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At the Villa Rose (1920)

Courtesy of Really Useful Group

Main image of At the Villa Rose (1920)
Part of Eminent British Authors series
35mm, black and white, silent, 6276 feet
DirectorMaurice Elvey
Production CompanyStoll Film Company
ScenarioSinclair Hill
From the novel byA.E.W. Mason
PhotographyPaul Burger
SettingsWalter Murton

Cast: Teddy Arundell (Inspector Hanaud); Eva Westlake (Mme Dauvray); J.L. Boston (Besnard); Joan Beverley (Adele Rossignol); Kate Gurney (Helene); Manora Thew (Celia Harland)

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A French investigator unravels a murder mystery at a Monte Carlo villa.

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The opening titles of the continental murder-mystery At the Villa Rose tell us that much of the film was "acted and photographed on the Riviera and on the Mediterranean coast". This fact scarcely needs pointing out, since we are immediately treated to a visual feast of rugged landscape and shimmering sea, luxurious palm-lined gardens and scenes taken inside the casino in Monaco. The beautiful locations are only one element among the many virtues of the film, which was the earliest adaptation of A.E.W. Mason's first Inspector Hanaud story - three other versions of At the Villa Rose followed, one French (d. René Hervil and Louis Mercanton) and one British (d. Leslie Hiscott) in 1930, with a third British re-make in 1939 (d. Walter Summers).

Both novel and film are notable for the way in which the central mystery is divulged halfway through, a strategy that was much commented on (both positively and negatively) by the film's contemporary reviewers. As Hanuad gathers evidence to help him determine who killed the wealthy Madame Dauvray, screenwriter Sinclair Hill and director Maurice Elvey repeatedly take the viewer back over the partially-reconstructed witness accounts, gradually filling in the blanks of what occurred on the night of the murder. The second half of the film is dominated by a confession that shifts the tone from detective story to sensational melodrama. Celia, the film's (largely absent) heroine, is forced to take part in a fake séance, tied up and gagged, and left to listen helplessly as her employer is brutally strangled.

The encounters with (fraudulent) spiritualism that pepper the narrative allow for a number of eerie and inventive scenes. Double exposures reveal the mechanics behind Celia's performance, while the film's rich visual style involves such oddities as a glowing spiritualist orb and a stuffed wall-mounted alligator, their weirdness all suitably heightened by lurid red and orange tinting (in contrast to the gentle pinks, blues and mauves that are employed to enhance the romantic Mediterranean topography).

In his first leading film role, 16-stone character actor Teddy Arundel delivers as Mason's 'elephantinely elfish' police inspector, but it is the performances of the female cast that really stand out. Kate Gurney is wonderfully wicked as the duplicitous mastermind behind the crime, and Joan Beverly, strutting around in a variety of striking evening gowns, takes a gleefully sadistic pleasure in terrorising the film's rather more insipid heroine.

Nathalie Morris

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Video Clips
Extract: Murderous séance (3:53)
Production Stills
Elvey, Maurice (1887-1967)
Stoll Picture Productions