Blithe Spirit (1945)

Rex Harrison, Margaret Rutherford and Constance Cummings

 

“How the hell did you fuck up the best thing I ever did?” Noel Coward famously asked director David Lean when he first saw the film version of Blithe Spirit, a play that had wowed London in 1941 and went on to do the same on Broadway.

We’re now often told the film – a relative flop on its first release – is a classic. It isn’t, but certain elements of it remain quite special, most obviously Margaret Rutherford, who steals the film with a performance of batshit comic gurning so dazzling that the film flags whenever she’s not on stage… set, whatever.

“Just photograph it, dear boy” was Coward’s instruction to Lean, who ignored Coward and opened out the play a bit with a few exterior shots and a ride in a sports car. But it remains in essence a stage play that’s been filmed, like The Importance of Being Earnest.

Coward being second only to Wilde in terms of aphoristic pizzazz, it bounces along at remarkable speed, and within scant minutes of its opening we’ve been introduced to the main characters – the achingly cynical Charles and Ruth Condomine (Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings), their boring and unimportant friends George and Violet Bradman (Hugh Wakefield, Joyce Carey), and Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford), the medium Charles has hired in as a research aid to give the novel he’s struggling with an injection of bogus spiritualism. He is sure Arcati is a fraud; she’s convinced she isn’t.

Both Charles and Ruth have been married before – quite racy for the 1940s, but then this is life among the “smart set”. But it’s Charles’s dead first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), who arrives from the afterlife during the seance and proceeds to make his life miserable.

 

Kay Hammond, Constance Cumming and Rex Harrison
Three’s an upload? Elvira, Ruth and Charles

 

Two women fighting over Rex Harrison. As in art, so in life. The actor knew what this was all about – two women killed themselves over Sexy Rexy (as Hollywood dubbed him, to his discomfort) during a long career of philandering that also found time for six marriages – he’s perfect casting as Charles.

The rest of the film is essentially a joust with three people at the tilt – Charles, Ruth and Elvira, with Madame Arcati dropping in now and again to liven things up when they flag, as they sadly do.

What a vision of the well-to-do English lifestyle it paints – dressing for dinner, table linen as crisp as the Condomines’ vowels, an Englishman’s home is his castle, servants, discussions about what cook will make for lunch, and so on.

The fact that it looks so great and that you can see how exquisitely well made the clothes are (even those of Arcati, who’s not meant to be worldly in the least) comes down to the use of Technicolor to shoot it – DP is Ronald Neame, a towering talent who could turn his hand to any aspect of film-making. He’s also one of the writers of this adaptation, but was also a notable director (The Poseidon Adventure) and producer (Brief Encounter).

A film released in 1945, in the aftermath of war, and concerned with dead people having an afterlife is obviously going to have a constituency, but Coward’s genius is to make Blithe Spirit a comedy, and one that’s toying throughout with the idea of a threesome between Charles and his two wives.

Unspoken sexual frisson or not, without Margaret Rutherford, who pushes her chest out comically whenever she can, it just wouldn’t have the same dash. She was a large reason why the play was a smash in London’s West End and she’s a large reason why the film continues to be very watchable.

Watch it back to back with the 2020 remake starring Judi Dench as Madame Arcati and it becomes even more apparent what’s its real killer aspect – the bounce, bounce, bounce of Coward’s writing. The comedy calisthenics of Rutherford’s bosom can’t compete.

 

Blithe Spirit – Watch it/buy at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Brief Encounter

Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

6 April

 

Petrarch first sees Laura, 1327

On this day in 1327, one of the most celebrated romantic sightings in literature happened, when Francesco Petrarca, the scholar, poet and former priest often credited with starting the Renaissance, first caught sight of a young woman called Laura (possibly Laura de Noves) in church. He was immediately smitten.

Laura was married and rebuffed his advances. So he poured his feelings into poetry, resulting in a book of 366 poems which later were called Il Canzoniere (Song Book).

It is one of the most sustained works on unrequited love in the literary canon and became highly influential on the development of literature in Europe and beyond. Most of the poems Petrarch wrote were sonnets, a form of 14 lines generally in iambic pentameter which he didn’t invent but did perfect – so-called Petrarchan sonnets (like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How do I love thee?/Let me count the ways”) consist of an initial set of eight lines (the “problem”) followed by a set of six (the “solution”).

 

 

 

Brief Encounter (1945, dir: David Lean)

Like Wong Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love, Brief Encounter hums with repressed longing. It tells the story of a married woman and a doctor who accidentally meet at a railway station and are immediately plunged into a torrent of emotion neither ever suspected was there.

