The Uninvited. A Paramount picture; screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos; associate producer, Charles Brackett; directed by Lewis Allen. Criterion Collection v677. Based on the novel by Dorothy Macardle. Originally released as a motion picture in 1944. Director of photography, Charles Lang, Jr.; music score, Victor Young; edited by Doane Harrison; art direction, Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté; costumes, Edith Head; set decoration, Stephen Seymour.
Performers: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Dorothy Stickney, Barbara Everest, Alan Napier, Gail Russell. Summary: a London composer and his sister purchase a surprisingly affordable, lonely cliff-top house in Devonshire, only to discover that it actually carries a ghostly price. Soon they’re caught up in a bizarre romantic triangle from beyond the grave.
the ghost always rings twice
The 1940s were arguably cinema’s best decade for the atmospheric supernatural thriller, and The Uninvited may indeed be the best of them all , maybe the best ghost story ever filmed.
If Uninvited does not exactly invent the subgenre of the supernatural mystery rooted in murky secrets and mental pathology, it crystallizes all the elements in a way that previously had not been done, and it does so with a deft touch which subtly mixes atmosphere, story and low-keyed acting, along the way sneaking in some surprising shadings of plot and character. This is a long-winded way of saying that Uninvited is as much a psychological drama as ghost tale, with much of the terror inflicted, sometimes self-inflicted, by living mortals with their own issues.
The eminently familiar, eminently English, pedigree – crashing waves, imposing sea-cliffs, and the old Gothic house – sets the tone in the first scene, and the house in particular might be seen as a variant, a poor man’s version, if you like, of the grand mansion in Rebecca, or the similarly imposing house in Jane Eyre. Flowing curtains, grandfather clocks, curved staircase, oversize fireplace, marble floors, grand pianos, large windows overlooking the shore: they’re all there, and provide a suitable backdrop for a ghost – or is it ghosts? – that refuse to leave and can be heard crying nightly and sometimes even glimpsed through the shadows, whose ectoplasm we see now and then, but usually only sense.
All is done with special effects of the most minimalist but highly effective kind. Most of the supernatural feel and general sense of unease is created by Charles Lang’s gloomy lighting and shadowy camera work which bathes the ghostly goings on in perpetual semi-darkness. This sense of never quite getting a clear vision provides a nice metaphor for the inner motivations of the characters, which are often ambiguous and unclear.
The cast of Uninvited is near ideal and the resultant performances pitch perfect. Ray Milland is his usual breezy and charming self, albeit with a touch of the intense. Milland’s screen persona seemed so effortless that we tend to forget how good an actor he really was, truly a case of an artist concealing his art. In an understated turn as Milland’s sister, Ruth Hussey is in her way just as good, delivering a natural, refreshingly unhammy performance. The minor players – Alan Napier as the wise doctor, stone-faced Donald Crisp as the evasive grandfather, and Barbara Everest as a very nervous housekeeper – contribute strong support.
As an added bonus, “Stella by Starlight,” the haunting tune Milland is composing, hovers throughout the movie like a ghostly presence, making fleeting appearances and never overstaying its welcome. But Victor Young’s score isn’t confined to a memorable serenade. Rather, it provides a lushly romantic backdrop throughout in a longing, old school style so favored by composers in cinema’s Golden Age.
The most memorable character in Uninvited is the elegantly creepy quack psychiatrist Miss Holloway, brilliantly played by the formidable Cornelia Otis Skinner. Miss Holloway is the film’s most flamboyant character, although the ditzy Miss Bird (Dorothy Stickney), a ‘guest’ at the retreat center Miss Holloway presides over, ranks a close second. In any case Cornelia Otis Skinner gives us Uninvited’s only camp touch with her mildly over-the-top take.
But it’s Gail Russell as the haunted Stella that’s the emotional heart of the film. In her first substantial role she gives a miraculous performance, never more so than at the séance where she speaks a kind of Spanish/Gypsy dialect, delivering her words at a fire breathing pace. The promise Gail Russell showed in the 1940s was tragically unfulfilled in her short, rather sad life and lurks throughout Uninvited, further contributing to the film’s pervasive melancholy, thus making it all the more spooky. Indeed with her gossamer clothes, somnambulist manner and pale appearance, we might be forgiven for believing Stella herself is a ghost.
The Uninvited was a hit upon its release and the passage of time has only added to its luster. Seven decades on it holds up exceptionally well. But even with its lofty repute, much of Uninvited – the characters’ motivations, the reality of the ghosts, the afterstory – remains an enigma. For all its virtues it still beguiles with a sense of mystery and incompleteness of its own. Could we expect any less from a ghost story?
 The film that comes closest in mood and content to Uninvited may well be The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, also photographed by Charles Lang. But clear precursors which deserve a mention are the early Forties RKO Val Lewton chillers like Cat People and The Seventh Victim, which gave us so much tone and atmosphere via shadows, sounds and suggestion, thus creating a mood of dread precisely because of what’s unseen.
Svehla, Gary J., and Susan Svehla. Cinematic Hauntings, Midnight Marquee Press, 1996, pp150-157.
White, Patricia. Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, Indiana Univ. Press, 1999, pp68-72.