Blithe Spirit (David Lean / United Kingdom, 1945):

The writer’s dilemma and the séance of inspiration, "make it a real rouser!" Noël Coward’s central gag is painstakingly fabricated out of Hamlet, of course, the spiritualist’s art is but a joke to the haughty novelist until the afterlife intrudes upon his marriage most mischievously. So it goes, the posh skeptics (Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings) invite the dotty medium (Margaret Rutherford) over for a dash of condescension and instead get a gateway into "the unseen," in drifts the impish phantom of his first wife (Kay Hammond). Phosphorescent-celadon but for crimson lipstick and nail polish, the otherworldly coquette enjoys needling the ex with marital barbs when not terrorizing her rival with levitating furniture: "The echoing halls of eternity have in no way impaired your native vulgarity." Between Topper and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the supernatural ménage of wartime England, staged by David Lean as an elegant fissure between the clipped precision of aristocratic manners and the great unknown beyond the drawing-room. While preserving Coward’s brittle repartee, the camera is grateful for a chance to track wordlessly through billowing curtains and doors that open and close by themselves, and to fiddle with the various gradations of Denham Technicolor (a training ground for Ronald Neame). Rutherford barrels through it all like Michel Simon in drag, bouncing around the polished floors in long woolen scarves, treating her conjurations like bubbling Dada, and generally adding some welcome salt to the story’s dry martinis. Meanwhile, Harrison privately relishes being the bigamist center of a spectral tug of war: "If only you made an effort to be a little more friendly, we might all have quite a jolly time." Quine’s Bell Book and Candle has the junction of the literary and the mystical, Aldrich remembers the medium’s entrance in The Killing of Sister George, Lester seizes the colorized ectoplasm for How I Won the War. With Hugh Wakefield, Joyce Carey, and Jacqueline Clarke.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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