When it’s on: Thursday, 18 February (11.00 am)
Footsteps in the Fog is one of those apparently British films that’s actually backed by American money and therefore plays up to elements of UK life and culture that has a particular fascination for US audiences, most particularly the class system. At one point in the film Stewart Granger tells Jean Simmons that there are no class differences in America, a bit of an eye-popping statement in truth but in the world of the story it’s the essential difference between upstairs folk and ‘them downstairs’ that drives the plot. Had this one been made in the States, it would undoubtedly have emerged as film noir. Transported to Victorian London, all the external action taking place through clouds of pea-souper fog (another tick in the box to meet viewers’ expectations), it becomes instead a slice of Gothic melodrama.
Granger and Simmons were established as major Hollywood stars when it was made, and also made for a real-life couple at the time. Homesick and wishing to take advantage of a trend for films being made in Europe, the pair was shown a script for Footsteps in the Fog. Based on a short story by W W Jacobs, the malevolent and duplicitous characters appealed to Granger and Simmons, who oversaw a string of rewrites before filming commenced. The couple felt less appreciation for the choice of director, Arthur Lubin, in the 1950s best known for directing a series of light comedies about a talking mule, the Francis series (he’d eventually transfer the format to television in the shape of Mister Ed), however Lubin was also a consummate professional with countless credits already to his name including a successful adaptation of Phantom of the Opera in 1943. It’s a combination of the director and cinematographer Christopher Challis we have to thank for some delicious shots, including the principal characters framed below the portrait of Granger’s murdered wife to serve up all the major plot points in one scene.
Granger plays Stephen Lowry, a London society gentleman who at the film’s opening attends the funeral of his wife. She’s passed away at the end of a long fight against illness, but what no one knows is that Lowry has in fact been slowly poisoning her in an effort to take over both her money and status… No one, that is, apart from the house’s maid, Lily (Simmons). At the film’s start, Lily is the lowliest of the house’s servants, according to Marjorie Rhodes’s awful Mrs Park a ‘guttersnipe’ who’s up to no good. Her fortunes improve when she confesses to Lowry that she knows what he did and uses this knowledge to get the rest of the staff sacked and herself installed as Housekeeper. Lily is fatally in love with Lowry. She happily becomes his bed partner as well as the sole member of his staff, believing her logical end to be the future Mrs Lowry. What she fails to come to terms with is her master’s complete absence of morals. As soon as he realises that Lily effectively holds him in her power, Lowry attempts a botched and very public murder against her that fails. Having killed the wrong woman, an innocent police constable’s wife, and been eyewitnessed at the scene of the crime, only Lily’s alibi saves him from further trouble. But Lowry sees himself getting married to the beautiful and eligible Elizabeth Travers (Belinda Lee) rather than Lily, wanting nothing further to do with his useful but redoubtedly working class servant, and plans further machinations to rid himself of her.
One of the fine aspects of the film noir style was the attempt to build characters into more than plot drivers, giving even the most fatale of femmes genuine motives for the dark deeds with which they became involved. Footsteps in the Fog attempts the same, with varying results. There comes a point when you as the viewer realises that Lowry and Lily are made for each other. Neither sees tricky concepts like right and wrong getting in the way of the things they want, which should make theirs the start of a beautiful friendship. The fatal flaw of class difference takes sway, though. To Lowry it’s an impassable barrier, ensuring Lily can never be anything more than a plaything, a distraction, whereas for her there’s a fleeting moment of happiness when she’s at her most intimate with her master, filmed in a post-coital glow having enjoyed his attentions. Despite the murder that kicks off the plot, you hope they can make it work – perhaps Lowry will journey with her to America where the class system (apparently) doesn’t matter, and these amoral yet attractive people can enjoy the fruits of their grubby labours. But of course that doesn’t happen. Lowry, who in a nice little irony ‘married up’ in becoming the member of society’s elite that he now is, simply can’t see beyond his trappings and Lily therefore is an obstacle to his fortunes.
The film varies as a success because there’s little depth to Granger’s character. He’s just not a very nice piece of work and thoroughly unworthy of the rapt Lily, who is guilty of loving him beyond any sense of reason. Her character’s tragedy is her willingness to become his accomplice, even when she makes the fateful testimony that acquits him of the murder she knows was intended for her, and all this is beautifully performed by Simmons. Her greatest noir role was as the eponymous Angel Face, for Otto Preminger playing a seemingly sweet and innocent young woman who is anything but when the surface is scratched away. Lily is not quite as evil but she’s dangerously amoral, which naturally leads to tragic consequences. One of the film’s great shames is that you come away barely remembering any characters beyond the main pair. To an extent that’s fair because Footsteps in the Fog was transparently a vehicle for Granger and Simmons, but everyone else in the film is two dimensional, existing solely to jog the story along. That said there’s a neat supporting role for William Hartnell as a Cockney grifter; Bill Travers on the other hand, who plays Lowry’s friend and his love rival for Elizabeth, isn’t very memorable.
Footsteps in the Fog regularly appears in Film4’s schedule, nearly always in its early slot reserved for throwaway classics and that’s probably about right. It isn’t especially significant and its stars are much better known for roles elsewhere, but it is entertaining.
Footsteps in the Fog: ***