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Ivy

Director: Sam Wood. Screenplay: Charles Bennett based on the novel The Story of Ivy by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Producer: William Cameron Menzies. Executive Producer: Sam Wood (Interwood Productions, Universal International Pictures). Director of Photography: Russell Metty. Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof. Art Director: Richard H. Riedel. Editor: Ralph Dawson. Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly. Cast: Joan Fontaine (Ivy Lexton), Patric Knowles (Roger Gretorex), Herbert Marshall (Miles Rushworth), Richard Ney (Jervis Lexton), Cedric Hardwicke (Insp. Orpington), Lucile Watson (Mrs. Gretorex), Sara Allgood (Martha Huntley), Henry Stephenson (Judge), Rosalind Ivan (Emily), Lilian Fontaine (Lady Flora), Molly Lamont (Bella Crail), Una O’Connor (Mrs. Thrawn), Isobel Elsom (Miss Chattle), Alan Napier (Sir Jonathan Wright). Released: Universal, June 26, 1947. 99 minutes.

Plot Summary

Ivy hates “being poor.” She meets a millionaire, Miles, and makes him fall for her. However, unless she can free herself from two other men, Miles will never marry her. She tries to provoke her husband, Jervis, into divorcing her, but doesn’t succeed. She also fails to get Roger, a doctor in love with her, to end their affair. It looks like Miles and his money are lost. Then, alone with Roger’s medicines, she puts a spoonful of poison in a secret compartment in her handbag. After slowly killing Jervis, she hides the handbag. Circumstantial evidence implicates Roger, not her. At his trial, her testimony incriminates him. Realizing she set him up, Roger changes his plea to guilty. Orpington observes this pleases Ivy, and he looks into the case more closely. Roger’s servant, who has been afraid to come forward, tells Orpington about Ivy’s handbag and the jar of poison. He discovers Ivy’s motive was Miles. Before Ivy can dispose of the handbag, he finds it. Roger is reprieved, and Miles tells Ivy they’re through. As Orpington is about to arrest her, she accidentally falls into an empty elevator shaft.

Commentary

In the gripping first scene, Ivy is delighted by a fortune-teller’s predictions that “an abundance of money” and “another man” will soon come her way.

When she meets Miles that afternoon, it seems the prediction has come true. However, Ivy and Miles aren’t foreordained to run into each other. As Lady Flora tells her companions, she “engineered the whole thing.”

People aren’t the playthings of fate in Ivy. What they do is by choice and they must bear responsibility for the consequences. For example, Roger’s obsessive pursuit of Ivy almost gets him executed. In contrast, Miles believes, “The most despicable thing a man can do is make love to another man’s wife.” So after Miles kisses Ivy, he feels ashamed and stays away from her.

In fact, the fortune-teller gets it wrong. She counsels Ivy to break up with Roger. She says nothing about Jervis. This implies Ivy’s new lover will be as in favor of adultery as her current lover. But Miles isn’t like Roger. Ivy’s hopes for romance with Miles are doomed because she can neither get a divorce nor get away with murder. In the postwar era, as women increasingly become financially dependent on their husbands, the options a woman has to get ahead come down to the man who weds her. In this social trap, no wonder Ivy seeks advice from someone who may have supernatural powers.

The most significant year of the femme fatale in film noir is 1947, as shown not only in the frequency but also the variety of ways she appears. The character is principally associated with hardboiled film noir. In this year Out of the Past was released and, of all hardboiled film noirs, it has perhaps the most celebrated femme fatale, Jane Greer’s Kathy Moffat.

Although Alfred Hitchcock may be an exemplar of the auteur, nonetheless the same changes occur to the important female characters in his films, from 1942-1947, as in those of other directors. During the early war years, a woman with a job often helps a hunted man prove his innocence. In 1942, Hitchcock made Saboteur. By the end of the war and in postwar years, the woman who can take charge changes to the woman in distress. In 1946, he made Notorious. And he made The Paradine Case, with Alida Valli as the femme fatale, in 1947.

Gaslight melodramas often have a women in distress or even a homme fatale. The first femme fatale in a gaslight film noir is Joan Fontaine’s Ivy in 1947. The original New York Times review of Ivy suggests a shorter running time would have improved the film. But tightening the narrative would come at the expense of reducing what’s best in Ivy, a noir visual style that is compelling from first scene to last.