Monday, December 05, 2011

Hatter's Castle (1942)

“He who sows the storm, reaps the whirlwind.”
In 1942, Mrs. Miniver, the winner of six academy awards was the biggest box office draw in Britain while the gothic noir Hatter’s Castle, from director Lance Comfort and the Paramount British production company was the box office runner-up. Could two films be more dissimilar? The overly sentimental Mrs. Miniver, a film used for WWII propaganda, extolled the virtues of the family and the strengths of women while Hatter’s Castle takes a dark, pessimistic and bleak look at the family and the vulnerability of women. Hatter’s Castle, currently shamefully out of print, is based on A.J. Cronin’s first novel. Cronin’s novels became a fertile ground for filmmaking, and the impressive list includes: The Citadel (1938), The Stars Look Down (1940), The Keys to the Kingdom (1944), The Green Years (1946), The Spanish Gardener (1956), and Web of Evidence (1959). Cronin, a medical doctor who gave up practicing once his writing career became successful, also created the popular Dr. Finlay character, the much-loved subject of a television programme that ran from 1962-1971.

British noir often depicts the struggles of the individual to rise in the rigid class structure of British society, and so Hatter’s Castle is a perfect example of one man’s obsessive and self-destructive aim to become a member of the gentry. Since Hatter’s Castle is a gothic British noir, it also contains elements of melodrama. Adultery, rape, suicide, attempted murder, theft, cruelty, and illegitimacy all appear in the film, but in Hatter’s Castle melodrama is subtly woven into an intense character study of paternal malevolence and hypocrisy. Gothic drama frequently emphasizes the vulnerability of women and the predatory nature of men, and Hatter’s Castle certainly fits that scenario. This is the story of Brodie (Robert Newton)--a heartless, mean-spirited, cruel man whose fate is ensured by his impossible vanity and pride. While Brodie’s actions create countless enemies, since this is noir, it’s relevant that ultimately he opens the door to his own destruction. Brodie is one of the most chilling villains in British noir and while he’s a perfectly respectable member of society--a man who never breaks a law--he’s psychotic--although his insanity is initially masked by the paternalistic Victorianism of his times. Brodie, then, is significantly not a criminal, but he repeatedly, and with obvious relish, transgresses moral law.

The novel, published in 1931, is set in 1879, in the small, fictional town of Levenford in the Firth of Clyde, not far from Glasgow. Brodie is the bombastic, proud, vain owner of the local hat shop. Grierson (Henry Oscar), the obsequious owner of the ironmonger shop next door complains about Brodie’s influence: “Does nothing ever happen in this town without Brodie having a say in it. What is he anyway? A hatter and not even a good one” Behind Brodie’s back he’s the local joke--a man who has over-extended his bank account by building a preposterous house complete with ramparts and a suit of armor. The house, known derisively as “Hatter’s Castle” is a monument to Brodie’s pride and vanity. He imagines that he’s connected to the peerage, and thinking himself too good to mingle with the proles, he gives himself airs and graces and tries to ingratiate himself with the local gentry. Most of his peers find Brodie too much of a bully to challenge him to his face, but enemies amass behind his back. There are only two men who tackle Brodie. One of those men is Lord Winton (Stuart Winsell) who vehemently and emphatically denies any family connection to Brodie, and the other is the new doctor in town, Dr. Renwick (James Mason).

The film aptly begins when Brodie is at the prime of life and at the peak of his nastiness, and in the film’s opening scenes, Brodie also sows the first seeds of his spectacular destruction. It’s the Winton Arms and the local merchants and men of means meet in an upstairs chamber to discuss whether or not they should fund the appointment of a doctor to the local school. The issue may go either way, but once Brodie makes an appearance, he squashes the idea. He’s firmly entrenched in Victorian ideals, and the education reforms in London mean little to him--especially if that change is going to cost money. This initial scene shows how Brodie dominates and bullies his peers, winning no friends in the process. He has no elaborate speeches to make on the issue and as usual his way of annihilating discussion is to dominate and control.

