She Had Everything You Could Give A Woman To Torment A Man!
The 1950’s were a time of transition for Bette Davis. Gone were the glory days of her association with Warner Brothers. Though still busy, throughout the decade the quality of her roles and perhaps even her work declined until at some points it was compared to what one would see might see in a Vegas parody. In 1951 she paired with then husband Gary Merrill to make the small independent film Another Man’s Poison.
Based on a play, Another Man’s Poison feels a bit trapped on its primary- almost exclusive, set. Davis is mystery writer Janet Frobisher, who lives alone with only her secretary and her horse for company on her lakeside estate. We open with her placing a frantic call to her lover Larry (Anthony Steel), who is actually the fiancé of her secretary, from a payphone. Setting the stage early for a long and uncountable list of the unexplained, we’re never really told why she’s in such a panic to meet with him or why she’s doing it from a payphone.
Larry declines and Janet hurries home, when shortly thereafter there’s a knock on her door. Answering it she finds George (Gary Merrill) who is looking for her husband. The two men have robbed a bank and agreed to rendezvous at Janet’s house. Why you ask? Well, the other robber is her husband, who evidently no one in the tiny village has ever even met.
After a overlong and drawn out sequence where Davis repeatedly denies having anyone else in the house, she finally fesses up. Only then does she share with George that in fact her dear husband is now her dearly departed husband, as she’s killed him and left him in the guest bedroom.
In another oddity, the two come up whereby George will impersonate her husband to throw off any pursuing policemen and in return he’ll help her dispose of the body. This they do in the nearby lake, though not thoroughly as we later learn.
Thereafter the balance of the movie is a bit convoluted- though with enjoyable moments- as Davis and Merrill both try to outfox and shed themselves of the other. The balance of the cast not already mentioned is a nosy neighbor (Emlyn Williams) and her secretary Chris (Barbara Murray). Chris has little to do except be the third wheel in a love triangle. Dr. Henderson, the neighbor, seems to come and go as he pleases with little explanation, though at the end of the day it comes out that he knows much more than he initially let on.
The tension escalates as George kills Janet’s best friend (a horse), and Janet sends George off on a fool’s errand in an unsafe car. The interplay between the two, both clearly trying to come to grips with what is definitely a lackluster script with more holes than a block of Swiss cheese, is the one pleasurable takeaway from Another Man’s Poison.
Bette Davis is outstanding as usual, but you feel she’s constantly on the edge of overacting. Her clipped vocal style makes it an easy segue to be a British crime writer and her diabolical self-serving attitude towards most everyone is delightful to see. There’s also strong hints of the hysterical style she employed later in her career, notably in some of the horror-esque films she starred in in the 1960s.
By the end of the film the two leads are so completely engaged in spiteful attacks and paranoia about the other that they become blind to the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. It’s clear that neither director Irving Rapper or the wobbly script could contain Davis and she overacts in places to overcompensate for the void.
Gary Merrill is also good, though I’m not so familiar with his filmography. There’s a few scenes where he seems a bit off balance, but overall he provides a strong and able adversary. He’s smart enough to realize that he can’t harm Janet directly as she’s his meal ticket but to try to bend her to his will he takes away that that she loves- namely her horse and her lover.
Outside of the weak plot, Another Man’s Poison is limited by the single set which bounds the drama. Even the slight opportunities for changing the scenery- like the disposal of the body at the lake- aren’t taken advantage of, perhaps to limit production costs. At times too, the music- a rather mundane if bombastic score from John Greenwood is clearly used as filler when the dialogue struggles.
It’s challenging in that with both leads being so despicable in their own ways, it’s hard for the viewer to get overly emotionally involved in the picture. Of course, most would lean towards siding with Bette Davis as she’s the star of the film and for the most part it is told from her perspective.
Another weakness perhaps more critical to the plot overall is how exactly Janet Frobisher, a famous murder writer, can be so naive in committing her own murder. With a housekeeper and a secretary (not to mention the neighbor) popping through the house at random intervals, wouldn’t someone find the shoes and other things that tipped George off to her husband’s return? There’s more but you see the point.
Further, it appears that she had no plan to dispose of the body before George appeared. Yet the best they could come up with was to weigh him down and throw him in the lake. Perhaps not the worst idea in itself, but they evidently did it near the bank. You’ll recall the neighbor saying he saw the body underwater on a rock from the bank of the lake. Again, you’d think a mystery writer would have the sense to at least row to the middle of the lake and dump the body, wouldn’t you?
In spite of these flaws, some of which Davis herself later admitted to, it would be unfair to label Another Man’s Poison as unentertaining. The dialogue, though stilling and discombobulated at times, can also be witty and cutting without realizing it. The real joy of the film is the interplay between Davis and co-star Gary Merrill, it turn making most of the remainder of the limited cast irrelevant. It’s still worth the price of admission, and we haven’t even spoiled the ending.