Thursday, July 5, 2012

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON 1964

This film was first brought to my attention by Mark over at the terrific blogsite, Random Ramblings, Thoughts and Fiction in a discussion on The Stepford Wives and director Bryan Forbes. Informed that the stylistically uneven and nepotism-prone director (wife Nanette Newman appears, by contract it would seem, in virtually every film) had really scored a hit with the noir-ish kidnap caper film Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I was eager to get a look at this well-regarded British thriller that seems to have fallen through the cracks a bit here in the U.S. Well, rather obligingly, TCM recently screened Séance on a Wet Afternoon and I must say, I was seriously floored and thoroughly impressed. What a marvelous, wholly satisfying surprise! If, as I suspect, Forbes was was hired to helm The Stepford Wives on the strength of this film, I fully understand why. Where has this movie been all my life?

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a claustrophobically tense suspense thriller/crime drama about a kidnap plot hatched by an eager-for-fame trance medium (Kim Stanley) and her dominated husband (Richard Attenborough).
Kim Stanley as Myra Savage
Richard Attenborough as Billy Savage
Nanette Newman as Mrs. Clayton
Patrick Magee as Superintendent Walsh
Mark Eden as Mr. Clayton
Possessed, since childhood, of a psychic gift granting foresight through communion with spirits in other dimensions, Myra Savage has always known she was “different,” but has sustained herself with the notion that she is also "special." But an adult existence of workaday mundanity (she supports herself and her unemployed, asthmatic husband by conducting once-a-week séances in the gloomy Victorian home they share) and lingering remnants of a past tragedy have conspired to render her gifts, if not wasted, then of minimal consequence. Determined to right fate's wrongs and fulfill her arrogate destiny, Myra prevails upon her weak-willed husband to carry out the "borrowing" of the daughter of a wealthy businessman so that a charade might be enacted wherein, after ransom is demanded and the press alerted, Myra can gain notoriety by way of what she calls  "The lie that reveals the truth": the feigning of psychic intervention in leading the grieving parents to the whereabouts of the daughter and the discovery of the ransom.  
Of course, the Gothic turn of the screw in Séance on a Wet Afternoon is Myra’s obvious mental instability (raising doubts about her claim of psychic talent) and the peculiar, Lady Macbeth-ish influence she wields over her apprehensively compliant, yet devoted husband Billy.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM 
I have a fondness for films about crime capers that go terribly wrong. Whether due to human error (some character’s “fatal flaw”) or merely faulty planning, it always strikes me as a marvelously theatrical dramatization of the folly and arrogance of mankind ever thinking it has control over the outcome of anything. The rather deranged motivations that set in motion Séance on a Wet Afternoon’s kidnapping plot are unsettlingly compounded by the codependent master/slave relationship shared by Myra and Billy. 
Many shots in the film are composed to place Myra in positions of looming dominance over her passive husband 

In an ambiguous interplay which recalls the dysfunctional dynamics of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the “gifted” Myra, the family’s sole breadwinner and whose inherited house they share, clearly dominates Billy, but Billy’s brow-beaten silences have an air of weary condescension. One senses that he has learned that it is easier to suffer his wife’s erratic behavior and cutting invectives than to challenge them. Billy relates to Myra as one might a person suffering from Alzheimer’s. In scenes where Myra appears to forget or has re-imagined some event from the past, Billy either recants or hesitates at revealing the truth (e.g., when Myra turns off the blaring Victrola only moments later to accuse Billy of doing so, he doesn't contradict her). 
Myra visits the parents of the kidnapped girl to offer her services as a "professional psychic"

PERFORMANCES
Kim Stanley’s screen appearances may have been infrequent, but in each instance (most notably Paddy Chayefsky’s The Goddess- 1958) she seriously came to clean house. This woman wasn't fooling around! In portraying the escalatingly unhinged mastermind of a spiritually mandated kidnap-for-fame scheme, Stanley creates and inhabits a character of mesmerizing and terrifying complexity. Both fragile and steely, Myra Savage is a role so inherently distasteful that marketable stars Simone Signoret and Deborah Kerr declined it outright. Yet Stanley imbues Myra with such a mercurially shifting palette of conflicting emotions that she emerges never exclusively a villain or victim; merely a frighteningly authentic incarnation of the  internal desolation that is madness. Stanley's performance garnered an Oscar nomination, and rightfully so.
Billy - "We're mad, you and me. Both mad."

