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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Redgrave’

The Astonished Heart

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for some clips from The Astonished Heart.

Many years ago, I ran off a 16mm print of Terence Fisher’s film of The Astonished Heart, written by and starring Noël Coward, for some friends in my office, and we were all struck by seriousness and intensity of the film, which has, to this day, a rather indifferent reputation. I just saw it again, and although it belongs to a different century, and a different society altogether — so much has changed — the essential veracity of the piece remains intact. I was surprised to discover that the Film Society of Lincoln Center apparently agreed, for they screened the film this past May 11th, 2012 in 35mm format; I’m sorry I missed it.

Here are their program notes, in part: “another adaptation (like Brief Encounter) from the Tonight at 8:30 cycle [of Coward's plays], The Astonished Heart also marked the last time Coward played a leading role on film. Originally, Michael Redgrave was cast as psychiatrist Christian Faber and actually began filming in June, 1949. Coward saw the rushes and wasn’t happy. He decided he should play the part himself and was relieved when he discussed it with Redgrave, who agreed [. . .] Faber is married to Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter) but becomes infatuated with her friend (Margaret Leighton) [The film] is an opportunity to see Coward and his “family”—longtime companion Graham Payn and muse Joyce Carey—playing together one last time. Towards the end of his life, Coward would refer to “poor old Astonished Heart. I should love to see it again, just to see if it really is as bad as they said it was.” And of course, it wasn’t—it just happened to come at a time when, in England, Coward could do nothing right as far as the critics were concerned. On the Continent, it became a cult film . . .” And eventually the film was rediscovered in England, as well, and re-evaluated as being something more than a misfire.

Coward’s leading role in the film, it turns out, was necessitated by the need to pay some back taxes Coward suddenly discovered that he owed; his salary for the leading role of The Astonished Heart would just pay off the amount due. Reports to the contrary, Coward had no artistic quarrel with Redgrave; he just needed the money, right away.  When Redgrave was dismissed, he was paid his salary in full, thus pushing the film over-budget in both time and money. Thus, when shooting recommenced, it was done at a very rapid clip indeed, to keep the film from spiraling financially out of control altogether.

Coward also composed the music for the film, in addition to doing the screenplay, while Terence Fisher, later a star for Hammer Films, supposedly co-directed the film with Anthony (aka Antony) Darnborough, though those who knew Darnborough, who produced the film, said later that this co-direction credit was more “honorary” than anything else. I heartily agree; one can see Fisher’s guiding hand in every frame.

What ultimately distinguishes The Astonished Heart is that it’s a resolutely personal enterprise; even if Coward took over the lead for purely mercenary reasons, his portrayal of the anguished psychiatrist is both unsettling and altogether believable. The music is his, the screenplay is his, the source material is his, and he’s the lead — introduced, incidentally, only about 15 minutes into the brief 85 minute film, which is more than 95% told in flashback. Viewing it again, I can’t seen anyone else playing the role, not even the immensely talented Michael Redgrave; this was Coward’s part alone, one that he created, and understood, and the results are quite extraordinary.

The Astonished Heart is out on Region 2 DVD in an acceptable transfer; you should see it for yourself; it’s quite an impressive piece of work.

Dead of Night (1945)

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Click on the image above for the final “nightmare” sequence from Dead of Night.

From Wikipedia: “Dead of Night (1945) is a British portmanteau horror film made by Ealing Studios, its various episodes directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. The film stars Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers and Michael Redgrave. The film is probably best-remembered for the ventriloquist’s dummy episode starring Redgrave. Dead of Night stands out from British film of the 1940s, when few genre films were being produced, and it had a huge influence on subsequent British horror films; most particularly, the anthology films produced by Amicus in the 1960s and early 1970s.”

From Screenonline: “Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night (1945) is one of just a handful of ‘true’ horror films of British cinema’s first half-century, and certainly the most important film in that genre until the beginning of Hammer’s horror cycle a decade later. Released in September 1945, just a month after the formal end of the War, it marks a break from the documentary-influenced realism which had dominated wartime films, particularly Ealing’s.

The film was a truly collaborative venture, including many of the figures who dominated Ealing’s output during and after the War. Directors Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer, writer T.E.B. Clarke and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe represent the popular Ealing comedies; writer Angus McPhail was active at Ealing as early as 1939; Basil Dearden would pioneer the postwar ’social problem’ film; veteran Alberto Cavalcanti had already made his mark with Went the Day Well? (1943) and was a hugely influential figure at Ealing, despite directing only one further film there. Another studio mainstay, director Charles Frend, was forced to pull out early in the production due to other commitments. The cast included Ealing regulars Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.

Dead of Night stands up well despite the passing years. The linking narrative, directed by Dearden, holds the film together effectively, building up the sense of dread towards the suitably delirious conclusion. The five supernatural tales may be uneven, but Cavalcanti’s story – a talented ventriloquist is driven to attempted murder by his apparently conscious dummy – is eerie and gripping, and features a powerful performance by Michael Redgrave as the troubled and finally unhinged ventriloquist. Even better is the story by first-time director Hamer, in which an antique mirror with a dark history exposes the cracks in the relationship of smug middle-class couple Peter (Michael) and Joan (Withers).

The film sets up a classic horror genre opposition between science and the supernatural, and makes it clear from the outset which side it is on. Psychiatrist Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk) is quickly isolated; his attempts to offer a rationalist interpretation of his fellow guests’ stories are dismissed and, finally, he pays for his scepticism with his life. Despite its success, Dead of Night was a dead-end for Ealing, which never really dabbled in horror again; the genre largely went back underground until the Hammer era.” – Mark Duguid

One of the greatest horror films of all time, and the first British horror film produced after the end of World War II.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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