Published on criterioncast.com on March 29th, 2011
Sometimes ideas are better left unfulfilled. A case in point; taking two of the biggest studio stars of all time, Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck, and putting them in a suspense noir with strong Gothic overtones. In concept, this is not a bad idea; it gives each star a new and unfamiliar angle to play with Bogart as a mentally unstable painter and Stanwyck playing a passive and helpless victim a year before her superior turn in Sorry, Wrong Number. When no aspect of the project is inspired, the result is a dud. Newly available on DVD from the Warner Brothers Archive, The Two Mrs. Carrolls is a sad and lackluster combination of elements fused together with an utter lack of spirit.
Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) is a painter who woos Sally (Barbara Stanwyck). Very early in the film, she discovers that he already has a wife and a daughter named Beatrice (Ann Carter). He tells her his wife is an invalid but she does not want to continue their romance. Shortly after returning from his trip with Sally, Geoffrey’s first wife mysteriously dies. Two years later, Geoffrey and Sally are married happily. Geoffrey uses Sally for inspiration for his paintings just as he did with his first wife. His inspiration is running dry and his gaze is straying towards Cecily Latham (Alexis Smith), a rich young woman who also has her eyes on Geoffrey. How far will he go to ensure his own artistic expression? Will Sally or the mature young Beatrice become privy to Geoffrey’s nefarious scheme?
The Two Mrs. Carrolls has nothing to say. As long as a film can work purely on a surface level, as a concise piece of storytelling, depth does not necessarily equal a detractor. When the film cannot tell a story with ease, then there is a problem. Bogart and Stanwyck do not feel like a couple. Their relationship and subsequent marriage is given no time to flourish. They do not have as many scenes together as they should and when they do, it never feels like any connection is established. It does not help that the two stars have no chemistry. In fact, there is no cohesive thread between the actors. They all seem to be operating on different planes; nobody looks like they are really connecting with anybody else. It also does not help that the film is predictable from the start, making it even harder to become in any way absorbed.
Bogart is completely miscast as painter lacking in sanity. It is impossible to buy him as a psychopath. He is always great in expressing inner torment, but not when it is used outside the persona of self-destruction he has plays so wonderfully. Bogart plays psychosis by staring off wide eyed and looking confused. He is out of his element, resulting in a stale and muddled performance.
It does not help that he is given little to work with. There is nothing to convey any reasoning or depth to Geoffrey’s madness. The only signifiers for his instability are the moments where he touches his head. It is silly and does nothing but funnel his illness into a quirk. Since is it meant to be taken seriously and the film never goes beyond the idea that he no longer gets any inspiration from his eventual victims, Geoffrey Carroll’s mental illness never becomes more than an abstract gimmick. Bogart is even forced to be embarrassingly self-referential by saying “I have the strangest feeling that this is the beginning of a beautiful hatred”.
Peter Godfrey’s direction is a hodgepodge of tropes from other genres and films thrown together with no clear understanding of how to use them effectively. This is a suspense film with no suspense. Melodrama as a sensibility is used through Franz Waxman’s excruciatingly present score and as an overall substitute for suspense. The few times suspense is employed it is poorly influenced from Hitchcock films, most strikingly in Suspicion, and the attempts falls flat.
The direction also strongly indicates a desire to use recognizable visual traits of the Gothic genre. Again, with no understanding of how to use these traits, they simply exist within the film and do nothing to enhance mood or atmosphere. The film is filled with blustery days. Wind and rain are always seen and heard. There are a lot of windows that bang open and church bells are often in the soundtrack. There is also the archetypal cranky housekeeper. There is some recognizably noir lighting, but nothing makes enough of an impact. All of this is recycled and brings nothing new to the table, feeling exhausted and dead on arrival. They become empty decorations.
It demands mention that the film is based on a play by Martin Vale. Either the source material was equally inert, or the adaptation by Thomas Job truncated so much of the play that nothing was left to work with. Either way, The Two Mrs. Carrolls has no idea how to put the previous work of other filmmakers and authors into action and is further dragged down by an indifferent performance by Stanwyck and an outright shoddy performance from Bogart. The transfer is iffy in parts, notably at the beginning but overall is sufficient with a trailer being the only special feature. For Bogart, Stanwyck or studio system era completists this will fit within their criteria; for everybody else, feel no shame in skipping this one.