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Madness of the Heart (1949)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Madness of the Heart (1949)
35mm, black and white, 105 mins
DirectorCharles Bennett
Production CompanyTwo Cities Films
ProducerRichard Wainwright
AdaptationCharles Bennett
Original novelFlora Sandstrom
PhotographyDesmond Dickinson
MusicAllan Gray

Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Lydia Garth), Maxwell Reed (Joseph Rondolet), Kathleen Byron (Veritee Falmont), Paul Dupuis (Paul de Vandiere), Thora Hird (Rosa), Raymond Lovell (Comte de Vandiere), Maurice Denham (Dr Simon Blake)

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After being struck blind, a young woman marries her French lover and moves to his ancestral house. But his father and a jealous neighbour conspire to destroy the marriage...

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Despite low critical standing (Margaret Lockwood's biographer Hilton Tims calls it "a throwback to the worst excesses of Gainsborough's pulp-fiction days") this is among the star's more interesting post-Gainsborough work.

The scenario contains many Gainsborough ingredients (Lydia's father's gambling recalls Jassy (d. Bernard Knowles, 1947); it may also be instructive to compare Jassy, who had 'second sight', with Lydia, who is sightless, but highly intuitive), but with important differences. It is set in the present, and returns Lockwood to the kind of pre-war ingénue role she had enjoyed before The Wicked Lady (d. Leslie Arliss, 1945) revised her screen image: until she takes charge in the final minutes she is strictly a character that things happen to.

However ripe the plot, writer-director Charles Bennett is subtler in his effects and devices than most critics allow. He begins with a flashback explaining how Lydia has become both blind and a nun; we confidently expect this to constitute the entire film. Interestingly it proves a mere prologue: soon we return to the nunnery, from which the film proceeds in the present tense. Lydia's sudden descent into blindness is conveyed (appropriately enough) by an iris shot, the screen closing on her terrified face as if the world is darkening and constricting around her. Reflecting her heightened sense of hearing, the soundtrack effectively employs ambient music, echoes and natural sounds. And a remarkable degree of suspense is achieved in the scene in which Veritée attempts to drown Lydia, with its undercurrent of subdued eroticism.

There are also some interesting 'plot echoes'. Doctors tell Lydia that the operation to save her sight may leave her "without a mind"; at the climax the confronted villains bluff, "I hope that in regaining your sight you have not lost your mind". And - in a scene strikingly reminiscent of one in The Wicked Lady - Veritée, riding furiously on horseback, her face reflecting both hatred and exhilaration, only just avoids plummeting over a cliff, prefiguring her death in identical circumstances (albeit in a car) at the film's end.

Bennett had co-written many of Hitchcock's finest movies, and this film is highly reminiscent of Rebecca (US, 1940) in its settings (an imposing house near a raging coastline), and plot motifs (a commoner's marriage to a wealthy landowner is deliberately strained by a hate-filled third party). The climax even involves an attempt to make Lydia fall from one of the chateau's windows.

Matthew Coniam

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Video Clips
1. I can't see! (2:23)
2. Attempted drowning (4:04)
3. Véritée exposed (3:17)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Bennett, Charles (1899-1995)
Byron, Kathleen (1923-2009)
Denham, Maurice (1909-2002)
Gray, Allan (1902-1973)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Lockwood, Margaret (1916-1990)
Two Cities Films