The creepy, suspenseful Dragonwyck may borrow heavily from other, better tales, but this atmospheric, opulent Gothic romance often casts a hypnotic spell, thanks to stunning visuals, top-flight production values, and excellent performances from the beautiful Gene Tierney and sinister Vincent Price, who makes a major splash in a star-making role. A gorgeous video transfer, strong audio, and a comprehensive supplemental package make Twilight Time's limited edition release Worth a Look.
“One day, you will wish with all your heart and soul that you never came to Dragonwyck.”
Say the name Vincent Price and visions of dark, creepy mansions, mysterious supernatural doings, and twisted, tortured psyches spring to mind. Though classically trained, the elegant, aloof actor with arched eyebrows and a honey-toned voice specialized in lurid, low-budget thrillers often adapted from stories by Edgar Allan Poe and directed by Roger Corman. Finding his cinematic niche took a while, but the movie that led him down the horror movie path just might be Dragonwyck, an eerie Gothic romance with occult overtones that was mounted as a slick starring vehicle for the beautiful Gene Tierney. Price, however, stole the picture and would soon parlay his powerful performance into a personal cottage industry.
Adapted from the bestselling novel by Anya Seton, Dragonwyck borrows - at least that’s the polite way of putting it - elements of Rebecca and Jane Eyre as it chronicles the tumultuous adventures of Miranda Wells (Tierney), a fresh-faced, unspoiled Connecticut farm girl who forsakes her austere, God-fearing family in 1844 to answer the call of her wealthy, dashing distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn (Price), who seeks a governess for his young daughter, Katrine (Connie Marshall). Miranda, whose restless spirit longs for excitement and sophistication, jumps at the chance to live at Dragonwyck, Van Ryn’s grandiose manor on the banks of the Hudson River.
Yet life among the rich and snooty isn’t as glamorous as Miranda imagined. Simmering tensions divide the often brooding Nicholas and his gluttonous wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne), who worries her husband has lost interest in her, while their almost catatonic daughter seems oddly detached and disturbed. Unrest among the estate’s disgruntled tenant farmers, over whom Nicholas ruthlessly presides, causes further strife, and rumors of a dire family curse and angry spirit who plays the parlor harpsichord cast a pall over the angst-ridden clan. Though the hunky country doctor (Glenn Langan) takes a shine to Miranda, she only has eyes for Nicholas, and when his wife suddenly dies from a seemingly innocuous cold, the not-so-grieving and oh-so-attractive widower turns his attention to his comely employee. But will Miranda find her happily-ever-after with Nicholas, or will her knight in shining armor shed his sheep’s clothing and put her in unspeakable peril?
20th Century-Fox spared little expense on Dragonwyck, which recouped its almost $2 million price tag (a hefty sum in those days) and turned a tidy profit. Opulent sets, lavish costumes, lush cinematography, and Gothic trimmings galore make this eerie atmospheric drama a sensory feast. Yet such grandeur can’t mask the recycled plot points and characters that recall better, more famous films and ultimately dull the tale’s impact.
Similarities between Dragonwyck and such classic precursors as Rebecca and Jane Eyre abound. To begin with, there’s the shy, demure heroine who hails from humble roots, lacks experience with the opposite sex, and is emotionally seduced by an anguished hero who, like Maxim de Winter and Mr. Rochester before him, resides in an imposing manor and is plagued by a difficult wife and demons from his past. Dragonwyck is also run by the Mrs. Danvers-like Magda (Spring Byington), a strange, morbid head maid who relishes spooking Miranda with gruesome tidbits from the macabre annals of Van Ryn history. And just as Jane Eyre begins her life at Thornfield Hall as a governess, so too does Miranda at Dragonwyck, and, in another striking “coincidence,” is increasingly intrigued by a forbidden attic room filled with mystery and sordid secrets.
Dragonwyck marked the directorial debut of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who only a few years later would win unprecedented back-to-back writing and directing Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. (Mankiewicz took over the picture’s reins after the legendary Ernst Lubitsch suffered a heart attack a few months before shooting commenced.) Though his straightforward, somewhat static style lacks the flair Hitchcock brought to Rebecca, Dragonwyck remains an auspicious first film. Writing was always Mankiewicz’s strongest suit, and while his script sadly lacks his trademark rapier wit, the literate dialogue elevates the tried-and-true material.
