Footsteps in the Fog (1955) ***½
By the time Arthur Lubin got around to directing Footsteps in the Fog, he’d had a widely varied career, encompassing just about everything except science fiction, but mostly what he did was comedy. And to give you some idea of the level of comedy at which Lubin generally worked, consider that he directed Abbott and Costello in five films, and Francis the Talking Mule in six. For that matter, Lubin also helmed a simultaneously awesome and horrifying 128 episodes of “Mister Ed.” In other words, a sizable plurality of Lubin’s work as a director could not possibly be further removed from the present movie, an insidiously effective thriller in the tradition of Gaslight, featuring some of the most twisted psychology to be found anywhere on the screen in its day— and that’s the heroine I’m talking about, there!
London lawyer Stephen Lowry (Stewart Granger, from the 1972 TV version of Hound of the Baskervilles) just buried his wife. Mrs. Lowry’s death was a lingering one, its cause officially diagnosed as gastroenteritis, and despite employing a staff of three live-in servants, Stephen insisted upon performing the vast bulk of the nursing chores himself during her illness. All of his friends— his senior partner at the law firm, Alfred Travers (The Rocking Horse Winner’s Ronald Squire); Alfred’s daughter, Elizabeth (Belinda Lee, from Goddess of Love); a much younger colleague named David MacDonald (Bill Travers, of Gorgo)— are terribly worried about his emotional well-being, and Travers even invites Stephen to stay a few days at his house after the funeral. The servants, too, are concerned, especially Lily Watkins, the chambermaid (Jean Simmons, from Uncle Silas and Dominique Is Dead), who has harbored a crush on her employer since the day she was hired about a year ago. What none of these people realize is that Stephen is happy about his wife’s death. In fact, he killed her himself.
On second thought, strike that— there is one person who knows Stephen’s secret. Lily saw her boss pocket a little bottle after administering the last dose of his wife’s medicine on the day of her death, and she also saw where he hid it afterward. She helped herself to that bottle once everyone else had left the room, and she tested its contents this morning on the rats in the cellar. Let’s just say Lowry won’t be needing an exterminator now. The generally accepted course of action in situations like this is to go to the police, but Lily has a something a little different in mind. First off, as I said, she’s infatuated with Stephen, and the revelation that he poisoned his wife hasn’t done anything to change that. Secondly, Lily has enemies in the household, in the form of Mrs. Park the cook (Marjorie Rhodes, from Hands of the Ripper) and Grimes the groundskeeper (Norman Macowan, of X: The Unknown and Horror Hotel), and she’s determined to outmaneuver Mrs. Park for the job now that Lowry is going to be needing a housekeeper. And finally, Lily did always fancy Mrs. Lowry’s jewels. With her suspicions about the bottle confirmed by that pile of dead rats in the cellar, Lily goes straight to Stephen to try her hand at blackmail.
It turns out Lily is pretty damned good at the extortion business. She gets her jewels, she gets her promotion, she gets her determinedly nasty coworkers fired, and she even gets a romance of sorts with Stephen. It should be obvious, however, that the latter is fraught with hazards, and Lowry quickly makes sure that his conniving servant understands what she’s getting herself into: “Another woman once thought she owned me,” he reminds her, “Don’t drive me too far!” Inevitably, Lily drives Stephen just a little bit farther almost at once, and Lowry undertakes to get rid of her. During a spate of absolutely perfect Jack the Ripper weather, Lily steps out to run a nighttime errand, and Stephen follows after giving her a head start sufficient to ensure a stealthy pursuit. He brings along the stoutest cane in his possession, and when he catches up to his quarry in front of a pub, he smashes her on the back of the head with it, killing her almost instantly. Inconveniently enough, however, the door to the pub swings open just in time to allow a pair of drunks to witness the fatal blow, and Lowry is forced to flee a circuitous course through the side streets and back alleys in order to return to his house without being apprehended by either cops or vigilantes. Rather more inconveniently, he drops his cane— which is engraved with his monogram— at some point during his escape, leaving some damn fine evidence behind with which to link him to the crime. And more inconveniently still, Stephen learns not five minutes after he reaches safety that the woman he killed was not Lily at all, but the wife of Constable Burke (Satellite in the Sky’s Barry Keegan), the policeman whose beat includes Lowry’s block. Lily strolls in not only unharmed but totally oblivious to what she narrowly escaped while Stephen is treating himself to several strong brandies in an effort to regain his composure. She gets the picture, though, when a pair of detectives arrive on Lowry’s doorstep to inform him that there’s been a murder in the neighborhood, and to advise him to stay inside the rest of the night with all his doors and windows locked. A very odd thing happens at that point. Far from turning Stephen in, Lily waits for the police to leave, and reproachfully tells her boss, “You didn’t have to do that. I’d never harm you,” on her way up to bed. And when the testimony of the drunks and the apparent role of Lowry’s cane as the murder weapon combine to put Stephen in the dock at whatever the British equivalent of a grand jury hearing was in the 1890’s, Lily provides him with both an alibi for the time of the slaying and a cover story for the walking stick, claiming that she had lost it herself more than a month ago. Hardly the sensible way to treat a man who tried to kill you, if you’re asking me! Between Lily’s well-crafted lies and the impaired state of the men who identified Lowry as the killer, David MacDonald (who took on Stephen’s defense at Elizabeth Travers’s instigation) has little trouble getting the prosecution aborted for lack of evidence.
