Wednesday, November 11, 2009

“He likes cats, but not from kindness”

For what might one day be a work thing, I asked m'colleague M to recommend Dirk Bogarde films from the early 60s. Am woefully ill-read in the man's work, so blimey: three compelling, peculiar movies.

In The Singer Not The Song (1961), Bogarde is an oddly well-spoken Mexican bandit. Anacleto preys on a small town until Irish priest John Mills walks in. Mills is determined to win Bogarde over to the side of the angels; Bogarde wants to drag Mills down to his own level.

It's a sumptuous film in full colour, filmed in southern Spain. The story is raunchily Catholic – about community and duty and salvation. There are small roles for Doctor Who later regulars Roger Delgado, Laurence Payne and Eileen Way. And it doesn't quite all come together.

Bogarde, who's grown up through the revolution to hate the church as part of the old regime, speaks in perfect English. Locha – daughter of a rich Mexican (Delgado) and his glamorous, American wife – speaks with a distinctly French lilt. And Bogarde's performance is... well, he doesn't seem all that bothered.

It was apparently the last film he shot in his seven-year contract for Rank. On the DVD extra, director Roy Ward Baker says there was an enmity on set between Bogarde and Mills. But Michael Brooke for ScreenOnline argues that it has the opposite effect on the film: charging it with homoerotic subtext. I'm not wholly convinced.

That's not, though, true of Bogarde's next film. In Victim (also 1961), Bogarde plays a top London lawyer with a pretty wife (Sylvia Syms), who finds himself open to blackmail for giving a gay young chap a lift home. This is six years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the film is apparently the first mainstream effort to directly address the issue.

It takes a comparatively long time, though, for the film to name the love that dare not speak its name. Until then, its lots of people being worried and in a rush, not quite saying why. That sells us on the basic wheeze – that this is a thriller, with a villain to be spotted from the many rich characters – and means by the time we find out what it's about we're already hooked. I can see the producers worrying that audiences of the time might not flock if they knew the subject.

The film puts across a lot of points of view on the subject. In fact, there are several almost-soliloquies, where peripheral characters state their Opinion on the matter. It seems keen to encompass a range of views, but they puncture the thrill of the story, taking us out of the action.

It's beautifully played by Bogarde and Syms, with a nice turn from Alan MacNaughtan (who I recognised from Sandbaggers and To Serve Them All Our Days) and a whole world of people who would later be in Doctor Who.

The film is much written on elsewhere, mostly noting that it's a brave choice of role for Bogarde a) because he was mostly then known as a teen idol and 2) because he kept his own private life private.

But if I'm not misunderstanding, Bogarde's character is not a practising homosexual. He promises Syms that he hasn't broken his promise to her – that he only gave Boy Barrett a lift in his car a few times. An earlier, alluded-to dalliance at college doesn't seem to have been acted on either. And before we know what the film's about, we see Bogarde in a passionate snog with Syms.

Rather, Bogarde seems open to blackmail for a thought crime - “I wanted him!” he declares to Syms in a pivotal moment. The all-important photograph – which we ourselves never see – shows him sat next to Barrett. As is said in the film, the only thing to suggest anything untoward is that Barrett is crying.

If Bogarde weren't such the moral type, I could see him easily bluffing his way through – especially since the Establishment seem just as bent as he is, or don't care what he does in his own time. But it's an extraordinary film; a complex and involving thriller with a rich cast of possible villains and some neat twists along the way.

You can still hear Matthew Sweet's interview with Syms about the film on The Film Programme in July.

The Mind Benders (1963) is a bit like an English version of the Manchurian Candidate (1962) – though rather than Communist villains brainwashing a man to assassinate a Presidential candidate, here a chap's colleagues at Oxford make him perfectly beastly to his wife.

Again, there are some fun cameos to watch out for – Delgado again, a young Edward Fox, and Wendy Craig as the university bike.

The method for making Bogarde nasty is an eight-hour spell in a flotation tank. I'd half expected the plot to develop with Bogarde then exposed to extreme aromatherapy. But instead it does something just as extraordinary – and pulls back on the promise of a tragic ending to put everything right again. There's not a lot of apology from the chaps, but otherwise everyone ends up okay.

In all three films, Bogarde seems above the petty concerns of ordinary mortals; his gaze falls with equal withering on priests, bigots and women. He's gaunt, elegant, bequiffed – and eminently watchable for such striking and strange roles.

1 comment:

Le Mc said...

Interesting, I'd never heard of any of these films.