Tuesday, March 23, 2021

THE TRIPLE ECHO 1972

"A triple echo is the sound a shotgun blast makes when fired in the country."  

A triple echo is also the sound of the triangular collision of three lives.

I first became aware of the late British director Michael Apted back in the early '70s as the filmmaker responsible for picking up the mantle and expanding upon Paul Almond's groundbreakingly innovative Seven Up! documentary series. Nine in total, these social documentaries spanned the years 1964 to 2019 chronicling the lives of its original subjects…14 children, each 7-years-old…and checking in with them every seven years hence, from childhood to their 60s.
Over time, Apted established himself in feature films, gaining considerable success, if not Oscar recognition, for the superior celebrity biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), and for taking on the James Bond franchise with The World is Not Enough (1999). A 3-time BAFTA winner and recipient of several DGA awards, when Michael Apted died at age 79 on January 7, 2020, he left behind a varied legacy of outstanding films reflective not only of his roots in television and years as a documentarian, but his lifelong commitment to exploring the emotional truth of human relationships. 
The latter a distinguishing characteristic of his impressive feature film debut The Triple Echo.
Glenda Jackson as Alice Charlesworth

Brian Deacon as Pvt. Barton 

Oliver Reed as Sgt. Arthur

Because The Triple Echo has the confined, minimalist structure of a three-act chamber drama, before I learned that it was based on a 1970 novella by H.E. Bates (co-screenwriter of the 1955 Katharine Hepburn film Summertime) I was under the impression the film was adapted from a stage play. 
The time is WWII, the spring of 1943. The place, a remote farm in a hilly expanse of rural Wiltshire, England. A farm maintained solely and with some difficulty by Alice Charlesworth (Glenda Jackson), a solid, no-nonsense type whose husband is a POW in a Japanese prison camp. Alice’s reconciled solitude is interrupted one day when Barton (Brian Deacon), a young man from a nearby military training camp, accidentally trespasses on her land. Hostile wariness warms to measured affinity when the boyish soldier reveals himself to be a sensitive type enamored of nature, disdainful of authority, and a farmer’s son with a knack for fixing machinery. 
The Triple Echo marks the film debut of television & theater actor Brian Deacon 

From compassion and homesickness, the two strike up a tentative friendship. Out of loneliness and need—him: to forget the war, her: to remember who she was before the war—an incautious romance develops. (The film references but fails to specify the couple’s age difference. In real life, Glenda Jackson is Brian Deacon's senior by 13-years.) 
They spend his extended leave together on the farm. The undisturbed seclusion provides an artificial Eden so lullingly appealing to the discontented squaddy that when the time comes to return to camp, he decides to make his temporary absence a permanent one by deserting and going AWOL. Barton's abrupt decision precipitates an equally hastily-arrived-at solution from Alice: to elude detection and avoid capture, Barton must grow out his hair and nails, dress in women’s clothing, and assume the identity of Jill, a fictional younger sister visiting to help out on the farm. 

Confinement brings unforeseeable conflicts of personality, and almost immediately their relationship begins to buckle under the day-to-day strain of impersonation, complicity, and apprehension. Alice, implicated in Barton’s desertion yet sensing she’s the only one to grasp its seriousness, grows more fault-finding and resentful as feelings of “caring about” splinter into “being responsible for.” Meanwhile, the battle-resistant Barton, holed-up indoors and chafing at the irony of his great escape resulting in only a greater loss of freedom, finds himself embroiled in a battle with himself as he tries to simultaneously suppress and understand what both he and Alice perceive, but cannot find the words to talk about: his subtle, inner responsiveness to externally gender-identifying as a woman.

