Dragonwyck holds much in common with a lot of movies, maybe because author Anya Seaton spent a couple weeks locked up with Gothic romances. If you’ve sat and enjoyed Rebecca, Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights than Dragonwyck has a lot of merit with its sumptuous costumes and sets inhabited by a decadent Gene Tierney and Vincent Price. But there’s just as many comparisons one could make between this and Forever Amber, the turgid costume drama where an unbelievable Linda Darnell struggled to get up from under the tulle and numerous plot points of her own story.
Miranda Wells (Tierney) is a simple Connecticut farm girl invited to stay at the legendary Dragonwyck estate with her cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn (Price). Upon entering the house, Miranda realizes Nicholas and his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) don’t have quite the marriage she assumed.
Dragonwyck is a bit misleading as I assumed it was a horror film in the “old dark house” style of the 1940s. Instead, the movie is a costume romance with shades of a mystery/thriller at the edge and packed with every literary cliche you could imagine. Our heroine gets a letter from a distant cousin and aside from a few light cautionary refrains from her parents (played with conventional religious zeal by Walter Huston and Anne Revere) marches towards danger with as much wide-eyed innocence as Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
From there Miranda suffers the snobbery of various New York residents while maintaining the quietness and sensitivity of Jane Eyre. The second half of the film, after the death of Johanna, starts imitating The Woman in White and Rebecca, the latter of which audiences had to have known since Hitchcock directed it six years earlier. Sure, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Dragonwyck tries to keep things moving, but with so little originality the whole movie is one big game of Mad Libs. When Vincent Price goes up to his tower room and it’s later revealed not to have a crazy woman inside, you can’t help but feel disappointed.
Like with Forever Amber, it’s hard seeing Gene Tierney play an average Connecticut girl coming up against the wealthy elite. One scene has Miranda sparring against a bunch of rich women at a party where she’s seen as the charming country cousin who people don’t associate with. Sorry ladies, but if you look like Gene Tierney everyone should be your best friend!
This was the third pairing of Tierney and Price after the one-two punch of Laura and Leave Her to Heaven. They’re one of the more forgotten on-screen duos and their chemistry is different than any other duos. In the latter two films, Price was definitely at the mercy of Tierney’s characters; Leave Her to Heaven has Tierney’s Ellen toying with Price’s character, while Tierney’s Laura and Price’s Shelby were equals but it was apparent they didn’t belong together. With Dragonwyck, Price’s Nicholas has the upper hand which creates a palpable imbalance to their relationship. Price tries conveying the smooth, slightly malevolent character, but it works better in the climax where he goes completely off-the-rails and channels his later Hammer horror work. Price was the third choice after Gregory Peck passed and Laird Cregar died (THAT’S A JUMP!), and it’s obvious a more dignified actor should have been used. Honestly, the role is such a copycat of Laurence Olivier’s in Rebecca they should have hired him!
There are several plot threads and the relationship between Miranda and Nicholas is the best. Nicholas fosters an obsessive desire for a son – Henry VIII in the 1800s – and Miranda’s almost Jane Seymour (Henry’s Queen, not the actress) tries and fails. The murder angle sets the plot in motion, even if it takes awhile for any pay-off or fear for Miranda’s life to be established. The remaining plot lines are both there to pack the runtime – a long-feeling hour and forty-three minutes – and create additional conflicts. The biggest one involves Nicholas’ role as a “patroon,” holding the land various farmers work on, but there’s no pay-off. No one storms in, Marie Antoinette style demanding equality. The climax comes from a character saying they now own the land.
Dragonwyck is better than Forever Amber, especially with the Gothic murder story. Gene Tierney and Vincent Price make a smashing duo, and maybe if the story followed Jane Eyre or The Woman in White closer, the movie wouldn’t feel so long. Instead, too much is pulled out of thin air, whether it’s relationships, plot conflict, or even time passing (too often things feel like they’ve happened in the span of a week as opposed to years). The film’s on quite a bit on the Fox Movie Channel (now FXM), so if it’s available give it a look.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.