Personal responsibility. It’s hard to figure out sometimes, and harder still to know the consequences of one’s actions. But for one upper class British family, their shortcomings as human beings and members of society are about to become readily apparent in this 1954 Guy Hamilton film of J.B. Priestley’s 1945 play, An Inspector Calls.
The Birlings are an upper class industrial family, circa 1912, happily gathered around the dinner table to announce the betrothal of their daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft. Sheila’s younger brother, Eric, is drinking too much, and seems desperately unhappy about something, but Arthur and Sybil Birling, heads of the household, refuse to let anything spoil the festivities.
Until, that is, one Inspector Goole — in the film he is known as Poole — comes calling, with most distressing news; a young, lower class woman, one Eva Smith, aka Daisy Renton, whom all the family have mistreated in one fashion or another in the past two years, has just committed suicide by drinking a bottle of disinfectant. The Inspector, who clearly knows much more than he lets on at first, has some very definite questions for all the members of the dinner party. Questions that they won’t want to answer; questions that will shake the very foundations of their supposedly serene, blameless middle class existence.
As events unspool, in remarkably economical fashion — the complete film is only 77 minutes long — it becomes clear that each of the Birlings, and Gerald Croft, have contributed to the circumstances that led to Eva/Daisy’s death in a direct fashion. I won’t detail the specifics here, but suffice it to say that the word “hypocrisy” barely begins to cover the Birlings’ behavior towards the young woman. Sheila and Eric seem to take something of value away from the Inspector’s interrogation, but Gerald and the elder Birlings seem quite content to continue as they are, until events take a series of unexpected twists at the end of the film, which put everything in a distinctly different light.
Composed mostly of straight cuts, even in the flashback sequences — which are frequent, and have a distinct Rashomon characteristic, in that each member of the family, in recounting their interactions with the late young woman, have a different view of how they behaved, and how Daisy/Eva behaved — Guy Hamilton’s direction of An Inspector Calls is razor sharp, using the same spare technique he would employ on his later films, most notably the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964). As Eric, future director Bryan Forbes is both weak and sympathetic, but it is Alastair Sim, as the Inspector, who dominates the film from first frame to last, in a portrayal that is at once sinister and sympathetic, and climaxes with a series of genuine shocks.
First performed as a play in the Soviet Union in 1945, where the cultural authorities of the Stalinist regime were all too happy to present a stringent document detailing the shortcomings of the British class system, the play received a West End run in London in 1946, with Sir Ralph Richardson as the omniscient — in every sense of the word — Inspector. In 1947, the play crossed the Atlantic for a successful Broadway run, and was acclaimed as both a brilliant dramatic work, but also as a scathing indictment of the evils of the British class system.
I’d have loved to have seen the play on stage, but since we don’t have a time machine, and can’t go back to 1945, 1946, or 1947, this 1954 version, which is superb, more than suffices to bring Priestley’s timeless message home to us. Whether we want to hear it or not; we are all responsible for each other, and if we forget this simple fact, we do so at our peril. The film is available on DVD, but only in a Region 2 British version, which is a shame. An Inspector Calls deserves the widest audience possible, and is just as timely today as when it was written, if not more so.