Dark Crimes: Guest in the House (1944)
“This is our house now – yours and mine. Think what that means, Douglas. Every morning I can come downstairs and fix the flowers. And Hilda and John will be here, too – and they’ll say ‘Yes, Mrs. Proctor’ to me, as they did to her. And there won’t be any low, vulgar women in the house, with their dirty desires.”
Guest in the House had a lot to recommend it.
Anne Baxter – the Eve which All About Eve was all about – was the star, and the cast included such reliable performers as Aline MacMahon, Ralph Bellamy, Ruth Warrick, Jerome Cowan, and Margaret Hamilton. The screenplay was by Ketti Frings, who also penned such winners as The File on Thelma Jordon and Come Back, Little Sheba. The film’s cinematographer, Lee Garmes, was responsible for the look of numerous classics during a career that spanned seven decades and included City Streets, An American Tragedy, Scarface, Duel in the Sun, Nightmare Alley, and The Desperate Hours. And while director John Brahm didn’t have a boatload of screen credits, he did helm one of my favorite noirs, The Locket, starring Laraine Day.
Quite a pedigree, huh?
But the film didn’t quite live up to its promise. At least, not in the way I’d expected. But in another way, it far exceeded every expectation. Let me explain. (And, incidentally, watch your step – this entire post is one gigantic spoiler.)
But first, a brief overview of what the movie’s about. It centers on Evelyn Heath (Baxter), who is visiting the family of her doctor fiancé, Dan (Scott McKay), following a recent hospital stay, and proceeds to wreak complete havoc throughout the entire household. (I told you it was brief.)
As the picture begins, the family is excitedly awaiting the arrival of Evelyn and Dan. There’s Dan’s sister-in-law, Ann (Ruth Warrick), her artist husband and Dan’s big brother Douglas (Ralph Bellamy), their precocious, blonde moppet of a daughter, Lee (Connie Laird), and Aunt Martha (Aline MacMahon). And when Evelyn finally makes her appearance (at the side door instead of the front, where the family was all congregated), we know – even if the family doesn’t – that something ain’t quite right with this dame. She gingerly enters the room, as if she’s stepping onto a cloud, and holds up one hand, saying breathily, “Please. Don’t move, any of you. Don’t say anything. . . . I want to remember this moment always. This wonderful house, and Dan’s own people.” And then she proceeds to personally greet each family member – even the housekeeper (Margaret Hamilton), and Miriam (Marie McDonald), who lives in the house and works as a model for Douglas. She calls them each by name as if she’s known them always, and she quite mesmerizes the group, and us, too – until she gets to the little girl. Lee gazes at Evelyn in awe and remarks on her beauty, but when she reaches out to stroke her face, Evelyn’s previously dulcet tone turns hard: “No dear, don’t touch me!” she snaps, recoiling slightly.
Can you say “Red Flag”?!?
And those crimson banners just keep on coming, one after another. There’s Evelyn’s screaming fit when Lee tries to present her with a parakeet as a present – turns out she’s been afraid of birds since her childhood. (Why? I DON’T KNOW.) And her request to have her bedroom “fumigated” when she learns it was previously occupied by a friend of the family. And the vague, slightly ominous references to her alcoholic father. And her mysterious, never explained “illness” that causes her to sleep half the day and slink about in her nightgown and robe the rest. And her diary, which she reviews one night in bed, and which contains passages like: “Why is it I like to control people? And if I do, then I hate them.” And: “I wonder what it’s like to die. Or to kill someone.” And when she adds a line to the pages of her diary on her first night in the house – Foreshadowing Alert! – “Today I think I met the man I really want.”
It really doesn’t take but a few minutes in Evelyn’s company to realize that she’s as nutty as a Snickers bar. (Mm, Snickers.) Why Dan hasn’t seen it and given her the gate long ago is beyond me. But instead of telling her to hit the bricks, he puts up with her hysterical rants and willingly leaves the house like a BIG DUMMY when she suggests that he go away for a month or two. (“Will you write me every day?” he asks. What a sap.) And once he’s gone, Evelyn REALLY goes into overdrive.
Using Lee as her “cat’s paw,” (look it up if, unlike mine, your mom never used that term), Evelyn manages, in a very short amount of time, to turn the entire household against Douglas’s voluptuous model, Miriam. And before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Miriam has packed her duds and is riding off into the moonlight – leaving Douglas three sheets to the wind, Ann in tears, and Evelyn with a satisfied smirk on her pan.
