Saturday 17 May 2008

The Scapegoat (1959)

Here's one I couldn't pass up: a film reuniting Alec Guinness, at the heart of his acclaim, two years after his Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai and right in between Our Man in Havana and Tunes of Glory, with writer and director Robert Hamer, for whom he had appeared no less than eight times in probably the driest and most delicious black comedy ever made, Kind Hearts and Coronets. He's only in a dual role here, as a depressed English professor called John Barratt who travels to France to find some purpose in a seemingly empty life, and as Jacques De Gue, a French count who has too much of everything including a wife he doesn't want.

Our story, based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, author of a famous trio of novels that became Hitchcock films (Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds), has to do with the one taking advantage of the other. De Gue sees a way out of his mess by swapping places with Barratt, setting him up as a schizophrenic and promptly plotting the death of his wife, to naturally blame on his conveniently schizophrenic double. Beyond Guinness (both of him), Hamer and Du Maurier, there's another major name here: Bette Davis, sharing the screen with Guinness for the only time.

She's not playing his wife, even though she was only three days shy of six years older than him. She takes a far more memorable role that she plays with relish, that of his bedridden morphine-addicted mother, the Countess. While Guinness was riding high in 1959 she was not far from the end of her long dry spell, that pretty much lasted a decade and a half with that one very notable exception of All About Eve, which one day I'll finally be able to see. Other names include Pamela Brown, director Michael Powell's wife; Geoffrey Keen, the Minister of Defence in quite a few Bond films; and Peter Bull, the Russian ambassador from Dr Strangelove. There's Peter Sallis long before Last of the Summer Wine. And off screen there's Gore Vidal adapting Daphne du Maurier's novel and du Maurier herself as a producer.

Spelling the word 'marriage' wrong is hardly an important thing when put up against the depth of Daphne du Maurier's story and of Alec Guinness's dual portrayal. Not to denigrate his huge skill, but in Kind Hearts and Coronets he had various tools of the trade to assist him in forging recognisably different characters: make up, screen time and even, in one instance, drag. Here he has nothing to help him except his talent, which is more than up to the job. He has to play two characters who look exactly alike but who are otherwise completely different. Merely through mannerisms, his tone of voice and the way he combs his hair, he does everything that's needed to utterly distinguish them, making it seem such a simple task that anyone could do it. Quite patently, they couldn't. The way the scenes with the two characters together is filmed is equally admirable.

The story is tight and well shot. However it does pay a lot more attention to details and subtleties than most modern viewers would appreciate. Beyond their merely not liking a film without the requisite level of explosions and CGI, it would probably send them to sleep. I adore details and subtleties and am quite happy with films free of explosions and CGI but it ran slow for me too. Perhaps that was partly late night viewing and the fact that I ended up watching it in two halves with a few days in between, but it didn't engage quite as much as I would have hoped given Kind Hearts and Coronets as a predecessor. However it's still a clever and fascinating film.

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