The Mystery of the Woman in White
1 hr 49 mins Drama, Mystery, Romance 1948 6.7 stars
Director: Peter Godfrey
Cast: Alexis Smith - Marian Halcombe
Eleanor Parker - Laura Fairlie/Ann Catherick
Sydney Greenstreet - Count Alesandro Fosco
Gig Young - Walter Hartright
Agnes Moorehead - Countess Fosco
John Abbot - Frederick Fairlie
John Emery - Sir Percival Glyde
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie.
The Movie Trailer
Walter Hartright meets the Woman in White at night
Synopsis - Part I
The movie opens with Walter Hartright (played by Gig Young), who has just been hired as a drawing tutor, being directed to walk to the country estate where he is to work - about a half hour’s hike. It is set in 1840s England. Along the way a woman completely dressed in white (played by Eleanor Parker) approaches him from out of the forest. It’s a mysterious encounter and the woman herself is mysterious and fearful as well. He mentions that he is on his way to Limmerage House and she responds that she is from there, but hesitates and amends her statement saying that sometimes she imagines that she is from there. Shortly afterwards a carriage approaches and the woman quickly departs telling Walter not to let them find her; she disappears back into the forest.
The carriage stops and the driver asks Walter if he has seen a mysterious woman in white to which he simply answers, “No”. The driver goes on to explain that she has escaped from an asylum and they were out on a mission to find her.
Walter continues on his way and eventually reaches Limmerage House, a stately mansion obviously the home of a wealthy family.
He meets his hostess, Marian Halcombe (played by Alexis Smith) who shows him around the mansion. Dinner is prepared.
A house guest, Count Fosco (played by Sydney Greenstreet) joins them for dinner. He is a large man who makes no secret of his enjoyment of eating. He is perceptibly sinister too. After dinner Walter is introduced to his employer, Frederick Fairlie (played by John Abbot). To say that he’s a hypochondriacal eccentric would be an understatement. He is a hyper-sensitive nervous wretch at all times; the slightest rustle of a curtain sends chills up his spine as he is apt to explain repeatedly.
The next morning Walter meets his pupil, Laura Fairlie who is dressed in white (who, like the mysterious woman in white, is played by Eleanor Parker). He mistakes her at first for the woman he met on the road the previous evening. She has no idea what he means because she does not know about such a mysterious woman. But the resemblance is too strong for Walter to dismiss it as mere coincidence. At breakfast Laura tells the story of Walter’s strange encounter with the woman in white from the previous night. Count Fosco’s eyes grow wide; he excuses himself from the table and marches determinedly to Frederick Fairlie’s room and, dispensing with the desired sensitivities, blurts out that “she is here” which sends Frederick into a tizzy.
Another house guest, Mrs. Vesey, who is an elderly woman that has lived there for decades, shares a story with Walter, Marian and Laura. It seems that many years ago when Laura was a little girl a cousin had come to spend the summer with them. She was a year older than Laura, but looked identical to her. This cousin had sworn at that time to always dress in white. What had become of her, however, she never knew.
Walter and Marian, intrigued by the story, did some investigating on their own looking into some old letters that Laura’s mother had saved from that time. They found reference to the girl and learned that her name was Ann Catherick. Her branch of the family had relocated to Italy years ago and evidently there had been no contact. Even Laura herself began to vaguely remember this child all dressed in white.
As time went on Walter’s work with Laura drew them together in a romantic sense but this was not accepted behavior because Laura was betrothed to Sir Percival Glyde (played by John Emery). When Glyde arrived Walter knew it was time to depart, but as he was leaving he ran into Ann Catherick in the family cemetery dressed in her customary white.
Walter meets Ann Catherick again - in the family cemetary
Synopsis Part II
Ann Catherick tells Walter the reason that she is there and the reason that she is being hunted by Fosco. She reveals that both Fosco and Glyde plan to take the Fairlie fortune for themselves by means of a sham marriage to Laura. Upon the death of Laura the entire fortune will go to Glyde. Fosco’s part in this has to do with his abilities as a hypnotist who intends to enfeeble Laura by psychological means until she succumbs to death. That seems to be acceptable to Fosco who otherwise stridently disavows violence. Ann Catherick is being sought because she knows the scheme and intends to divulge it if only she can get in to warn Laura.
Walter went back into the house to accuse Count Fosco and Glyde but he is disregarded. He leaves for good afterwards and goes off to paint on the continent.
The next scene doesn’t occur until quite some time had passed. Marian who has for this time lived elsewhere returns to Limmeridge and immediately sees that all the staff has changed: new butler, new cooks, and new maids. She confronts Fairlie about it. Also, Count Fosco’s wife has arrived (played by Agnes Moorehead). The Count is abusive to his wife and belittles her at the dinner table – she has a very docile demeanor almost as if he has trained her to be seen and not heard.
When Marian sees Laura they talk and Laura confides in her that she was forced to sign a wedding settlement, a sort of prenuptial agreement, with Glyde that if she would die the entire fortune would go to him. It is just as Catherick had told Walter, but to their regret they hadn’t believed his accusations.
Laura is now married to Glyde and she is sick. Perhaps a poison has been given her, most certainly Fosco has been applying his psychological methods and she is in bed in a delirium.
