In Victorian London, newlyweds Paul Mallen (Walbrook) and Bella (Wynyard) move into a townhouse where 20 years before a brutal murder took place. Mallen is a cold, manipulative husband and his emotionally frail wife seems to be slowly losing her grip on reality: Items disappear and reappear, strange noises emanate from the empty floor above and the gas lamps dim ominously. A retired police detective (Pettingell) comes to believe there may be foul play involved. Is Bella really mad, or is she being pushed towards insanity?
This taut psychological thriller precedes the better-known 1944 MGM version with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman but is equally worthy of our attention. Adapted from a stage play by Patrick Hamilton, Dickinson confines most of the action to the interior of the house, creating a tangible sense of claustrophobia. Walbrook’s menacing intensity credibly exacerbates Wynyard’s growing state of hysteria and her imperiled Bella recalls some of Hitchcock’s great heroines. Dickinson knows how to ratchet up the tension, especially in a scene which has Pettingell in the house with Mallen threatening to return at any second. (As a side note, the music hall scene with racy CanCan dancers is sublime). Allegedly MGM tried to destroy the negatives to the British version to avoid comparison with its glossier remake. Fortunately, they did not succeed.