One late night in the village of Tarnmoor (in England, you know), mystery novelist Janet Frobisher (Bette Davis) places a call in a phone booth outside the railway station. The veterinarian (Emlyn Williams) who’s been treating her horse Fury thinks it odd that Janet went so far out of her way to make that call when there’s a telephone in her own home; what he does not know is that Janet was phoning Larry Stevens (Anthony Steel), the fiancé of her personal secretary, Chris Dale (Barbara Murray). Janet has fallen in love with young Stevens and has been seeing him on the sly.
Returning to the House of Frobisher, Janet discovers a surprise visitor: George Bates (Gary Merrill), a fugitive wanted for questioning in a bank robbery that went awry, resulting in the death of a policeman. Bates had a partner in the theft: Janet’s husband, who’s been estranged from his wife for many years (he’s a bit of a rotter…Janet’s been using “Frobisher” as both a pen name and cloaking device)—she’s been telling everyone he’s been away in Malaysia. George sees a few telltale signs that Mr. Preston is, in fact, not in Malaysia; that’s when Janet fesses up and informs her uninvited guest that while her husband may have returned to her, Bates is going to have some difficulty clearing his name where the shooting is concerned (he maintains it was Preston who croaked the cop). Preston is dead as leaves on a painted canvas, thanks to a dose of the medicine Dr. Henderson’s been using to treat Fury.
Speaking of nosy veterinarians, Henderson stops by Janet’s house not long after this revelation and to maintain his cover, George pretends to be the colder-than-charity Mr. Preston. Though initially reluctant to participate in Bates’ charade, Janet agrees…as the events in Another Man’s Poison (1951) unfold, the couple engages in a game of continual cat-and-mouse as they attempt to elude the law.
Another Man’s Poison was one of two inaugural Blu-ray/DVD releases from my bosses at ClassicFlix (the other being Miss Annie Rooney), and like Rooney, I was initially reluctant to pop this into the Blu-ray player. But it’s an entertaining little suspenser, with a nice Hitchcockian feel (even if the ending is a little forced) and much better than its reputation. The credits note that the screenplay (written by Val Guest, the future director of the Quatermass films The Quatermass Xperiment and Enemy from Space) was adapted from Leslie Sands’ play Deadlock, which was in turn inspired by the Emile Zola novel Thérèse Raquin. Director Irving Rapper (who helmed the Bette Davis features Now, Voyager and The Corn is Green) can’t completely convince the viewer to ignore Poison’s stage-bound origins. though he does what he can with the tools that he’s got (he gets much help from Third Man cinematographer Robert Krasker, who contributes a bit of noir-like cinematography).
Poison was the second film to feature real-life husband-and-wife Davis and Gary Merrill, who had tied the knot shortly after the release of All About Eve (1950). The crazy kids were made an offer they can’t refuse by co-producer Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.: do the movie, and get an all-expenses paid honeymoon (including first-class passage on the Queen Elizabeth and swanky lodgings to boot). The script for Poison at that time needed a lot of work…and Bette would later observe that despite some rewriting from co-star Emlyn Williams (the original author of The Corn is Green), his efforts “never cured the basic ills of the story.”
Another Man’s Poison is not without its weaknesses, and chiefly among them is Gary Merrill. Gary made a good living for himself in movies and TV, but outside of Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and Eve I’d be hard-pressed to remember anything outstanding in which he appeared. I can see why Bette was attracted to the guy—he’s George Brent 2.0, and in the tradition of that actor-doormat (one of Davis’ favorite leading men because he couldn’t overshadow her) Merrill doesn’t stand a chance alongside La Bette (his Bates is a luckless schmoe way in over his head). I never believed for a minute that Bates posed any threat to Janet Frobisher (who’s as pure dagnasty evil as only Bette can make her); it’s telling that the only living thing that George menaces in this movie is Janet’s beloved equine.
It’s Williams who walks off with most of the supporting acting honors as Dr. Henderson, an amateur detective whose curiosity makes him a far more formidable adversary where Janet’s concerned. British character veteran Reginald Beckwith also has a few nice scenes as a newsstand owner and president of the local rotary who, upon learning of “Preston’s” return, tries to persuade George into giving a lecture on Malaysia.
“Another Man’s Poison is strictly Bette Davis’ meat,” noted The New York Times in their review. “She is permitted a wide latitude of histrionics in delineating the designing neurotic who is as flinty a killer as any we’ve seen in the recent past.” Despite being disappointed with the finished product, Davis enjoyed a nice vacation hobnobbing with the creme de la creme of British acting royalty (Sir John Gielgud, Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh, etc.) and got a special thrill when co-star Williams brought the schoolteacher who inspired The Corn is Green onto the Poison set to meet her cinematic counterpart. Davis and Merrill would appear in one more film together, Phone Call from a Stranger (1952—though Bette’s role ranks only slightly above a cameo), which my fellow classic movie blogger Jacqueline has written up at Another Old Movie Blog…and which is tentatively scheduled for a showing on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in July.