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The best asset of Home Before Dark (1958) is its spooky and compelling narrative, adapted by screenwriters Eileen and Robert Bassing from an eponymous novel by the woman on the team. Jean Simmons plays Charlotte Bronn, a professor's wife who has been hospitalized for a year after undergoing a nervous breakdown. Returning home, she learns that her husband Arnold has gotten along fine during her absence, thanks in part to support from her stepsister, Joan Carlisle, who lives in the same house. Joan has always enjoyed hanging out with her scholarly brother-in-law; indeed, suspicion that Arnold and Joan might be having an affair was one of the things that brought about Charlotte's mental crisis. The husband and stepsister remained as chummy as ever while Charlotte was away, and as soon as she's back home they reawaken her fears by discouraging her from joining fully in the household's activities.
Also present is Jake Diamond, a young man who's renting a room in the house and teaching at the local university, where he hopes to become a professor with Arnold's help. He needs whatever assistance he can get, because he's Jewish, and the university is reluctant to hire Jews because it's afraid an "influx" might happen once the door is opened. Arnold says he's backing Jake because he opposes anti-Semitism, but his support gets wobbly when he realizes it might cost him a long-awaited promotion. Recognizing each other as fellow outsiders, Jake and Charlotte become friends. Charlotte increasingly distrusts everyone else, though - especially Arnold and Joan, who keep pushing her into the background whenever possible. Friends add to her mistrust by dropping inadvertent hints about the close relationship between those two, and when Charlotte starts suspecting that her food is being doped or poisoned, we realize that they could be gaslighting her, hoping she'll be institutionalized again so they can pair off permanently. Sure enough, it isn't long before her mind begins to slip into paranoid patterns again.
Home Before Dark primes us to sympathize with Charlotte from the outset. Yet the picture is artfully ambiguous about what's really going on, keeping us tantalizingly off balance as to whether Charlotte is the victim of an awful scheme or is falling back into old delusions. A harrowing climax reveals the full extent of her psychological travails, including multiple shock treatments in the hospital, of which she has no memory; and the ending is more quietly hopeful than openly optimistic. Enemies or no enemies, it's clear that Charlotte's sanity is hanging by a slender thread at best. Viewers rooting for her can't take any comfort from the fact that her name is Charlotte Bronn, recalling the 19-century English novelist Charlotte Bront, and that her bedroom is on the top floor of the house, which is where Edward Rochester stashed his insane wife in Bront's most famous book, the 1847 masterpiece Jane Eyre.
Simmons is an ideal choice for the heroine, inducing us to cheer Charlotte on while recognizing that her year of psychiatry may not have made her as stable as she thinks she is. Simmons also makes brilliant use of the movie's most important prop: a lavish evening gown that's way too large for her, making her look a bit like the Statue of Liberty during the climactic scene. Rhonda Fleming gives Joan the right degree of offhand cheeriness, and looks a lot better in that gown, which is just her size. Dan O'Herlihy is convincingly aloof as Arnold, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. - just beginning his long run on the TV series 77 Sunset Strip when the film premiered in 1958 - brings understated charm to Jake, whose problems as a Jew in a xenophobic community are left mostly undeveloped by the screenplay. Steve Dunne makes a solid impression as a family friend who fends off loneliness with alcohol.
The weaker elements of Home Before Dark come from director Mervyn LeRoy and cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc, who employ a generally bland style that prevents the story from fulfilling all of its promise. To his credit, LeRoy creates effective deep-focus compositions at important moments in the plot, and makes interesting use of statuary to punctuate settings that might otherwise seem ordinary. The lighting is plain and dull, though - layers of noir-style duskiness would have boosted the atmospherics a great deal - and there's little visual nuance apart from an effectively weird shadow on Charlotte's face near the beginning. Biroc was fresh from a couple of Samuel Fuller assignments, so I would have expected him to capitalize on the story's offbeat possibilities; and LeRoy had made The Bad Seed (1956) with Patty McCormack two years earlier, giving him recent experience in exploring a demented household. But neither of them quite rose to this picture's challenge.
Reflecting on Home Before Dark in his autobiography, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, the main things LeRoy commented on were extremes of temperature. On the steamy end of the spectrum, the lights were so hot during a shoot in the Crystal Room at the Beverly Hills Hotel that the sprinkler system went off, drenching the cast and crew. Cold weather also caused a problem. Most of the picture was filmed in and near the Massachusetts town of Marblehead in wintertime - the frigid ambience is crucial to the story's downbeat emotional tone - and it got so cold one night that the cameras froze. Even worse, Fleming's tongue froze, rendering her unable to speak. "She would have to go inside one of the houses on the street where we were filming," LeRoy wrote, "and thaw out her tongue with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate before each scene." As the stepsister, Fleming had one of the picture's key roles, and the rest of the cast must have heaved frosty sighs of relief each time her tongue regained mobility.
LeRoy doesn't have much else to say about the making of Home Before Dark, except to note that some of this film about insanity was shot in a real mental hospital, which Simmons visited to research her role. Leroy tried and failed to do the same. "I just could not stand to see those poor unfortunates," he recalled in his memoir. It's hard to tell whether the reason was compassion or cowardice, but if LeRoy had investigated the story's subject more deeply he might have brought more atmosphere to a movie that doesn't quite live up to its highly dramatic subject.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Eileen and Robert Bassing; based on the novel by Eileen Bassing
Cinematographer: Joseph F. Biroc
Film Editing: Philip W. Anderson
Art Direction: John Beckman
Music: Ray Heindorf
With: Jean Simmons (Charlotte Bronn), Dan O'Herlihy (Arnold Bronn), Rhonda Fleming (Joan Carlisle), Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Jacob "Jake" Diamond), Mabel Albertson (Inez Winthrop), Steve Dunne (Hamilton Gregory), Joan Weldon (Frances Barrett), Joanna Barnes (Cathy Bergner), Kathryn Card (Mattie), Marjorie Bennett (Hazel Evans), Johnstone White (Malcolm Southey), Eleanor Audley (Mrs. Hathaway)
by David Sterritt