She Played with Fire
Cast & Crew
After a fitful dream, London insurance investigator Oliver Branwell muses about an incident that occurred in the second year of his tenure at the Abercrombie insurance company: On Christmas Eve, Oliver is sent to Louis Manor, an estate owned by Tracey Moreton, to assess the damage caused by an electrical fire. Oliver is greeted by Tracey and his cousin and neighbor, Clive Fisher. After Tracey introduces Oliver to his wife Sarah and his mother, he shows him a valuable landscape painting that was damaged in the fire and invites him to stay for dinner. Although Sarah and Oliver were sweethearts five years earlier, and have not seen each other since, they pretend never to have met before. Several days later, Oliver surprises Sarah outside her London office and insists that she join him for coffee. When Oliver accuses Sarah of walking out on him, she protests that she was forced to leave after her father was threatened with prosecution for issuing worthless checks. Sarah and Oliver were each too proud to contact the other, and hence, Sarah met and married Tracey. Several months after his meeting with Sarah, Oliver is sent by his firm to convince recalcitrant film star Charles Highbury, who is suffering from a black eye, to return to work. After Highbury haughtily dismisses Oliver, Oliver overhears the actor's secretary speaking to a Mrs. Vere Litchen and decides to pay the lady a visit. At Vere's apartment, Oliver notices a landscape painting hanging on the wall similar to the one destroyed in the Moreton fire. He also learns from the flirtatious Vere that Highbury's wife gave him the black eye after she returned home unexpectedly and caught him with Vere. Oliver uses the information to embarrass Highbury into returning to work. Several months later, Clive brings Tracey, who is suffering from an asthma attack, to Oliver's office. Tracey explains that he is too ill to keep his date with Sarah at the theater and asks Oliver to go in his place. After the performance, Oliver and Sarah are caught in a rainstorm and Oliver insists that Sarah come to his apartment to dry off. There, Sarah casually questions Oliver about how to set a fire, and he asks her if she loves her husband. After Sarah explains that Tracey needs her, Oliver drives her home, where Tracey insists that he spend the night. The next day, as Sarah gives Oliver a tour of the estate, he recognizes the view as the landscape depicted noth in Vere's painting, and the painting that was purportedly destroyed in the fire. Upon returning to the city, Oliver goes to question Vere and is greeted by Willis Croft, her wealthy American fiancé who owns the apartment and its contents. When Willis describes the woman who sold the painting to him, Oliver becomes convinced that the woman was Sarah. Upon learning that Tracey, Sarah and Mrs. Moreton have decided to vacate Louis Manor while the fire damage is being repaired, Oliver drives to the empty house to ascertain if the paintings in Tracey's collection are forgeries. After sneaking in, Oliver stumbles over Tracey's dead body at the foot of the stairs and notices the railing that Tracey broke as he plunged to his death. Seeing smoke billowing from under the cellar door, Oliver hurries to the basement and finds a fire started in the exact method he described to Sarah. As Oliver phones the police, flames engulf the house, forcing him to jump out a window just as the fire brigade arrives. Upon returning home, Oliver falls into a fitful sleep until he is awakened by a phone call from Michael Abercrombie, his employer, notifying him about Tracey's death and the fire at Louis Manor. Several months later, Oliver receives a letter from Sarah informing him that she is the sole beneficiary of Tracey's insurance policy. When Sarah comes to visit soon after, Oliver accuses her of setting the fire and selling the painting to Croft. After Sarah storms out in indignation, Oliver goes to see Croft to show him Sarah's photograph. When Croft states that Sarah was not the woman who sold the painting, Oliver apologizes to her and they reconcile. Upon learning of Tracey's insurance fraud of the painting, Sarah insists on returning the settlement. Oliver proposes and on the day that they are wed, they go to Michael's office to return the check. Michael is away, however, and so they leave on their honeymoon without returning the money. Several days later, Sarah receives a letter containing Tracey's ring. Alarmed, they immediately return home. Soon after, Sarah is contacted by a Mr. Jerome, who tells her that his client has proof that the fire at Louis Manor was fraud and demands half the settlement for his silence. Jerome instructs her to meet him that night with her answer, but when the blackmailer fails to appear, Sarah nervously decides to take her dog for a walk. After she leaves, Sgt. Barnes and Det. Con. Watson come to question Oliver about the fire. When Oliver determines that the police suspect him and Sarah of setting the fire, he realizes that returning the check would make them appear even more guilty. The next day, Jerome phones Oliver at his office and sets up a meeting that night at the bandstand in the park. That evening, Sarah and Oliver hide in the park, and when Jerome leaves, they follow him home. There, they find a woman fitting Sarah's description and a stack of forged paintings. At that moment, Clive arrives, admits that he was the mastermind behind the forgery scheme and demands money for his silence. When Oliver and Sarah return home, they discover the dog is missing and Oliver finds a burning cigarette butt in the ashtray which he then extinguishes and stuffs his pocket. The next day, Oliver is summoned to Michael's office, and when he sees Barnes there, assumes that the detective has accused him of fraud. After handing Michael Sarah's insurance check, Oliver indignantly proclaims his innocence and departs. Meanwhile, Sarah has found the cigarette butt in Oliver's pocket and leaves a note informing him that she has gone to Louis Manor. Upon finding the note, Oliver hurriedly drives there and finds Sarah arguing with Mrs. Moreton, who has admitted that she took the dog and sent the ring. Mrs. Moreton explains that on the night of Tracey's death, she returned to the manor, suspecting that her son was planning to set another fire. When she confronted Tracey, he ran up the stairs in a rage, fell against the railing and plunged to his death. After Mrs. Moreton tells her story to a board of inquiry, Oliver insists on resigning from the firm as a point of honor, but his colleagues prevail upon him to stay.
