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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir(1947)

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There's an admirable modernity amidst the old-fashioned elegance of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), a romantic ghost story with a strong-willed young widow and the salty but gentlemanly spirit of a sea captain. Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, a veteran screenwriter and producer whose wit and way with strong, striking characters guided his direction, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was his fifth directorial effort but the first to pull all of his strengths together in such a charming and evocative way.

Gene Tierney is Lucy Muir, a beautiful young widow with a little girl (played by Natalie Wood) living in the oppressive home of her nervous, clingy mother-in-law and disapproving sister-in-law, a severe spinster whose every comment carries a critical judgment. Lucy is as independent-minded as a woman can be in turn-of-the-century England, an era when horse-drawn carriages still outnumber buggy-like motorcars, and this single mother chooses to leave London for the quaint little town of Whitecliff-on-the-Sea and Gull Cottage, a handsome old home perched on a cliff overlooking the coast. Tierney was more movie star than nuanced performer but she musters a quiet strength for this character. "Haunted. How perfectly fascinating," she smiles as she makes her mind up, and soon she makes the acquaintance of its former owner Captain Daniel Gregg, played with a gruff, flinty manner by Rex Harrison.

Their first meeting is magnificent. On a stormy night, Lucy wanders downstairs into the kitchen with a single candle casting long shadows across the wall and highlighting those famous Tierney cheekbones that helped make her a glamorous leading lady in Laura and Leave Her to Heaven. As she strikes a match to light the stove, a sudden chill whisks through the room and extinguishes the flame. "I know you're here," she calls to the empty room and turns around to see the Captain step out of the shadow, standing tall and strong in a windswept hairdo, carefully groomed and sculpted beard, and neat but simple seaman's jacket and sweater. The pools of lamplight and the soft, deep shadows create a rich atmosphere that evokes ghost story imagery but not menace. Rather, it is oddly welcoming and comforting and Bernard Herrmann's score (one of his finest) is uneasy but curious rather than spooky. Harrison's booming voice rises as she challenges him and then drops to a civil, at times admiring tone as they talk. Her courage impresses him and rather than scare her off, he comes to terms with his permanent houseguest: a co-existence that turns into a partnership and even something of an unspoken romance.

The cinematographer is Charles Lang Jr., who previously shot The Uninvited, another ghost story featuring a haunted house on a cliff on the English coast. Where it was defined by the unsettling mood of a house shrouded in gloom even in the daylight, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a largely daylight film, warmed by the coastal sun and the sunny disposition of Tierney's Lucy (who Daniel nicknames Lucia). The photography is never less than handsome and elegant, a mix of Hollywood glamor and old-world nostalgia. Daniel is no malevolent spirit but he is strong-willed and ultimately protective of Lucy and he's perfectly at home in the bright rooms and airy atmosphere of this cozy manor overlooking the sea, which only adds to his character.

George Sanders turns this comfortable duet into a romantic triangle when he enters her life as the smooth-talking Miles Fairley, aka Uncle Neddy, a best-selling children's author who loathes children. Both Daniel and Martha (Edna Best), Lucy's devoted housekeeper, see right through this smarmily charming cad (as do we, in a way; by 1947, Sanders was leaving behind leading man morality for supporting roles soaked in silky corruption and cultured craftiness) but as Daniel notes, she makes the only choice she can. She chooses life and the joys and disappointments that go with it. And that is also what makes this such an evocative film.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a poignant love story within a ghost story, a film of loneliness and yearning as well as a triumph of independence and a celebration of Lucy's determination to, for the first time, live her own life rather than one defined by others. Though Mankiewicz was a screenwriter long before he stepped behind the camera, he directs from a script written by Philip Dunne, another screenwriting craftsman at 20th Century Fox, and brings out the strength of character the underlies the story. It is also a superb piece of Hollywood craftsmanship, with every element of the film, from set design and perfectly-chosen locations on the California coast to double for England to Charles Lang's rich photography and Bernard Herrmann's delicate score, casting a spell over the film. Mankiewicz avoids trick photography and special effects, which helps turn the first instance that our ghost slowly dematerializes into dramatic and poignant exit. He turns this ghost story into a romantic fantasy of impossible love, delivering a mature and down-to-earth bittersweet romance with a melancholy streak. In just a couple of years, he would win back-to-back Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve, but The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is his first enduring classic.

This is dreamy disc, beautifully mastered from a well-preserved print, with a clean, sharp image that preserves and presents the rich contrasts of Charles Lang's B&W cinematography. While the film is built on the strength of its characters, the experience is just as much defined by mood and atmosphere and this disc brings out the best of its images and its soundtrack. This is part of the recent wave of Fox classics on Blu-ray and is one of the most beautifully produced releases of the bunch.

The disc features the two commentary tracks originally recorded for the DVD release. The first track (as you explore the menu) features Greg Kimble, who introduces himself as "a special effects supervisor and something of a film historian" (he worked on Se7en and Independence Day), and Christopher Husted, a music scholar and manager of the Bernard Herrmann estate, both apparently recorded separately and edited together. Kimble observes and discusses the details that make his favorite film while Husted offers a more scholarly discussion of Herrmann's score and his musical effects.

The second track opens on film scholar Jeanine Basinger, who provides an informed but general overview of the filmmaking, discussing the conventions of classic Hollywood storytelling and the artists who worked on the film, and providing details of the production and the career of Tierney (her papers are held at Weslayan University, where Basinger is the Chair of the Film Department). Kenneth Geist, who wrote a biography of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, arrives much later on this track, offering the director's perspective on the production (including his objections to Tierney in the lead).

Also features the original trailer.

By Sean Axmaker