In her delirium she is visited by Ann Catherick who has gotten into the house. But Laura is so frightened by the woman in white that Catherick leaves intending to return again with her warning message.
Laura informs Count Fosco that she has seen Catherick, the woman in white. In a frenzy Fosco searches the house and grounds immediately, but cannot find her. The Countess Fosco had been left to guard and care for Laura, but she explained to Count Fosco that Catherick must have entered the room when she had stepped out momentarily.
In the next scene, Countess Fosco goes into a secret passageway off the closet into a small chamber with a tray of food for Ann Catherick who is waiting there. Unbeknownst to Count Fosco, Countess Fosco is the mother of Ann Catherick!
Catherick then knows it’s safe to return to visit Laura. But as she’s talking to Laura, Count Fosco and Glyde walk in and startle her. Count Fosco’s and Glyde’s appearance, and Catherick’s fear of them, causes Catherick to have a heart attack and die right there on the spot with Countess Fosco in the background looking on in anger and hatred.
Count Fosco devises a plan. Since Catherick is identical to Laura, he and Glyde will have a funeral for Laura using the body of Catherick for the viewing. They will then place Laura in the asylum from which Catherick had previously escaped and they would collect the Fairlie fortune because of the wedding settlement.
But Walter showed up to the viewing. He has studied the faces of both women as only a portrait painter could and he knew that they had Catherick in the grave and Laura in the asylum.
Walter confided once again in Marian about his theory and this time she believes him and they plan to rescue Laura from the asylum. In the meantime Count Fosco is visiting her trying to convince her that she is Ann Catherick, by means of hypnosis. Glyde gets wind of Walter’s plans for rescue and goes to the asylum himself to stop Walter. Glyde takes along a henchman.
In the evening Laura escapes the asylum just as both Walter and Glyde are arriving. She is seen and there is a struggle there in the darkness. Glyde’s henchman strikes a lethal blow, but when he turns the body over he realizes he has accidently killed Glyde not Walter and he flees.
Walter then retrieves the newly escaped Laura and returns with her to Limmeridge House with the police. In the meantime Count Fosco is attempting to convince Marian to go away with him. He can’t stand his wife and wants to divorce her and live with the youthful Marian who is naturally repulsed by the idea. While this is happening Countess Fosco comes in behind him with a knife and stabs him in the back and kills him. Shortly before it had been revealed that the Countess Fosco was none other than the estranged sister of Frederick Fairlie making her Laura’s aunt.
With Laura retaining the family fortune the asylum is upgraded and will house the Countess Fosco who obviously suffered a break down. Marian and Walter marry and live with Laura at Limmeridge with their children and with Laura’s – she had given birth to Glyde’s son. And though it is not mentioned in the movie Uncle Frederick is probably still upstairs being as eccentric, nervous and reclusive as he’s ever been.
Countess Fosco just before she kills the Count
One must take into consideration the period of time when the events occur, Victorian England with its customs and formalities. It also occurs at the estate of a wealthy family. Whenever a fortune is involved in a story it becomes so much more intriguing and the actions and the mansions make for great romantic backdrops. This is the case for this movie as well.
The arch villain in the movie is Count Fosco. The only thing that comes close to any sort of redeeming quality is his disdain for physical violence. That may be because he is such a proponent of psychological violence. He has learned and excelled in the hypnotic arts including brainwashing techniques. Though he states on more than one occasion his revulsion to violence he has no qualms about death by hypnosis, his preferred method of eliminating his problems.
When Count Fosco married the Countess Fosco he became the de facto step father of Ann Catherick. The movie doesn’t indicate that he was aware of that fact. He is the sort that never misses a trick, but he did entrust the Countess to watch over Laura when she was sick, presumably to keep an eye out should Ann approach Laura. Count Fosco puts forth an air of invincibility and accomplishment, but in the task of apprehending Ann he’s foiled many times. His demise is at the hand of the Countess who absolutely hates him because he belittled her constantly and because he is at least indirectly responsible for her daughter, Ann Catherick’s, death. His psychological devices have ruined their lives and ironically have ultimately caused his own death - by physical violence I might add.
Hidden in the plot is the moral, “crime doesn’t pay”, the villains are killed and the good guys win in the end. And so it concludes with a “lived happily ever after” ending. Even the Countess lives happily as instead of execution or jail time for killing Count Fosco she is remanded to the asylum which has been made new and improved through the Fairlie fortune. She remains therefore a part of the Fairlie family unit with daily visits from the others.
A great scene of acting with power comes when Count Fosco hears that Walter has seen Ann Catherick. He politely excuses himself from the table then in the next scene is walking in to see Frederick Fairlie. His walk exudes power – as the actor Sydney Greenstreet is a big man. He bursts into Frederick’s room and dashes the courtesy and gentleness that Frederick demands. He confronts him in the manner of an emergency stating, “She’s here.”
Ann Catherick tries to warn Laura
Count Fosco hypnotizing Laura into thinking she's Ann Catherick
Tidbit and Links
Found on IMDB: “Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’ published in 1860 (approximately 600 pages long!) is considered to be the first modern mystery employing a crime-detecting hero”.
The night meeting of Walter Hartright and Ann Catherick aka the Woman in White can be seen at this link: