ATTENTION: This entry contains spoilers.
In his early career, before he dipped his toe into the horror genre and never quite went back, Vincent Price played rich boyfriends, debonair men with titles, and wronged protagonists. Though Dragonwyck wouldn’t be the first dive into villainy (see Shock) or terror (see The Invisible Man Returns) for Price, it is the film that best personifies his transition to the career he would eventually be known for. The complex character of Nicholas Van Ryn and the adept way in which Price plays him is why I always go back to Dragonwyck (adapted from the book by Anya Seton) as my favorite Vincent Price performance. His ability to charm the viewer and fool them into thinking that he might be redeemable makes Van Ryn all the more terrifying as he begins to sink into madness and mayhem.
Miranda Wells (played by Gene Tierney) is an innocent young farmer’s daughter, desperate for an adventure when one falls into her lap. Her parents receive a letter from a distant cousin, the wealthy patroon Nicholas Van Ryn (Price), who wants to engage Miranda as a governess and companion for his daughter Katrine. She agrees and is whisked away by the charming and take charge Nicholas.
There is already chemistry between them, but soon after arriving at Nicholas’ gothic estate Dragonwyck, Miranda (and the viewer) are reminded that their potential road to romance isn’t going to be easy. First, Nicholas shares his home with a frumpy wife, a morose daughter, and a housekeeper who appears to have a few screws loose. Before Miranda’s even been there a day, Magda (Spring Byington), the housekeeper, tells her about the family curse that haunts the Van Ryns, the inescapable disaster that is destined to befall members of the family.
Miranda brushes off this pretty blatant foreshadowing as rumor and goes about her business. Soon after, she meets the handsome Dr. Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan), a man who doesn’t even try to hide how smitten he is with her. The warmhearted but very vanilla doctor is no match for the brooding, darkly romantic figure of Nicholas Van Ryn and Turner is slid into the friend zone. Dr. Turner and Van Ryn are not only pitted against each other for Miranda’s affections, but they are on opposite sides in the growing anti-rent feud between the farmers and the landowners (or patroons), the latter of which Van Ryn happens to be. This is where Nicholas shows one of the first chinks in his carefully crafted armor. He talks down to the tenant farmers, who he clearly sees as inferior, and a first glimpse is given at a personality that is far from ideal.
When his wife dies of gastritis in her sleep, Nicholas is free and within hours of becoming a widower, he tells Miranda that they were meant to be together. She, a good girl, is appalled and leaves Dragonwyck, but realizes that she loves Nicholas and agrees to marry him. Once he has her, his mask starts to slip…
The National Domestic Violence hotline uses a chart called the Power and Control Wheel to describe how an abuser operates in a relationship. When you look at Nicholas’ behavior, even from the beginning, it becomes clear how well he fits the definition of an abuser. He emotionally abuses Miranda, calling her childish, mocking her religious and moral beliefs, and talking down to her. He isolates her, taking her away from her family, forbidding her from seeing Dr. Turner, and trying to separate her from her beloved maid Peggy (Jessica Tandy) who sees through him (all while making fun of the maid for having a disability). He uses his elevated position to lord over Miranda, stating “what you are is what I wanted you to be; you live the life that I gave you.”
The death of their newborn son essentially severs the last thread tethering Nicholas to decency and he openly commits to the true self that he’s been trying to hide. He admits to Miranda that he has become a drug addict, something that has freed him from the chains of propriety. He stops pushing down what he describes as the “rock caught in my heart, in my brain,” the evil that was always there.
But he still has one last secret.
His first wife, we discover, did not die of gastritis. When it became apparent that Nicholas needed her out of the way to make room for his new amour, he poisoned her with oleander, an act made even more sadistic by his attempts to feign concern for her before the fact and his deception afterwards, going so far as to blame Dr. Turner for not catching her illness sooner. Aside from power and control, the one thing Nicholas wants is a son to carry on the Van Ryn name, something his first wife could not give him and something he suspects Miranda also may be incapable of producing. He feels no remorse for what he has done and, when it is clear that Miranda will not be living up to his expectations, he attempts to off her in the same manner.
The film is 3/4 over by the time we, and Miranda, realize what kind of man Van Ryn really is. His villainy is a slow burn, tinged with madness and deceit, all while maintaining a charming and controlled front…until he can’t any longer.
What makes Nicholas Van Ryn terrifying is that he could be anyone’s boyfriend or husband. How do you know what lurks beneath when it is not outwardly apparent?
The question that always seems to be asked of victims of abuse is, “Why didn’t you see it sooner? Why didn’t you get out sooner?” But having been on the journey with her, it’s easy to see how Miranda was duped and caught. From the start, you want to like Nicholas, that well-dressed, charming, tall drink of water with a voice like black silk. The introduction of his despondent, sullen daughter and wife, a woman whose mind is solely focused on bonbons and is styled like an overgrown 1840s version of Shirley Temple, instantly invokes sympathy for Nicholas. Becoming an accomplice in his and Miranda’s budding romance gets easier and we are drawn in just as she is. In hindsight we can see what we didn’t want to sooner; that his wife is craving her husband’s affection and overeats as a result, that his daughter is sullen because she is troubled and neglected; she is not the son that Nicholas desperately wants and she feels that rejection. The excuses that we made for him fall away and we are left with the reality of his violence, manipulation, and abuse.
Abusers have to have something that draws you to them initially. Nicholas had charm and wealth, but he also had some moments of goodness where it’s easy to see how Miranda could fall for him on an emotional level. It’s in those moments that he snares Miranda and plants the roots that tie us to him and that make it hard for us to easily accept his villainy later without making excuses for it. Towards the beginning of the film, after telling off a group of snooty debutantes, Miranda has a moment with Nicholas on the veranda and it’s hard not to love him for appreciating her spirit, telling her not to care what others think, and whisking her off into a dance when no one else is dancing. When something Miranda says on the dance floor makes Van Ryn burst out into a velvety baritone belly laugh, it’s hard not to fall for him a little. It’s in this moment, where he has showed affection for the poor, country girl and thumbed his nose at those who appear to be even more snooty than he, that we think, maybe he’s not as snobbish as he appears. Maybe he just needs a good woman to bring out the best in him…
…or maybe he needs a jail cell.
Today, Vincent Price’s performance as Nicholas Van Ryn holds up. Price was an uncommonly talented actor, able to give any character depth, but this isn’t the only reason. Nicholas Van Ryn was and is a character who translates across cultures and generations; the abusive boyfriend or husband who turns to murder. And perhaps that’s what scares us the most, the idea that men like Nicholas Van Ryn can be killed, but will never die.
The 1946 film Dragonwyck was based on the 1944 novel by Anya Seton of the same name. It was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and Ernst Lubitsch, and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox. It also features Walter Huston and Anne Revere as Miranda’s parents.
Fun Fact: Vincent Price is my 19th cousin 4x removed…making it only slightly weird that he gives me the vapors in a movie about distant cousins marrying one another. Did you see that gif? Don’t judge.