I love postwar British noir. There’s a romantic edge to much of it, a mood of darkness but with a touch of hope. The British vs. American experience of WWII is likely part of the difference, as well as British filmmaking style vs. the Hollywood machine. I’m not experienced or well-read enough to elaborate much further, but I can tell you what I like and why. Two of my favorite postwar Brit noirs:

These two films feature an homme fatale (the male equivalent of the femme fatale), but our protagonists are women who are streetwise and strong, plucky underdogs we root for. Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) has been young and wild and is now older and wiser; she fights for what she has even as the temptation of the criminal lover of her past returns.Turn the Key Softly (1953) tells the tale of three women, all looking for some happiness as they get out of prison. We sympathize and wish them well, from the naive gold-digging Stella (Joan Collins) who has a chance of happiness with a regular fella to the elderly thief Granny Quillam (Kathleen Harrison) who only wants a little peace and quiet. Our central protagonist is Monica (Yvonne Mitchell), done wrong by her handsome criminal boyfriend: can she escape his clutches and move on?

Jean Simmons was a central young actress in postwar British film, including their “soft” noir. I know her work from Hollywood productions mostly, including her oddly cast Sarah in Guys and Dolls (1955) and the lead in Cukor’s The Actress (1953), about the life of Ruth Gordon. I also know her classic noir appearance in Angel Face (1952) — a film that is far more compelling to watch if you don’t know about her misuse by Howard Hughes and director Otto Preminger. (Hughes bought out her contract without her knowledge, so she chopped off her hair to protest, and he made her wear a wig. Preminger demanded that Mitchum slap Simmons harder, so Mitchum slapped Preminger, and Preminger tried unsuccessfully to get Mitchum thrown off the picture. What a mess.)

Beyond these Hollywood films, I also watched her in The Clouded Yellow (1950), a kind of Hitchcock lite picture about a secret service agent on holiday and a young woman who is framed for the murder of an offensive handyman. It isn’t a favorite of mine, but it held my attention as a mild thriller…at least until a stiff Trevor Howard (born 1913) ends up in a romantic relationship with young Jean Simmons (born 1929) at the end.

Earlier this week, I delved deeper, spending an afternoon watching a Jean Simmons double feature via Amazon Prime: So Long at the Fair (1950) and Uncle Silas (1947 — later retitled The Inheritance). The films are both postwar British films set in the Victorian era with a Gothic mood. Both feature a woman in peril, scheming evildoers, and a handsome young man to rescue our heroine. So much can be compared, and I like one film better for many reasons and the other for a few. How could I not indulge in a Noir Face-off?

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The following sections will compare what to me were the most central facets to determining my enjoyment of the films. By exploring the details, I will see which film is truly my favorite…though I think I already know…

SUMMARIES

So Long at the Fair (SL) is the tale of a British brother and sister (Vicky) who visit Paris for the 1889 Exposition. After the first night, the brother goes missing. Not only is he gone when his sister goes to find him in his room, but his room itself seems to be gone. Determined to find him even as others think she is mad, Vicky does everything humanly possible to provide evidence that the hotel managers are lying and have taken her brother or perhaps even killed him. In the end, we learn the truth of where the missing brother has been, with the fortuitous help of a handsome young artist.

Uncle Silas (US) tells of a young woman (Caroline) who goes to live with her allegedly reformed ne’er-do-well uncle upon her father’s death. She is both petted and misused by this uncle, who will inherit all if he can marry her off to his vile son…or kill her.

And now, the face-off:

THE PROTAGONIST

  • Jean Simmons as Vicky (SL)
  • Jean Simmons as Caroline (US)

Simmons is young, beautiful, and sympathetic in both films. Vicky is strong-willed and determined throughout the film, entirely engaging. Caroline is a typical gothic female — young, vulnerable, and passive.

Winner: So Long at the Fair

THE VILLAINS

  • Hotel proprietress Madame Hervé (Cathleen Nesbitt)
  • Uncle Silas (Derrick De Marney) and his cohort Madame de la Rougierre (Katrina Paxinau) (US)

 

The hotel proprietress who keeps trying to convince Vicky she is mad and that she should return to England is splendidly cold, and her partner husband (?) is a menacing buffoon. It takes nothing from them to say that the ornate Gothic appeal of perverse Uncle Silas (as well as his slimy son) and his scheming, drunk confederate Madame de la Rougierre are in another class entirely. Uncle Silas is a film about menace and evil, while So Long at the Fair is more of a thriller, without a central villain.

Winner: Uncle Silas

THE LOVER

  • George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde) (SL)
  • Lord Richard Ilbury (Derek Bond) (US)

Lord Ilbury is noble, kind, and willing to fight dangerous men to save sweet Caroline. George is an artist with an eye for the ladies, but he assists Vicky in every way he can. He’s a devoted helpmate, not a Lord on a white horse, and I like him the better for it. And George is played by Dirk Bogarde, barely disguising his 50s hair. Poor Derek Bond hasn’t got a chance.

Winner: So Long at the Fair

THE DENOUEMENT  [SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS SECTION]

  • Poor brother Johnny had the plague. (SL)
  • Uncle Silas is undone and takes his life with poison. (US)

The reveal at the end of So Long at the Fair is frankly a serious disappointment. Was he actually a spy? Did he have secret information? Was he mistaken for someone else? Was it just to rob him of a family brooch? No. He had the plague, and if anyone found out, it would have caused panic at the Exposition. UGH. By contrast, we know Silas will be found out, but it’s delightful when the family solicitor goes to confront him and finds him dead in his favorite chair by the fire. Not brilliant, but a lot better than the plague.

Winner: Uncle Silas

MISE-EN-SCENE

  • Paris of 1889, including cafes, ornate hotel rooms, and even a performance of the can-can. (SL)
  • Victorian mansions, including Uncle Silas’s enormous crumbling estate with its secret rooms and barred windows. (US)

While I prefer a creepy haunted mansion to the Paris Exhibition as a setting, So Long at the Fair did much with the details of its little hotel. The feel of Silas’s estate was fine, but it lacked detail, I thought. The more ornate the better if we’re going Victorian.

Winner: So Long at the Fair 

GOTHIC/NOIR PEDIGREE

  • Based on an urban myth of its era; co-directed by Terrence Fisher (of many a Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee 1960s horror film) (SL)
  • Based on a novel by Sheridan Lefanu; cinematography by Robert Krasker (of The Third Man and Odd Man Out fame) (US)

There’s a Hitchcock feel to So Long at the Fair, and I will remember it for its plucky heroine and setting long after I forget Uncle Silas, but you can’t deny the latter’s amazing pedigree.

Winner: Uncle Silas

Oh damn. I really did enjoy So Long at the Fair far more. I thought the writing stronger (until the ending) and liked determined Vicky so much more than stupid passive Caroline! But the truth will out, and the truth in this instance seems to be a tie, with 3 wins each.

FACE-OFF WINNER: There isn’t one, apparently! Just call it a draw.

 

 

 

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