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April 2011

The Strange Door

cast: Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Richard Stapley, Sally Forest, and William Cottrell

director: Joseph Pevney

78 minutes (PG) 1951
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Jim Steel

The Strange Door

The title has obviously been changed to make it less of a mouthful for the cinema-going public, but other than that this is a pretty fair adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson's rather weak short story, The Sire de Maletroit's Door. This, of course, is not the same as saying that it is a good film; far from it. But it is an entertaining albeit very uneven film, and it is well worth a look. The setting has been updated from the Hundred Year's War to the dying years of the ancient regime for no obvious reason (although a small budget is a prime suspect) but it looks well enough on the screen and, to pad out the source, a big dollop of Poe has been added to the mix. Believe me; you will be able to spot which bit is lifted from Poe.

Sire Alain de Maletroit (Charles Laughton) is on the hunt for a man. Not just any man; a man who is so debased that he will break the heart of his niece, the aptly-named Blanche (an anaemic Sally Forest), when he marries her. His henchmen have picked out a fine specimen for him in Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley - latterly known as Richard Wyler, television buffs). De Beaulieu is busy getting drunk and womanising in Le Lion Rouge (yes, I know...) when de Maletroit casts his eye over him and gives his assent. His henchmen then set in motion a plot that is so highly convoluted that its chances of success are almost negligible.

The scheme does, of course, succeed as de Beaulieu is framed for murder that very night and flees the inn, pursued by locals, only to be driven through the door of the castle and into the clutches of de Maletroit. However, de Maletroit's plans then start to come apart because de Beaulieu is not, in fact, a villain after all but is merely a bit of a boisterous lad with a noble lineage, and he and Blanche naturally fall for each other. And Sire Alain's motivation is..? Blanche's mother turned him down for his brother. Meanwhile, the brother (Paul Cavanagh) is locked in the dungeon, faking madness, with only the one servant who remained loyal (Boris Karloff, possibly not faking madness) to help ease his condition. Plenty of swashbuckling and Gothic mischief ensues thereafter.

Karloff does the best he can with a thick character and a thin part, chewing the scenery with relish, but some of the other actors are pretty weak. Sally Forest is as wooden as the titular door, and Richard Stapley also won't have you thumbing through reference books to see who robbed him of an Oscar that year. William Cottrell puts in a fine shift as Sire Alain's malevolent second-in-command but the less said about the other henchmen the better.

However, the main reason for coming to this film is the performance of Charles Laughton. Laughton owns the screen whenever he is on it, strutting around with a deliciously sadistic relish, and most of the time it is hard to believe that he is reading from the same script as the others, such is the difference in quality. He single-handedly lifts this little Universal pot-boiler above the level of mediocrity and, as such, gives us a very good reason to see it.

The only bonus feature with this release is a photo gallery that features a small selection of publicity stills and a larger selection of promotional posters.



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