My Review of ‘The Sign of the Ram’ (1948)

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This movie gets its biggest distinction by featuring a wheelchair-bound actress in the lead role. The story of Susan Peters would make an excellent subject for an entirely separate post. Peters had acted for years and was married for a time to actor-director Richard Quine, but dropped out of pictures after a 1945 hunting accident left her paralyzed below the waist.

In many ways, it is not an easy film to watch. Knowing that Peters actually couldn’t walk does nothing to lessen one’s discomfort.

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Via Vodly Movies.

Basically, the story concerns the arrival of a new female assistant to the husband character, who lives with his wife (the one in the wheelchair) and his children from a previous marriage. And, in what seems to be a nice change from the usual trope of the horrible step-mother, the kids seem to adore the invalid wife. They adore her, perhaps, a bit too much.

In any case, the husband’s assistant, Sherida (played by Phyllis Thaxter) arrives at the huge family mansion poised on a rocky edge of shoreline by the sea. And Peters plays Leah St. Aubyn — a rich person’s name, if there ever was one — who keeps a passive-aggressive hold over the entire family by playing the guilt card to keep them living with her.

The story is based on a novel by Margaret Lindsay that the New York Times described as “a book to chill the cockles of your heart.” Yeah, I’d say that sums it up.

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THE SIGN OF THE RAM, Susan Peters, Phyllis Thaxter, 1948 (via mubi.com)

Peters delivers an absolutely gutsy performance in the role. She had turned down numerous parts that she deemed too saccharine or too imbued with a bid for pity. Well, she got a role with genuine meat in this one.

Upon Sherida’s arrival, Leah seems quite happy. Or, at least, she smiles and nearly jumps for joy throws a one-person party radiates contentment. But there is this odd, super-restrained vibe to her happiness.

Her attitude is, of course, a shell of positive visualization can-do attitude. One that starts to crack as Leah’s makeshift family — more specifically, her adopted children — leave the nest.

And the machinations she goes through to keep them there would do the Machiavellis proud.

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Via Riding the High Country

Without revealing all (and really, it’s a fairly straightforward plot), I’ll just say that the nastiness of the main character is the kind one might associate more with melodrama then film noir. Bosley Crowther, with characteristic kindness and generosity, put it like this, “Plainly the story is claptrap. And the direction of John Sturges is such that the illogic and the pomposity are only magnified. By showing Miss Peters, in her wheelchair, as though she were an alabaster doll, with just about as much personality, he has completely denatured her role. … [The film has] a slowness of tempo and such a sombreness of tone that the whole thing drifts into monotony.”

I wouldn’t go quite that far, but despite its flaws, the film has enough of a creepy undertone (not to mention the sheer guts it must have taken Peters to play the role) that makes it almost as fascinating to watch as a very slow car crash. And the ending is (without a doubt) pure film noir.

Oh, and the scenery is gorgeous!

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Here’s Eddie Muller’s intro from TCM Noir Alley!

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New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including the Sam McRae Mystery series. Screenwriter, podcaster, and blogger. My website: www.debbimack.com.

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