Movie of the Week: A Place of One's Own (1945)
Henry Smedhurst (James Mason) and his wife (Barbara Mullen) have always wanted a place of their own and, at retirement age, they are finally able to buy one… for a steal. While they’re aware that Bellingham House has sat vacant for 40 years, if they knew its reputation, I’m not sure they wouldn’t have bought it anyway. Their desire is so singular, and they’ve had it for so long, that they’re able to live with the fact that it might be haunted.
Their story is told in A Place of One’s Own (1945), a unique movie in its treatment of ghosts. Like the characters, it almost takes for granted that they exist. Never do strange goings-on cause the couple to flee. Instead, Henry plants his feet firmly and declares, “I’ll protect my own and no power on earth is going to stop me!” When someone tells him the house is haunted, he matter-of-factly states, “Yes, I know.”
Granted, he and his wife are never really in danger. Any lingering spirits make themselves known only by whispering through the turn of the century speaking tubes in the house and by possessing the woman hired to be Mrs. Smedhurst’s companion, Annette (Margaret Lockwood.) In short time, she comes to be part of the family and the Smedhursts perceive any attack on her to be an attack on them as well.
Henry interrogates the realtor who sold him the house, demanding to know its history. Elizabeth Harkness was made to be an invalid by her father and was found dead in the house exactly 40 years ago. The realtor shifts any blame for wrongdoing away from himself by saying he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but the Smedhursts got such a good price because a lot of foolish people do believe in ghosts.
This ties in to an early conversation the Smedhursts and Annette have with their dinner guests, Major and Mrs. Manning Tutthorn (Michael Shepley, Helen Haye) and Dr. Robert Selbie (Dennis Price.) “If you believe a thing enough, you help create it” and “If you don’t believe, it doesn’t exist.” Obviously, A Place of One’s Own attempts to be a thinking-man’s haunted house story. I’m sure there have been others, but in this day and age, the approach feels fresh.
This would have been a perfect film if it were 15-20 minutes shorter. It bogs down past the middle and spins its wheels restating the problem over and over: there’s something wrong with Annette, they don’t know what it is, they don’t know what to do about it. I mean, it’s 80 minutes into the 92-minute movie until Henry acts to locate a man whose name has been repeated several times, Dr. Marsham.
I anticipated Marsham’s appearance from the moment I saw that he was played by none other than Ernest Thesiger, Dr. Pretorius (The Bride of Frankenstein) himself! He has a brief role, but one that’s vital to the immensely satisfying conclusion. A lot happens in the final 12 minutes that could have started earlier; but, even out of that context, it’s terrific. You may or may not see it coming. If you do, you’ll still be happy that your prediction was accurate.
It’s interesting that James Mason, an actor that I recognize mostly from roles he played in his later years, was only 36-years old when he made A Place of Our Own, yet he plays an old man… not always entirely convincingly. I’m not sure I would have recognized him if I didn’t know it was him. His artificial gray hair at times resembles a powdered wig. Even his distinctive voice emerges from his dialogue only on occasion.
This was the first film for director Bernard Knowles, who made 10 feature films before moving into television, then concluded his 29-credits career with four more features in the mid-1960s. While a couple of his later movies were science-fiction, none were really horror; and, I don’t consider A Place of Our Ownto to be horror, either. A ghost story and haunted house movie, sure, but a unique take that treats the subject matter as everyday drama.