(director: Charles Vidor; screenwriters: Garrett Fort/Reginald Denham/based on the play by Reginald Denham and Edward Percy; cinematographer: George Barnes; editor: Al Clark; music: Ernst Toch; cast: Ida Lupino (Ellen Creed), Louis Hayward (Albert Feather), Evelyn Keyes (Lucy), Elsa Lanchester (Emily Creed), Edith Barrett (Louisa Creed), Isobel Elsom (Leonora Fiske), Emma Dunn (Sister Theresa), Clyde Cook (Bates), Queenie Leonard (Sister Agatha); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lester Cowan; Columbia; 1941)

“This gothic melodrama is well-crafted and involving.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Charles Vidor (“Gilda”/”Blind Alley”/”The Mask of Fu Manchu”) directs this delightfully creepy Grand Guignol crime drama that’s based on the play by Reginald Denham and Edward Percy–which in turn was based upon the true story from 1886. It’s smartly and tautly co-written byDenham and Garrett Fort, while the ensemble cast all give striking performances.

In the country house, in the hinterland marshes just outside of London, resides the eccentric haughty retired music-hall actress named Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom). The dowager loves the peace and quiet of country life. She lives there with Ellen Creed (Ida Lupino), her efficient housekeeper from London, and the not too bright maid Lucy (Evelyn Keyes, Vidor’s girlfriend at the time), who is a local girl.

Ellen receives a letter from a landlady in London that tells of her two mentally ill sisters, the backward childlike Louisa (Edith Barrett) and the troublesome energetic Emily (Elsa Lanchester), acting scandalous as tenants and if not taken off her hands immediately the police will be notified and they will be taken for observations to an insane asylum. Ellen therefore goes to London and brings them to Miss Fiske for a supposed short visit after appealing to her generous nature. But things don’t work out well, as the sisters act nutty, messy, noisy, and get on their host’s nerves. They also overstay their supposed short two-day visit by six weeks. Ellen is fired for talking back to Miss Fiske when told the sisters must leave at once. Fearing her irresponsible mad sisters will be incarcerated in a mental institution, Ellen that night strangles Miss Fiske to death while she sings a Gilbert and Sullivan tune at the piano. Ellen then buries Miss Fiske in a wall vault that was once an oven, which she covers with bricks, and tells the sisters she bought the house from Miss Fiske but to keep it a secret. Everyone else who asks is told Miss Fiske went on a vacation to London.

Things become uncomfortable when distant relative Albert (Louis Hayward), a ne’er-do-well unscrupulous nephew, shows up at the house. Albert’s running away from the police after caught embezzling from his employer, a London bank. The creepy Albert forces his way into the house and soon discovers through his snooping that Ellen knocked-off the lady of the house, and he brashly schemes to work out a deal to live in the house permanently.

The 23-year-old Lupino played the 40-year-old sinister Ellen to ice cold perfection, with no small help from her make-up. Though stage-bound, this gothic melodrama is well-crafted and involving. It was remade in 1968 as The Mad Room.

Louis Hayward and Ida Lupino in Ladies in Retirement (1941)