior does not result from greed or vice, but rather from psychosis, a somewhat delicate subject that is only barely addressed within the film, as Stanwyck implores her husband to spare her life by telling him, “You’re sick, Geoffrey!” The signs of madness are there, even in the smallest gestures: when Geoffrey feels cornered or angered, he places his hand to his forehead, as if a sudden, intense pain is spiking through his head; the sound of bells, used in the film to denote tension and danger, particularly agitates him.
In fact, the very atmosphere of the film is crafted to highlight Geoffrey’s increasing insanity. It’s always overcast or raining steadily in the outdoor scenes, and the indoor scenes are lighted in such a way that harsh shadows are thrown against Bogart’s profile, outlining the weathered planes of his face in stark relief. The film embraces the Gothic in such an all-encompassing manner that it becomes histrionic–almost laughingly so–rather than intense.
Sadly, part of the reason for this can be laid squarely at Bogart’s feet. This is not the type of noir in which we are used to finding Bogart. He’s not the antihero; he’s not the hidden romantic. Instead, he’s an almost cartoonish villain, snarling and pacing, crazed and (dare I say it?) overacting to the extreme.
He’s balanced well by Stanwyck, though, who knows her way around melodrama (Stella Dallas, anyone?). She wrestles with the material and comes out on top, perfectly balancing the frightened wife and the woman determined to survive. And the supporting cast, rounded out nicely by a coquettish Smith and the comedic relief of Bruce’s slightly alcoholic doctor, helps raise the material above the melodramatic morass.
As I said previously, not every actor is perfectly suited to every role. But for the most part, throughout his career, Bogart knew wherein his strengths lay, and in general he knew to play to them. We can all be thankful for that; otherwise, we wouldn’t have indelible performances such as Rick Blaine, Sam Spade, Charlie Allnut, and Fred C. Dobbs, among many others.
Still, though this is definitely a minor role in Bogart’s extensive repertoire, it’s worth a viewing. If you’re looking for an hour and a half of diverting entertainment, you could do worse than to watch Bogart and Stanwyck spar for their lives. And there’s a cute, glancing reference in the script to Bogart’s most famous role and, arguably, his most famous line.
The film is not available on DVD, but according to TCM’s website, it will be showing again on October 10th at 10AM EST.