With its remote, farmhouse setting; Alice trudging about in the mud in boots and trousers; and Barton-as-Jill secreted-away indoors laboring over the cooking and ironing, it feels more intentional than coincidental that in falling so obligingly (yet acrimoniously) into a traditional gender role dynamic, Alice and Barton’s relationship comes to resemble that of Ellen and Jill (!) in D.H. Lawrence’s 1922 novella The Fox. A similarity reinforced by the Freudian emphasis on shotguns in both narratives, and the central conflict in each story being the intrusion of a third party—a fox/male character—whose attentions drive a fateful wedge between (and this is where I think '70s audiences were lost) two women.
The Sergeant (Oliver Reed at his charming-menacing best) and his buddy Stanley (Gavin Richards) make a nuisance of themselves once they discover the remote farmhouse is occupied by a "married crumpet" and her sister

In 2019 Glenda Jackson spoke on the topic of gender while starring on Broadway as King Lear: “When we’re born we teach babies….to be boys or girls. As we get older [she was 82 at the time] those absolute barriers of gender begin to crack.” She went on to observe how, having been just three years old at the start of WWII, she grew up in a world of women. Seeing women participate in every field of endeavor left her heedless of gender limitations. That is, until the war ended, the men returned, and women were encouraged (strongly) to go back to assuming more traditional roles.

That the flexible quadrants of gender are a theme explored in the nearly 50-year-old The Triple Echo suggests that Glenda Jackson’s timely comments reflect what has been a career-long interest on her part in taking on roles that explore the entire spectrum of human experience. Whether they be queer identity, gender-nonconformity, women’s autonomy, or sexual orientation, a considerable number of Jackson’s films have been about people and relationships that fall outside of the narrow confines of a gender binary paradigm:  Women in Love (1969), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), The Music Lovers (1971), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), and controversially, even her interpretation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in Hedda (1975). 

Michael Apted’s assured and nuanced The Triple Echo humanely explores a human reality...that long before there were terms like gender dysphoria or an understanding that assigned gender does not always conform to gender-identity, there has been an awareness that male-female / masculine-feminine are limited and inadequate qualifiers. That human beings are more complex than the simple roles they are assigned, and that there have always been individuals who felt a natural resistance to being what the world told them they must be. 
One of my favorite things about The Triple Echo is that the film refuses to disclose to the viewer any information about the characters that they themselves don't know. Barton in his youth has no real understanding of what he's experiencing, while Alice picks up on things she herself doesn't have the words or sophistication to fully comprehend. The film's emphasis, that we must go on loving those we care about...even when we don't always understand them...is, to me, a profoundly sensitive perspective for a film to have.

I don't know how it performed in the UK, but considering Glenda Jackson’s popularity at the time and the opportunity the film posed to see her reunited with Women in Love co-star Oliver Reed, it's (somewhat) surprising The Triple Echo struggled to find an audience in the US. Today it remains one of Jackson’s least-familiar, least-seen titles, failing—at least to my knowledge—to even get a VHS release.  
Of course, it didn’t help that the poorly-marketed 1972 independent feature didn’t appear in most American markets until 1974, then hoping to ride the publicity coattails of Jackson’s recent Oscar win for A Touch of Class (1973). But by then The Triple Echo came off as a late-in-the-cycle entry in the early-'70s trend in films exploring transgender and gender identity. Films that were either of the well-intentioned but-sensationalized variety: I Want What I Want (1972), or blatant exploitation: The Christine Jorgensen Story, Dinah East, and Myra Breckinridge--all released in 1970.