I never thought I could ever forgive Richard Attenborough after what he did to A Chorus Line (1985), but after seeing his chilling turn in 10 Rilllington Place (1971) last year, and now Séance on a Wet Afternoon…well, I can see that the man is quite prodigiously talented when kept in front of the camera. As the somewhat infantilized spouse (there’s an emasculating absurdity in this well-past-middle-aged man being referred to as “Billy”), Attenborough’s quiet anguish is well-matched with Stanley’s showier display of insanity. Not allowed a “backstory” as to how he came to be so cowed by his wife, Attenborough’s surprisingly expressive eyes convey the defeated compromise and devotionally loving tolerance that binds this obviously intelligent man to a delusional woman determined to lead them both toward tragedy.
Portraying a largely silent character, Richard Attenborough's eyes betray a past of torturesome sorrows

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Atmospheric and loaded with dramatic tension, Séance on a Wet Afternoon nevertheless might be too procedural and talky for some people’s tastes. Indeed, the screenplay, as adapted by director Forbes from the 1961 novel by Mark McShane, could easily be turned into a stage play with few alterations. (In the year 2000, Séance on a Wet Afternoon was remade as a Japanese horror film titled, Séance, and in 2009 it was made into an opera composed by Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz.) 
The unpleasant topic of a child being terrorized has been said to have accounted for the film's mild reception upon its release. Here, schoolgirl Amanda Clayton (Judith Donner) attempts to thwart her abduction by Billy Savage by locking him out of the car (Richard Attenborough) 

Personally, being a tad weary of the flash cut, ADD, CGI stuff of today, I enjoy seeing film so deliberately paced. It's nice to have a film trust an audience will allow events to unfold as they need to, not just in a way dedicated to providing a thrill a minute. The time spent in allowing us to know and understand the characters on a more substantial level has the remarkable effect of creating empathy for both the villains and the victims. I found myself simultaneously rooting for and against the kidnappers' detection.  
Note* Based on several reviews and summaries I've read online, it seems there exists the possibility of misunderstanding what occurs during the film’s gripping conclusion if one fails to pay close attention. What is spoken is so important during these crucial final moments (and alas, the DVD release comes without a “captions” option) an unheard word or two is apt to leave you walking away with an entirely different impression of how this film really ends.
The Savages - as unsavory a couple as ever appeared in a film.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Shot in exquisite black and white by cinematographer Gerry Turpin and employing all the deep-focus/high-contrast flourishes of the best of film noir and mid-'60s thrillers, Séance on a Wet Afternoon makes a great companion piece to those similar exercises in bloodless terror: The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963). I very much liked the hauntingly sinister score by the late, great John Barry, and Bryan Forbes methodical buildup of suspense was especially to my taste. It’s often difficult to know specifically what a director is responsible for in a film, but in comparing The Stepford Wives with Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I’m leaning towards investment in character over plot. Both films kept me riveted because the characters came alive for me in such complex, deeply flawed (human) ways, I cared about what happened to them. For a film to succeed in drawing the viewer into the emotional reality of a film, seems the most thrilling special effect of all.
The bleak Victorian London home where most of the film's action takes place. A house haunted by more than ghosts

Copyright © Ken Anderson

17 comments:

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed it!

    I have a thing for these kind of gloomy, psychological noirish crime movies that my country turned out in the early 60s (with the previous decades shadow still hanging heavy over them) Of course they also tap in, whether intentionally or not, to a closing chapter in British history too-capital punishment, and from this era the names of Ruth Ellis (whose story was made in the 80s as Dance With A Stranger) Derek Bentley (Let Him Have It from the early 90s) Timothy Evans and John Christie (later explored with Attenborough as you say in 10 Rillington Place) still ring out today, as do those who escaped such punishment (and the argument whether they really should have) the truly evil Myra Hindley and Ian Brady.

