I can’t seem to get through this romance. It is tempestuous, steeped in mystery, and features a fierce heroine who bears a vague resemblance to Jane Eyre. Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, I mean, one of the novels I picked up to set the mood for my trip to Cornwall. That was in April—and I am still not done with Mary’s adventure among the smugglers. I do like Mary, though. She is not the fainting kind, despite the danger she’s in:
A girl of three-and-twenty, in a petticoat and a shawl, with no weapons but her own brain to oppose a fellow twice her age and eight times her strength, who, if he realised she had watched the scene tonight from her window, would encircle her neck with his a hand, and, pressing lightly with finger and thumb, put an end to her questioning.
Now, the woman who portrayed her Hitchcock’s film version of Jamaica Inn, Maureen O’Hara (pictured above, during the production of the 1938 film), was a few weeks from turning twenty-three when she played another character of that mettle. On this day, 6 July, in 1943, she was heard on the US radio series Suspense in a thriller titled “The White Rose Murders.” An adaptation of a story by Cornell Woolrich, it is the sort of yarn Suspense came to be famous for.
“You’ve been reading too many of those romantic stories,” Virginia tells her fiancé, a police officer with so little self-esteem that he thinks he needs a promotion to deserve a well-to-do debutante like the young woman who’s so devoted to him, she sets out to get what he thinks is in the way of their connubial bliss. This woman is serious about marriage. You might say that she’s dying to get hitched. To achieve just that, she sets out to catch the White Rose murderer, a serial killer who strangles young women, apparently incited or inspired by the “Beer Barrel Polka” (also known as “Rosamunde”). As a token of his perverse affection, he leaves behind the bud of a white rose, the symbol, Virginia explains, of “purity, loyality, devotion.”
Virginia carefully dresses to resemble the victims and “tours the low dives,” searching in each “dingy bar” where “Rosamunde” plays, hoping to attract the man the police has been looking for in vain. As it turns out, the tune is practically everyone’s favorite, just as roses prove popular with the men she encounters. She has to smell a lot of red herrings before she meets the one who is eager to offer her that certain rose. It’s the one she least expected, of course, who is out to do her in.
Despite the names attached to this project—O’Hara, Woolrich, and composer Bernard Herrmann—”The White Rose Murders” is less lurid than it is ludicrous. The situation is suitably creepy—the kind of tale of entrapment and prolonged peril fully deserving of the label Suspense. Even the cheerful “Rosamunde” begins to sound ominous as, in the mind of the listener, it becomes associated with impending horror. Yet instead of relying on a suspenseful mood, the producers of the series insisted on adding an element of surprise—a last minute twist meant to startle the audience. It is a surprise, all right, but one that is psychologically so unconvincing as to reduce the play to mere melodramatic claptrap.
Nor does O’Hara fit her voice to the performance. Perfunctory in her reading of the script, she sounds very much like a sophisticated businesswoman out to get a job done. Perhaps, Virginia’s only adventure was to put an end to all thrills by going through the mill of matrimony. Perhaps, O’Hara had “been reading too many of those romantic stories” not to know which ones were played strictly for the money.