To add to his pride, vanity, hypocrisy, and cruelty, Brodie has another weakness, and that’s his indulgence for his brassy mistress, Winton Arms barmaid Nancy (Enid Stamp-Taylor). Brodie keeps Nancy in relative luxury, and lavishes her with trinkets while his wife and children suffer from his stinginess. Turning on the flattery, Nancy wheedles a job in Brodie’s hat shop for her slimy ex-lover, Dennis (Emlyn Williams) by pretending that he’s her step-brother in dire need of a fresh start. Brodie has no problem firing his elderly, faithful long-term employee to make way for Dennis. The opportunistic Dennis loses no time sizing up the best way to exploit Brodie, and imagining she’s an heiress, he sets his sights on Brodie’s sweet, innocent, brow-beaten daughter, Mary (Deborah Kerr). Dennis also slyly takes advantage of ironmonger Grierson’s financial problems to broker a deal that will bring a business rival right next door to Brodie. All this happens under Brodie’s nose while he’s busy bullying everyone who dares to speak a word in his presence.

Brodie is an obnoxious bully with his peers, but he’s unleashed at home, and his family quake in terror when they hear his step. His washed-out mouse of a wife (Beatrice Varley) is reduced to slave status, and although she’s ill and in pain, she’s constantly bullied into scrubbing Brodie’s castle in a futile and never-ending attempt to make him happy. When Mary asks Dr. Renwick to visit her mother and give his opinion, the request results in an ugly confrontation with Brodie. Brodie would rather take the advice of old-timer, Dr. Lawrie (Laurence Hanray) who, naturally, agrees with Brodie that there's nothing wrong with Mrs. Brodie. Renwick, on the other hand, diagnoses end-stage stomach cancer and suggests that Brodie employ a servant to give his wife relief. As a result, Mary secretly defies her father’s command that Renwick is not to come to the house again, and from this point, Dr. Renwick is forced to visit Mrs. Brodie in secret. A slow-burning love affair begins to grow between Mary and Renwick. Normally Renwick would be an excellent catch for the daughter of a shop owner, but Brodie runs Renwick off--ostensibly because he’s not ‘good’ enough for his daughter, but there’s the underlying idea that this is more about control, and Brodie would rather keep Mary as an unpaid servant.

Brodie’s son, Angus (Tony Bateman) appears to be his father’s pride and joy, and while he may appear to fare better than the females in the Brodie household, ultimately his role of Brodie Heir Apparent comes with a price. He’s an unhealthy lad, nervous and terrified of his father’s displeasure and the object of derision at school. Angus struggles to win the academic success his father demands, and cringes when his father begins his oft-repeated tirade about Angus’s imagined, bright future as a peer of the realm.

Gradually over the course of the film, Brodie sows the seeds of his own destruction, and while Brodie is seen as an out-of-control male, he’s also an extreme product of the unhealthy, unpleasant society in which he operates. Brodie’s hypocrisy seems to have no limits--he fires a loyal employee in order to please his mistress, but expects his customers to be loyal to his shop. He lectures Grierson about living beyond his means while he faces bankruptcy. He accuses his daughter of “dragging his name” through the “mire” and yet no one has shamed the family more than he. By the end of the film, however, we see Brodie’s hypocrisy as just part of the general unhealthiness of Levenford--a town which fostered Brodie’s cruelty and whose residents now condemn Mary rather than acknowledge that she, too, was a victim of her father’s cruelty.

The camera focuses on Brodie’s physical size so shots emphasize his intimidating height and chest girth. Interior shots dominate. This is a film in which structures add a great deal to atmosphere, so a large chunk of the action takes place in Hatter’s Castle and in Brodie’s shop. As Brodie’s life deteriorates, his shop subtly falls into decline, but just as Brodie is his own worst enemy and brings on his own destruction, so destruction of Brodie’s property is literally, and finally, in his own hands. Note that nature often appears to reflect Brodie’s black mood or even further his devilish schemes.

Beatrice Varley who played Mrs. Brodie is a British noir regular--just compare her roles in Hatter’s Castle and Tiger in the Smoke to appreciate the range of her ability. Robert Newton who played Brodie is best remembered as Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island. On a note of trivia, the accident in the film is a depiction of the real-life Tay Bridge disaster of 1879.


Written by Guy Savage


  1. For those interested, the novel is available on Amazon at under 5 bucks for the Kindle edition.

  2. I picked up a 50s hardback copy of this for only 25p!


Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley