As I said – there’s nothing very original or even interesting about most of this, but still, almost by accident it seems, it’s lifted above the mediocrity to which it seems to aspire by the odd moment of brilliance and by the sheer freak-show freakishness of some of its cast of characters.
From the moment MacMahon invites Rathbone into her home until the moment she’s drugged and imprisoned there’s a marvelously played dramatic – and slightly sexual – tension between them. She feeds him, warms him. He tells her he’s an artist and one-time collector and impresses her with his erudition and his knowledge of the artwork in her collection. She’s surprised by him, non-plussed by him. Her sister and her maid both see her vulnerability and warn her, one teasingly, one in earnest, that he’s “a terribly handsome brute” and “too good-looking.” But she thinks she can take care of herself. It’s implied she might be moved by him in a way she hasn’t been moved in a long time – possibly since she lost her fiancé in the Great War.
We also see intriguing hints that he isn’t quite the decent-chap-fallen-on hard-times that she thinks he is. When she leaves him alone in the living room, he acquires a bit of swagger we haven’t seen before, brazenly helps himself to one of her cigarettes and then slips the case into his pocket.
But it’s when he comes back for a second visit that things get – briefly – really interesting, and we get a scene of pure and compelling theatricality (remember both Rathbone and MacMahon were at this point in their careers predominantly stage actors).
He brings her cigarette case back and contritely and sweetly says he pawned it. She accepts his apology. He then tells her he has brought his paintings to show her, begs her to look at them. By the convention of the time we are expecting her to say “but they’re wonderful, “ and for him to become the undiscovered genius she can mentor. But this weird little scene doesn’t take that line. It lets us watch him unveil a really awful painting of a fish on a plate, then another awful painting of some cows in a field…
“I call this my cow picture” Rathbone says, looking at her hopefully.
There’s a silence just long enough and daring enough for us to think “err…are we supposed to think this is good?” before MacMahon says, “oh, those are very bad.”
“Yes, yes I know they are,” says Rathbone in a Coenesque reversal of expectation. And in fact the rest of this scene could almost have been written by these two at their most arch and genre-bending, for this deflationary moment turns on a dime into something else, when he suddenly says “won’t you buy one?”
“Oh you’re not serious,” MacMahon responds, “what should I do with it? I’d have to hide it.”
“Not necessarily,” says Rathbone, charmingly, “bad as they are they have something I think.”
“Whatever it is, I don’t see it,” MacMahon replies. But he insists, warmly, tells her one costs 5 guineas the other 7, closes the space between them…she backs off and he follows, his manner balancing on a knife-edge between menace and helpless pleading.
“You’re really amusing and most absurd, they’re not worth anything at all” she says, starting to lose the edges of her cool.
“Oh they may be some day, you never know with modern pictures.”
“Oh well I’m quite sure about those, I really don’t want one.”
“Please, buy one anyway.”
“No of course not.”
“Yes, please, I must sell one tonight whatever you think of them…Please buy it.”
She holds his gaze as she sinks into a chair, signaling capitulation, takes out her checkbook and writes him out a check – obviously without really even knowing why she’s doing it. When she gives it to him he holds on to her hand a moment and the awareness she has of his touch undercuts her line, “Here – and please understand that I never want to see you again. Never.” We’re supposed to realize that part of her very much does want to see him again – and he knows it.
“If you hang that in the right light it won’t look so bad.” Rathbone replies, gesturing at the cow picture. And then he takes the scene in a new direction again by revealing his wife and child are outside waiting to thank McMahon in person. He invites MacMahon to look out the window and see them there, and as she does so, the woman in the street faints away. A seemingly distraught Rathbone brings her inside. A doctor is summoned and the wife is carried upstairs to bed.
At this moment Rathbone’s air of panic subsides. He lights himself a cigarette. When MacMahon asks, “Aren’t you going to see to your wife?” he tells her his wife will be fine and quite clearly doesn’t have much interest either way. When she departs up the stairs to check on things, he picks up his “cow picture” looks at it fondly, places it in pride of place on the mantelpiece and lounges back on the sofa to admire it. – Fade to black.
At this point the movie is pregnant with intriguing questions and possibilities. Who is this man? What is he doing? Is he nice guy, rogue or mad man? Why does he paint terrible pictures and seem to take a kind of pride in them? Why did he want MacMahon to buy one? Does he love his wife or is he indifferent to her? Is she even really his wife? What is or will be the relationship between him and MacMahon?
Sadly few of these get to be answered or developed and at this point the film more or less abandons proto genre-defiance in favor of predictability and/or incoherence. The relationship between Rathbone and MacMahon, so intriguingly full of contradictions and tension is simply turned into that of captor and captive. As soon as he is decanted out of his scruffy clothes and into a sleek suit, Rathbone’s character becomes little more than a sketch or cipher and his motives remain unexplored.
There is some lingering Coenesque weirdness: Rathbone’s “wife” Ada (Justine Chase) who seems to be inexplicably insane and who in one scene dances to a gramophone with a rictus smile and maniacal laugh (the casually brutal way Rathbone slaps her across the face for annoying him is a moment). And his partners in crime, the Edwards family, (Dudley Digges, Eily Malyon, and Barbara Shields) are terrifically grotesque. But their development is sketchy at best and even so takes over from that of Rathbone and MacMahon. There are probably too many people in it. The five “bad guys,” the maid, the niece and “hero” nephew and various visiting people whose roles seem totally superfluous. Too much screen time is wasted in exchanges that get nowhere and develop nothing. By the time of the denouement much interest has evaporated and nothing that should be is explained.
Rathbone’s final line resurrects a ghost of that ambiguity between him and MacMahon. When her cigarette case is dropped and broken in a struggle he says “Oh, what a pity, it was so beautiful.” And there is a look exchanged between them that hints at knowledge of something. But this only makes us regret the absence of any exploration of their relationship during the entire middle section of the film.
The unanswered questions are legion. Who is Henry Abbot? Is he really a down and out pavement artist or was that all a front to gain entrance into Mary’s house? How does he know the weird Edwards family? Is he invading this woman’s home simply to steal and sell the pictures? If so why is it taking him so long and is this really the best way of going about it? If he has other motives, what are they and why aren’t they developed?
I’d be interested to read the original Walpole story as well as the stage play, as I suspect a lot of the incoherence we see on screen might be a result of the Code or some dumb note sent down by the censors. It almost plays as though it’s been radically altered in the middle and veers off course so wildly you could imagine it must be because someone rewrote the central section and did a really bad job.
Rather like THE MAD DOCTOR this film is a chimera; a bizarre mix of two different films; one odd and quite challenging, the other mediocre, incoherent and just plain bad, and we are left with glimpses of what could have been, and what a subtle, versatile actor Rathbone was as soon as he was given anything to do that stretched him even a little.
Review of Kind Lady written by Neve Rendell, host of The Baz
Note: A remake of Kind Lady was made in 1951, starring Maurice Evans in Rathbone's role and Ethel Barrymore as Mary Herries. Doris Lloyd, who played Lucy Weston (Mary's sister) in the 1935 version, played the housemaid in the 1951 version.