WENDY HILLER GROWS UP…AND GROWS OLD (Segue of the Day: 5/29/17)

I Know Where I’m Going (1945)
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Fred Zinneman

Wendy Hiller, now virtually unknown to anyone but film buffs, was one of those periodic Brits (they were common in her day, but Helen Mirren, for instance, continued the practice well into ours) who preferred the stage to the screen. In the case of the actors who went that route, I never thought the best of the men–Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson–were much of a loss, fine as they sometimes were.

The never-were performances of the women, however–Hiller, MIrren, Vivien Leigh– amount to a cultural gap.

Hiller was perhaps the most devoted stage-hound of them all. She was in some Hollywood productions, but there were no West Coast sojourns. She forever preferred the West End and was thus content to be the first British actress nominated for an Oscar in a British film (1938’s Pygmalion, her second film, where she was a luminous and definitive Eliza Doolittle and for which she likely would have won by acclaim if the film had been an American production, such as the following year’s Gone With the Wind), star in a mere 21 films over a 55-year career, and go for long periods without appearing on film at all.

I Know Where I’m Going, which captures perhaps her greatest performance (I say perhaps only because I haven’t seen them all), was only her fourth film. It came four years after her second and seven years before her fifth. I suppose if you are only going to do something once in a decade you might as well be indelible.

it took me a long time to get around to this one and Hiller, not the film’s famous writer/director team, who in my handful of brief encounters elsewhere have seemed more impressed by their own eccentricities than anyone who isn’t an Anglophile could be, was the main attraction.

This was my second viewing, and it was lovely and romantic and breathtaking all over again with the added touch that I got past the magic sparks Hiller and Roger Livesey keep throwing off just enough to notice that it’s also one of the great weather-and-landscape movies. Coming from 1945–a year that still has powerful resonance for anyone with a sense of history (let alone History)–the two leads serve as literal embodiments of the national character, a character that is now lost (to the world anyway, I can’t speak for how the Brits feel about themselves).

I can’t recall any other film where True Love is so closely tied to, and complicated by, not only to traditional notions of honor, but the very landscape and its most brutal elements. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Hiller’s attempt to reach a remote Scottish island where her conveniently rich and doltish fiance awaits and Livesey’s attempts to “help” her. She’s continually cut off by a series of obstacles–howling gales, rising seas, whirlpools. obstinance thicker than the Scottish accents–and finally risks her life, and those of others, not so much to reach her fiance, as to get away from Livesey, who has begun to suspect as much, but dares not hope she’ll act on either his wishes or hers, and dares even less to smash his sterling character by actively pursuing a woman who is spoken for.

Both characters–and both actors–reside within a ¬†mindset which firmly accepts that, if there will always be an England, it will be because people like themselves will finally do the right thing. Just what that right thing is, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out and, even if you aren’t surprised, the final scene is still likely to thrill anyone harboring a trace of romance in these days when no dates ever resonate but we simply drag endlessly and remorselessly on, toward the place where England is no more.

Which makes Hiller’s supporting-but-still-indelible presence in A Man for All Seasons--seven years after her previous filmall the more poignant in hindsight. Filmed barely twenty years later, set four hundred years earlier, she might be fifty years older.

There’s a reason they call it acting I guess.

The England that would always be is just coming into being on the screen, mid-wifed by the conflict between Henry VIII and Thomas More over the matter of Anne Boleyn (defined variously by Robert Shaw, Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave, all proud products of the England that would always be and was just beginning to be no more). But while all the more famous characters are products of their time and breeding (it’s among the best cast and acted movies within the realm of human ken), it’s Hiller’s Alice More–illiterate, intemperate, unromantic, sensible, everything her earlier embodiment of the National Character was not–who knows best what’s really at stake. It’s as if she’s the only one who sees that an England built on Henry’s sand, rather than her husband’s rock, will be doomed to come a cropper in the end, even if the end will come out the other side of an Empire upon which, as the old saw had it, the sun never set, and, as a late-arriving wag riposted, the blood never dried.

The end, that is, that the Wendy Hiller who marched to bagpipes toward a curse-ridden castle and whatever fate awaited her in the final frames of I Know Where I’m Going would just live to see….and perhaps mourn.

RIDE ON JOSEPHINE (Monthly Book Report: 11/16)

All mystery this month. I’ll be reviewing a book of interviews with Ross MacDonald for BWW shortly. Meanwhile I reached the half-way mark in my Josephine Tey Re-read Project, finishing A Shilling for Candles and The Franchise Affair….two novels as different as the pre- and post-war years in which they were published..

