Peter Bull

The Scapegoat (1959, Robert Hamer)

Despite Bette Davis playing a French dowager countess, The Scapegoat always feels very British. It’s probably exaggerated a little because it takes place in France, features mostly British people (save American Irene Worth) playing French people. Nicole Maurey is the only actual French person in the film, certainly the only one with a French accent. It draws some attention to her and how little she fits with the rest of the film, but it somehow works pretty well, which the film acknowledges enough to take for granted.

Scapegoat is also a little strange because it’s a character study of lead Alec Guinness, who’s in the middle of a peculiar mystery. The film opens with Guinness arriving in France on holiday; he’s a bored bachelor school teacher who’s given up on doing anything but teaching French to rich little British snots. He goes to France every year for the holiday and this time he’s thinking of just staying. He gets his wish in the form of… Alec Guinness. See, turns out Guinness has a French double and his double is a French nobleman who’s got land, title, and a whole bunch of debt. French Guinness is also at least a sociopath and always up to some kind of no good, having—it turns out—just ducked out on wife Worth after she’s suffered a miscarriage, but he also skipped out on mistress Maurey. Neither woman ends up getting an explanation because when Guinness gets home to his estate, he’s not French Guinness, he’s British Guinness. The double got him pass out drunk, switched places, disappeared.

Going forward—British Guinness is always going to be Guinness and French Guinness is always going to be French Guinness. So Guinness doesn’t really get particularly interested in why French Guinness has changed places with him, as life on the estate is an unhappy mess. French Guinness had left under the pretense he’d had a schizophrenic mental breakdown and needed to go to Paris to party. As much as any Alec Guinness, French or otherwise, is going to party. All by himself. No families, mistresses, doctors. And nobody except daughter Annabel Bartlett really seemed to care. But Guinness Guinness is overwhelmed at all the double has around him. He’s got a great kid, a sympathetic wife, a mistress, an estate, a failing but beloved business, and a cranky but not actually dangerous bedridden mum, Davis. Guinness tries to fix French Guinness’s life, which is the character study. But there’s still the mystery. Even if Guinness doesn’t acknowledge it.

That mystery comes back in the last twenty minutes of the film. The first twenty minutes are kind of slow, the next fifty breeze, the last twenty are a little awkward. Guinness is never appropriately suspicious, there’s not enough with Bartlett in the finale, and the resolution is too abrupt. Those reasons, more than everyone speaking with a British accent save Maurey, are why the film feels so British. It’s almost like director Hamer is trying to direct a slightly different, more comedic mystery script while the script is actually trying not to be comedic or mysterious. Only Hamer wrote the script; based on a Gore Vidal adaptation of the novel. So I want to assume it’s Vidal who turned it into this character study but who knows. Because, based on a summary, the novel sounds a bit more melodramatic.

It works out pretty well in the end, all things considered, but just makes it.

Guinness is phenomenal. The script gives him these great quiet reflection scenes without any narration—his narration is always matter-of-fact and goes away after a while; his reflection scenes are always beyond subtle. He’s exceptionally patient. Then as French Guinness, he’s got this subtle character arc, which the script sort of hints at but Guinness takes it a different direction. It’s rather good.

The special effects putting Guinness on screen twice are all good. Hamer never goofs off too much with it. He’s got an enthusiastic workman quality to his direction here, with cinematographer Paul Beeson helping a bit, and the special effects scenes are just the same. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a scene.

Of the supporting performances, Davis’s is the most fun. She’s got maybe three scenes and manages to imply a character arc. Bartlett’s performance is the most important because she’s the reason Guinness gets so interested. See, French Guinness—despite driving her into town each week for a music lesson (but really so he could go see Maurey)—he always wanted a boy. Guinness has no such prejudice. He also doesn’t have any animosity with Worth, which French Guinness seemed to have cultivated. Worth’s fine. She rarely gets time enough to develop her character. Pamela Brown has a really good scene opposite “brother” Guinness (she’s otherwise background). So all the acting is good or better.

The Scapegoat just has tone problems the conclusion doesn’t resolve satisfactorily enough, which… seems very British to me.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Hamer; screenplay by Hamer, adaptation by Gore Vidal, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Paul Beeson; edited by Jack Harris; music by Bronislau Kaper; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Alec Guinness (John Barratt), Annabel Bartlett (Marie-Noel), Nicole Maurey (Bela), Irene Worth (Francoise), Geoffrey Keen (Gaston), Noel Howlett (Dr. Aloin), Peter Bull (Aristide), Pamela Brown (Blanche), and Bette Davis (The Countess).



Non-Stop New York (1937, Robert Stevenson)

I’d almost say Non-Stop New York has to be seen to be believed, but it might imply someone else should suffer through the film’s endless seventy-some minute running time. It’s a completely idiotic British attempt at an American proto-noir.

The film opens in New York, so you have a bunch of British actors not really even bothering hiding their accents. The opening introduces James Pirrie, Anna Lee and Francis L. Sullivan. All three are atrocious, but only Sullivan is at all interesting in his bad performance. He plays the portly villain a little like a flaming Adam West “Batman” villain. However, being interesting doesn’t make his performance any less awful.

Luckily, Pirrie dies quickly, then Lee’s off to England to be falsely accused in a related manner and she has to get back to the States to save an innocent man.

The idiocy of the script manifests most prominently in Pirrie’s murder case. Lee is a witness to the crime and the entire world (literally) is looking for her. Except, of course, John Loder’s Scotland Yard inspector, who dismisses her.

Loder’s bad too.

Particularly annoying is Desmond Tester (who appears in the second half, which is Grand Hotel with intrigue, set on a double decker airplane crossing the Atlantic).

The only passable performances are Athene Seyler and, to a lesser extent, Frank Cellier.

In defense of Stevenson’s weak direction, he seems to think he’s directing an absurdist comedy.

Unfortunately, the joke’s on the audience (I couldn’t resist).

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Stevenson; screenplay by J.O.C. Orton, Roland Pertwee, Curt Siodmak and E.V.H. Emmett, based on a novel by Ken Attiwill; director of photography, Mutz Greenbaum; edited by Al Barnes; music by Hubert Bath, Bretton Byrd and Louis Levy; released by Gaumont British Distributors.

Starring John Loder (Inspector Jim Grant), Anna Lee (Jennie Carr), Francis L. Sullivan (Hugo Brant), Frank Cellier (Sam Pryor), Desmond Tester (Arnold James), Athene Seyler (Aunt Veronica), William Dewhurst (Mortimer), Drusilla Wills (Mrs. Carr), Jerry Verno (Steward), James Pirrie (Billy Cooper), Ellen Pollock (Miss Harvey), Arthur Goullet (Abel), Peter Bull (Spurgeon), Tony Quinn (Harrigan) and H.G. Stoker (Captain).


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