Dreary winter weather got you down? Going stir-crazy with all the pandemic restrictions? Fear not: through the miracles of modern technology, you can escape to a time and place even more restricted and less healthy—Victorian London, complete with filthy streets and pea soup fog—and observe from a safe distance the remarkably depraved behavior of a cast of characters who would be frankly preposterous outside that staple of mid-century movie-making, the gaslight melodrama.
When we first meet our heroine, Olivia Harwood (Ann Todd), she’s enjoying the sea spray on the deck of a ship bound to England. It’s a rather sensual introduction to a missionary’s widow, but establishes a key character point—Olivia remains open to experience and intends to lead a full life, even if her lack of worldly experience has left her ill-equipped as a judge of character. At the request of the ship’s doctor (Finlay Currie), Olivia assists in nursing the malaria patients below deck. One of those patients is Mark Bellis (Ray Milland), who turns out to be as crooked as he is handsome, which just goes to show you that, at least in melodrama, no good deed goes unpunished.
Once they’re on shore, Mark sweet-talks his way into a boarding house run by Olivia, then proceeds to seduce her. Unlike Olivia, the audience is seldom in doubt about Mark’s character—an art forger and a thief, we see him continually lying about who he is and what he does, while saving his true affections for his side-piece (Moira Lister). That’s dramatic irony, folks, put to good use here to wring some extra tears out of us for the innocent, betrayed Olivia.
When it comes to melodrama, too much is just what is required, and So Evil My Love continues to ratchet up the tension. Mark convinces Olivia to take a job as a companion to her old school friend, Susan Courtney (Geraldine Fitzgerald), mainly for the purpose of stealing from the Courtney household. Susan is stuck with a husband, Henry (Raymond Huntley), who is so cruel that he almost makes Mark look like an attractive partner. Blackmail soon enters the picture, as does a plot to have an unwanted spouse committed to an insane asylum, and (of course) a locket whose unexpected appearance drives the story to its conclusion.
So Evil My Love, a British-American co-production directed by Lewis Allen, is a fine example of a mid-range studio picture made to please contemporary audiences. Audiences in 1948 would have gone to this film knowing exactly what to expect, particularly since the screenplay by Ronald Miller and Leonard Spigelgass was based on a popular novel by Marjorie Bowen, which in turn draws on several real-life criminal cases. The pleasure in this type of film comes not from guessing what comes next, but in watching the story play out, in heightened emotional fashion, among all those attractive people on screen.
The cinematographic style of So Evil My Love is noir (so many shadows!), but the plot is pure melodrama, a much-maligned genre which has proven enduringly popular with audiences. Trust me, many popular movies today are also melodramas, but the conventions have changed just enough that you don’t recognize them as such. To put it another way, I have to laugh when someone tells me a film from a different historical period is not “realistic,” as if today’s films aren’t equally unrealistic—the difference is that the conventions accepted as “realistic” have changed. | Sarah Boslaugh
So Evil My Love is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, and trailers for several films.