Quartet opens with what turns out to be a questionable introduction from source story author W. Somerset Maugham. In the rather stodgy introduction to the film–featuring adaptations of four personal favorites from Maugham’s extensive bibliography–Maugham indentifies adjectives critics have given his work over the years.
Those adjectives prove useful during some of the film’s more labored sections.
While there are four different stories with four different directors and four different casts, screenwriter R.C. Sherriff handles the whole adaptation. The script doesn’t really affect the segments, since Sherriff sticks way too close to the source material for each of them. The cast and the directors make and break the segments, though the detached narratives–flashbacks in flashbacks in flashbacks–which might work fine in prose, clunk repeatedly on film.
The first story, boringly directed by Ralph Smart, has gentleman Basil Radford complaining to some of his chums about his son’s misbehaviors abroad. The flashback starts with Radford but then switches over to the son, the amiable if not particularly effective Jack Watling. The first segment gets the least effort in terms of production values–it’s set in Monte Carlo, where everything is inside save one hotel exterior (at night)–and it doesn’t help things.
Watling, ignoring Radford’s advice, tries his hands at gambling and womanizing. The woman in question is Mai Zetterling, who’s got a little more energy than Watling, but not much. The segment does move pretty, mostly because of their amiability, but it doesn’t amount to anything. It doesn’t amount to anything for Watling or for Radford.
The presupplied adjectives start coming into use as it winds down, though not the complimentary ones. Smart’s lack of direction doesn’t help at all.
The second story, featuring Dirk Bogarde as an heir to a country estate who just wants to be a professional pianist, has similarly unimpressive direction from Harold French. Quartet never takes the time to be stagy, though that approach might actually help given the reliance on interiors.
Bogarde’s parents, Raymond Lovell and Irene Browne, don’t approve of his career choices. Meanwhile cousin (Honor Blackman) ostensibly supports him, but really just wants to marry him.
The script and Bogarde’s performance get this one through, along with Blackman’s uneven performance being a lot better in the first half than the second. She doesn’t get any help from French, who ruins her best possible moment during Bogarde’s big piano recital by superimposing previous dramatic events on the frame. A few minutes later, Bogarde gets a similar opportunity and French (and editor Ray Elton) use medium shots instead of close-ups, sapping his expressions.
A clunky epilogue doesn’t help either. It’s back to those adjectives Maugham supplied in the opening bookend.
The third segment, directed by Arthur Crabtree, is a flashback in a flashback in a flashback. A narrator, who seems like it should be Maugham but doesn’t sound like him (and is uncredited), explains it’s a story his friend Bernard Lee told him. Lee is a prison visitor, someone who helps out incarcerted chaps and provides an ear or shoulder as needed. Lee meets prisoner George Cole, who’s in jail for a peculiar reason. Crabtree, Sherriff, and Maugham drag out the revelation of why way too long before getting into Cole’s story. Oh, wait, there’s actually a flashback in a flashback in a flashback in a flashback at one point.
Anyway, Cole’s in jail because he doesn’t want to support his wife (Susan Shaw) because she broke his kite. Why does Cole care about kites? Why would Shaw want to break one? A lot of it has to do with Cole’s overbearing, protective mother Hermione Baddeley, who thinks Shaw is a harpy. And Shaw is a harpy. And Baddeley is awful. It’s a story without any sympathetic characters, much less any one would want to identify with; it drags on and on, easily the lowpoint of Quartet, even if it’s better directed than the first two segments. It’s just grating. Intentionally so.
And its conclusion, presumambly straight from the source story, is downright asinine, which wasn’t one of Maugham’s supplied adjectives, but definitely should have been. None of the performances are bad, they’re all as good as the poorly drawn caricatures deserve.
However, Quartet doesn’t just save the best for last, it saves the good one for last. Not only is Ken Annakin’s direction immediately superior, there’s no silly frame for the fourth segment and it’s got the pacing, plotting, and production values appropriate for a film.
Cecil Parker is an obnoxious, anti-intellectual upper-middle classman with various responsibilities around country and in London, though he mostly just likes London because mistress Linden Travers is there. Unbeknownst to him, wife Nora Swinburne has literary ambitions. She publishes a steamy book of verse and it becomes a huge hit. Parker doesn’t have any interest in reading it until he finds out it’s about a middle-aged woman and her love affair with a younger man.
The segment is a delight and about the only time Quartet approaches its promised insight into the human condition. Parker is fantastic as the bewildered, stogdy boob thrown into arty conversations and–dreadfully–book stores. No one addresses the obvious contradiction–he’s complaining to mistress Travers about Swinburne’s possible adultery–but it still comes through.
Annakin’s direction, focusing on Parker’s subdued but increasing outrage, is great. Travers is good, if underutilized. There’s a fun Ernest Thesiger cameo. And Swinburne, while she has the tale more worth telling, is good.
It almost saves Quartet, at least, as much as it could be saved after three lackluster–though reasonably well-paced–segments. But then there’s Maugham again, offering a parting thought or two to the viewer. Maybe if he had any insight into the film and its adaptations, but it doesn’t even seem like he’s seen them.
Maybe he got bored during the Crabtree directed one and gave up.
Directed by Ralph Smart, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree, and Ken Annakin; screenplay by R.C. Sherriff, based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham; directors of photography, Reginald H. Wyer and Ray Elton; edited by Jean Barker and A. Charles Knott; music by John Greenwood; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.
Starring Jack Watling (Nicky), Mai Zetterling (Jeanne), Basil Radford (Henry Garnet), Dirk Bogarde (George Bland), Honor Blackman (Paula), Raymond Lovell (Sir Frederick Bland), Irene Browne (Lady Bland), Françoise Rosay (Lea Makart), George Cole (Herbert Sunbury), Hermione Baddeley (Beatrice Sunbury), Mervyn Johns (Samuel Sunbury), Susan Shaw (Betty Baker), Bernard Lee (Prison Visitor), Cecil Parker (Colonel Peregrine), Nora Swinburne (Mrs. Peregrine), Linden Travers (Daphne), and Ernest Thesiger (Henry Dashwood).