JOSEPH SHEARING – So Evil My Love. Harper & Brothers, US, hardcover, 1947. Pocket #560, paperback, 1948. Collier, paperback, 1961. First published in the UK by Hutchinson as For Her to See, hardcover, 1947. Film: Paramount, 1948. TV adaptation: Season 5, Episode 23 of Lux Video Theatre, 27 January 1955.

SO EVIL MY LOVE. Paramount, 1948. Ann Todd, Ray Milland, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Leo G. Carroll, Raymond Huntley. Screenplay by Ronald Millar, based on the novel by Joseph Shearing. Directed by Lewis Allen.

   A rare example of a pretty good book enriched and improved by the Hollywood Treatment.

   Marjorie Bowen (real name Mrs. Margaret Gabrielle Vere Long née Campbell) wrote about a hundred and fifty novels under a variety of pen names, but she reserved “Joseph Shearing” for books based on real-life crimes. This one is inspired by the mysterious death of Charles Bravo in 1876, referred to in the Press as “Murder in the Priory.”

   Briefly, Charles Bravo was poisoned by antimony and lingered in agony for three days without telling attending physicians how he came to ingest it. Two inquests were held, with heavy suspicion falling on his wife, but no one was ever charged.

   The novel opens with Olivia Harwood, a missionary’s widow recently returned to London and in dire straits. She contacts Susan Courtney, an old school mate now rich but unhappily married to an abusive dullard. Because she has some foolish letters Susan once wrote about her love for another man, Olivia gets a position in the household as Susan’s paid companion.

   Over the next couple hundred pages, she consolidates her power over Susan and makes enemies of everyone in the household. She also makes the acquaintance of Mark Bellis, a charming painter and obvious (to the reader) con man who talks Olivia into extorting and stealing from Susan, then absconds with the loot and the letters. By this point the relationships between the characters have gotten to the point where the only recourse for Olivia is to part Susan from her husband… permanently.

   To her credit, Shearing/Bowen does a fine job ratcheting up the suspense, especially in the inquest scenes, and she’s equally skillful at relating things from Olivia’s POV and letting us see what she’s missing. Overall though, the book suffers in comparison to the film.

   Probably because they wanted to protect the image of their stars, Paramount and writer Ronald Millar changed the dynamics between the characters considerably, and in the process made them deeper and more complex. In the book, Olivia is motivated by greed and envy, but in the film Ann Todd is a loyal friend to Susan (A brilliant performance from Geraldine Fitzgerald) who is corrupted by Ray Milland and genuinely torn when she sees her old friend charged with murder and realizes she has done this to her.

   For his part, Milland imparts his equivocal charm to the Mark Bellis character, who doesn’t come in till well into the book, but shows up early in the film. Even better, the more he corrupts Olivia, the more he finds himself genuinely drawn to her. And as the two characters pursue their passion, it leads to a richly ironic conclusion that eerily recalls Letter from an Unknown Woman or Duel in the Sun in its satisfying tragedy.

   Director Lewis Allen puts all this across with typical Paramount polish and a measured pace perfectly suited to the material. He also steps back and gives his supporting players plenty of room to strut their stuff. I’ve already mentioned Geraldine Fitzgerald, but she deserves another nod for the way she moves her character from vapid cheer to despairing near-madness. Raymond Huntley plays the nasty husband as a perfect prick, but with a faint trace of sympathy that makes him more believable. Even stuffy Leo G. Carroll lends a touch of roguishness to his role as a cynical PI who moves the story to its conclusion.

   In sum, this is a film that departs considerably from its source, but one you shouldn’t miss.