The year 1945 saw the completion of the first two of three collaborations between director Peter Godfrey and actress Barbara Stanwyck; one, Christmas in Connecticut, is a light romantic comedy that has become a seasonal semi-classic, while the other is a marital thriller that was not released until March 1947, to help further distinguish it from George Cukor’s Gaslight and Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (both 1944) by the passage of a bit more time in between. (Ironically, the role in Gaslight that won Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar had been first offered to Hedy Lamarr, who then played a highly similar role in Experiment Perilous.) Based on Martin Vale’s play, The Two Mrs. Carrolls surely was worth the short wait; it builds terrifyingly as painter Geoffrey Carroll, who murders his first wife, plots the murder of his second wife, Sally Morton, who gleans the plot, but perhaps not soon enough to save her own life. Stanwyck gives a bravura performance as her love and trust dissolve into fear and hysteria, and Humphrey Bogart is brilliant as Carroll, who exhausts the inspiration that a woman provides for his artistic accomplishment once he paints her as the Angel of Death. Ever looking ahead for a Muse-ical recharge, Carroll has his romantic relationships overlap. Even as he refines his plans to murder Sally, he is cultivating socialite Cecily Latham for the role of Wife No. 3.
Although it can hardly be said to sparkle visually, Godrey’s film does sparkle dramatically—and it is fluent, with a camera in liberal motion but not excessive motion, which would only have pointed up the material’s theatrical origin. The delayed release, serendipitously, found the film surfacing the same year as one of Charles Chaplin’s masterpieces, Monsieur Verdoux, from a story idea by Orson Welles; this hilarious satire on war and its consequences found serial killer Verdoux murdering a string of wives in order to support the only family he genuinely cares about. But it is hardly the case that Geoffrey Carroll’s being a painter is irrelevant. Godfrey makes plain that Carroll’s murderous inclination is indeed inseparable from his financial anxiety: a burden to bear for the vast majority of the world’s artists.
Godfrey’s third collaboration with Stanwyck, Cry Wolf (1947), is another marital thriller.
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