Nigel Davenport

The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970, Alan Cooke)

The Mind of Mr. Soames is preternaturally gentle (which, getting ahead of myself, is kind of the point) but it’s always a surprise how much more gentle it can get. The film doesn’t forebode or foreshadow, even though doing either wouldn’t just be predictable, it might even be appropriate given the subject matter.

The film opens at a private British medical institute, where everyone is very excited because they’re going to operate on star patient Mr. Soames (played by Terence Stamp). Stamp was born comatose due to a super-rare condition in his brain stem and this institute has kept him alive for thirty years. They’ve been waiting for medical science to get to a place where it can help Stamp. And it has. American surgeon Robert Vaughan (sporting a very cool beard) crosses the pond to do it. He’s not interested in Stamp’s recovery process, just the surgery.

At least, not until he realizes Davenport wants to train Stamp like a pet, not raise him like a child. Because even though Stamp’s got an adult brain, he’s pristine tabula rasa.

Also in the mix is scuzzy TV journalist Christian Roberts. He’s got Davenport’s permission to turn Stamp’s “childhood” into a documentary series. Part of the film’s gentle is how much the filmmakers trust the audience. The script trusts them to keep up, director Cooke trusts them to keep up—a big thing in the first act is American doctor Vaughan realizing British doctor Davenport is less concerned with Stamp recovering than with him making the Institute famous. But it never comes up. The whole arc of the film turns out to involve Donal Donnelly as Davenport’s underling, who gradually learns how to be a good doctor. Vaughan’s a big influence on him, but so’s Stamp.

Even though it’s almost a spoiler how much agency Stamp gets in the film given he starts it inanimate, kept alive by a roomful of machines. When Mind starts, it’s a split between Vaughan, Davenport, and Roberts, with Donnelly bouncing between Vaughan and Davenport. But once Stamp wakes up, the film starts its gradual transition into being his story.

It’s a great film, but it’s very hard to imagine it being able to do any more than it already does. Stamp eventually encounters all sorts of other people—most importantly kindly (potentially too kindly) miserable housewife Judy Parfitt—and Mind treats them as caricatures. Only Stamp, with this necessarily reduced agency and potential of it, gets to be a full-fledged character. These people he encounters are caricatures from his perspective, but from the film’s, which I guess is where the only real problems (outside the wrong closing music) occur. Everyone relies on Stamp to handle his perspective, which is understandable, he’s phenomenal. But if the film adjusted the narrative distance to track Stamp more closely, it’d necessarily lose the doctors.

Mind of Mr. Soames can’t be a character study, but it also can’t be a medical thriller because it can’t maintain the medical procedural. It also can’t do straight drama because it’s got a speculative air to it. Director Cooke does that gentle thing instead of trying to hit various intensities. It’s never calm, it’s never placid, it’s just gentle. Mind is based on a novel and there’s definitely the potential for some sort of comparison to Frankenstein, maybe with the book but definitely with the film; whether or not Stamp is going to go Frankenstein is one of the film’s many questions, but never one of Stamp’s and it’s Stamp’s film.

The film doesn’t exactly have charm—it’s too intense, stakes-wise—and it’s never overly stylish, but the deliberate but still surprising way the narrative unfolds is rather agreeable. Mind of Mr. Soames does a lot, provides its cast a lot of great scenes, and it’s not an easy story to do. So when it works out so well… not charming, but nice.

It’s a story very well told.

Outside the occasionally too obviously shot in the studio night time exteriors, Billy Williams’s photography is always good. The actual exterior shooting—when Stamp and the film get outside his “playroom”—is excellent. Really strong direction from Cooke, both with the actors and the composition. The film seems to get a certain patience from Cooke, while it gets a different one from John Hale and Edward Simpson’s script; the story’s about agitated people but the story’s never agitated.

Pretty good music from Michael Dress (except the closing track, which is fine but not good enough for what the film has just accomplished).

Great performance from Stamp (you can’t imagine anyone else in the role after he does it). Excellent support from Vaughan, Davenport, and Donnelly. They’re ahead the other caricatures because, well, they get enough time not to be caricatures.

Stamp, Cooke, and everyone else make something special with The Mind of Mr. Soames.



Directed by Alan Cooke; screenplay by John Hale and Edward Simpson, based on the novel by Charles Eric Maine; lighting cameraman, Billy Williams; edited by Bill Blunden; music by Michael Dress; production designer, Bill Constable; produced by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Terence Stamp (John Soames), Robert Vaughn (Dr. Bergen), Nigel Davenport (Dr. Maitland), Christian Roberts (Thomas Fleming), Donal Donnelly (Joe Allan), Norman Jones (Davis), Dan Jackson (Nicholls), and Judy Parfitt (Jenny Bannerman).

Phase IV (1974, Saul Bass)

I was trying, while watching Phase IV, to think of some way to put a positive spin on the film. The film stars Michael Murphy–and I’m a big Michael Murphy fan–so I was hoping for some Murphy-goodness. He’s fine and has a couple good moments, but there’s really nothing he could do to combat the film’s terrible writing. Murphy isn’t the reason I was going for the positive spin though. Phase IV is famous title designer Saul Bass’s only feature film as a director.

The film is astoundingly well composed. It’s about super-intelligent ants by the way, in case you don’t remember the video box cover with the ants coming out of the hand. There are these close-ups on the ants–extreme close-ups–and lots of ant activity and all those scenes are fantastic, but there’s more. Bass applies his compositional strength to everything in the film, down to these close-ups of fingers searching and so on. Except for one filmic element. Scenes with characters interacting. Then Bass loses his touch. The conversation scenes in Phase IV are beyond dull. Besides the terrible script, Nigel Davenport is rather bad. He’s a ham. The script is constantly laying out ominous foreshadowing–none of it pays off, which doesn’t really matter by the end–and Davenport can’t stop himself from porking out… At times, Phase IV is mind-numbing, then Bass has some fantastic ant scene or just some great camera setup and it’s interesting again.

I was just thinking today about how a novel’s writing can make it compelling, regardless of the story content–and how the same formula does not work for film. Phase IV is an excellent example, maybe even the best (I’m hard-pressed to think of a better directed but lousy film).

I forgot to mention the music. The music is terrible. It’s synthesizers. Annoying ones. But they also manage to be dull at the same time….



Directed by Saul Bass; written by Mayo Simon; director of photography, Dick Bush; edited by Willy Kemplen; music by Brian Gascoigne; produced by Paul B. Radin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Michael Murphy (James R. Lesko), Nigel Davenport (Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs), Lynne Frederick (Kendra Eldridge), Alan Gifford (Mr. Eldridge), Robert Henderson (Clete) and Helen Horton (Mildred Eldridge).

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