Saturday, 14 October 2017

Three Somerset Maugham anthology films (Quartet, Trio and Encore), plus Dead of Night

I've always been a sucker for anthology films, i.e. the cinematic equivalent of a collection of short stories. My all-time favourite "pure" anthology film remains Dead of Night (1945), which marked the end of the British war-time embargo on the production of horror movies...

By "pure", I mean that, while there's a linking device (and a very atmospheric and effective one) the individual stories are self-contained - i.e. they don't share characters or plotlines with any of the other stories in the film, and can each be watched and enjoyed on their own without any sense that something's missing. Dead of Night contains one stand-out episode (Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist whose terrifying dummy, Hugo, comes to life - see above); three enjoyable tales, each of which offers one moment - usually a shock or revelation - which stays with you (e.g. Miles Malleson as the bus conductor gloomily intoning, "Room for one more on top, sir", or Sally Ann Howes playing hide-and-seek at a modern-day Christmas Party and finding a tearful boy who tells her he is the half-brother of Constance Kent, who, notoriously, escaped punishment for murdering her half-brother); and one weak story which could safely have been left on the cutting-room floor (here it is a vaguely comedic golfing yarn, starring Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne).

The Dead of Night template (one dud segment, one standout, and some decent stuff in the middle) is evident in two of the three anthology films featuring short stories by Somerset Maugham released between 1948 and 1951. If you're in your mid-sixties or older, the chances are that you saw at least one of them on television when you were growing up - I remembered seeing two of them in the distant past. Each story is introduced by the author, face like a world-weary tortoise, addressing us in the clipped, slightly foreign-sounding tones of a bygone era from his home in the South of France, with frequent micro-pauses betraying his lifelong stammer. It's all very agreeable, clubby, cosy.

The stand-out story is "The Alien Corn" (see above), which features Dirk Bogarde as the rather effete son of a self-made multi-millionaire industrialist. Bogarde doesn't want to go into the City: instead, his heart is set on proving himself as a concert pianist. Dad agrees to fund him for two years while he studies in Paris. If, at the end of that period, he's judged by experts not to have the necessary talent, he will buckle down to a life of fiddling around with other people's money. When he returns, his cousin (played by Honor Blackman) - who is in love with him - arranges for Leah Makart, a world-class concert pianist, to hear him play. After he has performed for her, she tells him he will never be more than decent amateur. He seems to take the news well, but... 

The dud in Quartet is "The Kite", in which, kite-mad, lower-middle class George Cole marries (against his mother's wishes) an insensitive, common girl who resents the time hubby spends flying his silly old kites, and ends up destroying the prototype of a revolutionary new kite he has designed. He walks out on her, moves back in with mum and dad, and ends up in prison for refusing to support wifey. There is a happy ending. It's all a bit painful.

The success of Quartet led to a follow-up - Trio - in 1950. Here the stand-out story is undoubtedly "Sanatorium", in which a rackety army major, played by Michael Rennie at his tallest and suavest, courts young fellow-TB sufferer, Jean Simmonds. The other residents are scandalised, believing the Major to be up to his old tricks, the dirty dog - but their love is genuine, and the reformed rogue insists on the marriage going ahead even after his doctor tells him it will hasten his death. Another resident of the Swiss sanatorium, Roland Culver (as Maugham's alter-ego, Ashenden), watches on. Finlay Currie and John Laurie (who must have emerged from the womb aged 65) provide knockabout entertainment as a couple of old inmates who drive each other mad - but need each other as much as the Major and his beloved do. It sounds a bit soporific and sickly, I know - but it somehow works. [Irrelevant fact: Michael Rennie deliberately softened his pukkah English accent into a mildly Transatlantic version in order to help his film career: seems to have worked.] The 50-minute "Sanatorium" segment starts at 40'15":

Trio's dud (well, dud-ish) segment is "Mr. Know All", in which Nigel Patrick plays an obnoxious, loud-mouthed, opinionated smart-arse gem-dealer, Max Kelada - who, despite driving all the other passengers on the cruise ship he is travelling on round the twist (including Wilfred Hyde-White, who is forced to share a cabin with him), turns out to have a heart of gold. He deliberately loses a bet over whether a pearl necklace is fake in order to save the marriage of a woman who has just been reunited with her husband after an enforced two-year separation. The problem is that being forced to spend 20 minutes with an obnoxious berk just for a surprise ending just isn't worth it, I fear. [Irrelevant observation: I have always been rather dismissive of Wilfred Hyde-White's acting abilities, but, having seen him in quite a few of his mid-century cinematic performances recently, I am forced to admit that he was actually a pretty decent actor - I apologise. Won't happen again.]

