British Empire in Film Blogathon: “The Heart of the Matter” (1953)

This post is my hopelessly late contribution to the excellent British Empire in Filml_47066_ebf103e2 Blogathon (thank you, crippling four-day migraine). Go check out some of the other fine entries! When you’re done reading this one, of course.

George More O’Ferrall’s The Heart of the Matter is an adaptation of Graham Greene’s wonderful 1948 bummer of a novel of the same name. As a representation of colonial Sierra Leone, where the whole story takes place, it isn’t especially illuminating…except of course for the marked absence of black characters or local events impinging on the plot in any way. On the one hand, it’s not a bad adaptation of the novel—it does a fine job of preserving what is arguably the core of the novel, that is, Scobie’s struggle to do right by his Catholicism in the context of his extramarital affair (and, er, British imperialism). On the other hand, the film has chosen to eliminate any of Greene’s meditation on colonialism or race, which is, in the novel, intimately tied to the narrative of Scobie’s Catholicism. (For instance, in the film, Scobie has an affair with a young white woman, Helen. The novel’s Scobie has an affair with a Sierra Leonean woman, who is, naturally, black.) I try not to judge movies based on how well they do something they weren’t trying to do in the first place. It’s hard, though, to forgive a movie set in colonial Sierra Leone with a colonial policeman as its protagonist that isn’t interested in either of those things. Of course, to act as though those things go without saying is a very colonial attitude. And take a look at the film’s poster with its realistic representation of the white characters and the anonymous, stylized natives below them.

The fine Trevor Howard plays Henry Scobie, a colonial police officer in Sierra Leone during World War II. Howard is a strong argument for watching this film. Conveying the internal struggle of someone wrestling with questions of eternal damnation and the suffering of others is no small achievement and he does a remarkable job. Being properly British, Scobie isn’t given to displays of emotion but we can tell, even when his face goes stony, that he is suffering. Scobie’s stiff-upper-lippiness is in stark contrast to his wife, Louise. Played by Elizabeth Allan in a thankless role, she is shrewish and unstable, partly as a result of the being ostracized by the colonial community. Mostly she’s just unlikeable.

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Scobie being importuned by wife Louise.

Greene’s protagonist is filled with a sense of duty motivated by the pity he feels for others—his wife, the young woman with whom he starts an affair, the law he’s charged with upholding. This is a familiar theme for Greene. It is the motor that drives the hero in his novel Ministry of Fear, a characteristic which does not show up in the Fritz Lang’s film version (which I wrote about here). It’s nice to see somebody take the Greene malaise seriously. At the beginning of the film Scobie is already in the unenviable position of being married to someone whom he doesn’t love and who makes him miserable and, because he’s Catholic, someone he cannot divorce. (I do wish people would stop misspelling cannot as can not.) Scobie believes he is responsible for the unpleasant person Louise has become. In order to fulfill his sense of obligation to her, he borrows money from an unscrupulous Algerian trader Yusef, so that she can travel to South Africa. Yusef (Gérard Oury) is almost as interestingly complex as Scobie. He is a product of French colonialism and, though he is the closest thing to a villain here, we sense there is a corner of him that wishes he weren’t so corrupt. That corner wants to be Scobie’s friend. There’s an excellent shot of Scobie returning to his bungalow, where Yusef is waiting for him. The staging makes Yusef an unseemly bump in Scobie’s path to the better person he so desperately wants to be, the corruption that spreads itself out over everything in Scobie’s life.

Yusef

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Publicity still of Helen (Maria Schell) and Scobie (Trevor Howard)

Scobie is convinced that he is responsible for his wife’s misery and for the misery of the woman he truly loves, his mistress, Helen (Maria Schell, sister of actor Maximilian Schell). When Louise, a practicing but less conflicted Catholic, insists Scobie accompany her to Mass, Scobie is faced with a theological dilemma. If he goes to Mass and accepts communion without having confessed, i.e., in a state of mortal sin, he damns himself for eternity. If he doesn’t accompany Louise, she will know something is wrong. Neither can he simply confess his transgression. For his confession to be absolved, Scobie must truly mean it when he promises to stop committing adultery. Otherwise, he remains a mortal sinner. Because Scobie can’t stand the idea of adding to his wife’s misery by exposing her to his affair, he is literally damned either way.

