The Runt of the Fox Costume-Noir Litter

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

Gregory Ratoff’s “Moss Rose” has always dwelt in the shadows cast by the more celebrated films “The Lodger,” “Hangover Square” and “Dragonwyck.” Truthfully, it is a lesser film, but that’s not to say it’s a bad film. None of the aforementioned films was especially faithful to the novel it was based upon. So too, “Moss Rose” is hardy a slavish adaptation of the Joseph Shearing novel. (I read the novel years ago, but I seem to recall that in it, the hero did turn out to be the murderer.)

What the film does have going for it is a good cast and good production values. It’s a film in which the ground upon which your expectations sit is constantly shifting. At the start, star Victor Mature certainly seems like the type of rich cad who might strangle an overly-ambitious chorus-girl. But by the film’s mid-point he is established as a decent guy. Only now his aristocratic fiancée, played by Patricia Medina, starts behaving a bit manically. Might she be capable of strangling any woman who threatens to alienate Mature’s affections? But then she herself is found murdered and we’re almost back to square one. Of course it’s Ethel Barrymore reprising the tough old matriarch role that she perfected in “The Spiral Staircase,” only this time, instead of becoming a pistol-packing avenger who shoots down her psychotic step-son she herself is revealed as the mad-eyed strangler of any woman who tries to take her son away from her. Investigating the affairs of this curious family are Vincent Price as an erudite Scotland Yard inspector and Rhys Williams as his blunt assistant. (Williams had played a similar role as Barrymore’s blunt handyman in “The Spiral Staircase.”)

But the film is really built upon the talent of Peggy Cummins who must progress from brassy chorus-girl to enthralled waif to tender-hearted woman all in a mere eighty-odd minutes. It really is a great pity that Cummins was aced out of the starring role in “Forever Amber.” This two-hours-plus Technicolor tour of Restoration London would have been the role of a lifetime for the young British star. Instead, we usually read that she was “rewarded” with the lead in “The Green Grass of Wyoming.” “Moss Rose” is passed over in silence and that really is too bad because Cummins is excellent in it and the film itself provides us with sideways glances of what she might have done in the role of Amber. Instead she won a place in film history with her performance as gun crazy Annie Laurie Starr in Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy.” At least three of the films that she made when she returned to England, “Both Sides of the Law,” “Hell Drivers” and “Curse of the Demon” also do her credit.

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