The audience for gender exploitation was likely unenthusiastic about Apted’s simple, arthouse approach. The nostalgia crowd was disappointed when the film's age-difference love story didn't turn into Britain's answer to The Summer of ‘42 (1971). And critics, left rudderless due to The Triple Echo arriving on the scene minus the guideposts of prior film festival wins determining its pedigree, didn't know what to make of a movie that was part love story, part unorthodox romantic triangle, part gender-identity character drama, and part nail-biting thriller.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Usually, when I say “Only in the ‘70s” about a film, it’s meant as an affectionate pejorative relating to the decade’s reputation for turning out offbeat, idiosyncratic films that could only have been made during that tiny window of time between the assembly line days of the studio system and the market-research era of the franchise blockbuster.
When I say The Triple Echo is the kind of movie that could only have been made in the ‘70s, I mean it as a badge of honor. With a small budget, minimal cast, and an intimate story that staunchly defies categorization; The Triple Echo feels like anything but sure-fire boxoffice hit material. But very much like a film Michael Apted wanted to make and a story he wanted to tell…market prospects be damned. And THAT is definitely something that could happen only in the ‘70s.
Critics in 1972 never tired of making reference to how "unconvincing" Deacon is as a woman. In a rare instance of an informed contemporary mentality working in favor of an older film, to watch The Triple Echo today and catch yourself obsessing over a jawline or a hairdo (bad wigs, however, are fair game) or ideas of "pretty," is to confront how fragile and arbitrary our ideas of masculinity and femininity really are. 

I missed out on seeing The Triple Echo during its original run, finally catching it on TCM just a few short years ago after decades of having had it on my holy grail list of must-see, hard-to-find films. With Glenda Jackson starring, I knew I wasn’t likely to be disappointed, but I didn't expect to be so moved or impressed by a first directorial effort. 
Even as the story veers toward the melodramatic, culminating in the tragic, The Triple Echo maintains an emotional perceptiveness and authentic sense of time and place that give scenes the feel of having been culled from personal memory.

If director Michael Apted and screenwriter Robin Chapman reveal their filmmaking inexperience in a certain overstatement of symbolism (portents of doom abound), and an overreliance on ambiguity in characterization (Glenda Jackson’s complex, fully-inhabited performance tethers the more sketchily-drawn roles of Deacon and Reed); they display an uncommonly deft hand in managing the film’s many shifts in tone and in creating an accompanying atmosphere for the three distinct phases of the story.
In the film's first third, as Alice & Barton get to know one another, the look is sunshiny and most scenes are set outdoors. The peaceful open spaces are punctuated by reminders of the war: the sight & sound of planes flying overhead, the carcasses of a downed airship overlooking Alice's farm like the eyes of TJ Eckelburg in The Great Gatsby 

The fear of detention spawns a sense of confined imprisonment as emotional estrangement and claustrophobic interiors characterize the second segment. The oppressively low ceilings and too-close walls are in stark contrast to what came before. The low-angle shot here not only calls attention to the lovers braced coldly with their backs to one another, but places in the forefront Barton's lengthened hair and long painted nails.

The third and final act, representing the completion of the triangle and the introduction of Sgt. Arthur's fateful dominance in the narrative, takes us back to the outdoors. But now the look is wintry, the atmosphere dark, stormy, and threatening.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
What if who you think you're pretending to be is who you really are? 

There’s a scene early in The Triple Echo where Alice sees Barton out of his military uniform for the first time and comments on his looking so different: “I’m a master of disguise,”  he says. A throwback reference to an even earlier scene in which, after Alice remarks that he doesn’t look much like a farmer’s son, Barton complains of having been “made” into a soldier by the Army. 
So much of life is being who we have to be, what we're told to be, and what we're expected to be, it feels like a genuine stroke of luck if any of those align with who we actually are. 
Michael Apted has crafted a finely-observed film that at times feels like the most heartfelt fable about the subtle tyranny of identities assigned and roles assumed, 
With Glenda Jackson giving what I think is one of her best and most underrated performances, it may have taken me almost 50 years to see The Triple Echo, but I say in all sincerity that I know I'm able to appreciate it more today than I ever could in the '70s.



BONUS MATERIAL
The Triple Echo opened in Los Angeles without much fanfare on April 17, 1974 at the Music Hall Theater. 
In a move not uncommon in the days before home video and DVDs, The Triple Echo was re-released some four years later in September of 1978, this time at the bottom half of an arthouse double bill (paired with Chabrol’s Dirty Hands) and christened with the fuck-all, act-of-desperation title: Soldier in Skirts.  
Lotsa Larfs & Sex
It's difficult to imagine how anyone thought it a good idea to market Michael Apted's somber character drama as a proto-Bosom Buddies comedy. Misconceived, misguided, and blatantly misleading.



