Dark Waters (1944)

Dark Waters (directed by André De Toth, 1944) doesn't follow the obvious conventions we associate with the film noir style, such as the long shadows, the urban setting, the tough guy talk, the femme fatale and the cruelty of fate.  

But these weren't the only aspects of the movement, and although it's not overt in the more traditional noir crime stories of the 1940s and 1950s, Freudian psychology looms large in the cycle, and is pressed to the fore in such hits as The Woman in the Window.

Dark Waters also tips it hat to Freudian therapy, but that should be obvious from the title.  It follows patterns largely established in the hit film Rebecca, and is typical of the paranoid woman film of the time.  

In the paranoid woman film, the lead is a lady who spends much of the time in bed, is generally found to be looking worried in most shots, and she always finds herself for various plot reasons turning up to stay at a strange and usually remote house.

Merle Oberon is perpetually bed-bound in Dark Waters (1944), but the picture is about her recovery.

The classic paranoid women film noir would have to be The Secret Behind the Door, which certainly has a deal more depth and mystery to it than Dark Waters.  In Dark Waters most of these mysterious elements are forced.  The film starts with Merle Oberon in bed, waking up and recovering in something of a panicked and vulnerable fear.  She leaves the hospital and makes a train journey, but within ten minutes into the action she is back in bed, waking up and recovering from a faint in something of a panicked and vulnerable fear.

Merle Oberon - paranoid with good cause.
Dark Waters (1944) is a splendid title for any paranoid woman film noir, suggestive as it is of the subconscious, the waters in which its leading lady's family dies, and the murky waters of the swamps around which the film is set. 

Of course in a good paranoid woman film noir you should always experience the doubt of the leading lady, because even though you know those around her are always out to get her, it's part of the viewing pleasure that this fact be obscured in mystery; hence the heavily layered madness of The Secret Beyond the Door.

In Dark Waters however, there isn't much mystery, and the creepiest thing that happens in the first 40 minutes is a mysterious noise in the night.  Of course, if you haven't figured it already, the mysterious nosie in the night is another staple of the paranoid woman genre.

Merle Oberon gives it her all, wide-eyed, open-mouthed and glancing left and right, eyebrows raised and gasping where she can. But the residents of the creepy house in the swamp are so obviously strange that these moments are not particularly suspenseful. Just how much of this film does she spend in bed!?  And observe how often she 'just isn't hungry.'  She is a classic paranoid woman.

Or rather, Merle Oberon in Dark Waters is a classic paranoid woman insofar as she is trapped inside a strange house, thinking that she is going mad.  The normal trajectory for the paranoid woman in film noir finds her sane at the outset, and then driven crazy by her tormentors, generally for financial gain.  In Dark Waters, Merle Oberon's character Leslie is unwell begin with, having survived a U-boat attack and having lost her family.  The plot therefore is about her recovery as opposed to her decline, and yet much remains the same. 

Some of these dark waters turn out to be quite shallow, such as the fact that the paranoid woman's weird relatives make constant references to drowning and to the Japanese attack that claimed her parents, including a forlorn description of a woman who died in the bayou's quicksand.  

One of the most absurdly melodramtic moments is when Merle Oberon gasps in horro as a frog jumps from the path before her, into the waters of the swamp.

Merle Oberon being driven by Franchot Tone
And do you know what else? It is a fine line between smooch and sleaze.  As soon as Merle Oberon hits the swamp, she is hit upon by its two most eligible rakes in the fom of Franchot Tone, the local doctor (and good guy) and Elijah J. Wood, the local scuzzball.  The line between them is thin, I say, because their patter is equally bad, although Franchot Tone wins because he is taller, wears a suit and because Elijah J Wood recourses to physical force in order to try and get a date, by trying to pull Merle Oberon on to a boat.

What probably irks most of all these days about a film like Dark Waters, is that it is pretty transparent in how it suggests men and women behave.  Films are still pretty transparent about this today, but Dark Waters argues that if you are a woman then being a demure, quaking prude is probably your safest course of action.  

Clearly Merle Oberon is in love with Doctor Grover (Franchot Tone) and yet in the madness of her paranoia, he is the only person who can save her.  It is a rotten bind.  Possibly more uncomfortable than the predictable gender-roles however is the mutation of grief into madness, or suspected madness in the form of paranoia.  

In 1944, war-related grieving was a fact of life, and with no immediate end in sight, and everyone being encouraged to keep their spirits up, this transformation was understandable.  After the war, the grief was mutated into violent sexuality and crime.

All of this might be suggestive of a  script written one afternoon by Nunnaly Johnstone, after he had accidentally knocked himself out in his studio, but the opposite is the case, and apparently the script for Dark Waters went through quite a few hands including those of John Huston before it came to be shot. 

When it was shot, nothing was left to any doubting. See how Merle Oberon creeps around the spooky house at night, where the shadows of railings and blinds suggest her status as prisoner. 

See how she lies in bed, looking fraught, while the shadows of blinds and railings suggest the same.  

See how the threads of dead vines in the swamp obfuscate the plot at which she is clearly the centre of; and see how the frog jumps carelessly into the dark waters ahead of her, half frightening the poor lady to death.

Elijah Cooke Jnr in Dark Waters (1944)
In a good paranoid woman film, the viewer should suspect everyone, and be kept bobbing in the dark waters until the very last, when the revelation should be as crazy as it is in Secret Behind the Door.  

In a really fine paranoid woman film, she must doubt herself, the four walls and most of all, the man she loves.  All of the above are absent from Dark Waters, in which we know who the villains are from the second we see them, and in which the love interest is consistent and in little or no doubt of its truth.

In spite of this muddling around, the climax of Dark Waters is well worth the wait. 

One final word to the editors and sound department on the subject of atmospherics, pertinent to Dark Waters.  As far as I know, there are not a lot of coyotes in the swamp.

Wade Through Dark Waters at YouTube

Dark Waters (1944) at WIKIPEDIA

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