The Sign of the Ram (1948)

The Sign of the Ram (1948)
is a paranoid woman lighthouse-tinted family dynamic film noir with Susan Peters as paralysed poet Leah St Aubyn, a conflicted woman who attempts to psychologically unsettle those around her.

The film marked Susan Peters' return to the screen after a three-year absence following a gun accident that paralysed her. It was her final film.

There is a solid fear factor Cornish foam alert for SPOILERS because the logic of film noir The Sign of the Ram is cast horrific and solid in the portrayal of Susan Peters in something that at the time and for some time after was unique among wheelchair roles in Hollywood.

The creepy house of secrets was a firm feature too of family noir, most especially if that house is in England, and of course it has to be on a cliff. Within the house is tragedy and secrecy, something that film noir was custom built to suggest. Within shadows, mystery, and within mystery, suspense.

The perfect mansion home for the paranoid woman in The Sign of the Ram (1948)

One of the details that operates more subtly throughout is the fact of tragedy and how it might affect us. The Sign of the Ram delivers this carefully through studio craftsmanship and well-thought out photography and setting. 

On top of this, viewers are advised to keep their eyes on Susan Peters' hands, which do much of the expressive work that her body could not. While the rest of her body says one thing, the hands in a bravura acting performance often say something else. Once more, fog-rolling machinations and mystery are they very stuff of film noir, which produced quite a selection of pictures like this in the 1940s, where high paranoia and a mentally imbalanced matriarch combined in an almost fantastic manner, to create something special to the era.

Susan Peters under Burnett Guffey's lighthouse in The Sign of the Ram (1948)

It's likely closest in spirit to Leave Her to Heaven (1945), which has another twisted wife almost self-condemned to manipulation and murder. For a fairly obscure movie however, film noir heaven is achieved at several points, including in the cross cross photography of Burnett Guffey, who also masters the crashing waves to a tee. Creativity is often a feature of classic film noir, and these frames do wonders to suggest the spell-binding deviousness of the attractive lead, who says she is not bitter about her accident —  but lies.

Burnett Guffey's lighthouse in The Sign of the Ram (1948)

Certainly Susan Peters brings a dimension to The Sign of the Ram (1948) that wouldn't be otherwise possible. Having saved her two stepchildren while they were swimming at sea, she has lost her own mobility as her back was broken against rocks.

The kids have now grown up and are played by Ross Ford and Peggy Ann Garner. Both are contemplating matrimony and Leah (Susan Peters) is now keen to sabotage things, for twisted internal noirish reasons.

Paranoid woman in bed — natural habitat — in The Sign of the Ram (1948)

The result is an inhibited, self-restrained and psychologically cool performance. There's so much beneath the surface of this woman who has received so much praise and love for the way she's handled her accident. But like the sea there is turmoil beneath, and we only see what John Sturges and Susan Peters let us see.

Key elements of the paranoid woman feature are to the fore in The Sign of the Ram (1948) and these include a stormy coastline, this time in Cornwall — the English chic made famous by Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), laying down the cliffs and the fog and the spray of the stormy seas, with of course a secret cave from smuggling days — no doubt — and several suicide spots — because that is what cliffs are for when it comes to the paranoid woman.

Burnett Guffey's lighthouse in The Sign of the Ram (1948)

This small genre within a style of a well-disciplined paranoid film noir movie is split apart by The Sign of the Ram, which is about deceit and self-gaslighting and riffs and twists on the common paranoid woman genre by making the woman her own worst enemy in a frankly hugely positive and busily posh and occupied society.

Susan Peters in The Sign of the Ram (1948)

Hollywood is a killer, and as if the paralysis from the bullet wound was not going to make it that restricted career led to depression for Susan Peters who starved herself to death at aged 31. The suicidal looks of Susan Peters are what brings this paranoid family film noir to life.

Ross Ford in The Sign of the Ram (1948)

The most irritating character in The Sign of the Ram is the local Cornish lighthouse. This local Cornish lighthouse flashes through the film, never missing a scene. When Sheridan or Leah and more especially Leah are having a moment, the lighthouse will be sure to be stealing the scene.

Burnett Guffey's lighthouse in The Sign of the Ram (1948)

If it works once, and it might, the artists involved and we have to thank John Sturges too - - they believe it will work in every scene to which they apply it. There is a probably a metaphor to be extracted from this coterie of paranoiacs living within a fantasy on the wold Cornish coast, being illuminated every three minutes with a periodic and almost painfully bright light which should bring to awareness their faults and fears, but which in fact only blinds them further to them by inducing a perma-panic from which there is little escape.

Leah, played by Susan Peters, is terrified of being alone and the effect of this being conveyed via the medium of a nearby lighthouse is strong and works so well that it is likely repeated so many times. The idea that Leah can manipulate anyone by turning on and off the paranoia, and does so from her wheelchair, is quite powerful.

Leah is an interesting villain, and might well be film noir's only wheelchair-bound femme fatale. She is beautiful and nice, seemingly so, and yet is undermining everything. 

Some of this is lost in the odd admixture of accent and scene painting cobbled up into what is Cornwall in name, but not solidly convincing otherwise. The true effect of the mis en scene is to create the requisite fantasy environment for the almost fable like villainies of Leah the poet to play out.

Attempted lighthouse suicide on the rocks — Susan Peters in The Sign of the Ram (1948)

Returning to reality, the underlying figures of the controlling matriarch and her household of pawns is something part-imagined and likely really felt by many families, where permission for everything has to come from one central point, in this case the matriarch.  

It is hard to see The Sign of the Ram as a film being directed by the artist behind Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), Ice Station Zebra (1968) and The Eagle Has Landed (1976); it took a lot to get there and make all of these, dozens of films in fact. But these are certainly some of John Sturges most fun, liberating, friendly and exciting films. 

Burnett Guffey's lighthouse in The Sign of the Ram (1948)

"It's the sign of the ram. People born under this sign are endowed with a strong will power and obstinacy of purpose"

The Sign of the Ram (1948) at Wikipedia

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