The first thing I ever saw actor Brian Deacon in was John Schlesinger's 1983 HBO telefilm adaptation of Separate Tables with Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Before then I only knew of him as the husband of Rock Follies star and oft-parodied VO5 hairspray TV commercial pitchwoman Rula Lenska (the pair wed in 1977, divorced in 1987).

The Triple Echo is currently available for streaming through Amazon Prime Video.


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021

9 comments:

  1. Argyle, here. I feel I should say something about my absence from here. There have been major life changes, still happening, and then the pandemic, and the welcome and challenging reconsideration of our national situation (so awkward to articulate, but I hope that works.) I have visited here many times for your intelligent perspective, but responses just didn't flow as before, so I tried to just be ok with that. Thank you sincerely for still being here and doing this. This film looks fantastic. I've never heard of it. I can't believe it got made and it looks like it doesn't take any wrong turns.
    I will have to continue to ponder your sentence:

    "So much of life is being who we have to be, what we're told to be, and what we're expected to be, it feels like a genuine stroke of luck if any of those align with who we actually are."

    I feel like that is where I am and have been.

    Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed are in my Pantheon. Brian Deacon looks perfect. I am not familiar with him. In the stills, he reminds me a bit of Cillian Murphy, and in the "tea time" shot young Christopher Isherwood. These are good things! Also, Ms. Jackson's bemused expression in "tea time" is so evocative.
    Thank you, Ken for bring this film to my attention. My best wishes to you.

    Bill

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    1. Bill! So nice to hear from you –
      While you know I never “expect” readers to comment, I do appreciate your sharing that your life has been going through major changes. Something we can all relate to in varying degrees. Especially as per what the future presents for us on a socio-political landscape. (You stated it well in coining the phrase “ national situation” …I don’t think I could find a phrase to describe 2020 or the last four years without finding room for the word “clusterfuck.”)

      But I do know what it’s like (from my infrequent visits to favorite blogs I follow) to read something and want to leave a comment, but the words just don’t come, or you can’t think of anything significant to add. Your instinct to just be OK with that is perfect.

      That being said, I’m glad to know I brought a heretofore unknown Jackson?reed film to your attention. One that seems to be ripe for reappraisal after leaving audiences divided or apathetic in 1972.

      Like it or hate it, think the film is worthwhile and I’m positive you’d come away from it with much to think about. Oliver Reed is more Oliver Reed in this movie than in any of his films I’ve seen to date (honestly, that man is terrifying sometimes), and your citing Deacon’s resemblance to Isherwood and Cillian Murphy is spot on for the quality that character has. Murphy is now too old, but he would have been ideal in a remake.
      Speaking of, I saw on IMDB that there is a film in production titled TRIPLE ECHO. No information is given as to whether it has anything to do with the H.E. Bates novel, but I’d love to see a remake of THE TRIPLE ECHO. The performances in this version are primo and couldn't be imitated or (in Jackson's case) surpassed, but sexual politics and what is considered progressive has changed a great deal since 1972. I would love to see someone with a stronger script tackle this story.

      As a fan of Glenda Jackson, I hope you have had the opportunity to see her in 2019’s “Elizabeth is Missing.” She has lost not ounce of her edge or brilliance. She gives a very fine performance in THE TRIPLE ECHO, the simplicity of the role showcasing her skill in a way unexpected.

      This film is available on Amazon Prime, so hope you get a chance to check it out.
      Thank you very much for all the kind things you wrote, I appreciate your readership, and I hope that all the changes you speak of yield for you nothing but happiness and growth and peace of spirit.
      Take care!

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    2. I have not seen "Elizabeth is Missing" yet but will. It's so wonderful that she continues to find work she wants to do.

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  2. "...between the assembly-line days of the studio system and the market-research era of the franchise blockbuster."

