Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Written for the screen and directed by Bryan Forbes. A Beaver Film.
Starring Kim Stanley and a false nose driven by Richard Attenborough.
SOME WORDS I READ OFF THE SCREEN DURING THIS FILM
“FORECAST 2/-” This is inscribed above each window of a derelect building where Sir Dickie Lord Attenborough stashes a Rolls Royce he’s stolen while abducting a rich little girl. I have no idea what this signage means, but perhaps everybody in 1964 would have understood it perfectly. It adds a weird little mystery for me though, and connects to the film’s psychic theme.
“BREAD”. This is written on a bread bin in Kim Stanley’s kitchen. Bread is what they feed the “borrowed child” and bread is what they demand from the girl’s parents.
“TY-PHOO”. This is written on the side of a bus. It’s a popular brand of tea – perhaps relating to tea-leaf reading?
“Get on the trail of the happiest ale. BEN TRUMAN.” Another bus. This is also a detective story, and the police will soon be on the trail of a less-than-happy Dickie.
“THE PUBLIC EYE”. Big ad for a play, seen behind a crowd scene as Dickie makes himself furtive in the foreground.
“MUST END.” To do with the play, but we see a Greater Significance, and this is the first of several signs tainted with ominous subtext.
“SEEDLESS”. Written on a box of grapes in a market stall. Possibly a comment on Dickie’s impotent character, seen loitering nearby.
Also around here is a Max Factor ad but I can’t quite read the product name. “Coiffure Italienne”? I am reminded of an anecdote of uncertain veracity told me by my late friend Lawrie Knight, and since Lawrie knew Bryan Forbes slightly, I’ll reproduce it here:
Lawrie was running an ad company in Soho and he was approached by someone from Max Factor and offered the lucrative Max F account. But there was one condition: to prove his abilities, Lawrie was instructed to make a copy of a mysterious film handed to him by the Factor factotum.
He runs the film in his screening room and it’s hardcore porn. He tells his projectionist to get it duped. The projectionist hurries off, but soon reports back that no lab will touch it — this is the sixties and such material is very illegal. Lawrie says he’s sorry but the man will have to get the film copied or he’s fired. (Lawrie wasn’t this harsh when I knew him, but it’s, like, necessary to the plot, so we’ll accept it).
Next day the projectionist proudly presents a copy of the film. They run it for Max Factor man and the first thing up is a title, “The BBC Proudly Presents,” or some such, followed by the standard erect cock. Which means that the film is a kinescope. Which means that it’s a recording of a TV broadcast. Which means that the projectionist had taken the film to BBC Television and bribed somebody to transmit this hardcore porn extravaganza to the entire nation in the middle of the night when there were no official broadcasts and nobody was watching… except maybe some drunk somewhere, nodded off in front of the telly, awakened by sudden grunting and unable to believe his bleary eyes.
End of digression.
“GENTLEMEN.” Sign on a public lav. Which is an odd thing for it to say, when “POO AND PEE” would give you a more accurate account of the likely contents of the establishment.
“WALPAMUR Petrifying Liquid”. This is printed on a canister in Dickie’s garage, which a policeman searches. Again, I don’t know what this one means but it’s bloody terrifying. I’m going to have Walpamur-based nightmares tonight, I can tell.
“CLOSING DOWN”. Another sign weighted with foreboding.
“LONGFELLOW. AM READY TO OBLIGE. CHARLES.” The cryptic personal ad by which the child’s father signals his willingness to cough up the swag.
Now Dickie descends into the Underground, and suddenly his whole world is a speeding mass of signage. Only a few can be by read in all the flurry of ransom-collecting:
“WAY OUT” and “NO ENTRY”.
“People With Interest In The Future”. An ad, and another reference to crystal-gazing etc.
“Leave Something Solid Behind You,” another ad, certainly full of possible significance for Dickie. Could also serve as a slogan for the “Gentlemen”.
A few years back Bryan Forbes, along with many other directors, picked his ten favourite films of all time. He was the only one to choose one of his own movies. He picked WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND with performing prodigy Hayley Mills, which is an outstanding film, but he could have equally picked this one. (My late friend Lawrie did not find it at all surprising that BF would nominate himself. I think it’s a rather splendid thing to do, personally.)
We have a suburban Lady Macbeth with whispery voice, in supposed communication with her still-born son Arthur, pushing her sappy hubby into this crazy abduction venture in order to prove her psychic abilities to the world. The domestic conspiracy scenes are quietly skin-crawling — this is a matrimonial horror film. Kim Stanley’s softly domineering Myra has the absolute faith of the true believer, which tells her that whatever she feels like doing is RIGHT, while Dickie is the weak man with no particular beliefs except a vague sense of right and wrong, which really proves his salvation.
I’ve never been very taken with Attenborough’s films as director, but as a performer he’s often remarkable: a fidgety, actorly outside, fussing away at bits of business, while a fierce-burning core of intense emotion rages behind the eyes. Here it feels like his big bald forehead is going to burst like an egg from the incredible pressures building within.
Also appearing: Nanette Newman as the kidnapped child’s mother. Forbes’ wife and frequent star, NN is a sort of English Rose type only her face looks like an Identikit of Sophia Loren: all the features are slightly the wrong size, which is definitely a good thing in this case. Patrick Magee as the Third Act Detective Inspector. This is the most restrained I’ve ever seen Madman Magee. He doesn’t even look as if he WANTS to start drooling and gnawing the chair legs. And he’s mesmeric.
Attenborough’s partner in Beaver Films was Bryan Forbes, a good actor and an often marvellous director. Here he seems to have picked up some tricks from the nouvelle vague and maybe the British New Wave: raindrops spatter on the lens turning the scene into a funhouse mirror wibble-wobble; we direct-cut from scene to scene and dissolve DURING scenes; we wipe between scenes just once, almost randomly. And this is combined with a staunchly classical mise-en-scene, strong compositions and elegant camera moves, especially around the seance table, which we circle counter-clockwise opposite Kim Stanley as she prepares to Make Contact.
British films have often seemed conservative to the point of petrification, a touch too much Walpamur Liquid perhaps. It’s not surprising to me that we made a film celebrating Douglas Bader, a war hero with tin legs: he has the perfect gait for our pictures. But in between the crazy dreamers like Michael Powell, and the plodding craftsmen like, well, 90% of everybody else, there are a few clever, skilled storytellers like Forbes who sometimes make contact with the beyond.
Footnote: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s SEANCE is inspired by Forbes’ film. It shatters the neat structure, deploys an even more elliptical approach to narrative, and is a very interesting flick in it’s own right. The British film resists the supernatural without ever quite denying it altogether: offscreen spirits seem to breathe into its rooms. The Japanese quasi-remake teeters on the edge of total irrationality, and its protagonists plunge headlong into the terrible place that we sometimes see reflected in Attenborough’s glassy eyes.