Laughton plays Willie Marble, a financially troubled, seemingly timid London bank clerk who sees a visit by his wealthy Australian nephew James (Milland) as an opportunity to clear the debts that are overwhelming him. When James fails to offer any relief, Willie laces the younger man's drink with cyanide, takes what money he has on him and buries him in the back yard. He invests the money shrewdly and becomes wealthy, but his life unravels as he deserts his wife, Annie (Dorothy Peterson) and takes up with a seductive dress-shop owner (Verree Teasdale). In plot developments involving his daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan), Willie faces a "payment deferred" that has nothing to do with money.
Laughton biographer Simon Callow wrote of the star's work in Payment Deferred that "The essential grammar of all Laughton's subsequent performances is there: the heavy lids, the sense of barely contained energy, the sexual voluptuousness a millimetre below the surface, the sudden accelerandos and heart-stopping ritarandos."
Milland, in one of his first sizeable roles under an MGM contract that had begun the previous year, may have been rattled by Laughton's virtuoso ability. Although he later became a remarkably relaxed and assured performer, Milland was deemed so "nervous" by Payment Deferred director Lothar Mendes that the studio decided to drop him. The Welsh-born actor returned to his native Britain for a couple of films before deciding to give Hollywood another try and winning a new contract -- and eventual stardom -- at Paramount.
In an interesting side note to Payment Deferred, it was reported in The Boston Post that a fire captain who killed himself in March 1933 in Peabody, Mass., had been inspired by the movie to use cyanide as his means of suicide, although a local police chief deemed this report "ridiculous." At the time of the film's release, the Hays Office had warned MGM that some areas would not allow the mention of a specific poison as a means of murder. Indeed, some theaters refused to show the film until the references to cyanide were removed. For a 1939 re-release, the Hays Office insisted upon five dialogue cuts to remove what it considered to be "suggestive remarks."
Producer: Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
Director: Lothar Mendes
Screenplay: Ernest Vajda, Claudine West, from play by Jeffrey F. Dell and novel by C.S. Forester
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: William Axt (uncredited)
Editing: Frank Sullivan
Costume Design: Adrian (uncredited)
Principal Cast: Charles Laughton (William "Willie" Marble), Maureen O'Sullivan (Winnie Marble), Dorothy Peterson (Annie Marble), Verree Teasdale (Madame Marguerite "Rita" Collins), Ray Milland (James "Jim" Colville Medland), Billy Bevan (Charlie Hammond).
by Roger Fristoe