A young British socialite, Madeleine (Ann Todd, The Sound Barrier), begins a clandestine love affair with a poor Frenchman (Ivan Desny, Lola Montès). She knows her rich father will never approve of the relationship, so Madeleine decides to go after a wealthy gentleman (Norman Wooland, Quo Vadis) instead. When her lover suddenly dies of arsenic poisoning, the young woman is accused of murder.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“This daughter of a rich man in her devilry defied the most sacred laws of God.”
Based on a real-life murder trial that took place in Victorian England, Madeleine is David Lean’s 8th film and his only murder-mystery. It’s very much in the vein of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, specifically The Master of Suspense’s period thrillers Jamaica Inn (1939) and Under Capricorn (1949). Because Lean is such a great stylist, the film also resembles some of producer Val Lewton‘s horror films of the 1940s.
Director Lean later called Madeleine “the worst film I ever made.” I sort of agree with him. Of the seventeen feature films Lean made over a career that spanned five decades, Madeleine sticks out like a sore thumb. That being said, he shouldn’t have been ashamed of it — Lean’s “worst movie” is actually a pretty decent thriller.
Madeleine isn’t a great movie by any stretch of imagination, but I found it strangely compelling. I particularly loved its Gothic atmosphere. My main complaint is that I could never figure out what Lean was trying to say here. He is vague to a fault. Because we are kept in the dark about the main character’s feelings and motivations — Is she a killer or not? — the film fails to engage viewers in a totally exciting way.
In interviews, Lean always insisted that he did the film at the request of then wife, British star Ann Todd, who was dying to play the title role. Todd had seen a stage production of the murder case and begged husband Lean to adapt it for her.
Unfortunately, the elusive nature of the title character creates an identification problem. As I said before, we are never sure what the heroine is up to, so you never feel any sympathy for Madeleine. The problem is compounded by the fact that the story is told entirely from her perspective: a colder and more unsympathetic character is hard to find anywhere else. In the end, you don’t care whether she’s guilty or not.
Todd is superb, though. The talented actress is in almost every scene and never disappoints. She has a “fire-beneath-the-ice” quality that I find irrisible. Aside from Todd’s excellent work, the acting in the film is effective, but unmemorable.
Madeleine sports some superb technical attributes. Guy Green’s (Great Expectations) noirish black & white camera work and John Bryan’s (The Horse’s Mouth) sets are fantastic. Margaret Furse’s (Anne of the Thousand Days) costumes are impressive too. The fine music score is by William Alwyn (The Crimson Pirate).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
I’ve talked to many film buddies and almost everyone agrees that this is one of Lean’s lesser efforts. I still think Madeleine is an interesting movie. Not one of Lean’s best movies to be sure, but good enough to be considered a (minor) achievement. Recommended with caution. Co-starring Leslie Banks (The Most Dangerous Game) and Anthony Newley (Doctor Dolittle). B&W, 114 minutes, Not Rated.