THUNDER ON THE HILL
(director: Douglas Sirk; screenwriters: from the play Bonaventure by Charlotte Hastings/Oscar Saul/Andrew Solt; cinematographer: William Daniels; editor: Ted J. Kent; music: Hans J. Salter; cast: Claudette Colbert (Sister Mary Bonaventure), Ann Blyth (Valerie Carns), Robert Douglas (Dr. Edward Jeffreys), Anne Crawford (Isabel Jeffreys), Philip Friend (Sidney Kingham), Gladys Cooper (Mother Superior), Michael Pate (Willie), Connie Gilchrist (Sister Josephine), Phyllis Stanley (Nurse Phillips), Gavin Muir (Sgt. Melling), Norma Varden (Pierce), John Abbott (Abel Harmer); Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Michel Kraike; Universal Pictures; 1951)
“Intense melodrama about a nun solving a murder.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Douglas Sirk’s (“Battle Hymn”/”Lured”/”Sleep, My Love”) intense melodrama about a nun solving a murder is based on the West End play Bonaventure by Charlotte Hastings. It’s scripted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt, and aptly kept claustrophobic and suspenseful by following the mystery film’s conventions.
Heavy rains flood the countryside of Norfolk County, England, where Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth), a convicted murderess, is being escorted to Death Row by a police matron (Norma Varden) and a Sergeant Melling (Gavin Muir). Unable to proceed, they stopover at the Convent and Hospital of Our Lady of Reims, located out of harm’s way on top of the hill. Also there are a number of local rustics escaping the flood; the bug-eyed Isabel Jeffreys (Anne Crawford), the wife of hospital surgeon Dr. Edward Jeffreys (Robert Douglas); the simple-minded mumbling handyman Willie (Michael Pate), the hateful nurse Phillips (Phyllis Stanley); the efficient but eccentric chemist (John Abbott); the sweet convent cook Sister Josephine (Connie Gilchrist), who believes one should never throw out a newspaper or a piece of string because it might come in handy one day; the believably rigid Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) and the intuitive hardworking edgy matron of the hospital Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert).
Sister Mary takes one look at the convicted murderess and is convinced she’s innocent; later she hears Valerie play a piano piece her deceased brother Jason composed and is further convinced she didn’t poison her brother to death after he had his second stroke and was under her care.
Playing a Nancy Drew type of sleuth, Sister Mary gains a crestfallen Valerie’s confidence and brings her bewildered fiancé Sidney Kingham (Philip Friend) to the convent through the ingenuity of Willie. He takes her to the nearest town by rowboat over the broken dyke, something the smart coppers couldn’t think of as a way to get their prisoner to the execution on time. This stirs up hope in Valerie, and Sister Mary believes the floods are an act of God to delay the execution and give her a chance to clear the name of Valerie. In the climax, Sister Mary smokes out the real killer, one of those staying at the hospital, and in the convent’s belltower is confronted by the killer.
It might sound half-baked but the acting is top-notch, the story is convincing and the shadowy convent backdrop is made good use of in keeping the whodunit tense throughout.
REVIEWED ON 3/13/2007 GRADE: A-