As the weeks go by, the household begins to practically implode. Evelyn replaces Miriam as Douglas’s model. Lee starts imitating Evelyn by refusing to get dressed and complaining of constant illness (“I feel weak . . . I can hardly get my breath.”). Ann’s perfectly put-together appearance starts to resemble something dragged in by the cat. It takes a visit from a family friend, Ernest (Jerome Cowan), to get Ann to realize that their troubles began the day Evelyn set her tiny little foot in their house. During a raging thunderstorm (naturally), Ann confronts Evelyn, and boy, does the crazy poop hit the fan! No longer wide-eyed with faux innocence, but with real lunacy, Evelyn tells Ann that Douglas is in love with her, and when Ann insists that she’s leaving the house, Evelyn isn’t a bit fazed: “I bet I don’t!” she counters. And she wins that bet. When Douglas enters the house, Evelyn runs to him, crying and lying, and of course, he falls for her hysterical tale of woe – like his brother, it looks like Douglas is a few tacos short of a fiesta platter, if you know what I mean. (“Aren’t you ashamed?” Douglas later says to Ann. “Blaming someone else for your own mistakes is a shabby trick . . . I can’t stand by and see you wreck the life and health of a girl who hasn’t done anything to you!”) Utlimately, it’s Ann who winds up leaving the house, taking their daughter with her.
Evelyn sees this as her chance to move in for the kill, practically smothering Douglas with her overblown desires and plans and dreams for the future – and when she finishes spouting off all this claptrap and prepares to plant a big wet one on him, he FINALLY realizes that she’s cuckoo for coco puffs. It kinda reminded me of the scene in All About Eve when Eve puts the make on Margo Channing’s man, Bill. And like Bill, Douglas doesn’t waste any time getting the heck out of Dodge. He locates Ann at the local train station, offers up numerous heartfelt mea culpas, and returns home with his family, where he informs Evelyn that they will pay for her to enter a sanitarium that can give her the care she so obviously needs. (“We’ll even go into hock to keep you there,” he promises.) (Har.) He adds, though, that they will offer this sweet deal on only one condition – she has to write to Dan and, over time, gently break the news that she is ending their relationship.
But Evelyn has other plans.
The first thing she does is leave her diary on the desk in the living room. The second thing she does is place a call to Dan.
Next morning, Lee shows up with the sad news (and necessary plot development) that her bird is dead – her family offers their condolences and she and her father bury the bird in the front yard, leaving the empty cage in the living room. Remember that. It’ll be important very soon. Moments after the bird burial, Dan shows up and just when I think this movie can’t get any wackier, it does! Evelyn tells him they can be married – today! “I’m sure Douglas will want to congratulate us, won’t you?” Evelyn smarmily inquires. Just then, Douglas finds Evelyn’s diary on the desk and tries to use it to reveal to his brother that Evelyn’s as crazy as a sack full of ferrets. But Dan already knows about the diary – “She used to read it to me sometimes,” Dan says. (WHAT???) And when Douglas reads the part Evelyn wrote about falling in love with him, and Dan appropriately withdraws from Evelyn’s embrace, Evelyn urges Douglas to read the last page – which, of course, claims that she only thought she loved Douglas, but that she really loves Dan! Even Douglas is blown away by this latest plot twist: “You can’t believe that, Dan?” he asks his brother, who responds, “Yes, I can.”
What a maroon.
So after all this reading of diaries and whatnot, we finally find ourselves at the finale of this epic tale. (And not a minute too soon.) In a nutshell, this is it: Evelyn tells Douglas to keep the diary so he’ll always remember her (burn!), Douglas and Ann go outside for a breath of
non-crazy fresh air, Dan exits stage right to retrieve a few items, and Evelyn is left alone in the living room with Aunt Martha. Evelyn starts going on about how she might not love Dan tomorrow, but she loves him today, blah blah blah – when suddenly, she spies the empty bird cage and proceeds to go bat poop nutty! She’s screaming, whirling around the room, looking for the bird (“Where IS it?!?!”), and Aunt Martha is needling her all the way, deviously nudging her toward Bonkersville, telling her that the bird is flying around in the house – and when Evelyn runs out the front door, Aunt Martha tells her, “There are hundreds of birds outside! Everywhere! Look!”
And that’s all it takes – Evelyn completely loses it, y’all. As Martha stands blocking the doorway (looking for all the world like Samson holding up the pillars), Evelyn clutches her head, screams, and runs down the walkway and off camera. Second later, we hear Evelyn scream again and Martha suddenly looks stricken and covers her face with her hands. Then we’re shown a shot of a craggy cliff and some crashing waves below – and then a close-up on the crashing waves. And then:
That’s right. You read it. THE END. Talk about abrupt!
I’m not even sure what else to say about this movie. Except you HAVE to see it. It’s brimming with plot holes and over-the-top performances, but it’s never boring and it’s quite honestly a hoot and a half. Seriously. You can see for yourself by popping over to YouTube – do check it out, won’t you?
You only owe it to yourself.
P.S. Guest in the House was reissued as Satan in Skirts. Just thought I’d throw that out there.