By Brian Lafferty
June 5, 2012 (San Diego) – There is a scene in Rage in Heaven in which Philip (Robert Montgomery) lures Ward (George Sanders) up to a scaffold at a steel mill where a worker fell and instantly perished in a pile of molten steel. According to the workers, the scaffold’s oblique positioning is such that it’s impossible for anyone to see anything. As Philip convinces Ward to lean over and look down, he’s ready to push the man to his death.
This scene, little more than halfway into the film, occurs at what would ordinarily be too early for an important character like Ward to die. However, W.S. Van Dyke’s direction, the screenwriters’ unpredictable set-up and plotting, and Robert Montgomery’s performance made strong such a possibility.
It all starts when Philip escapes from a French sanitarium and heads back to England. He falls in love with Stella (Ingrid Bergman), a stunningly beautiful war refugee employed by Philip’s mother as her secretary. She’s more in love with Philip’s friend Ward, but his job takes him away to Ireland. She reciprocates Philip’s love enough to marry him.
What Stella doesn’t know is that her otherwise charming husband suffers from extreme paranoia, and is prone to psychotic – even murderous – fits of jealousy. His mental instability is slowly brought out when he suspects Ward of getting too close with his wife.
Rage in Heaven wouldn’t be as remarkably chilling were it not for Montgomery’s two-layered performance. On the outside, his demeanor is calm and affable. Although he doesn’t display much emotion, if you were to sit next to him on a bus, you could carry a friendly conversation with him.
But beneath that veneer is a twisted mind diseased by paranoia. It’s evident the moment he lays eyes on the stray cat that Ward gives to Stella, a cat that he later kills. (Offscreen, thank goodness. Sorry, but I feel the same way about scenes of cats being in danger the same way Gene Siskel hated scenes of children in peril.) A manipulative jerk, he alienates everybody he works with at the steel mill. This generates some heated suspense when rebellious workers nearly riot after he stubbornly refuses to fund their needed housing project. His utter lack of concern brings the situation to a near boil.
Ingrid Bergman’s casting spikes up the already high chill factor. Her naïveté, innocence, and angel-face look had me under her spell. Her accent is aurally arresting. These attributes elicit sympathy and concern for her. She isn’t someone you want to see harmed, emotionally or physically. It made me all the more truly hate Philip for the way he mistreated her.
Bronislau Kaper’s score contains twisted tonalities, along with an almost indescribable “evil” sound intermittently spread out. Other times it sounds as “deep” as the vast recesses of Philip’s paranoia-riddled mind. Like Montgomery’s performance, it doesn’t overpower, yet you can’t ignore it.
The Warner Archive Collection does yet another solid remaster. The black and white cinematography by Oliver Marsh and George J. Folsey (uncredited) isn’t especially noteworthy; the lighting is the standard Hollywood three-point kind then-popular. I was more impressed with the deep focus shots, which the filmmakers routinely make full use of. In the aforementioned steel mill scene, the melting steel spills in the background. In the foreground is smoke. Philip and Ward fill out the middle ground. This composition generates suspense by giving the audience an idea of the forbiddingly hot work environment and the deadly nature of the occupation.
Rage in Heaven induced strong emotional reactions from me, with anger, fear, and sadness being most prominent. The screenplay, by Christopher Isherwood and Robert Thoeren, doesn’t go overboard and it doesn’t go the cheap route in getting these responses. Saying this is a good old-fashioned suspense movie isn’t enough. It’s a great old-fashioned thriller.
Rage in Heaven is available only through manufacture-on-demand through the Warner Archive Collection. You can order it here.
A Warner Archive Collection release. Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Screenplay: Christopher Isherwood and Robert Thoeren, from the novel by James Hilton. Original Music: Bronislau Kaper. Cinematographers: Oliver T. Marsh and George J. Folsey (uncredited). Cast: Robert Montgomery, Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, and Lucile Watson. 85 minutes.