Absorbing, moody and brilliantly acted by Ida Lupino, Ladies in Retirement is a fine film based on the play, by Reginald Denham and Edward Percy, about a maid and paid companion, Ellen Creed, who strangles her employer, Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom, marvelous), a very, very long-retired chorus girl who lives off the kindness of wealthy one-time “patrons”—a concealed form of blackmail. Ellen’s motivation is her determination to provide a home for her two mentally challenged sisters, who otherwise will be incarcerated or institutionalized. Our sympathies are with Ellen and her sisters.
This is Hollywood filmmaking at its near best. The film is a fine study of the pernicious and, here, ambiguous nature of class, set in turn-of-the-century England on the moors. Ellen is working-class and therefore beholden to Miss Fiske at every turn; but Fiske’s class is Ellen’s, a fact that is masked by her ill-gotten gains, which she keeps stored in an old stove that has been renovated for this use—an ironic nod to her working-class roots. Yet she is genially tyrannical, eventually discharging Ellen and booting out Ellen’s sisters, claiming no responsibility for their welfare even after Ellen tries to pry past her faux-noblesse oblige to get at what surely (one would think) must exist of her human heart. But well-heeled in her cozy country home, Miss Fiske mimics upper-class mannerisms and attitude to dim memories of her wild youth, to which she remains connected nonetheless by her ongoing means of extracting funds from the real upper class, who acted lowly ever to have had anything to do with her. Why does director Charles Vidor make Fiske so likeable? To suggest her less obvious ongoing connection to the financial threats under which working-class members exist. This, by contrast, we see full-blown in Lupino’s powerful portrayal of Ellen Creed, who must negotiate these threats—ironically, immediately, at Miss Fiske’s hands—daily. (Lupino and Elsom both were honored for their outstanding acting by the National Board of Review.)
The hypocritical beast must die. Making Fiske’s political crime all the worse is her earlier claim of considering Ellen “almost like a daughter.”
Louis Hayward, Lupino’s spouse at the time, is at his best as the ne’er-do-well who charms money out of Miss Fiske before, unbeknownst to him, Ellen, a relation by marriage, dispatches her. Elsa Lanchester is a hoot as Emily, one of the sisters. Miss Fiske is Catholic. “My father didn’t like Romans,” Emily tells her bluntly, “and neither do I.”
But it is Lupino’s trenchant, quicksilver acting that rivets our attention and engages our heart.
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