Adapted from the novel by Anya Seton, Dragonwyck is set in the 1830s. Miranda Wells is a Connecticut farm girl who’s been raised by God-fearing parents, but dreams of a more extravagant life. Her wishes seem to be granted when Nicholas Van Ryn, a distant relative and wealthy petroon, calls for her to come to his mansion, Dragonwyck, and be a governess to his young daughter. However, Dragonwyck holds many secrets. Nicholas disappears for long periods at a time into his high tower. His wife and child seem neglected and fearful. His grandmother allegedly killed herself at her harpsichord, and can still be heard singing in times of disaster. The real key that all is not well is that Nicholas is played by Vincent Price.
Dragonwyck is a fairly trifling film and is certainly not original, but it’s executed so well that it’s totally enjoyable. It has a heavily gothic atmosphere, aided by the lighting, which is in turns stark and shadowy, shifting with the movements of candles. It’s also well seated in its historical and political context; the tension between the Dutch petroons and the people who work their land, but aren’t permitted to buy it, is an interesting detail. The sets are wonderfully textured, and the costumes often extravagant. Nicholas’ dressing gown, with a dragon embroidered on its pocket, is particularly nice.
I’m not entirely sold on Gene Tierney as an actress, but to her credit, she does convey the most important change in Miranda’s character: after a significant time lapse, Miranda has lost her naivety and is markedly more worldly and self-assured in her demeanour, even under difficult circumstances. Meanwhile, Glenn Langan doesn’t impress in his role as the local doctor, but Walter Huston, Jessica Tandy, and Harry Morgan make for a fine supporting cast.
Price gives the best performance in the film, however, and not just because he looks the part. (Nicholas first appears onscreen whilst Miranda’s father is trying to get her to read some repressive passage from The Bible along with him, and the sudden sight of Price in a magnificent tailed coat makes for a clever juxtaposition.) He’s given the opportunity to show some range here. At the beginning of the story, Nicholas is aloof and imperious, so it’s all the more surprising when he seems to have an outburst of true delight. He manipulates Miranda in a subtle way, and it’s unclear when he’s being sincere and when he’s being duplicitous, and what his motives are. His mysteries are eventually revealed, at which point Price shifts into being totally unhinged. Predictably, this is rather fun to watch.
Dragonwyck is rich with gothic tropes, including suppressed psychological undercurrents, but it’s also rather knowing about itself. When asked what he could possibly do up in his tower, Nicholas responds, “Anything from pinning butterflies to hiding an insane twin brother. Actually, I read.” A sense of humour is just another thing to enjoy about this slight but well-crafted film.