Adapted from the novel by J. Sheridan LeFanu (CARMILLA), this maybe misses real greatness but has some great stuff in it. Produced by Two Cities, who also made Olivier’s Shakespeare films, Carol Reed’s ODD MAN OUT, and David Lean’s first Noel Coward films (before Lean branched out with cinematographer/producer Ronald Neame to make BRIEF ENCOUNTER), this emerges from the immediate post-war period when british cinema was enjoying a boost in confidence and ambition. Overall, UNC SILAS has elements of Lean’s evocatively textured Dickens films, and a little of Michael Powell’s hallucinatory surrealism.
Genre-wise, it’s straightahead gothic melodrama. Jean Simmons, a rising young star at the time, plays an innocent young thing foisted upon her sinister relative who lives at Scary Hall (not its real name). He plots to Do Her Into get her inheritance. There’s a simple Locked-Room Mystery thrown in for good measure (which is probably the best thing to do with L-RMs, since if made the basis for an entire story they tend to reduce the narrative to puzzle-solving). As stories go, it’s all pretty generic and linear.
Director Charles Frank (a Belgian with a fragmentary and puzzling non-career) compensates for a rather basic story by throwing style at the film. He’s like a matador decorating a cake. Even the heroine’s French lessons get treated to an expressionist dream sequence — and a damn good one.
The credits suggest the involvement of a storyboard artist (“Script Illustrator”), and the mise en scene slots together with pre-planned precision and nicely designed angles. Cinematographer Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) lights the doomy sets beautifully, and has a particularly nice approach to fireplaces, blasting light through them from behind to make flickering shapes on the floor.
Based on his work here, it’s criminal that Frank didn’t make more films in Britain. I’ve never seen his scanty Belgian oevre, and it’s uncertain I’ll ever get to, but this movie has moments of incredible brio and gets so many things dead right that with slightly more complex material I can’t help but feel that Frank could have made a truly Great Film.
The cast is marvellous, with Simmons breathing vivacity into the dull protag, Derrick DeMarney crepuscular and oleaginous as the eponymous Unc, and John Laurie as a hilariously odd, lopsided butler, materialising in rooms without warning, like Mrs Danvers, or Jeeves. My friend Lawrie Knight’s abiding memory of his quasi-namesake and fellow Scot was J. Laurie’s tendency to start every acquaintanceship with an account of his success in the lead role of Hamlet. If you watch RETURN TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, you can see John Laurie actually do this.
A fellow called Manning Whiley does good work as Silas’ awful, horny son, making great use of a powerful voice, and the great Esmond Knight brings his customary strength to the role of Simmons’ sympathetic family doctor. All the more impressive when we recall that Knight was blinded in the war. He continued playing sighted parts in films like THE RED SHOES and BLACK NARCISSUS, using sheer dramatic skill and self-confidence to make the audience believe he can see. In the latter film, he had to ride a donkey through a forest. “Don’t you want a stand-in?” “No, no, the animal doesn’t want to bump into a tree any more than I do.”
(Casting a blind man as a film director seems a fairly sick joke, but it shouldn’t surprise us that this is just what happens in PEEPING TOM. Knight’s character, Arthur Baden, a frenzied bully, is a parodic self-portrait by director Michael Powell [the character name derives by way of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement. Furthermore, studio boss Don Jarvis is a "spoonerism" of real Rank Studios president John Davis, who is viciously and accurately parodied throughout, and the name of Mark Lewis, the film's titular voyeur, is a reversal of screenwriter Leo Marks' name.])
The only film where I’ve ever seen Knight play a blind man (in Olivier’s T.V. King Lear he plays the old man who actually LEADS the blinded Gloucester) is Richard Lester’s witty and touching ROBIN AND MARIAN, where Knight actually popped his glass eye out in order to be even more convincingly disabled. But to return to UNCLE SILAS –
– Best of all, Katina Paxinou is the scary French mistress, Madame de la Rougierre. Alternately shrieking and muttering, she is terrifying in her malice, offensive familarity and sheer stupidity — you may not think of stupidity as naturally frightening, but it can be, just look at our world leaders.
K.P. submits to being made truly grotesque by Frank and Krasker’s leering use of wide-angle lenses: she lurches into close-up and makes things happen with her corpse’s teeth, or else she stands swaying on the spot and lets the camera rocket drunkenly in on her. Either way, she was born to alarm.
The film’s only trouble is its inability to accomplish anything beyond suspense and slick visuals. It has a compelling baddie in the hypocrite and schemer Silas, but his bad qualities never amount to a coherent whole. The leading lady is trusting, then figures things out, then gets rescued, which robs her of the opportunity to fend for herself and grow as a character. It’s one of those films that can quickly fade to black after the villains are vanquished, because there’s nothing else to sort out.
One possible half-solution to this poverty of theme is to throw in some spuriously ambiguous final moment, tenuously connected to any old motif established earlier, and leave the audience with a faux-poetic puzzle. This is known (by me) as the Coen Coda, but I guess nobody was buying that one back in the ’40s.
I don’t mean to be down on this film AT ALL, because it’s a great directorial box of tricks — students of cinema (which I hope includes all of us) could probably learn more technique from this than from an acknowledged masterpiece like Lean’s OLIVER TWIST. But O.T. is the better film for narrative and thematic reasons, which lend it greater impact and make it satisfying in a way that UNCLE S. cannot aspire to be, for all its visual and aural dexterity.