"You 'avent spent any part of your childhood in the slums have you, your ladyship? Well I have. If it don't take the 'eart out of you I don't know what it does. It makes a blooming king out of you."
White Woman is an extraordinary star vehicle for Charles Laughton; an insane mix of Rain, Red Dust and his own Island of Lost Souls; at once compendium and culmination of his early American work. His character - Horace Prin, king of the river - is an egomaniac sexual sadist with a Zapata moustache and a natty straw boater, whose sense of invincibility is dependent on having complete control of all who come under his purview. Like Dr Moreau he is lawless lord of all he surveys, a tyrant and oppressor (his slaves not animal hybrids but what he calls 'ostile 'eathens; his staff are criminals on the run over whom he can exercise power like his assistant in Lost Souls). There is Nero from Sign of the Cross here too, not least in the sexual appetites the pre-Code scenario writer need not obscure, yoked to the pathological sexual jealousy of Devil and the Deep's Commander Sturm.
Hard to imagine how the character was written, before Laughton got his hands on him, but he opts to play him as music hall cockney, and to deliver every single line of dialogue sarcastically, as when a member of his blackmailed staff announces his intention of returning to civilisation, to which Prin has seemingly acquiesced: "Well, pleasant journey to you, Hambly. My compliments to your family. You remember Anderson now, don't you? He 'ad to go 'ome, sudden like, just like yourself. Poor chap; he 'ad a bit of business with the crocodiles on the way down. We all missed 'im, didn't we, fellas? You might look in on 'is family, tell 'em how we missed 'im. When you gets 'ome."
There is all you need here already for grim melodrama, especially at a studio with no qualms about supplying the kind of horror imagery American cinema would henceforth be denied for thirty-five years, as when we see in explicit detail a severed head being thrown through a window and rolling across the floor.
But we haven't reckoned on the explosive final ingredient: the white woman herself.
She's Carole Lombard, and white she most assuredly is, like a marble ghost. Dressed alternately in white and black sheath dresses she looks almost unhealthily pale (and preposterously so, given the tropic location); the skin is porcelain, the hair is plastic melted to the contours of her head. Only the dark slash make-up of lips and eyes bring definition to the glowing haze.
Prin's attitude towards her is difficult to work out: dazzled on first appearance and tempted by the prospect of another over whom he can exercise control (her husband committed suicide after discovering her sexual infidelity; she's now a café singer facing extradition) he offers her marriage in exchange for no more harassment from the authorities. She accepts, but by the time we next see them arriving at his river home a wall of disgust has already risen between them.
That Prin wants her principally as a trophy is obvious ("'Ere, you greasy beggars, you 'ave the 'onour of beholding Mrs Prin," he says to his assembled staff; "She's lovely isn't she?") though we are left in no doubt of her responsibilities when he proceeds to order her into the bedroom. Yet his ardour seems to cool almost immediately; though he threatens murder to the men who instantly flock to her, he does so lazily, as if going through the motions merely, and he makes little effort to deny her the opportunity for romantic encounters. (Charles Bickford's bluff overseer is a particular delight: "You can do a lot worse in this hole than give me a tumble," he tells Lombard; "I've watched those big eyes of yours - and other things!")
Prin's end comes through hubris and that speciality of the actor: the slow, painful, visible slide from extreme mental instability to unequivocal madness. So often his characters are not mad but skirtng the condition's edge, only to fall at the last. Think of Sturm in his submarine or, later, Sir Humphrey Pengallon in Jamaica Inn, leaping to his death from a ship's crow's-nest before first informing the crowd below to tell their children they were present when the great age ended.
Here, trapped in his fortress home with only Bickford for company and death inevitable, the pair opt to play cards, but when Bickford is killed in his chair by a poison dart Prin sees this as just one more betrayal ("You ungrateful 'ound!"), and ends up screaming in his face: "Soft! That's what you was! All of you! Mush!" Whereupon he calmly steps outside to take a fatal spear in the gut.
White Woman may not have the sobriety of high art, and Laughton may have taken its lead role on in the spirit of a lark, but it is much more than a mere programmer, and Laughton's performance, usually dismissed by his biographers, is amazing.