She Played With Fire
Released in England in the spring of 1957 under its original title, Fortune Is a Woman, the film was re-titled for its American release by Columbia Pictures in spring 1958. But it was relegated to the lower half of double bills and ignored by most American critics. Gilliat attributed the poor U.S. reception to what he considered a lousy title. He didn't care for the British title either, and actually wanted to call it Red Sky at Night, but by the time he thought of that title it was too late to change it.
The story, drawn from a novel by Winston Graham, centers on an insurance man played by Jack Hawkins who investigates a fire at the country manor home of Dennis Price, only to discover that Price's wife (Arlene Dahl) is an old flame. Hawkins suspects Dahl of foul play but keeps it to himself as his desire for her is reawakened. And that's just the beginning of a twisty, gothic tale of fires, fraud, blackmail, art theft and romance. Ultimately, Hawkins' own investigative career and professional integrity become at risk.
She Played with Fire was filmed in and around London in 1956, with the atmosphere and moodiness of the area coming through. Some sequences were shot in the actual Lloyds of London insurance house. British reviews were very strong. In the U.S., Variety deemed the film a bit too bogged down by its intricate plot but still a success overall, with outstanding acting: "Jack Hawkins, one of Britain's most consistent performers, turns in a thoroughly convincing and acceptable study of the insurance man, who keeps quiet for too long. It is an unfalteringly dependable performance." Also in the cast are real-life father and son actors Malcolm and Geoffrey Keen, as father and son employers, and Christopher Lee as a comically arrogant Welsh murder suspect and wannabe opera singer.
American actress Arlene Dahl, as usual, drew notices more for her elegant beauty than for her underrated acting. But in fact, her performance is key to this film's success, as she leaves the audience guessing until the end as to her guilt or innocence.
Influential gossip columnist Louella Parsons once wrote that there were only three actresses in Hollywood who were so naturally beautiful that they could step in front of a camera without makeup: Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner and Arlene Dahl. But after this film, Dahl appeared on movie screens only sporadically, as she transitioned more to a career as a health and beauty columnist and author. In fact, when she made She Played with Fire, she was already publishing her column three times a week.
Film scholar William K. Everson later wrote that She Played with Fire looks like "an echo of early Hitchcock and Agatha Christie at a time when thrillers were starting to get more serious...and when the slickness and gimmicks of James Bond were just around the corner. It's still old-fashioned, but...that has become rather a virtue. It's traditional rather than clichéd, a cozy, civilized, non-violent but quite absorbing mystery."
By Jeremy Arnold
Rolf Canton, Minnesotans in the Movies
William K. Everson, The New School film program notes, Feb. 26, 1982
Tom Johnson and Mark A. Miller, The Christopher Lee Filmography
She Played With Fire
The film's working title was Fortune Is a Woman, which was also the British release title and the title of the print viewed. Before the opening onscreen credits roll, an image of a metronome dissolves into the image of a car's windshield wipers sweeping rain from the windshield. This and the following shots are rendered from the driver's point of view. The car drives down the long driveway of Louis Manor and stops at the door. The door opens, the camera dollies into a room and stops at a painting of a landscape. The driver then sees the dangling hand of a man's prone body on the staircase. At that moment, "Oliver Branwell" awakens from his nightmare. The opening credits then roll.
The opening and closing cast credits differ slightly in order. Oliver's offscreen narration is interspersed throughout the film. The film was shot at the Shepperton Studios in England. Although a Hollywood Reporter news item notes that Don Loper was to design Arlene Dahl's wardrobe, dress designer Anthony Mendleson is the only credited costumer.