Tierney, who had just scored a huge success in what would be her most famous film, Laura, can’t compete with Joan Fontaine as a tremulous heroine, but she files an earnest, spirited portrayal. Tierney’s breathtaking beauty always overshadowed every role she played (with the possible exception of bad girl Ellen Harland in Leave Her to Heaven, which she would gamely tackle just after Dragonwyck), but her underrated talent is on full display here.
Price, of course, grabs attention whenever he’s on screen, and his breakout portrayal instantly lofted him to star status. His mellifluous voice drips with aristocratic disdain one minute and tortured angst the next, and his wild-eyed ravings late in the film beautifully offset his earlier rigid composure. Though Walter Huston receives second billing as Miranda’s stern, religious father, Price dominates Dragonwyck and saves it from itself.
The top-notch supporting cast also elevates the material. Huston always adds gravitas to his films, and his puritanical presence contrasts well with Dragonwyck’s decadence. Anne Revere, who only a year before won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in National Velvet, nicely complements him, and Byington, who specialized in playing warm, winsome, slightly ditzy matrons, deliciously plays against type as the manipulative Magda. Osborne shines in her final film role as Nicholas’ insecure, ill-fated first wife, and a young Jessica Tandy, a couple of years before she would wow Broadway audiences as the original Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, impresses as Miranda’s physically deformed and fiercely loyal Irish maid.
Though such stellar work often perks up the proceedings and the historical touches Seton sprinkles throughout add welcome freshness, a stale feeling still prevails and drags Dragonwyck down. Mankiewicz produces an elegant, atmospheric, and eminently watchable film, and Price provides plenty of incendiary sparks, but if I want to see a movie of this sort, why wouldn’t I just pop in Rebecca? I mean, why watch the carbon copy when the original is so close at hand?
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Dragonwyck arrives on Blu-ray in a limited to 3,000 edition packaged in a standard clear case. An eight-page booklet featuring an essay by film historian Julie Kirgo, several black-and-white scene stills, and a color reproduction of the movie’s poster art is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Fox supplies an often breathtaking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that beautifully renders the lush, shadowy black-and-white photography of master cinematographer Arthur C. Miller. Nominated for seven Oscars within an eight-year period in the 1940s, Miller's artistry enhanced many a Fox film, and though Dragonwyck would prove to be his only foray into the thriller genre, he embraces the conventions and imbues the film with a creepy elegance that's highly effective. After a razor-sharp opening title sequence, the image exudes a lovely grain structure that supplies critical texture and maintains the feel of celluloid. Excellent contrast and clarity help fine details in the ornate sets grab attention, while terrific gray scale variance promotes a palpable sense of depth. Blacks are especially inky, yet the intense shadows rarely become muddy, and though whites are used sparingly, a snowscape scene remains bright and stable. Gorgeous close-ups of Tierney highlight her feline features and luminous complexion, yet they also serve Price well, both during his early dapper stage and later period of scruffy inner turmoil. No nicks, marks, or scratches dot the pristine source material, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. Dragonwyck may have some narrative issues, but this splendid transfer makes this moody film a joy to watch.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that beautifully showcases Alfred Newman's lush and foreboding music score and all the Gothic effects. Atmospherics like rain and thunder come through cleanly, and a wide dynamic scale handles all the sonic fluctuations without a hint of distortion. The dissonant strains of the eerie harpsichord exude just the right amount of sharpness, and weighty, full-bodied bass frequencies supply necessary emphasis during tense scenes. Excellent fidelity and tonal depth allows Newman's music to fill the room with ease, and all the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend. Best of all, no age-related hiss, pops, or crackles break the dramatic spell. Audio is an important element of Gothic thrillers and this track meets all the challenges with ease.
All the extras from the 2008 Dragonwyck DVD, with the exception of the restoration comparison and still gallery, have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. In addition, the two documentaries on Tierney and Price that appear on Fox's Blu-ray edition of Laura also are included here.
Audio Commentary - Film historian Steve Haberman and documentary filmmaker Constantine Nasr sit down for a lively and informative commentary that covers almost all of the film's bases. The duo supplies plenty of cast and crew bios, points out screenplay deletions and how the adaptation differs from Anya Seton's novel, and provide some historical context regarding patroons and the period's anti-rent wars. They also discuss themes that permeate many Mankiewicz pictures, the clashes between Mankiewicz and producer Ernst Lubitsch on the set, censorship issues, and why Lubitsch decided to remove his producing credit from the film. Both men regard Dragonwyck quite highly, and their infectious enthusiasm and appreciation of this Gothic thriller fuel this brisk track.