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A Shilling For Candles (Josephine Tey, 1936)

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The date is telling. This is an old-fashioned, stiff upper lip, “there will always be an England” style mystery, about as conventional as Tey got. It was her second novel, following on The Man in the Queue from the previous decade (she made her bones as a playwright in between). I won’t say the future isn’t felt here–that WWII isn’t right around the corner–but it’s felt as something to be held a arm’s length.

Again, Tey rides with Inspector Alan Grant and, again, she attaches her mystery to Show Biz. The theater in Queue, the cinema here. As always, the character bits are sharp-edged and beautifully compressed. On her movie star victim (found drowned on the beach of a private hideaway in the novel’s opening sequence):

Nor yet when, tiring of song-and-dance pictures, her ambition had reached out to drama; her rocket had shot to the stars under its own power, it would seem. This could only mean one of two things: that she had remained virgin until her marriage at twenty-six (a state of affairs which Grant, who had a larger experience of life than of psychology textbooks, found quite possible) or that her favor was given only when her heart (or her fancy, according to whether you are sentimentalist or cynic) was touched. Four years ago Lord Edward Champneis (pronounced Chins), old Bude’s fifth son, had met her in Hollywood, and in a month they were married. She was at that time shooting her first straight film, and it was generally agreed that she had “done well for herself” in her marriage. Two years later Lord Edward as “Christine Clay’s husband.”

That single paragraph is powerfully redolent of Tey’s style–one she would go on to perfect at even higher levels after civilization managed to survive the storm clouds gathering deep in the book’s background. The fundamental natures of Show Biz, Hollywood, Scotland Yard, the British national character, and most of the insights you need into three principal players (including the one who’s death has set the story in motion) are all delivered in a single, short stroke. There’s never a moment when you are not aware that you are in the hands of a first rate writer.

The only letdown is the mystery itself, which–despite the lively presence of a tomboy who would have provided a plum role for Hayley Mills if anyone had been smart enough to make a film of this thirty ears later (no one could play her half so well now…thus has England gone)–is along pretty conventional lines. Not only do I not remember who the culprit finally was, a mere two weeks later, I don’t care that I don’t remember.

It would have been easy to guess, from the evidence of her first two novels, that Tey would go on being an acute practitioner of the Agatha Christie school.

Then the war came.

The Franchise Affair (Josephine Tey, 1948)

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This was Tey’s second post-war novel. While it’s not as disturbing or haunting as Miss Pym Disposes (it turns on the dread of failed reputations, unfairly tarnished, rather than the tragedy of a casual murder which punishes everyone but its perpetrator), it is very much in line with her new tone.

No aspect of “civilization” can be taken for granted.

This time the girl who might have been played by Hayley Mills a generation later (again, if someone in either Hollywood or the British Film Industry been the least bit on the ball), is a budding sociopath. A Lolita type arrived just a hair too early for the modernist eye to fall on her and give her a definitive shape (and yes, Stanley Kubrick wanted Mills for his film version of Nabokov’s novel…of course he did). She’s chilling enough, even in the background. I suspect, however, that writing Miss Pym, had taken something out of Tey, a less worldly and accomplished writer, in the same manner that Under Western Eyes took something out of Conrad, and Bend Sinister took something out of Nabokov. The dread builds nicely through the first two thirds of the book and then just sort of disperses, leaving a very nicely drawn middle age love story in its place.

Even there, Tey could be accused of pulling her punch. Not only does the monstrous child not rise to the level of murderer (casual or otherwise), or at least get away with her mischief, but the love story is reconciled on the last page, when it would have been far more poignant and realistic for it to remain broken.

It’s almost as if–perhaps wondering for the first time if there really would always be an England–the Scotswoman who had been born Elizabeth MacKintosh, could not bear to face the cold reality.

For that, she can certainly be forgiven.

[NOTE: The Franchise Affair, along with two subsequent Tey novels, Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time, both of which I’ll be reviewing in due time, are routinely listed among the greatest crime novels ever written. Why Miss Pym Disposes, her greatest work, does not make these lists is….a mystery. Anyway, the ending reminded me a great deal, in both tone and incident, of the ending of the great Powell-Pressburger film from a few years earlier, I Know Where I’m Going. Somehow it worked better there. Given Tey’s interest in the cinema, I wonder if she was perhaps influenced by that film’s happy glow. One could see how. It starred Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey and it’s worth any effort to track it down.]