Eric Portman had a gift for playing odd and sometimes unsavory characters—he first came to my attention as the peculiar Thomas Colpeper in A Canterbury Tale, but his real triumph may have been as Paul Mangin in Terence Young’s 1948 film Corridor of Mirrors. The strangeness of Portman’s character is the keystone of a very odd film that strives to keep the viewer unsettled and off balance.
Corridor of Mirrors opens in a middle-class British household in 1948, where Mifanwy Rhys (Edana Romney) is awakening from a restless sleep. I’d blame the clashing floral patterns in her bedroom, but there’s clearly something else that’s wrong. We hear her husband’s voice, but don’t see him until practically the end of the scene, which adds a distancing effect. Plus, the words spoken by the characters clearly do not match the film’s mood, so something is off, but what?
Mifanwy takes the train to London, where she visits an exhibit of condemned criminals at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. While she’s gazing at one of the figures, the film abruptly jumps back 10 years, the period in which most of the action will play out. A younger Mifanwy is hanging out with some bright young people in a nightclub, when Paul Mangin enters, dressed like a dandy from another era and positively dripping with contempt at all he surveys. One of Mifanwy’s companions remarks, with regard to Mangin, that he “can’t understand why actors don’t change their costumes before coming to a place like this” while another says Mangin looks like “Sir Walter Raleigh, complete with cloak.”
Just as Mangin is about to leave, he locks eyes with Mifanwy, seemingly casting a spell over her. They dance a walz, a form not exactly at the top of the hit parade in 1938, and he later picks her up in a hansom cab right out of a Sherlock Holmes story. Mangin takes her to his home, a mansion full of tapestries and candelabras and sweeping stone stair cases right out of the Renaissance. It all makes sense once you learn than Mangin is not only rich and eccentric, but perhaps demented as well. He fell in love with the image of a woman in a 1486 painting, and decided that he must have been her lover in an earlier lifetime. Now he’s looking for the reincarnation of the same woman in modern-day London, and thinks he has found her in Mifanwy.
Obsession is automatically creepy, but for some reason Mifanwy decided to play along. It’s not clear how much volition she retains, as she says at one point that she says she feels “like a wax doll” around Mangin, who is both indulgent and controlling. On the other hand, she has alternatives, including her quite respectable suitor Owen (Hugh Sinclair), but continues to accept expensive gifts in return for indulging Mangin’s fantasies, even after coming across disturbing evidence that he may be more Bluebeard than dandy. There are other warning signs in the mansion as well—why does the appearance of an ordinary white cat send Mangin into irrational rages, and what is up with the mysterious housekeeper named Veronica (Barbara Mullen), who claims to be 30 but looks more like 70?
The best aspects of Corridor of Mirrors are the magnetic acting of Portman (few can ooze disdain so effortlessly) the mysterious, off-center mood that permeates most of the film, and the fabulous production design of Mangin’s mansion, including the titular hall of mirrors which is featured in a ballroom scene at about the 2/3 point of the film. The weakest aspect is the screenplay (co-written by Romney and Rudolph Cartier, based on Christopher Massie’s novel Corridor of Mirrors), which gives away the solution to the main puzzle in the opening minutes, and requires viewers to accept social attitudes that were probably an easier sell in 1948 than in 2021. Romney’s melodramatic acting can also be grating, although that may be more a reflection of changing tastes than any lack of ability on her part. At any rate, to get the most out of Hall of Mirrors, you really have to take it as a product of its times.
Corridor of Mirrors also notable as the directorial debut of Terence Young (who would go on to direct, among other things, the first three James Bond films starring Sean Connery, and who is credited with recruiting Connery for the role) and the acting debut of Christopher Lee (a Hammer Horror regular who also appeared in multiple films in the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Hobbit series). If Corridor of Mirrors is not an entirely successful film, at least it’s an interesting example of a postwar British melodrama. And even if you choke a bit on the story and its premise, you can enjoy this film’s superb black and white cinematography by André Thomas, expressive soundtrack by Georges Auric, and fabulous art direction by Terence Verity. | Sarah Boslaugh
Corridor of Mirrors is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber, with a street date of Oct. 19. The only extra on the disc is the film’s trailer and optional English subtitles. The film is newly restored and looks great and sounds great, with crisp black and white cinematography and a lush soundtrack.