Featurette: "A House of Secrets: Exploring Dragonwyck" (SD, 16 minutes) - A host of film historians chronicle the production history of Dragonwyck, analyze Price's enormous impact, praise Alfred Newman's memorable score, and discuss the connections between Price, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Gothic narrative. Film clips and behind-the-scenes photos enhance this breezy, well-made featurette.
Documentary: "Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait" (SD, 45 minutes) – This absorbing and beautifully produced profile of the star of Dragonwyck, which originally aired on television as an installment in the popular Biography series, uses a wealth of film clips, home movies, newsreel footage, and rare photos to illustrate Tierney's exciting yet incredibly troubled life. Narrator Peter Graves calls the actress "the embodiment of unattainable beauty, the image of perfection," yet a series of tragedies and failed romances caused her to become so mentally unbalanced she was forced to leave the screen in the mid-1950s and enter a sanitarium, where she would undergo a series of wrenching electroshock treatments. The program details her volatile marriage to designer Oleg Cassini (who terms her "the unluckiest lucky girl in the world"), and relationships with such legendary figures as Howard Hughes, a young John F. Kennedy, and Prince Aly Khan. In addition, actor Richard Widmark, composer David Raksin, Tierney's sister Pat Byrne, and daughter Christina Cassini offer vital insights into Tierney's character and actions. A Shattered Portrait is hands down one of the best Biography episodes I've seen, inspiring renewed appreciation and admiration for this attractive and courageous woman.
Documentary: "Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain" (SD, 45 minutes) – Compared to Tierney, Price led a sedate and traditional life, but The Versatile Villain, another Biography profile, examines it with style. Narrator Richard Kiley calls Price "a modern Renaissance man," who complemented his passion for drama with an equally avid interest in art. We learn Price - at the tender age of 12 - purchased an original Rembrandt etching, and would later lend his name to a line of affordable fine art marketed by Sears. Reminiscences and testimonials from Jane Russell, Roddy McDowell, Dennis Hopper, director Roger Corman, and Price's daughter Victoria enhance the documentary, which charts Price's rise from a member of Orson Welles' fledgling Mercury Theater Company to dashing Hollywood character actor to star of some of the campiest and most gruesome horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. The film also chronicles Price's memorable appearances on the Batman TV show (as Egghead) and in Michael Jackson's Thriller video. Though less captivating than the Tierney bio, The Versatile Villain still paints an intimate, involving portrait of one of the screen's most recognizable personalities.
Vintage Radio Adaptations - Two truncated versions of Dragonwyck were broadcast in the year or so following the film's release. The first, a faithful, well-performed, 60-minute adaptation broadcast on October 7, 1946 as part of the long-running Lux Radio Theater series, features both Tierney and Price reprising their film roles, with an assist from Gale Gordon, who would become best known as Lucille Ball’s TV foil on The Lucy Show in the 1960s. Just three months later, on January 20, 1947, Price portrayed Nicholas Van Ryn once again for an all-too-brief 30-minute adaptation for the Screen Guild Players. Teresa Wright steps into Tierney’s role and does a fine job, projecting a bit more naïveté and wonder than her more worldly predecessor, and Glenn Langan reprises the part of Dr. Turner. The audio quality of both programs is quite good (although some unfortunate surface noise afflicts the final minutes of the Lux broadcast), and it’s always fun to hear the stars engage in scripted banter following their performances.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The original preview for Dragonwyck isn't in very good condition, but it makes us appreciate Fox's glorious transfer all the more.
The quintessential Gothic romance, Dragonwyck checks all the genre's boxes as it chronicles a naïve farm girl's romance with a dashing yet disturbed aristocrat who can't shake his family's hereditary demons. The first film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz flaunts an appropriately creepy mood and plenty of opulence, but the visuals can't mask the narrative's blatant similarities to other, better tales. The lovely Gene Tierney makes a terrific damsel in distress, but it's Vincent Price who really impresses in a star-making role that would ultimately shape the trajectory of his career. Twilight Time's limited edition Blu-ray presentation features a glorious video transfer, strong audio, and a cavalcade of absorbing supplements, all of which complement a classy film that's definitely Worth a Look.