DVD: The Two Mrs. Carrolls
Release Date: March 1, 2011
Filmmaking is often regarded as an art but at times it can be more like science. Each movie is an experiment in chemistry. Sometimes you put the ingredients together and get something amazing. Sometimes you don’t. That doesn’t mean that movies that fail aren’t interesting in their own way. Sometimes failed experiments lead to the most interesting data.
The 1947 film The Two Mrs. Carrolls is one such failed experiment. The movie, remastered and released by The Warner Archive, seems to have all the right ingredients. You can practically hear the pitch meeting: Humphrey Bogart is a tortured artist who kills his wife to be with his new love, Barbara Stanwyck. When he is tempted by a lusty socialite (played with aplomb by Alexis Smith), will he kill the second Mrs. Carroll to make way for the third? It sounds like a nice twisty noir that would be a good movie. Unfortunately, that isn’t the movie that was made.
No, this isn’t a film noir. It is a gothic romance with shades of Rebecca. It’s set in England featuring an English mansion and a cast of British supporting characters. Meanwhile, the stars look and sound like they just came from Brooklyn. It is jarring. There are other things here that are Rebecca-esque in the story. There’s a stern housekeeper, a locked door, and a creepy portrait that all play into the plot. The noir actors and love triangle are just grafted onto this gothic mystery frame. The result is a Frankenstein monster of a film that is never exactly sure what it wants to be — which is a shame because there are great elements here of both genres. Ann Carter does the part of creepy British kid well in her role as the adolescent daughter of Bogart’s character. The noir stuff is also meaty. There’s a scene where Bogart strangles a blackmailer that is genuinely frightful because of how callously he treats the entire episode.
This makes The Two Mrs. Carrolls a very watchable film, but one that is ultimately unsatisfying. It doesn’t help that Bogart isn’t allowed to be the true sociopath that the part demands. He’s hampered with some vague undefined mental illness to explain his actions, something that seems like a cheap way to get around concerns over letting a star like Bogart play the bad guy. Barbara Stanwyck gives an appropriately schizophrenic performance. At times she is the helpless victim who suspects her husband of evil but can’t bring herself to prove it. Other times she is a gutsy dame who won’t go down without a fight. Since the movie can’t decide what it wants to be its lead actress is left without clear direction.
And yet… she is so compelling. It’s a master class in giving a great acting performance without needing any Method techniques or in-depth character work. Mrs. Carroll is a character that is woefully underwritten but Stanwyck gives it life, in the same way that Bogart gives depth and caring to a part that is, on paper, a crazed killer. There is no great trick to getting a great performance from a great script, but Bogart and Stanwyck are able to get something from a script that gives them nothing. As I said, failed experiments often lead to interesting data. In this case it is a study in the old school style of acting, where you gave what the scene needed without needing to live as the character or know your motivation. The Two Mrs. Carrolls is definitely worth checking out for fans of Bogart and Stanwyck. Both of these actors had iconic turn in noir pictures and The Two Mrs. Carrolls was the only film they ever worked in together. Fans of both actors will enjoy seeing their great performances, even if the film isn’t as good as their work in it.