    Well said, Ken.

    I think I saw Triple Echo for the first time right around the time you did, Ken, and I confess I found it pretty dreary. But do you sometimes wonder, Ken, if your enthusiasm for seventies cinema, something I believe I share with you to an even more passionate degree, is based on a more-or-less mature assessment of the relative qualities of the films themselves, or whether it is merely a sort of reactionary nostalgia on the part of someone who, like myself, is old enough to remember when a creaky, ancient-looking museum-piece like Airport was actually in the theaters? Is nostalgia always such a salutary instinct, I wonder? As someone in recovery, I am reminded almost daily that so very few of us are able to apprehend the present moment, to say nothing of the future, with optimism, gratitude, or even with anything less than mortal terror (Exhibit A: Jan. 6th). So are all of our fond remembrances of the past ultimately harmless, benign, or, on some level, the spiritual equivalent of what made Lot's wife look like one of those desiccated pieces of liver who were once mommies and daddies before those fabulous zombie mop-tops locked on one of their nuclear-hugs in The Children, 1980?

    Well, thank God John Belushi once said: NAAAHHH!!! And sorry to bloviate so shamelessly, Ken. I would probably get laughed out of a community college English 101 class. But on a lighter note, I notice the great Glenda Jackson now has eight films next to her name in your index, second only to Elizabeth Taylor. And as a breathlessly-monomaniacal Glenda Jackson completist, I hope you will one day tackle:

    Nasty Habits, 1977, a Watergate satire set in a convent, but with a cast of actresses capable of crashing the Supporting Actress Smackdown! website.

    The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, 1967: tough-going at times, but my personal choice for the greatest movie musical of all time.

    And Stevie, 1978, which in my opinion does something extraordinary: a filmed play that is almost the definition of the word 'static' and that goes out of it's way to be as awkward as possible in adapting a work from one medium to another, and whose subject matter is nothing more than the drab, uneventful, morbidly death-obsessed life of the poet Stevie Smith, but that simultaneously manages to be as hypnotic as maybe a Tarkovsky epic on the Ecstasies' of St. Teresa of Avila; and with an atmosphere, a mood that is all it's own, and perhaps even unique in the history of cinema: a sort of suffocating, airless, dust-swirling in-the-pale-light-from-the-window-pane melancholy that is absolutely spell-binding, and that could choke tears from a stone. And largely this is because of our dear Glenda, but with a HUGE assist from Stevie Smith's verse itself.

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    1. Hi Rick!
      Ah, yes...you reminded me of that OTHER very good reason THE TRIPLE ECHO had a difficult time finding an audience in 1972…some folks found it terribly dreary!

      I like your question about one’s love for ‘70s films and nostalgia and all that. Because I write about it, I’ve thought about it a lot. In my case, nostalgia is the doorway, not the destination. I don’t want to look at movies I saw when I was 13 and see them with the same eyes. Nor do I want to escape the now and reimagine the era as some sort of safe emotional haven. I’ve been in love with movies all my life, and not only as a fan. I wanted to be a filmmaker since I saw ROSEMARY’S BABY in 1986, and like an athlete, from that moment on I watched, studied, read about and experienced films. Up to and through attending film school, movies were an integral part of my most formative and impressionable years—as a passion, an intellectual pursuit, a study, a source of personal exploration, and a spiritually stimulating area of aesthetic development.

      What Hollywood was during this time, that movies like AIRPORT were in theaters the same time as THE DAMNED or EL TOPO or BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS…it was a time I lived through, but could only experience through the prism of experience and understanding of an adolescent or teen. As I said, it’s not valuable to see this films through a 13-year-old’s eyes again, I did that. But it’s very good to see these films as an adult. One can trace what has changed within when viewing a film that meant something to me 40 or 50 years ago. Film is a living art, a film changes as we see it in different stages of our life. That’s a valuable experience. Nostalgia is nice, but it’s like a dream…it doesn’t last and it doesn’t move anything forward.

