Directed by Douglas Sirk; Written by Osar Saul and Andrew Solt
It’s a stormy night in England, and the townspeople are seeking shelter from the floods at the local convent. Among the displaced, a convicted murderess on her way to the nearest city to hang. That is, if the stabbing looks and sharp tongues flitting behind her back don’t do her in first. Sister Mary, matron of the convent, sees something in this young girl, however, and convinced of her innocence, sets about to prove it.
A mystery thriller full of mystique, Thunder On The Hill was one of four films Douglas Sirk made in 1951 (idle hands are the devil’s playthings, the old studio system seemed to think) and it shows, making it easy to see why this film was eclipsed by the great works that were to come later this decade.
The almost single location setting, a formidable old convent battered by rain, wind and lightning does create an eerie embattled atmosphere where the hangman’s noose looms like a thunderstruck shadow. Based on the play Bonaventure by Charlotte Hastings, it’s a shade too close to dime store novel, however, a cheap little thing churned out for cheap thrills.
Is the young Valerie Carns innocent? If so, who’s the real murderer? Are they stuck at the castle along with everyone else? How far will Sister Mary go to save this young woman? How far will she go against her peers, public opinion, or superiors?
The characters who are meant to tell us are close to cardboard, and they become mulch in the hands of most of the cast. Ann Blyth, who was Oscar-nominated as devil child Veda in Mildred Pierce, tries to compete with the shrieking wind as she wails with despair over Valerie’s cruel fate, histrionics getting the better of her performance. As her fiancée Sidney, Philip Friend is wimpy, delivering his lines with a simpering quiver when we first meet him.
In the middle is Claudette Colbert, who perhaps benefits from having to play a cool-headed and composed nun. Sirk, a master of melodrama, does lose the reins of his acting troupe here, and the performances run amok around Colbert’s Sister Mary, whose more restrained character leaves her relatable only by contrast.
Sirk’s not entirely at fault here. Saul and Solt’s script deserves no stay of execution, with line exchanges awfully stiff and uninspired. You find yourself tuning it out to instead look around the grand sets of the convent, with its little alcoves, hidden gardens and arched halls.
The setting and premise is the sell, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for being curious about a murder mystery set at a windswept convent, but I’d suggest you keep on looking and let Thunder On The Hill pass you by.