Even so, there remains a rather big obstacle between Lily and the warped romantic fantasy world she’s gone so far to build for herself. Although everyone they know seems to assume that MacDonald and the Travers girl are a couple (as, for that matter, does David himself), Elizabeth is really in love with Stephen, and has been for some time. Now that his wife is safely in the ground, that attraction suddenly looks a lot more like a realistic prospect. Nevertheless, Elizabeth is strongly conscious of the propriety issues involved, so she says nothing of her ever-escalating attraction. Instead, it’s David who blabs the story. Basically, he’s hoping to drag a firm, “Hell no, I’m not interested!” out of Stephen, which he can use to dissuade his love from pursuing another man instead of him. Lowry gives him the denial he wants, but then goes right ahead and makes his own move on Elizabeth the second MacDonald’s guard is down, even securing a marriage engagement from her father! Lily is every bit as incensed as David when Stephen tells her what he’s done, but he assures her that he’s merely working an angle. There is as yet no date set for the nuptials; it could be months or even a year before the deal is closed. Meanwhile, Alfred Travers is an old man, and must surely be thinking seriously about retiring from the law firm he runs. Whom better among the junior partners to hand it over to than his own future son-in-law? All Lowry needs to do is to nudge Travers gently out the door before the wedding to Elizabeth, and then Stephen can sell the firm, and use the proceeds to skip out to America with Lily. Really, though, Lily ought to know better than to trust Stephen at this point. Stephen knows that David has seen hints of his unorthodox relationship with Lily, not the least being the time MacDonald noticed her wearing Mrs. Lowry’s jewels. A man who makes his living at least partly by teasing out people’s hidden motivations might be expected to wonder how long Lily had been harboring her designs on the boss. So how might it look if Stephen suddenly came down with gastroenteritis— the same affliction that killed Mrs. Lowry, so far as the outside world is concerned— just days after his engagement to Elizabeth was announced? And how might it look if Stephen just happened to find a bottle containing some uncommon toxin stashed in Lily’s quarters?
I haven’t seen nearly enough film noir to be certain of this, but I have a very difficult time believing that in a noir-less universe, anybody in 1955 would have made a movie that asks us to root for a woman who tries to blackmail her way into a murderer’s heart. And although noir in its usual form doesn’t appeal to me much, no mutation as strange as noir by gaslight could fail to grab my attention. What makes Footsteps in the Fog especially cool is that it has in Elizabeth a character who could easily function as a more traditional heroine for an Edwardian thriller, and yet it very deliberately pushes her to the side in favor of the much shadier and therefore more interesting Lily. In fact, you could almost look at Footsteps in the Fog as the story of how Elizabeth narrowly and unwittingly escapes becoming the focus of a conventional Gaslight knock-off. David MacDonald is pretty far from the standard-issue hero for this sort of story, too. He does what he can to keep Elizabeth and Stephen apart, and his efforts in that department are aided when he has the good fortune to intercept Lily’s brother-in-law (future Dr. Who William Hartnell) after a letter from Lily gives the latter man the idea that he could get his own piece of the blackmail pie. But David is totally peripheral to the drama unfolding between Lily and Stephen, and that’s where the real action in this movie is.
Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons had been married for five years when Footsteps in the Fog was in production, and the chemistry they have together is undeniable. It’s fascinating to see such credible coupling placed at the service of so utterly dysfunctional a relationship. Simmons has the more challenging part, to my way of thinking, and she carries it off with aplomb. You never doubt that Lily truly does love Stephen— at least as she understands love— or that she believes her extorted relationship with him to be both real and viable, no matter how insane those propositions might be. Granger, for his part, need only follow in the footsteps of Anton Walbrook and Charles Boyer, although Stephen Lowry does possess one important characteristic that Paul Mallen and Gregory Anton lacked. Unlike those previous suspense movie heels, Lowry is profoundly uncomfortable with his crimes, even if it would be going too far to describe him as remorseful about them. It’s more that he has a certain vision of what sort of person he is, and that murdering women is not readily compatible with it. The point comes across most strongly (and Granger sells it most effectively) in the scene where Lowry sneaks home from braining Mrs. Burke, and immediately starts pounding down brandy. Obviously, it was one thing to poison his wife slowly and gradually while nursing her through the attendant discomforts, and something else altogether to stave a woman’s head in with a hardwood walking stick. And of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that Stephen is a victim as well as a perpetrator to some extent, and that the reason he tries so hard to rid himself of Lily is because he’s afraid of her— while she, despite having every imaginable reason to be, is manifestly not afraid of him. It was a pleasant surprise to see a film in this genre stray so far from the usual pairing of virtuous, helpless heroine and smoothly domineering villain.