      Looks like I go to do a little bloviating of my own!

      Are you one of the few who enjoys NASTY HABITS? That cast!! Sandy Dennis! I love it, even as I don’t think it entirely works. But Glenda Jackson is great (she almost hits an identical stride in Altman's HEALTH. By the way, I suspect you have Altman’s BEYOND THERAPY, too? I don’t much like the film but Jackson, to me, is very funny in it). I have a copy of all the films you named except MARAT SADE, which I haven’t seen since the 80s, and a very fuzzy DVD copy at that. Definitely needs a revisit. Nice to hear you speak so fondly of it.

      My copy of STEVIE is lousy as well, but I too like that the film does not try to be cinematic. With an actress like Jackson, I tend not to care about much else if she’s speaking. She’s that riveting a performer and she’s very moving in that role.
      The one Glenda Jackson movie I want to write about and have only seen once is THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN. Once again, a very '70s feel to that odd film.

      Thanks for sharing your love of Glenda Jackson and allowing me to indulge in a little Jackson fawning of my own. I always appreciate your perspective and thoughts.
      (Working on catching up to responding to a backlog of past comments on previous posts. I appreciate your reading those older pieces!)
      Cheers, Rick!

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  3. Hi Ken, loulou here. "Soldier in Skirts'" - the cliched epitome of every morally bankrupt Hollywood executive who'll do anything for a buck. And the poster with the laughing faces of Jackson and Reed no less! It reminds me of that old chestnut "The Gay Deceivers".

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    1. Hi there, loulou
      THE GAY DECEIVERS! My older sister took us to see that movie SO many times. She was a big fan of Rosalind Russell and Michael Greer reminded her of Russell in "Auntie Mame." Also, my sister--like everybody else in the audience--thought "sissies" were hysterically funny.
      I mostly recall it as being an uncomfortable viewing experience.

      And yes, this is a terrible poster. But the original trailer (available on YouTube) is hardly much better. This was definitely an instance of a delicate movie needing to find the right marketing agency, and failing spectacularly.

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  4. Hi Ken!

    I loved Glenda Jackson in the 70s and when I was lucky enough to see her on Broadway a few years ago in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women I got Jackson fever all over again and started re-watching everything I could get my hands on. The Triple Echo was one of the few films of hers I’d never seen. I got it on an import Blu Ray and it was a revelation. So was a “special feature” on the Blu Ray…

    A Super-8 version for “home viewing pleasure.” When I was kid we had a few “super 8” versions of films – but all of them were horror and science-fiction and mostly just opening credits, highlights, and The End. It struck as me as so bizarre that they thought there would be a market for The Triple Echo in this early format. Running 19 minutes, the movie doesn’t make a lot sense, of course, but I thought it was kind of fascinating,

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  5. Hi Max
    I never thought Jackson would return to acting, so it's been a thrill not only to see her presence online, but to have her referenced and recognized by young people discovering her work.
    I'm so jealous you got to see Jackson in Three Tall Women! A friend of mine saw it and said it was an unforgettable experience seeing Jackson on the stage.
    When I saw Jackson in the BBC movie "Elizabeth is Missing" that kicked off a week of my revisiting her work.
    Although I haven't seen it in several years, I hope a copy of Jackson in "The Devil is a Woman" makes an appearance on a streaming site, soon. I don't recall much about it.

    And what a surprising (if not downright astounding) bit of news about that DVD extra. I remember the days of the Super-8 home-viewing versions of major motion pictures. We had a couple as well, although I'm taxed to remember if it was "The Poseidon Adventure" or "The Towering Inferno." In any event, I remember them as you describe, largely highlights and action sequences. If there is one movie that seems ill-suited to this sort of marketing, it's "The Triple Echo."
    Makes me wonder if they did that sort of thing for other highly unlikely titles like "The Devils" or "A Clockwork Orange."
    Great that you got the import Bluray, the list of extras looks fantastic. Thanks for commenting, Max!

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