Poison Pen (1939 film)
Reginald Tate, Flora Robson and Ann Todd in Poison Pen
|Directed by||Paul L. Stein|
|Produced by||Walter C. Mycroft|
|Written by||Esther McCracken|
|Edited by||Flora Newton|
|Distributed by||Associated British-Pathé|
|4 July 1939|
Written shortly before his famous novels How Green Was My Valley and None But the Lonely Heart, Llewellyn's play - concerning an outbreak of anonymous poison-pen letters that destabilise a small rural community - was first presented at Richmond, near London, on 9 August 1937. A West End production, using a revised text, opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 9 April 1938, moving to the Playhouse in July and the Garrick in August, achieving in all 176 performances and closing on 10 September. Theatre historian J.C. Trewin described the play, under the heading 'How Grim Was My Village', as "a showy bit of theatre."
The film version was made by the Associated British Picture Corporation at their Elstree Studios and opened in London on 4 July 1939. Flora Robson and Reginald Tate inherited the leading roles played on stage by Margaret Yarde and Walter Fitzgerald. (Robson's character name - Phryne Rainrider in the play - was simplified to plain Mary Rider.) The only actor common to both play and film was Roddy Hughes. Novelist Graham Greene, at that time film critic of The Spectator, called it "a deplorable example of an English film which tries to create an English atmosphere." Latterly, however, it has been described by film historian David Quinlan as a "slow, sordid but striking dark drama" and by Raymond Durgnat as "a bleak story prefiguring Clouzot's Le Corbeau."
The calm of a peaceful English village is shattered when a series of anonymous letters starts being delivered to village homes, containing scurrilous allegations about the recipients and their families. Upstanding and respectable inhabitants find themselves and their loved ones accused in lascivious detail of all manner of moral, sexual and criminal misdeeds. The Reverend Rider (Tate) and his sister Mary (Robson) attempt to defuse the increasing consternation of the villagers by pointing out that the letters should be ignored as the malicious nonsense they are. Their efforts meet with little success, and Rider's daughter Ann (Todd) also becomes a target with lewd accusations being made about her fiancé David (Geoffrey Toone).
As the letters continue to arrive with ever more outlandish content, the social fabric of the village starts to fall apart. The letters all bear the local postmark, and people start to look suspiciously at their friends and neighbours, wondering who could be behind the campaign. Despite Rider's insistence that the contents of the letters should be disregarded, some notice that the letter-writer seems to have a very detailed knowledge of their personal circumstances, and start to question whether there may be a grain of truth in what is being written. Personal relationships too come under strain.
Soon the entire village is overtaken by suspicion and paranoia, and fingers start to point at Connie Fateley (Catherine Lacey), a shy young seamstress who lives alone and does not tend to socialise. Convinced that hers is exactly the kind of personality that would find vent in a malicious poison-pen campaign, the villagers turn against Connie, openly accusing her of being the guilty party and ostracising her from village life. Tragedy follows when the despairing Connie hangs herself from the bellrope in the village church.
Rider preaches a sermon in which he expresses his disgust with his congregation for having driven Connie to suicide without a shred of evidence against her. Most, however, believe privately that Connie's death was an admission of guilt and feel relief that the ordeal is over. But letters are soon arriving again and the police become involved, keeping watch on local letterboxes in an attempt to catch the culprit. David now starts to receive letters detailing Ann's alleged infidelity, and unstable villager Sam Hurrin (Robert Newton) is targeted with information that his wife Sucal (Belle Chrystall) is dallying behind his back with local shopkeeper Len Griffin (Edward Chapman). After drinking himself into a rage, Hurrin goes out to confront Griffin and shoots him fatally.
The police now begin a round-the-clock surveillance of all letterboxes in the village, the collected letters are analysed and everyone who has been recorded as posting a letter is required to provide the address on the envelope. A handwriting expert is also brought in. The investigations lead in a surprising direction, towards Mary, the vicar's sister and a respected community member who has managed to hide a severely disturbed mind behind a mask of caring efficiency. Realising that the net is finally closing in, the perpetrator descends into a destructive mental frenzy before fatally jumping from a cliff above a local quarry.
- J.P. Wearing, The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Plays and Players, Scarecrow Press 1990
- J.C. Trewin, The Turbulent Thirties: A Decade of the Theatre, Macdonald & Co 1960
- review dated 10 November 1939; reprinted in Graham Greene, The Pleasure Dome: The Collected Film Criticism 1935-40, Secker & Warburg 1972
- David Quinlan, British Sound Films: The Studio Years 1928-1959, BT Batsford 1984
- Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence, Faber & Faber 1970