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Sign of the Ram (1948) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

leah leah’s suicide mallory

Principal social themes: suicide/depression, disabilities

Columbia. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Susan Peters, Alexander Knox, Phyllis Thaxter, Peggy Ann Garner, Ron Randell, Allene Roberts, Ross Ford, Diana Douglas, Margaret Tracy, Paul Scardon, Gerald Hammer, Doris Lloyd, Dame May Witty. Written by Charles Bennett based on the novel by Margaret Ferguson. Cinematography by Burnett Guffey. Edited by Aaron Stell. Music by Hans J. Salter. Produced by Irving Cummings Jr. Directed by John Sturges. B&W. 84 minutes.

Overview

Susan Peters was an up-and-coming star in the 1940s, who received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her sixth film, Random Harvest (1942). Unfortunately, she had suffered a spinal injury in January 1945 when her gun accidentally discharged while she was on a duck-hunting trip. Resuming her career from a wheelchair, she starred in two stage plays. After reading Margaret Ferguson’s novel Sign of the Ram , about a domineering paraplegic who tries to manipulate her son’s fiancée into committing suicide, Peters interested producer Irving Cummings Jr. into making the dark, gothic film, which was quite successful. Peters later starred in a television series, Miss Susan , about the adventures of a wheelchair-bound lawyer. She died in 1952 after developing bronchial pneumonia.

Synopsis

Sherida Binyon (Phyllis Thaxter) is hired to work at Bastian, a remote estate in Cornwall, to be the secretary to Leah St. Aubyn (Susan Peters). Leah is the second wife of Mallory St. Aubyn (Alexander Knox), and stepmother to his three children, Logan (Ross Ford), Jane (Allene Roberts), and Christine (Peggy Ann Garner). On her first night at Bastian, Sherida learns many things. Leah is actually the popular sentimental poet Faith Hope. She is a paraplegic who lost the use of her legs many years earlier, just after marrying the widower Mallory, in the course of rescuing Logan and Jane who were caught in an undertow while swimming in the ocean. After the children were pulled to safety in Mallory’s rowboat, Leah was dashed against the rocks, injuring her spinal column. Since then, Leah was practically worshipped by her husband and children, and she now completely dominates the family. Many years have passed, and since Logan and Jane are grown, Leah is having a more difficult time keeping them under her thumb. First, Dr. Crowdy, her physician, informs her that he intends to propose to Jane. Then Logan tells her of his plans to marry Catherine (Diana Douglas), a talented artist and adopted daughter of the local vicar. Leah becomes alarmed and concocts an elaborate lie to sabotage their plans. She warns Jane that Dr. Crowdy had told her he was afraid that she was taking his attentions far too seriously. Jane decides to refuse when the doctor asks her to attend the local dance. Later, Leah meets with Catherine, telling the naive girl that her real father had been insane, and since she carries his strain, she should never have children. As Leah hopes, Catherine is overwhelmed by this news, becoming deeply depressed. Shortly after, she attempts suicide, jumping into the ocean. Thanks to the quick intervention of Sherida, Catherine is rescued. Taking her back to the vicarage, Logan, Jane, and Dr. Crowdy puzzle out Leah’s destructive schemes. Logan and Jane inform their father that they are leaving home and never intend to return.

Back at Bastian, Christine becomes alarmed by this turn of events, and because of Leah’s comments, the young girl comes to the conclusion that Sherida is at fault. She takes Leah’s sleeping pills and that night poisons Sherida’s milk, believing her death will look like suicide. During the night, the housekeeper overhears Sherida moaning and alerts Mallory. When Dr. Crowdy arrives, they deduce that Christine poisoned her. Under her father’s questioning, Christine admits her guilt, provoked by Leah. Mallory is outraged and turns against his wife, saying she has broken up their home. When Christine visits her room, she tells the paraplegic that she has decided to go to boarding school, and her father agrees. Leah wheels herself out the door into the fog, heading for the cliff behind the house. She hesitates for a moment at the edge. She then hears her husband call out her name. By the time he reaches the cliff, Mallory finds only her empty wheelchair. Leah has committed suicide, flinging herself over the edge.