One of the triumphs of Greene’s writing, and, I think, Howard’s acting, is that we sympathize with a character whose deepest-held beliefs are ones we likely don’t share. Indeed, Scobie’s actions may seem unfathomable in their unnecessary self-destructiveness. Partly this is an effect of making Scobie such a sincere and devout Catholic. Howard makes us believe that Scobie’s doomed attempts to live up to his God are necessary, for him. He never expects anyone else to live up to his strict Catholicism—it is his belief, not others’. He believes he is causing others to suffer, and that if he does “the right thing,” he will be able to ameliorate their suffering. It’s the paradox of a kind of magical thinking: the arrogance of believing we have magical power over things we can’t control combined with the selflessness of someone overwhelmed by pity for those around him.

There are some wonderful, less miserable moments in the film, as when Scobie reads to a boy rescued from a torpedoed ship in the British hospital. Scobie is provided a morally uplifting book titled A Bishop among the Bantus: Twenty-five Years in Africa. The boy, who, like many children, has very firm ideas about how the story should go, inspires Scobie to some artistic license so as not to disappoint him.

“Is it a murder story?” the boy asks hopefully. Scobie offers him the title, claiming that Bishop is the name of the hero.

“But you said A Bishop.” Honestly, the child is remarkably alert given that he’s been floating on wreck off the coast of West Africa for forty days.

trevor1“Yes,” Scobie pauses. “His name was Arthur.”

“What a soppy name.”

“Yes, but then he’s a soppy hero.”

“Heros aren’t soppy,” the boy insists.

“The real heroes are the Bantus.”

“What are Bantus?”

“They’re a ferocious gang of pirates.”

“Does Arthur Bishop pursue them?

“Yes, he’s a secret agent. He—er—dresses up as a seaman and he—er—sails away on a merchantman so that he can be captured by the Bantus, and he discovers all their secret hiding places so that when the time is right, he can betray them.”

“He sounds a bit of a cad.”

“He is. And you know he falls in love with daughter of the captain of the Bantus. That’s when he turns soppy. But there are bags of murders before then,” he assures his now-eager audience, and proceeds to invent a suspenseful yarn about Arthur Bishop pursuing Blackbeard, the Bantu.

It is during this moment of freedom from worry and spiritual conflict that Scobie seems the most himself. It’s no accident that this is also the moment he meets Helen, another rescued passenger, who falls in love with him. I wouldn’t mind Trevor Howard reading me bedtime stories, either, especially if they’re filled with bags of murders and ferocious pirates.

The film also offers an impossibly young and slick—and unlikeable!—Denholm Elliott.

The film also offers an impossibly young and slick—and unlikeable!—Denholm Elliott.

The film uses only ambient sound, so all the music in the film is local to Sierra Leone. It’s quite wonderful and there’s a fair bit of it. Something else in the film from Sierra Leone is John Akar, who plays Scobie’s valet, Ali, the only black part with anything resembling character development. Akar would later become Director of Broadcasting in Sierra Leone.  In case you’re wondering, as I was, Sierra Leone achieved independence in 1961.

The movie is streaming free on Amazon Prime and definitely worth a watch.

Don’t forget to read more of the British Empire in Film Blogathon posts!

 

 

 

 

World War I: King and Country (1964)

This post is a part of the fantastic World War I in Classic Film blogathon hosted by the always intriguing Movies Silently and Silent-ology – go read the other excellent posts!

 

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One of the great—and somewhat overlooked—films about World War I was originally made for television in Britain, filmed entirely on a claustrophobic set with a small budget and a tight schedule (just under a month). Directed in 1964 by Joseph Losey, an American ex-pat across the pond, King and Country is based on a fictionalized memoir (Return to the Wood), also made into a play (“Hamp”). Never broadcast in Britain, it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1964, where it was quite popular.

