ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Melanie Novak writes about the Golden Age of Hollywood, infusing her weekly movie reviews with history, gossip, and the glamour of the studio era. You can read her reviews at www.melanienovak.com and follow her on Instagram @novak_melanie or Twitter @MelanieANovak.
Bette Davis needs no introduction, but if she’d lived to write a Twitter bio, it would say something like, “Actress. Hell-raiser. Ten Oscar nominations, two wins…should’ve won a 3rd for “Baby Jane” but Crawford campaigned against me. Did it the hard way.”
She had three great talents: a willingness to make herself hideously ugly if that’s what the role required, an ability to play gleeful villains who reveled in their wickedness, and a personality so forceful she could make even the worst films a rollicking good time.
She puts the second two talents to great use in Another Man’s Poison (1951), directed by Irving Rapper (who directed Davis in Now, Voyager (1942) and The Corn is Green (1945)) and co-starring her new husband Gary Merrill, whom she’d met and fallen in love with while making the classic All About Eve the previous year.
Another Man’s Poison served as a honeymoon of sorts for Davis and Merrill, as it was filmed on location in North Yorkshire, England.
Davis plays Janet Frobisher, a mystery writer who’s been living and writing in a big, drafty house in England. She’s also having an affair with the much younger fiancé of her secretary, though we suspect she’s motivated by vanity more than love. Though she tells the townspeople that her husband is nearly permanently away on business in foreign lands, the truth is that she’s run away from him because he’s a criminal.
When her husband arrives one night on the heels of a bank robbery, threatening her and promising to never grant her a divorce, Janet dispatches the problem as one of the characters in her novels would, by poisoning her husband with a medicine for her horse.
But the real problem arrives with the plot’s first twist—her husband had an accomplice, George Bates (Merrill), who arrives looking for him. When the local veterinarian arrives to check on Janet’s sick horse, he finds George, who pretends to be Janet’s long-lost husband to explain his presence as he knows police are actively looking for him.
And thus, Janet and George are stuck with one another. Janet convinces George to help her dispose of her husband’s body, and now both are complicit in the crime. They have a mirroring cruelty—they both desire and loathe one another.
I’m not going to spoil any of the plot twists—suffice it to say these are two despicable human beings who deserve one another and yet each is increasingly determined to eliminate the other.
Add in a nosy veterinarian, Janet’s young paramour, and you have all the makings of a mess. The plot escalates in ways that are somewhat silly, but all the fun is in watching Davis and Merrill (who would have a ten-year marriage nearly as violent, passionate, and tempestuous as Janet and George’s relationship) go at one another. Their escalating cruelty is apt to make you laugh more than flinch, but Davis’ performance foreshadows many of her post-age-forty roles, where she played maniacal villains who were as funny as they were scary.
And if the ending doesn’t surprise you, well, that would surprise me.
It’ll never make a Bette Davis top ten list, but it’s required viewing for true fans.
Sikov, Ed. Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.