Critique

Sign of the Ram is one of the most remarkable films of the late 1940s, an imaginative combination of the gothic, film noir, and psychological drama. The screenplay, remaining faithful to the Ferguson novel, takes a number of daring chances, even testing the motion picture code by fixating on the concept of suicide and its malevolent portrayal of a handicapped individual. Indeed, Leah’s suicide is staged with a theatrical grandeur that the code normally found objectionable and distasteful. Dark and obsessive, the film runs quite counter to the traditional Hollywood product of the era. It almost seems that the censors overlooked their code in deference to Susan Peters, since the Hollywood community was strongly encouraging of her comeback effort. In fact, Peters’s spellbinding, thoughtful performance is one of the most unique on screen. She manages to be beguiling, sweet, and charming on the surface, concealing a manipulative, conniving, and deceitful core. It is a reading of extraordinary depth, since even at her worst, Peters manages to endow her character with a degree of sympathy. Leah St. Aubyn is shown in a variety of complex moods, and the film even offers the actress an opportunity to display musical talents at the piano. (Years earlier, Peters starred as a concert pianist in Song of Russia .) Sign of the Ram is worth multiple viewings, if simply to study Leah’s dialogue, which is often filled with cryptic meanings that can be taken at different levels. In fact, Leah is a deeply troubled woman on the verge of a breakdown.

The title is a reference to Leah’s astrological sign. At one point, Dr. Crowdy observes that people born under her sign are endowed with strong willpower and are steadfast of purpose, letting nothing deter them from their goal. She sees Logan, Jane, and Christine as her own, since she suffered her accident saving the lives of two of them. Now, the inexorable march of time changes the circumstances since the two older children are determined to set out on their own, causing Leah to become depressed and suicidal since it is inevitable that her wishes are going to be thwarted. Everyone at Bastian, however, seems unaware of this. They are completely under Leah’s spell, taking her actions at face value. The only one not taken in by Leah is the newest member of the household, her secretary, Sherida, superbly played by Phyllis Thaxter. Her character alone is able to observe the situation clearly, without any predisposition or prejudice. She does not overhear Leah’s fluent manipulation of Catherine, but she is clearly aware of Leah’s forceful powers of persuasion.

In Leah’s skewed viewpoint, anything is justified or justifiable. She herself is on the brink of suicide, so why should she not push Catherine in that direction instead? It is no coincidence that Leah’s suicide takes the same form as Christine’s attempt, throwing herself into the sea. Leah also feels oppressed by the unseen presence of Mallory’s first wife, whose photograph she addresses regularly whenever she is alone in her room. Even though Leah has replaced her, in her own mind she still feels in competition with the dead woman, much as did Joan Fontaine’s character in Rebecca (1940). On the other hand, it seems apparent that Leah’s bitter and venomous attitude is only partially due to her paralysis. To her, that is only a condition that can be mastered, whereas dealing with human emotions requires continual control.

Viewers studying this film should also consider the character of the local gossip, played to perfection by Dame May Witty. To what extent is she a vehicle for Leah’s own ideas? Is she a disruptive influence, or does she serve as a sounding board for Leah? Why is the youngest daughter, Christine, so vulnerable and in danger of becoming warped by the influence of her stepmother, whom she adores? At times, Christine seems to be an alter ego for Leah, with the girl trying to anticipate the desires and needs of her invalid stepmother. The young girl’s connection to reality seems tenuous, and at times she misjudges events completely, such as suspecting that Mallory is romantically interested in Sherida. Mallory himself is somewhat of an enigma. Why is he so ineffectual in dealing with his wife, whom he indulges shamelessly? Why does Leah take Mallory so much for granted that he is never the target of any of her machinations? The only real passion in Mallory seems to be for the flowers in his greenhouse. The only time he seems to touch Leah is when he announces that he plans to name his new hybrid in her honor. Since hybrids are sometimes considered botanical freaks, Mallory’s tribute might give an ironical tinge to the story. By the end of the film, Mallory seems to be the only person who will be saddened by Leah’s death. Yet he will undoubtedly recover as he did after the death of his first wife, making Leah’s suicide seem an even more futile and insignificant gesture.

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