The film is just under an hour and a half, and like its predecessor Paths of Glory (1957), it doesn’t waste time. The story begins with Private Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay) already locked up in a makeshift cell, with a bedstead for a door, charged with desertion. Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) arrives to defend him at the trial the company will hold just behind the trenches, in the bombed-out buildings of Passchendaele, near Ypres, in Belgium.

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The location of the trial, in those crumbling structures, already suggests the corruption that will guide the proceedings. But the conflict in the film isn’t just between the immoral inertia of army command and, at least during the trial, Hargreaves; it is also a class conflict. When Hargreaves arrives, he has nothing but contempt for the working-class Hamp. Before meeting Hamp, he insists to Hamp’s platoon leader that the trial is “a waste of time,” and that Hamp should be shot because, as a soldier, he is broken.

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Tom Courtenay as Private Arthur Hamp and Dirk Bogarde as Captain Hargreaves.

Hamp certainly is broken, and Courtenay’s lost and exhausted look throughout the film conveys this with pathos. Hamp, a cobbler like his father and grandfather, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and between army indoctrination and traditional class distinctions, he has been trained in deference to his superiors. When Hargreaves inquires, “Do you know why I’m asking you these questions?” Hamp’s reply is almost cheerful: “You know best, sir.” He assures his platoon leader, “I’m sure I’ll get a fair trial.” Hamp trusts the system. Specifically, he trusts the system to recognize that what the army has labeled desertion was nothing more than an uncontrollable bodily urge to get away (not unlike the diarrhea Hamp is plagued with at several upsetting moments in the film).

Quite obviously suffering from shellshock, Hamp simply goes for a walk, ten days after returning from the front. As Hargreaves learns during his interview with the Private, Hamp has been soldiering for three years at one battle or another. As Hargreaves points out during the trial, this is longer than many of the officers under whom Hamp serves. He is the last survivor of his original platoon. Hamp has nearly drowned in a foxhole. Hamp’s friend, Willie Bryson, is blown up next to him, what’s left of Willie’s body landing all over Hamp. And recently, Hamp has received a letter from home informing him that his wife has left him for another man. When he “deserts,” Hamp simply wants to get away from the noise of the guns. Insofar as he’s thinking about what he’s doing at all, he thinks in a vague way that he will walk home to Islington.

Hargreaves loses his crusty upper-class contempt for Hamp during the interview before the trial. Hargreaves is sure Hamp is not his equal intellectually or socially, but he does understand that Hamp has been traumatized. It is painfully obvious that Hamp did not plan to desert—that he didn’t plan anything. Hamp is portrayed as a man who may not be capable of planning anything. He even joined the army on a dare. Courtenay’s Hamp is unable to articulate a defense, perhaps because questions like, “When did you decide to leave?” and “Why did you leave?” simply don’t make any sense to him. As Hargreaves argues during the trial, Hamp “had not the power to decide whether to stay or go.” Hamp does have, Hargreaves notes, “an embarrassing honesty, which made him a bad witness in his own case.”

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Courtenay, Bogarde, and Losey on the set.

The danger of Hamp’s character is that he might come across as a cipher—a blank—for all the poor saps in the trenches. Thankfully, Courtenay makes Hamp a real person, makes his initial trust in the system and his genuine confusion at his own behavior believable. Nor does Bogarde, who brought the script of the play to Losey, dilute Hargreaves’s classism. It may be Hamp’s naïve belief that everything will “come out all right” that first moves Hargreaves.

