Some guests seem to bring happiness with them on their visits, pulling joy out of their suitcases along with their toothbrushes and pajamas; other guests serve mostly to remind their hosts how beautiful life was before they arrived. In the 1944 movie Guest in the House, directed by John Brahm and produced by Hunt Stromberg, we see a supreme example of the latter kind of visitor. Although the film is not quite as compelling as it could have been–for reasons we will discuss later–it offers an entertaining and somewhat frightening picture of the havoc a lone girl with a heart condition and a troubled mind can wreak upon a hitherto contented household.
It’s not exactly a typical household, however. As the film opens, Dan Proctor (Scott McKay) is bringing his new fiancé Evelyn Heath (Anne Baxter) to his native hometown in Maine. Dan is a doctor who met and fell in love with Evelyn while she was at a clinic; she has a heart condition and has had a traumatic past which seems to have involved a violent or disturbed father, although this is never fully clarified.
The family to which Dan introduces Evelyn consists of his brother Douglas (Ralph Bellamy in a rare non-milquetoast role), Douglas’s wife Ann (Ruth Warwick), and their little daughter Lee (Connie Laird). Douglas, a commercial artist, lives in the beautiful coast-side house wherein most of the film takes place; the household also includes his live-in model Miriam (Marie McDonald), and married servants Hilda and John (Margaret Hamilton and Percy Kilbride). Aunt Martha (Aline MacMahon) lives in a cottage nearby but spends much of her time with the Proctors. It’s a happy household, full of good food, comradeship, and sea air. At first Evelyn seems to be as delighted with everybody as they are with her; but she is soon revealed to the audience as a nefarious, plotting creature who craves romantic love yet itches to control those around her.
Most of the film follows the results of Evelyn’s plotting after she decides she wants Douglas and his house for herself and sets out to get them (opinions may be divided on the count of Ralph Bellamy’s level of desirability, but surely we can all sympathize with the part of the scheme concerning that house). First she banishes her devoted fiancé; then she sets about sowing dark suspicions concerning the relationship between Douglas and his pretty model. In fact it’s strictly professional, with a side of camaraderie, but it’s not hard to imagine otherwise. (Name one other movie wherein the artist’s model shares the artist’s family home! Furthermore, Douglas and Miriam appear to spend far more time together than do Douglas and Ann, despite the fact that the latter’s very loving relationship is established near the start of the film.)
The film is heavy with confrontations and angry conversations, while Anne Baxter’s performance is by no means a subtle one. She looks perfect for the part; she has a kind of fresh All-American-Girl beauty that’s effortless, effective, and innocent at the same time. But Bosley Crowther was right (albeit unkind) when he wrote in his original review that Miss Baxter “plays the wrecker with so much coyness that anyone, shy of a blind man, could see that she was up to tricks.” The movie was based on a play, which may explain the constant talk and incessant going up and coming down on the stairs, but these elements add to the feeling of claustrophobia that builds throughout. The house seems a fairly isolated little place, and the lighthouse flashing across the water and through the windows at night (as in the ingenious opening credit sequence) adds to the film’s atmosphere in an thematically appropriate way. Miss Heath is dangerous, it seems to warn, but the Proctors bask in their happy trust for quite a while before all becomes only too clear.
There are some very unique, memorable touches to the film, probably also stemming from its stage origins. Evelyn is obsessively fond of playing “Liebestraum” on her new gramophone, has an alarming phobia about birds, confides her inmost thoughts to a neat little diary, and has the tactics of manipulation down to a science. (She, her clean-cut beauty, the waterside setting, several aspects of the plot, and the prominent staircase prefigure very similar elements in 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven.) There is a somewhat chilling moment when Lee attempts to imitate her new friend, and the dark, stormy sequence when Evelyn is alone in the house in her moment of triumph is well-done. One shot of Evelyn behind a window from the outside of the rain-swept pane indicates the cinematic possibilities lurking in the material but never fully taken advantage of.
One of the script’s main problems, however, lies in its presentation of Evelyn. We’re given hints of her terrible past and genuine heart problems, but her disturbed mind and consequently twisted perceptions and desires are often presented more as symptoms of malice than as the sick manifestations of a mentally ailing person. If she is indeed unstable, she needs medical help more than anything else; if she’s just manipulative, then her past wouldn’t be so relevant to the tale. But since these things are never untangled, the story’s force is weakened considerably. And then there is the ending, which will not be revealed here but which in fact accentuates the confusions highlighted above, while also being deeply disturbing.
Guest in the House has sometimes been categorized as a film noir, but that description is not quite accurate. It has more in common with the “scheming woman” movies of which Leave Her to Heaven, Born to Be Bad (1950), and The Wicked Lady (1945) are notable examples. This category overlaps sometimes with noir and sometimes with women’s pictures and does not always feature the murder or physical violence inseparable from true noir, although it invariably has intrigue and a calculated use of feminine wile. Perhaps Anne Baxter’s greatest dramatic triumph–and certainly her most famous role–was in the 1950 classic All About Eve, which is in some degree anticipated by Guest in the House. But All About Eve‘s sharp script saved it from most of the melodramatic pitfalls common to the genre, while Guest in the House could have used more of the amusing, sharp dialogue which fills its successor and does sometimes crop up in the older film, notably in Evelyn’s and Miriam’s exchange about modeling.
In all fairness, there appear to have been some cuts made to the version of Guest in the House which is currently available. IMDb lists a run time of 121 minutes, while the copy watched for the purposes of this review was only 100 minutes. It would be intriguing to compare the two versions, but in the meantime, even this shortened edition of Evelyn Heath’s stay in the Proctors’ house offers its fair share of thrills and shocks, including a few worthy of, and perhaps even inspirational for, Hitchcock himself.