It might seem counter-intuitive but it’s all the more effective for being in black and white, with dialogue spoken through stiff upper lips by people armoured against the cold in gabardine, wool, hats and gloves. Neither Celia Johnson nor Trevor Howard, its stars, has matinee idol looks. A railway station, lots of clothes, weird accents, boring middle-aged fully clothed people – the whole thing, essentially, is a how-not-to guide on romantic film-making.

And yet here it is, a regular on “best of” lists of romances. Partly it is because the terrible longing is so beautifully expressed through tiny emotional grimaces on the actors’ faces, partly because (like another classic of renunciation, Casablanca) it is an entirely honest attempt by film-makers in wartime to represent the way real people – people caught up in a life-and-death conflict – deal with appalling events. They’re stoic, in other words.

In an echo of that sacrifice, Johnson and Howard cannot have what they most dearly want either. They put individual desire to one side in favour of the greater good. And they deal with this by trying to pretend they didn’t want whatever it was that much after all – until the dam breaks.

Noel Coward’s original one-act play, Still Life, has been fleshed out a bit by writer Ronald Neame, while director David Lean gives us the stark black and white visuals (a year before Oliver Twist) which do so much with so little, flashes of light in the darkness being a recurring visual motif – no need to explain what that means.

The music is Concerto No 2 by Rachmaninoff, the “last of the romantics” and a more suitably swirling, surging piece of music it’s hard to imagine. In fact it’s so right that you can’t use Rach 2 any more except as a cliché of torrid romance – how many films’ scores have that much longevity?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Beautiful, urgent performances by Howard and Johnson
  • A real eye on another time
  • David Lean’s gorgeous monochrome cinematography
  • Rach 2 – absurd, heroic, poignant

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Brief Encounter – at Amazon

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The Italian Job

Michael Caine and Noel Coward in The Italian Job

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 January

 

 

Benny Hill born, 1924

On this day in 1924, Alfred Hawthorn Hill was born in Southampton, UK. One of those children who “always wanted to be in showbusiness”, Alfred had managed to become an assistant stage manager in a touring company before joining up to serve in the Second World War, aged 18. He changed his first name to Benny as a tribute to his hero, Jack Benny, though in fact it was the British music hall that really provided the inspiration for Benny Hill’s act. Earlier to understand that music hall’s days were numbered than many of his slightly older board-treading fellows, Hill was quick into radio, even quicker onto TV and also managed to turn up in nine different films. But it was his TV work that made him famous, in particular the long-running Benny Hill Show, which aired first in 1955 and ran, in various incarnations, until 1989. The show’s trademark ending, featuring Hill being chased by scantily clad women in the style of an old Keystone Cops movie to the sound of the Yakety Sax theme, became Hill’s trademark. His show was cancelled in 1989 by Thames TV’s head of light entertainment, John Howard Davies (who had played Oliver in David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist) and Hill immediately went into a decline. A solitary man who shunned the high life, carried his scripts around in a plastic bag, he died alone in his third floor apartment of a heart attack while watching TV.

 

 

 

The Italian Job (1969, dir: Peter Collinson)

The story of an audacious gold bullion robbery carried out in broad daylight by robbers in a fleet of Mini Coopers, masterminded by a criminal from his own prison cell, The Italian Job doesn’t just contain one of the most famous car chases in history – and the sort of product placement it’s impossible to buy (Fiat had offered their cars but the director refused) – but it has one of the best caper-movie casts. Noel Coward as the gang boss, Michael Caine as Charlie Croker, his man on the ground, fresh out of prison himself. Benny Hill plays Croker’s boffin, the eccentric Professor Simon Peach – the man who is going to “fix” the traffic in Milan – who can be led to almost anything by the sight of an attractive woman, the bigger the better (“Are they big? I like ’em big!”). The screenplay is by Troy Kennedy-Martin best known for his witty, gritty TV work (The Sweeney, Edge of Darkness) and is full of similarly pithy lines, such as the now iconic, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” delivered with the panache that made Caine famous. This is not one of Caine’s defining movies – those were Alfie and The Ipcress File – but it is a perfect vehicle for the already existing persona of the cheeky, affable Cockney geezer, snappy dresser, ladies man, man about town etc etc. Looked at coolly, The Italian Job isn’t actually a great film, but it is stuffed with great things – its stars, its script, those cars, the general breezy air of Swinging London-ness, the Quincy Jones score. And compared to the 2003 Donald Sutherland/Mark Wahlberg remake it’s a masterpiece. As for the on-screen meeting between two of Britain’s comic geniuses of the 20th century, droll Coward and bawdy Hill, it never happened.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the most iconic car chases in movie history
  • Michael Caine at full operating temperature
  • Noel Coward’s last film appearance
  • Look out for legends Irene Handl and John Le Mesurier

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Italian Job – at Amazon