Saturday 14 March 2015

Catching Up (4) - The Woman in Question (Anthony Asquith, UK, 1950)

All those Rank films have lain round after being recorded off late night transmissions on the ABC over the last twenty five years. It's probably criminal neglect that there are more than a few still unseen. A name as prestigious as Asquith's though is something else. Quite shameful but there you are. His was a name that denominated prestige and quality right from the moment when he started. We've been reminded of this recently with the release by the BFI on one of its Blu-ray/DVD packages of the director's first solo film, the 1927 Underground.

In the short entry on Asquith in Richard Roud's Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, published way, way back in 1980 when film publications were rarities, John Russell Taylor knew nothing of Underground. His take was that "most of (Asquith's) best films were in fact based quite clearly on plays." He mentioned the Shaw adaptations Pygmalion (1938) and The Doctor's Dilemma (1958) and the eight collaborations with Terence Rattigan which began way back in 1939 with French Without Tears. David Thomson endorses this view in his Biographical Dictionary in 2002: "...he had a high and quite unmerited reputation. In fact he was a dull journeyman supervisor of the transfer to the screen of proven theatrical properties." He proceeds to express some admiration for Dance Pretty Lady (1932), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and Pygmalion.

John Russell Taylor makes no mention of The Woman in Question (1950) nor does Thomson so I'm assuming that neither had seen it when they made their judgement. I don't imagine that a viewing of it would do much to change their minds beyond perhaps acknowledging that this was a movie that was somewhat out of Asquith's comfort zone of beautifully spoken dialogue and refined dramatic moments among the middle and upper classes. What might be focussed upon in any assessment would be the near caricatures of the criminal class represented by Dirk Bogarde, playing a sort of Graham Greene spiv with an American accent (which he later admits is put on and that he's never been further west than Liverpool) and John McCallum as an Irish boyo.

Both Dirk and John initially fall for the charms of widowed fortune teller Astra (Jean Kent). She works on the Brighton pier and has an eye for the guys. At the start of the movie her dead body is discovered by the local paper boy and what we then get is a series, almost Rashomon-like, of vignettes designed to show the sort of woman Astra is and how she's seen by the neighbourhood. As I said its a sort of sub-Brighton Rock. The details are quite good, most especially the somewhat drab, indeed seedy house, that  Astra in habits and wherein most of the film takes place. A lot of care went into that bit of art design and it foretells the British kitchen sink dramas that were to come a half decade later. But the clunky plot and the acting/characterization of the three main players who swirl around Jean Kent leaves a little to be desired when some authenticity is called for.

Still, Asquith was trying something out of his comfort zone and that's to be commended. It seems likely however, that he didn't know much about the characters and thus was little help to his actors. He quickly retreated to what he knew best. Adaptations of Rattigan (The Browning Version 1951)  and Wilde followed .

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