André de Toth directs Dark Waters, a 1944 film noir that traffics in the marshes and endless murk of Louisiana. The picture is based on a Saturday Evening Post serial by Francis and Marian Cockrell and features a screenplay by Marian Cockrell, Joan Harrison and The Suspect scribe Arthur Horman.
Dark Waters functions mostly as a psychological thriller and is at its best when it internalizes itself inside the mind of the protagonist. It contends with trauma and carries the timely fascination with buzzwords like “persuasion complex,” even though it’s more likely the lead character suffers some cinematic form of PTSD.
Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon) is the survivor of a ship wrecked by a Nazi sub in World War II. Her parents drowned in the disaster and she is naturally traumatized. After recuperating, she heads to a Louisiana plantation to visit relatives she’s never met. Aunt Emily (Fay Bainter) and Uncle Nobert (John Qualen) are polite enough, if a bit removed.
But Mr. Sydney (Thomas Mitchell) manages the plantation and calls the shots. His lackey Cleeve (Elisha Cook Jr.) hits on Leslie and thinks she could use a little “fun,” but she’s interested in Dr. George Grover (Franchot Tone). When she discovers a body in the bayou, she knows she’s in some serious New Orleans trouble.
Dark Waters doesn’t make the most of its psychological wrangling, unfortunately. Oberon is capable and her character has the obligatory confusion and self-doubt, but there’s not a lot of ground for her to cover outside of the conventional. Her best moments come in shades of refinement, in the little tip-offs right before she races from a room.
While there is some vagueness as to Leslie’s state of mind, there isn’t much doubt as to what’s really going on. Things are overly sinister, with John Mescall and Archie Stout’s cinematography lingering a bit too long. There’s never really a sense that Leslie’s in good hands at the plantation, which eliminates any real tension.
The haunting is left for the actors. Bainter does an excellent job as a tentative partaker. She interrupts a lot and is scatter-brained. The same goes for Qualen, who spends most of the movie impounded somewhere. Cook Jr. is a stellar character actor, with a spine-chilling penchant for making Leslie uncomfortable.
Tone is every bit the white hat hero, but his character is admittedly a little dreary. He never quite achieves equilibrium with Mitchell’s money-hungry Mr. Sydney, even if he does roll to Leslie’s rescue on more than one occasion.
Despite an assortment of solid performances, Dark Waters is kind of dull. At its worst, it’s a jumbled movie with several scenes that don’t work (the dance, for instance). At its best, it’s an okay film noir with a light psychological chaser.