The screenplay sounds like a play—Hargreaves’s closing remarks are clearly the centerpiece—but the film doesn’t look like one. During the action, that is, the talking, the camera remains static, but between those scenes, the camera is notably mobile. What is most remarkable about the film visually, though, are the occasional cuts to photographs, many from the book of World War I photographs and paintings Covenant of Death. In one especially grim cut, as Hamp starts telling Hargreaves something: “Do you know, it’s funny,” we suddenly see a photo of a dead soldier, just barely distinguishable from the mud in which he lies, face-down.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyJbgh9ZNZg?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

While the trial can be seen as a riff on the one in Paths of Glory for a similar crime, another reference comes to mind: Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, originally published in 1938. I haven’t the faintest idea if Losey ever encountered it, but it is a long anti-war essay, which touches on classism (and, of course, sexism). Woolf inserts a series of

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's *Paths of Glory*.

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick’s *Paths of Glory*.

photographs in the essay—there are no butchered soldiers, as I recall, but there are images of military pomp and circumstance. One of the first still images we see in King and Country is, according to TCM’s essay on the film, of “King George V riding with his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II” before the war. If you’ve read Three Guineas, that still in the film immediately calls it to mind. One can imagine Woolf appreciating the film’s tic having characters employ euphemisms (“uh…what you’re accused of”) rather than saying “desertion.”

The film isn’t subtle, but Hargreaves’s disgust at the trial—however futile—is gratifying. The officers simply want to get it over with, and they seem happy to take the Medical Officer’s harangue about Hamp’s “cold feet” at face value. Hamp went to Leo McKern’s doc, who prescribed what he always does for what he believes is cowardice: an invigorating pep talk and a diahrreatic the intestinally-challenged Hamp really doesn’t need. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that, although the officers have convicted Hamp as a deserter, they have recommended leniency and imprisonment, rather than execution. Less surprising, but no less infuriating, especially as we believe Hamp has narrowly escaped a death sentence, is the cable from HQ overriding the officers’ decision. The platoon is moving back up the line to the front the next day, and an example must be made—I kid you not—for morale. How shooting a comrade, someone you fought next to, is supposed to improve your mood is a mystery.

But it gets worse. Because Hamp’s platoon members don’t want to shoot him, they manage to bungle the execution. Hamp is riddled with bullets but not dead. Using his own pistol, Hargreaves finally shoots him in the mouth. And that is where the film ends. It is left up to the audience to decide whether Hargreaves acted as he did in order to help Hamp, to put him out of his misery—and in disgust at the system which has butchered him—or whether Hargreaves is simply disgusted with the platoon’s incompetence and feels he has to step in as an officer and fix what the privates have botched. It is, in a way, the most interesting part of the film.

TCM has a video of the film’s grim and graceful opening, which for some reason, refuses to embed here.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/413826/King-Country-Movie-Clip-Royal-Fellowship-Of-Death.html

 

Literary postscript:

When Hargreaves and Hamp’s CO (Peter Copley) commiserate about the news from HQ (which, to be fair, wouldn’t have happened if the CO had just taken responsibility and not cabled them), they speak in poetry. In what is the more affecting quotation, to me, Hargreaves looks in the mirror and says, “There is a porpoise close behind me and it’s treading on my tail.” It’s from the Mock Turtle’s Song in Alice in Wonderland, with it’s refrain, “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?” The fish in the song later insists, “You can really have no notion how delightful it will be/When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters out to sea!”

Hargreaves finishes the thought with some lines from John Masefield’s poem “Biography,” to which Hamp’s CO responds with lines from the same poem: “When I am buried, all my thoughts and acts/will be reduced to lists of dates and facts/and long before this wandering flesh is rotten/the dates which made me will be all forgotten.”

 

Peeping Tom (1960) – The British Invasion Blogathon

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Take Me to Your Cinema!

I first saw this peculiar film about ten years ago, sometime when I was still in grad school. I can’t remember why; I must have stumbled across it at the very fine Four Star Video Heaven, which is—somewhat miraculously—still in business. Neither am I sure why I liked it so much so immediately. It’s certainly unlike anything I had seen before. It might even have been the first of British director Michael Powell’s films I ever saw. Plenty has been said about how Peeping Tom ruined Michael Powell’s career, which is essentially true. Martin Scorsese was instrumental in rehabilitating him starting in the 1970s, and Powell did make a few more pictures before he died in 1990. Thankfully, it’s not the most interesting thing about the film, so let’s skip over that. I’ve watched the film so many times now, that it’s hard to narrow down what to talk about. So I’m warning you now, this may end up being another two-parter. Or just long-winded.

