Super-smooth, noirish British mystery from Gilliat and Launder. Sony's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Sony Pictures Choice Collection, has released She Played With Fire (original U.K. title: Fortune is a Woman), the 1957 suspenser starring Jack Hawkins, gorgeous Arlene Dahl, Dennis Price, and Ian Hunter. A solid, typically professional effort from the famous English moviemaking team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, She Played With Fire should satisfy genre enthusiasts, lovers of 1950s British films, and fans of the lead actors. No extras, unfortunately, for this sharp-looking widescreen black and white transfer.
London insurance investigator Oliver Branwell (newly-minted star Jack Hawkins, a tad overemphatic―should have been a cooler, more cynical turn) has a last-minute Christmas Eve assignment from his firm, Abercrombie & Sons: travel down to Louis Manor and speak with the owner, Tracey Moreton (Dennis Price), about a small fire and the subsequent property damage―including several expensive paintings that were burned. When Branwell is introduced by affable, asthmatic Moreton to his beautiful, sensual wife, Sarah (Arlene Dahl, just right for this kind of role), Branwell is shocked to discover she's his ex-lover from Hong Kong who left him five years ago without a word of explanation. Later, in London on another case, Branwell comes into contact with sexy Vere Litchen (Greta Gynt)...who happens to have the exact same oil painting that was supposedly damaged in Tracey Moreton's fire. By coincidence, Branwell runs into Sarah, and their romance is rekindled. However, when Branwell begins to suspect Moreton's involvement in insurance fraud, a surreptitious trip to Louis Manor finds Tracey dead and the manor engulfed in flames...a fire set with arsonist tricks Branwell told an inquisitive Sarah. Is Sarah a crook, an arsonist, and a murderer? Branwell will have to marry her to find out.
This is the kind of movie that gives the phrase "genre work" a good name. She Played With Fire is not original in theme or plot, nor is it innovative in execution...but it's beautifully polished and assured, and quite satisfying as you watch it. Director (for this project) Sidney Gilliat and producer/co-writer (for this project) Frank Launder, two of the most successful British filmmakers of the mid-20th century with their scripting efforts for works like The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich, as well as their own producing/writing/directing team efforts like I See A Dark Stranger, State Secret, Only Two Can Play, Green For Danger, The Blue Lagoon, and of course the St. Trinian comedies, have such a poised, confident touch in the dialogue and story structure, and in the unaffected direction, that one doesn't notice during the running time that She Played With Fire doesn't really add up to too much in the end. Certainly even the most casual crime enthusiast will at least see where She Played With Fire is going by the midway point...even if they don't quite guess the third and final twist at the end. And anyone looking for continued, overt directorial flourishes in the vein of Hitchcock will be disappointed in Gilliat's ultra-silky but unobtrusive direction.
However, in the hands of lesser talents, material like She Played With Fire, taken from master crime novelist Winston Graham's story (Poldark, Marnie, The Walking Stick), could have come over leaden and clichéd. Co-screenwriter Launder (along with Gilliat and Val Valentine) keeps the plot moving along at a steady, metronome pace (is that why the first shot of the credits is indeed a metronome?), building the suspense expertly as we condemn, absolve, and condemn again Dahl in her participation (or does she?) in the fraud. He gets the details of insurance fraud down pat, achieving a neat transition between Dahl and Gynt's painting trail by showing us a little sideboard vignette of temperamental movie actor Christopher Lee malingering (after getting socked by his wife) and thus triggering a deleterious payoff by the underwriters. I haven't read Graham's book, so I can't say how much of the structure here is his or Launders's, but the noirish narration and flashbacks, a sense of doomed foreshadowing, red herrings, and the assured handling of the multiple end twists, are all quite successfully employed here.
As for Gilliat, his style may be discreet, but he still comes up with some quietly expressionistic moments, such as the opening drive to Louis Manor, which is obsessively repeated two more times in the film, or the weird, unexplained coda to Hawkins' reoccuring dream, where Gilliat dollies in inexorably towards a frankly scary-looking Dahl, smiling enigmatically for the camera―nothing overt or even explained, just...suggestive of something perverse and deadly. And the movie's main raison d'etre―suspense―is created the old-fashioned way: lighting and sound effects in conjunction with beautifully-cut sequences timed for maximum tension (Hawkins' discovery of Price's body in the deserted mansion is a textbook example for creating cinematic trepidation). I would suspect some viewers might label She Played With Fire "old-fashioned," but if "old-fashioned" means this classically entertaining, I'll take it.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.