The deserved box-office success of Quartet and Trio led to one last visit to the well in 1951, with Encore. Inevitably, it's the worst of three. None of the three tales really stands out. The last segment features Glynis Johns as a cabaret artiste - currently performing in Monte Carlo - whose act consists of a nightly death-defying dive (given that the whole thing only lasts about five minutes, I'm not sure it's such a great act). One day, she has a terrible premonition that she's going to die that very night, and gambles away her and her partner's life-savings so she won't have to perform that evening. But she loses all their money. Unknown to her partner, she goes ahead with the act, despite telling him she won't. He appears at the last moment and climbs up the ladder in an attempt to stop her. She smiles, dives, and... well, it's a terrible anti-climax, to be honest. 

In the middle section, Kay Walsh plays a crashing bore of a spinster who almost drives the crew of (another) cruise-ship mad with her non-stop chatter, until the captain orders a young French steward to make love to her. The problem - as with "Mr. Know All" is that we have to put up with the silly cow wittering on for almost half an hour, and she's unbearable.  (I suspect obnoxious, annoying characters work better on the page, where the reader's imagination can exercise some control over them - on the screen, they're as irritating as they would be in the flesh.)

The best segment is probably the opener, "The Ant and the Grasshopper", in which Nigel Patrick returns as a wastrel who constantly borrows money from his industrious brother (Roland Culver - another returnee), and from whom he steals a car, before marrying one of the richest women in the world and buying the family estate which his brother has decided to sell. Er...that's it. 

I'd give Encore a miss - but Quartet and Trio are both thoroughly entertaining.


8 comments:

  1. Maugham , on a visit to Penang, was unfortunate enough to meet some of his readers. That group was mostly comprised of rubber planters who were extremely annoyed by "Willie's" depiction of them as gin - soaked , Penang Club - based hedonists and adulterers.

    The offended group then exacted revenge. They met in that club's Mens Bar ( still extant ), debagged and ducked Maugham in the Georgetown fountain and threatened to expel any member who brought WSM into the club as a guest ever again.

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    1. Maugham does appear to have been a bit of a shit - particularly (unsurprisingly, perhaps) when it came to women. At least two of the episodes in the films mentioned above reek of misogyny, and Phyllis in "Of Human Bondage" is an absolute monster (if Bette Davis's portrayal in the film version is accurate). A nasty, grasping, faithless shop-girl, Phyllis ends up a syphilitic prostitute after nearly destroying the life of a club-footed young doctor who is inexplicably infatuated with her (she bleeds him dry financially and runs off with his best friend, among other things). In a memoir in 1962 Maugham launched a vicious attack on his ex-wife, the noted interior designer, Syrie. Apart from all the misogyny, he shows a fondness for rogues and a general contempt for "respectable" people - all hypocrites, apparently. On the whole, he probably deserved to get well and truly ducked.

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  2. The serial free-loader Paddy Leigh Fermor once wangled an invitation for the week-end to Maugham's home in Cap Ferrat. Having imbibed and dined lavishly Fermor repaid the hospitality of his host by loudly imitating his famous stammer. The saurian Maugham slid up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and said " As I will still be in bed when you leave early in the morning I would like to say good-bye now" and then shuffled off to his quarters leaving behind his stunned guest.

    Fermor [or Femur as Darryl Zanuck insisted on calling him] was always described as a polyglot. However he never learnt to say "Can I have the bill, please?" in any of his many languages. Well done, Mr Maugham. Real panache!

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    1. PLF must have had something to attract such a wide group of spongées prepared to sub his lengthy bludges, and he clearly had a good war. But for all his reputation as a writer, his style is so mannered, florid and overblown that I for one have never managed to finish any of the books. Like you, I am on the Somerset Maugham team. Magnificent put-down. It would be interesting to know if it had the desired effect.

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    2. You are spot on about Leigh Fermor's style (see my response to SDG below). Greece, in particular, seems to have had this effect on British writers - Lawrence Durrell is another whose OTT prose style left me feeling distinctly queasy.

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  3. Fermor was very handsome, had a vaguely aristocratic background and oozed charm. Good war? He was attached to the SOE, hung around in Crete and captured Generalmajor Kreepie [why?]. Post-war he was fawned over by the Duchess of Devonshire, Nancy Mitford and Lady Diana Cooper. DSO and Knighthood. Why?

    Eric Newby, Special Boat Services and dangerous war as well, received an MC. He was a far better travel writer.

    Similar careers. One of them badly over compensated.

    I look forward to my next sighting of Dirk Bogarde poncing about in Cretan national dress in "Ill Met By Moonlight" thinking about Paddy Leigh Fermor.

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    1. Agree 100% - Eric Newby was top-hole. I've tried reading Patrick Leigh Fermor several times, having been told what a superb stylist he was. Never got past page 10 of any of his books: I found him precious, affected and show-offy. "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush", on the other hand, is not only brilliantly evocative - it's one of the funniest books I've ever read.

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  4. Agreed. Among other things, his meeting with Thesiger at end of the book is memorable.

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