A forbidding, charmingly ominous parlour noir, Ladies in Retirement is a fated document of dark doings. Directed by Charles Vidor from a screenplay by Garrett Ford and Reginald Denham, this 1941 movie is based on the 1940 Broadway play of the same name by Denham and Edward Percy. It is ensconced in a sullen, foggy Gothic feel and features a faintly theatrical air.
Ladies in Retirement secured Academy Award nominations for its interior decoration and its score, with the music of Ernst Toch and Morris Stoloff adding affected splashes of melodrama to the snaking insularity of the cast-ahead country home. And the design is enhanced by the low-key cinematography of George Barnes, with its own temperamental power and visceral fantasy.
Ellen Creed (Ida Lupino) has been working as a housekeeper for the wealthy retiree Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom). Ellen receives a letter informing her that her sisters Emily (Elsa Lanchester) and Louisa (Edith Barrett) are getting thrown out of their home on account of their scandalous behaviour. Ellen asks Miss Fiske for permission to have her sister stay, just for a little while.
When the sisters arrive, a little while turns into a long while and Miss Fiske’s patience is frayed. She cowers with the other housekeeper, Lucy (Evelyn Keyes), until she determines she must take her home back. This doesn’t go well. Also part of the drama is Albert (Louis Hayward), a roguish scamp who introduces himself as Ellen’s relative.
Ladies in Retirement moves its drama terrifically, unveiling details with care and allowing the suspense to sink in. It works up to a slow boil and its tension is often remarkable, such as when Ellen finally decides to take matters into her own hands on behalf of her mentally-unwell sisters. The vision of her skulking downstairs, rope in hand, is maddeningly delicious.
Vidor’s picture is soaked in pessimism. Each character is cursed with quiet worry. Miss Fiske, delightfully played by Elsom, is a former stage performer whose better days now consist of opening a bottle of fine stuff and playing piano by herself. She is so starved for contact that she welcomes the dubious Albert with open arms and open pocketbook.
And Ellen is cursed not only with Lupino’s simmering desperation but with the not-so-small matter of her sisters, who plague her like twin albatrosses at every turn. How many possibilities have they ruined for the woman, who is by now pushing past middle age? How many times has Ellen had to turn her life around in order to salvage her sisters’ ruin?
And the sisters, whose own desperation is concealed by illness, are oblivious to what they’ve given way to. Lanchester and Barrett, always terrific, are counterweights on the same line. Barrett’s Louisa is faithless and mad at God. Lanchester’s Emily, in a unique twist on her Bride, is a creation of naïveté and wide-eyed wonder.
Vidor wisely confines the players of this internal drama and shows the outside sparingly. Its gaunt trees and undying fog remind that something might be behind the hill or over the horizon, but only barely. London, hinted at only by the carriage driver Bates (Clyde Cook), is a world away and yet its effects are immediate.
Ladies in Retirement is an extraordinary motion picture and surely an underappreciated one. It is an unsettling study in the stealing fingers of anxiety, in the lengths despairing people will take to protect familial strings. And it is an examination of isolation, of what goes on behind the doors of far-flung country homes in an age of profound shadow.