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    1. It is a rare movie today that becomes one of my lasting, re-watchable favorites, but this one certainly has. And as I said, given how much it involves so many of the things I enjoy (complex female protagonist, mood, character-driven narrative) I'm so surprised in all my years how this film escaped me. (Richard Lester's "Petulia" joins these ranks). Interesting point you make about the changing climate of British films reflecting the changing times, at least in regard to dark crime dramas. I've seen "the Krays" and "Dance with a Stranger", but Iunfamiliar with some of those other infamous criminals you mentioned. Off to Google... Thanks so much, Mark! I owe you one for this film. It's fantastic.

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  2. Did you dislike Nanette in the film? It's been too long since I've seen it to recall what I thought of her myself, but I certainly never forgot her hilarious turn in Stepford Wives. Family connections or not, I thought she did pretty well in that. Kim Stanley, as you say, always seemed to take great advantage of the few film opportunities that came her way. I think I first saw her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as Big Mama (with Rip Torn, Tommy Lee Jones and an endlessly languid Jessica Lange.)

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Nanette Newman is actually very good in this film. I think the nepostism thing always hints that a person is otherwise unqualified, but like with Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter (not married but nepotismn once removed), it's often just a recognition of a underused talent. Nanette provides the one human, sympathetic contrast. Her beauty and composure and well as how she demonstrates how deeply she is affected by the kidnapping is actually the human thread that ratchets up the suspense a great deal. (And I too loved her in "The Stepford Wives")
      I never saw the TV production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" you mention, but I love that cast! Maybe it'll appear on DVD one day. Thanks as always, Poseidon for saying hello and taking the time to comment!

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  3. Your wish is my command! (But I suggest renting it, if possible, over buying it.)

    http://www.amazon.com/Cat-Hot-Roof-Jessica-Lange/dp/6305081905/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

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    1. Wow! I didn't know it was already on DVD! And...ad everything falls into place...I found out that they have it at Netflix, so it's on my queue. It's almost as if spiritual intervention was involved!
      Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Poseidon!

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  4. "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" is one of those great titles for a film--I had been long familiar with the film "by name" but not "by experience". Here in Australia, I'm guessing that the film is pretty well-known (at least by name) by people from its generation.

    I've just taken a look at this one; again, they don't make them like this anymore. The scene in the subway was especially engaging; have you seen "Le Samourai"?

    The night before, I watched "The Goddess". What can I say? Nobody portrays a nervous breakdown like Kim Stanley! As for Nanette Newman: well, my belief is that if you wish to cast someone "near and dear" to you in a film and they can play the role, why not? I think she's very good in this and wonderfully cinemagenic.

    One of my favourite things to do when watching films, whenever they show a close-up of a newspaper with an article pertinent to the storyline, is to look for the surrounding articles. I'm glad there's a still from the movie posted above, because just to the left of the kidnapping story, there's a column about a golfer who hits a hole-in-one for 10,000 quid. Some people, such as the Savages, go to elaborate (not to mention positively evil) lengths for fame and fortune; for others, it's not so complicated.

    Thank you, Ken, for reviewing this film and for your recommendation.

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  5. Hi Mark
    You know, years before I ever saw the film, I too loved the title "Seance on a Wet Afternoon." If I were a writer and came up with that as the title of my novel, I'd be so pleased with myself I'd probably give myself writer's block. I'm glad you pointed that out. Also, glad you got around to seeing this. You put a pretty weighty situation on my shoulders when you say a you've been inspired to seek out a film based on what you've read here. I hope I never lead you too far astray.

    This film is really something. I just was blown away by it. Glad you liked it.

    I've never seen nor heard of "Le Samourai" before you mentioned it, but I looked it up and it sounds right up my alley.

    Lastly, that was an excellent, one-of-a-kind observation you made about the newspaper and that somewhat ironic article I never would have noticed.You should be proud...you've got the eagle eyes and unique perspective of a film critic!

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  6. I must confess, I only noticed the other articles in the newspaper AFTER watching the movie and looking at the still image in your review above; I DID mean to look at the other articles as I was watching the movie, because this is something I love doing, but by the time I was about to look at the various other headings, the movie skipped to the next shot, and I didn't want to rewind the DVD and interrupt the flow of the movie. But yes, 9 times out of 10, this would be something I'd notice. Had I watched this on the big screen, I would've got it straight away, because these things tend to leap out at you at the cinema.

