Saturday, July 2, 2011

Payment Deferred (1932)

Charles Laughton, albeit having been in a few features films since his debut in 1928, was still a rather unknown in Hollywood coming into 1932. But with his stage success in New York he would finally move his way west and focus on a career in the motion pictures. 1932 would be his break-out year on screen. Laughton would be brought on to star in a picture based off the same Broadway play he worked on the previous year, Payment Deferred. The film about a desperate clerk that goes too far to take care of his family, though not memorable would be a stepping stone to the tremendous Hollywood career of Charles Laughton.

Payment Deferred is the tale of a man so desperate for money he murders a family member and then struggles with the metal torture that follows him afterwards, destroying his entire life. William Marble (Charles Laughton), a heavily in debt bank clerk becomes so desperate to pay his bills that he secretly poisons a distant nephew (played by Ray Milland) who stops to visit. With the money he takes from the body, William turns it into a small fortune from stock tips, but he is haunted by his actions. Trouble deepens as William has an affair with a neighbor shop owner, Marguerite (Verree Teasdale), for when his wife Anne (Dorothy Peterson) discovers both the truth of the murder and the affair, she commits suicide with the same cyanide used in William's previous poisoning. William is convicted for the murder of his wife and sentenced to death where he tells his daughter, Winnie (Maureen O'Sullivan), that this is the debt he has to pay.

For what would prove to be a vehicle for the upstart of Laughton's career, Payment Deferred is a good film. Though with a rather slow start to the picture, as the plot thickens things get more interesting. With inspirations from Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" and suspense harkening to Hitchcock thrillers, the movie works its way to an ending that says no evil deed goes unpunished, as William Marble is left an utterly broken man. The picture starts with a scene that takes place after the conclusion of the film, where we see Winnie passing by her former home where the poisonings happened, giving a front bookend, but no back-end to it all out. That leaves a little unfulfilled feeling when thinking back on it. Perhaps it could have been left out. The suspense is well played by Laughton as he is reminded by the unnatural lump of dirt in his garden where his dead nephew lies, and how his guilt and suspicion eats at him making him mad. It would be no easy task to make an entire film that takes place in one setting, but with the inspiration of the play and the direction of Lothar Mendes, the hour and a half film carries your attention well enough, after the slow first 20-25 minutes that is.

Laughton's calling as a screen actor was just beginning at this point. His future would have him in much more loud, caricature-like roles starting with a film that would open a matter of three weeks after Payment Deferred, The Sign of the Cross, with Laughton playing a supporting role as Nero. So here it is a treat to see him play a normal man with a wide array or emotions.

The supporting cast does a fine job under its star. Capped with the innocent acting of Maureen O'Sullivan, she would be the heart of the picture as she seems to deny the truth that surrounds her always hoping for the better. O'Sullivan would be best known for her role as Jane in the many Tarzan pictures staring Johnny Weissmuller. Dorothy Peterson as the broken mother of the family who kills herself over the deeds of her husband carries with her the tragic reality of crime not paying. Ray Milland, though on screen for such a short amount of time plays a great deal of emotions, first as a happy distant relative reunited, to being insulted and frightened just before his sudden death. A film cannot be enjoyable without a good supporting cast and, lucky in this case, the film did.

There is not much to say about Payment Deferred. Is it good? Slow at first, but yes, especially if you enjoy classic crime/suspense films. Is there any significance to the picture? Other than an early Charles Laughton film, no. This would have been your run of the mill, average picture show in 1932. The movie must have been a cheaper one, with limited sets and lesser known actors. If there is anything to take away for this picture is the good acting of Laughton when you think that the entire picture takes place inside the same house with so few characters.  But his best was yet to come.

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