Wicked is the operative term in this apt title to the Eclipse release of three outsized, overwrought, gleefully excessive Gothic-pulp melodramas made by the British studio Gainsborough during World War II. The studio had been around since the twenties but found sudden popularity with the potboiler costume drama. While the rest of the British film industry was (much like Hollywood) turning out paeans to patriotism and stoic resilience in the face of hardship, shortages, and sacrifice, these Gainsborough melodramas offered audiences an escape with bad behavior, wicked schemes, and villains who betray friends and lovers out of greed, arrogance, or mere thrill seeking.
The four major stars of the trilogy are all introduced in The Man in Grey (1943), a dime-novel version of a Gothic melodrama set in the cruel culture of the British aristocracy, led by James Mason in his breakout role as the title character. Lord Rohan is a brutish, proud aristocrat who marries a sweet, sunny heiress (Phyllis Calvert) simply to secure an heir to the name. Top-billed Margaret Lockwood (of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) is the dark to Calvert’s light, bitter and calculating and ready to sacrifice her best (and only) friend in the world to grasp fortune as Mason’s mistress, and Stewart Granger makes a superb entrance into the drama, to all appearances a highwayman ready to rob Calvert’s coach, but in reality a poor player with a charming confidence and an honest soul, especially next to the crude, cruel Rohan.
The story is framed with a contemporary sequence, an auction of the family estate where a young woman and a dashing officer meet to bid on items from the estate. In fact, what interests them most are the seemingly inconsequential mementoes in a keepsake box, little worthless baubles that, through the course of the film, we see invested with great personal value. These modern players are, we learn, descendents of the dramatis personae, and in case you don’t recognize them at first, it’s clear in the coda that they are played by none other than Calvert and Granger.
Director Leslie Arliss creates a world of luxury and culture with minimal studio sets and painted backdrops. I don’t know that there is a single shot taken on location. A nighttime carriage ride through a desolate landscape, for example, is created entirely on a stylized set similar to what Fritz Lang will later purposely use for Moonfleet, an artificial, theatrical suggestion of the dark world outside. In fact, the whole thing is an unreal, stylized piece of work, from the settings to the characters. Mason is especially mesmerizing as the selfish, arrogant Lord who would rather watch the dogfights with the local peasants or satisfy his appetite for violence in a duel over some slight than play the public aristocrat. All dark, glowering power, he’s not quite a villain but certainly no hero, and any drive to avenge his wife’s fate is entirely a matter of vanity. The only glaring discordance in a film so shamelessly melodramatic and outsized is the servant boy Toby, a black African child played in blackface and a cringing patois by white British child actor Harry Scott.