    Bogus newspapers in movies are always fun. I often wonder if they print an entire page, or simply doctor a pre-existing newspaper. Once I attended a Stanley Kubrick exhibition and one of the best things on display was the newspaper shown near the end of "A Clockwork Orange". As far as I recall, I do believe it was a real newspaper of some type, with the bogus article about Alexander.

    "Le Samourai" is great; it has a wonderfully paranoid, suspenseful subway sequence that I thought about as watching the subway scene in "Seance on a Wet Afternoon".

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  7. I first saw this on TV when I was living in Australia. I couldn't ever forget it, it haunted me. When I moved back to the U.S., I despaired of ever seeing it again, as no one I knew ever heard of it. Eventually it came to Netflix and TCM, and I was able to spread the word. This movie has it all. Most importantly, it has character development, something not very well done these days.I can't improve upon anything written here, but I have a question for Ken: I thought I knew what was said at the end, but now I doubt myself. Can you clue us in?

    As a final note, Richard Attenborough (who always reminded me of an Edward Gorey illustration, never more so than in this film)lost his daughter and granddaughter in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Tragic.

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  8. Hi Ava
    I love your comment about Attenborough looking like an Edward Gorey illustration! What a perfectly succinct a description! However, I had no idea about his familial loss in 2004. That is sad news, indeed.
    Thanks for sharing your impressions of the film, and I agree, the time it devotes to character development in instrumental in its being so distinctive.
    As per the film's ending, I am sure you heard it right. I was just referencing the many online reviews I read that claimed the kidnapped girl had been killed by the couple when Myra's final trance reveals that not to be the case.
    Thanks very much for stopping by, Ava!

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  9. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Bryan Forbes Friday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

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  10. I saw this film many years ago and unfortunately haven't been able to view it since. But even after all this time, I vividly remember Richard Attenborough's performance. I know that Kim Stanley received all the accolades, although I've always found her mannered and too much in the I-Am-Acting-Here-Dammit! mode for my tastes (it's that kind of method acting in which the actor creates the character and then steps aside and points out to you how he's done it while he performs). It was Attenborough who impressed me; I never had a sense of the actor behind the character he's creating, but only of the helpless, complex man in the story. Attenborough was so quiet and self-contained, but the way he used his eyes, and his reserved, yet tense presence, was what stood out for me. He took a tawdry character and made him touching and sympathetic, especially how he conveyed his love for his deranged wife and his complicated knowledge of the wrongness of his actions. I do hope this film soon gets the DVD treatment it deserves, if it hasn't already.

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    1. Hi GOM
      That is the most hilarious description of Stanley's acting style I've ever read! I'm in the other camp, but I can't help but admire how close to home that delineation really is!
      And yes, I am with you on Attenborough's performance. His eyes in this are amazing, and their contrasting noisy/quiet styles perfectly set off the strange, co-dependent relationship of their characters.
      It's funny, I don't know if this is on DVD or not. If it isn't, it should be. Such a wonderful film,
      Thanks for commenting!

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  12. This gem of a horror flick does indeed have that wonderful heavy, deadly earnest atmosphere that seems to be a lost craft these days. Not that horror that uses humor or high adrenaline/visual shocks can never work (Rosemary's Baby, the Abandoned), but nothing can top the slow unrelenting creep of this kind of film. Also did Magic and 10 Rillington Place. No comic relief or anything to pull you out of the weirdness - creates a true alternate reality with a long creepy after glow. So so serious and so good.

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    1. I like the tone of this film a great deal as well. And your observations on the different approaches to horror and suspense are well taken. Some stories use humor and horror beautiful and still remain compelling and frightening; but sometimes it's great to sit through a film that is a tad restlessness in its grimness. i was quite taken with how harrowing I found "10 Rillington Place"...I just loved it, but I'm not sure I'd want to revisit it. I had to look up "The Abandoned," I've never seen it but now i'm intrigued.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and for visiting this blog!

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