A relic from an earlier era when gothic Victorian melodramas were all the rage, Uncle Silas (1947, released in the U.S. as The Inheritance) is an adaptation of Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel which was actually an elaboration of his 1851 short story, “A Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess.” As you can surmise from the title, Le Fanu’s story was an earlier form of the Harlequin romance genre, steeped in an atmosphere of old dark houses, decadent aristocrats and mysterious locked rooms. Le Fanu is best known for his vampire novella, Camilla, which has enjoyed numerous film adaptations, but Uncle Silas (published in 1864) was a popular page-turner for its era.
At the center of the story is Caroline Ruthyn (Jean Simmons), a teenaged heiress (her name was Maud in the original novel) whose father dies suddenly, leaving her guardianship in the hands of his brother, Silas (Derrick De Marney). Although once considered the black sheep of the family and a murder suspect to boot, Silas appears to have mended his ways and is now a contrite and kindly uncle to Caroline on first impressions. It is only after she has moved into his dark, gloomy mansion that his real intentions slowly emerge. He’s after her inheritance, of course, and must work quickly before the seventeen-year-old reaches legal age and her independence.
In the meantime, Silas entrusts his unscrupulous son Dudley (Manning Whiley) and a malevolent French governess, Madame de la Rougierre (Katina Paxinou), in his schemes to wrest Caroline’s fortunes from her, either by trickery or violence if necessary. As Caroline becomes a virtual prisoner in Silas’s home, all contact with her sympathetic cousin Lady Monica Waring (Sophie Stewart), faithful family friend, Dr. Bryerly (Esmond Knight), and Lord Ilbury (Derek Bond), an interested suitor, are slowly cut off.
In many ways, Uncle Silas is pure melodramatic claptrap in the manner of other gothic damsel-in-distress movies such as Fanny by Gaslight (1944), The Night Has Eyes (1942) or the more refined Gaslight (1940) and its 1944 American remake with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. One of the film’s major weaknesses is the depiction of its teenage heroine who is so naïve and trusting of her suspicious uncle, even when she has already detected signs of his deadly nature, that it is difficult to take the proceedings seriously. In fact, Derrick De Marney’s performance as Uncle Silas is more comical than frightening as he alternates between catatonic fits, temper tantrums and exaggerated civility, all of which bears some similarities to Ernest Thesiger’s mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
De Marney’s acting, however, is a model of restraint compared to Katina Paxinou’s teeth bared, scene-chewing performance as the demonic French governess with a weakness for claret. Yet, if taken in the right vein, the film’s melodramatic excesses can be quite entertaining as long as you suspend disbelief.
Uncle Silas works best as a showcase for Jean Simmons who was on the verge of major stardom in England at the time. She would receive her first Oscar nomination (for Hamlet, 1948, the following year) and soon dominate the newspaper gossip columns in 1950 with a well-publicized marriage to matinee idol Stewart Granger. Her subsequent move to Hollywood in 1953 brought her much more challenging and rewarding films than Uncle Silas but she is nonetheless effective here as the fetching and victimized heroine.
Even better is the beautifully rendered art direction by Ralph Brinton which emphasizes the creepy interiors of Uncle Silas’s decaying mansion with its cobweb-covered secret passageways and dusty, dank rooms. The cinematography by Robert Krasker (Odd Man Out, The Third Man) and Nigel Huke further enhances the gothic mood with horror film lighting designs and shadows. In a minor role as a threatening, mute servant, Guy Rolfe turns up briefly; he would later capitalize on his striking but sinister features in such films as Mr. Sardonicus (1961) and Dolls (1987).
In England, Uncle Silas was a commercial success though critics were divided over the film’s merits. The New York Times critic considered it “some of the most atrociously archaic melodrama in recent memory” and various British reviewers found the movie’s tone wildly uneven, which wasn’t helped by a tepid romance between Caroline and Lord Ilbury. In recent years, the movie has enjoyed a more positive reception from critics who enjoy its Gothic thriller ambience such as Martin Teller who wrote, “This is a fine thriller with a lot of creepy gothic ambiance. The set design is lavish but not too lavish, creating just the right atmosphere when needed. The cinematography by Robert Krasker (The Third Man) is simply grand. Deep, noirish shadows, dramatic angles, startling use of first-person camera and bizarre, surreal montages.,,De Marney is pure two-faced sleaze, and Paxinou steals every scene, going gleefully over-the-top in a most agreeable fashion.”
Le Fanu’s original novel would later serve as the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Firm of Girdlestone and later be remade in 1987 as The Dark Angel for BBC Television with Peter O’Toole as Silas, Beatie Edney as Maud and Guy Rolfe in the Dr. Bryerly role.
Uncle Silas aka The Inheritance is not currently available on any format but was previously released on DVD. You might be able to still find copies of it from online sellers in the U.K. but you would need an all-region DVD player to view it.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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