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Can you guess what sort of reaction the film got when it was originally released?

Michael Powell, with his long-time partner Emeric Pressburger, made some of the finest British films you can rest your peepers on: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Powell made Peeping Tom after they went their separate ways, but it shares with those classic films a devotion to fabulous color (here, Eastmancolor) and an off-kilter British eccentricity. Much of the eccentricity manifests in the characters. For example, Helen (Anna Massey), the love interest—maybe the first Last Girl in horror films—is writing a children’s book about a magic camera that sees adults as the children they were. One of the cops investigating the murders that take place starts snapping his fingers and bopping around in time to the music on a victim’s tape recorder discovered at a crime scene.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAZZmclLdo8&w=560&h=315]

The main character, the Peeping Tom of the title, is Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), a focus-puller (assistant camerman) at a British film studio. In his spare time, Mark takes unnecessarily artistic nudie photographs for the owner of a newsagents shop who peddles what his customers coyly refer to as “views.” But all of this is merely a cover for Mark’s real calling—documentarian, for he is the artistic child of a scientist. He documents the murders of women he commits using a dagger hidden in his camera’s tripod. Like all good serial killers and superheroes, Mark has an origin story. Mark’s father, a scientist who studied fear in children, recorded as much of Mark’s childhood as he could—both on film and on tape. The scientist would dream up ways of terrifying his son in order to film his fear, record his screams and cries. Dad filmed the boy’s budding interest in sex—one of the movies we watch Mark and Helen, watching is of Mark as a boy watching a couple (Powell’s neighbors) necking on a park bench. The cherry on top of this Freudian sundae might be the film of Mark “saying goodbye” to his dead mother. Later in the film, as we see Mark’s father give Mark his first camera, the adult Mark refers to his mother’s death as “the previous sequence.” After all this, even Mark refers to himself as “mad.” (Also competing for cherry-on-top is the fact that Powell plays Mark’s father, and his son Columba plays the young Mark.) Don’t worry—a short, crazy-haired psychiatrist shows up on the set of the film Mark is working on, called The Walls Are Closing In, naturally, and after being introduced to Mark, muses that “he has his father’s eyes.”

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Moira Shearer as stand-in Vivian filming Mark film her. Things go downhill from there.

The general plot—a serial killer who was traumatized as a child and now murders women using his camera—is reminiscent of some typically American horror movies about voyeurism and cameras: Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) come to mind. But the American versions are crasser, more vulgar—and I actually don’t mean that in a bad way. Cronenberg’s earlier work is known, of course, for gooey action in which the boundaries of a character’s body are violated and merged with or taken over by what is often some sinister technology, as in the aforementioned Videodrome, The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch (1991), or Existenz (1999).

Peeping Tom has nothing so unseemly. It is an incredibly decorous film given that it’s about a serial killer. Tidy. The climactic violence at the end produces almost no blood. Some of this is due to when it was made, surely. But it’s also an indication of where the film’s real interests lie. It is a film in which the boundaries crossed are almost entirely psychological. The physical violence is almost beside the point. What Mark wants, as a result of his particular trauma, hero_EB19990502REVIEWS08905020301ARis to record the terror, the fear the women experience on the threshold of death. Part of what is unique about Mark’s method is that he wants his victims to share his own experience of their death by watching themselves die. To this end, Mark has attached a distorting mirror to his camera, in which the women are forced to watch their own murders. Interestingly, almost no write-ups of the film mention this detail, though it seems essential to Mark’s story.

