Dark Waters from 1944 is a dandy thriller from producer Benedict Bogeaus, the producer behind such favourites as The Crooked Way, Silver Lode, Slightly Scarlet and From the Earth to the Moon. Andre De Toth directed, making for an interesting triple bill for the year along with Guest in the House and None Shall Escape.
Joan Harrison (Suspicion, Saboteur) wrote the screenplay with Marian Cockrell, who, like Harrison worked on the Alfred Hitchcock television series. Miklos Rozsa was the man behind the score and Archie Stout and John Mescall the men behind the camera.
Franchot Tone, Merle Oberon
The story is set in motion by an event that could have been ripped from the headlines. A ship filled with refugees is attacked and sunk by the enemy with only four people surviving. Leslie Calvin played by Merle Oberon lost both her parents and is traumatized by the event and its aftermath. Believing she is all alone in the world, Leslie takes hope when a heretofore unseen aunt welcomes her to Rossignol Plantation in Louisiana.
The setting plants us firmly in the world of Gothic Noir with the rambling plantation house and the grounds surrounded by trees, vegetation, the bayou, and quicksand. The heat is often mentioned and the overriding sense is one of oppression.
Fay Bainter, Merle Oberson, Thomas Mitchell
Leslie's aunt and uncle played by Fay Bainter and John Qualen are both preoccupied but seemingly harmless. The houseguest, Mr. Sydney played by Thomas Mitchell carries himself with the air of someone in charge. The manager of the sugar plant, Mr. Cleeve played by Elisha Cook Jr. is a bringer of most unwelcome advances.
Elisha Cook Jr., Merle Oberon
Leslie immediately feels out of place but assumes it is her recent illness that makes her feel so. Nonetheless, she is grateful for the friendship of Dr. George Grover played by Franchot Tone. He is charmed by the lovely young woman and introduces her to the more normal people in the area.
The neighbouring Boudreau clan played by Eugene Borden and Odette Myrtil are kind and friendly to Leslie, giving her a sense of normalcy. There is an overload of cuteness with the youngest of the large family played by two-year-old Gigi Perreau and her older brother Gerald who acted under the name of Peter Miles (Heaven Only Knows).
When she's away from Dr. Grover and at the plantation, Leslie feels the effects of her trauma most strongly. She is constantly reminded of the events at sea and urged to relive them by her companions. She sees lights going on and off, and hears strange noises. She hears her name being called in the night. Leslie is being gaslighted. Why?
Leslie truly would lose her mind if it weren't for the grounding of friends like the maid Florella played by Nina Mae McKinney and Pearson Jackson played by Rex Ingram. Pearson must remain a secret friend because, after 12 years of working at the sugar factory/plantation, he was fired by Mr. Cleeve for no reason. Pearson is investigating the goings-on at Rossignol. He knows Leslie is in danger. Pearson knows he is in danger as well, but he keeps on.
Thomas Mitchell, Elisha Cook Jr.
The malevolence of Thomas Mitchell and the sense of the world closing in on our leading lady add to the tension in this movie where we don't know whom to trust from one moment to the next. An exciting finale through the bayou wraps all the pieces up quite tidily and satisfactorily.