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Karlheinz Böhm as documentarian Mark Lewis

The film would have been a disaster without the right person playing Mark, and Karlheinz Böhm (also known as Carl Boem) is the Right Person. Powell initially wanted Laurence Harvey, and watching Peeping Tom, you can see why. The part requires the same sort of quiet woundedness Harvey did so well two years later in The Manchurian Candidate. Harvey also has a malicious edge, however, and I think this is at least partly why Böhm is the better choice. He does shy and damaged, but there is simply no aggression to him at all. Böhm’s Austrian accent, which ought to not to work, since his character allegedly grew up in the London house he still occupies, is instead an asset. It softens the edges of his words, making them more tentative and fragile than they would otherwise be. Two of the women we see him murder know him well, and, unlike so many later horror/slasher films, it is utterly believable that neither of them sees Mark as a threat. Even as he murders, Böhm’s Mark is more determined—focused—than aggressive.

Another character, like Mark, whom we might be tempted to see as weak is Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens (Maxine Audley)—she is not only blind, but an alcoholic (Johnny Walker Red, thanks). But Mrs. Stevens is a more overtly aggressive character than Mark. She is a cranky drunk and immediately suspicious of him. She says to Helen:

I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.

Helen: He’s shy!

His footsteps aren’t. They’re stealthy.

One of the many interesting aspects of the film is the way Powell links Mark to the blind Mrs. Stevens. Both she and Mark are sharp, both have been wounded by someone who should have taken care of them. (Mrs. Stevens, we learn, has been blinded by an incompetent doctor.) And they both love Helen.

Maxine Audley as Helen's mother, Mrs. Stevens

Maxine Audley as Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens

At the end of a scene of one of Mark’s nudie photo shoots, we see a model’s hand pouring tea. This cuts to Mrs. Steven’s hand pouring herself what is clearly another glass of scotch. Later, we cut from another closeup of Mrs. Stevens pouring herself another scotch, to Mark, pouring developing chemicals upstairs. During Helen and Mark’s only date, Mrs. Stevens sneaks up to Mark’s apartment. While Mrs. Stevens cannot secretly watch others, she does listen. She has heard Mark in his darkroom, watching his films on a projector. And she has recognized in Mark a fellow addict. She confronts him there, after his date with Helen.

What are these films you can’t wait to see? Take me to your cinema!

Mrs. Stevens uses a cane to maneuver in the crowded space, and we see at the end of her cane a short blade. She holds the cane out in front of herself, defensively, mirroring Mark’s movement when he unsheathes his own knife from the tripod.

As an addict, Mrs. Stevens—also a damaged but functional mother figure—understands Mark better than Helen can. As she leaves his room, she tells him, “All this filming isn’t healthy. Get help—while you still can.” Of course, Mark knows only too well how unhealthy it is.

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No one in the film respects the boundaries of others. Mark’s father uses him as a science experiment, invading every private moment Mark should have had as a child. Even Helen invites herself in to Mark’s apartment, and Mrs. Stevens breaks in. As a child Mark was never allowed to lock a door, and he says he can’t get used to keys. This invasion is represented as much by all the doorways and curtains through which characters enter and exit—and sometimes linger in or block—as it is by the various cameras in the film. (One of them, a Bell and Howell, is Powell’s first camera. Of course it is.)

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Like his earlier collaborations with Pressburger, Powell’s Peeping Tom is more of a fantasia than a “realistic” portrait of a serial killer. The worlds of The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and, especially, The Tales of Hoffmann are passionately intensified, lurid versions of the real one. The characters in them, however, seem very real because they touch us, and I think this is really what upset everybody so much about Peeping Tom the first time around.

Midway through the film, Helen wants Mark to help her illustrate her magic-camera book, which has just been accepted for publication. Mark is genuinely thrilled for her and wants to “find [her] faces” for her, as he puts it. He tells her, “Everyone’s face looks like child’s if you catch them at the right moment.”

 

Check out all the other awesome British Invasion posts at A Shroud of Thoughts!

 

Don’t miss:

“Peeping Tom” is screening on TCM Saturday, October 4 @ 03:00 PM (ET). It’s available for rent, streaming, from Amazon Prime, and available on disc via Netflix.

 TCM’s article on Peeping Tom

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movie” review

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