Five minutes in hell:
Fiona was sat at the computer in her dressing gown, and I was just starting to watch WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s The Fiona Watson Story.”
Five minutes later she made me turn it off. I can’t say I blame her. Though very interesting cinematically, it’s also a hard film to be in the room with. Made in 1957, it’s an early precursor for the British New Wave films of the ’60s, detailing ordinary-ish working class life. What makes it peculiarly stressful is director J. Lee Thompson’s approach to mise-en-scene, and the grating, desperate performance of Yvonne Mitchell.
She grins a lot, furiously, and the air of frantic make-believe in her every action exhausts our patience and sympathy in moments, and it seems like a really fake, bad performance and maybe is but my god it’s exhausting and that somehow seems just right. The strenuous effervescence seems to mask soul-rending despair right from the off.
The film earned Godard’s disapproval for its constant camera movement, but Thompson seems to be influenced by Max Ophüls or something. His camera not only darts about with the characters (Mitchell’s housewife is flighty and disorganised, always beginning tasks and forgetting to finish them — the camera style suits her) but constantly frames them through foreground detritus, trapping them in a cramped domestic prison. And through it all the radio blares, adding a further layer of audio-clutter. It’s true, when Thompson films from inside cupboards and oven grills he may be getting carried away, but the overall effect is impressively claustrophobic, oppressive — and dynamic.
Thompson had a weird career. He managed to carve out a niche in the UK making hard-edged dramas like this one, and YIELD TO THE NIGHT (Diana Dors gets death) and ICE COLD IN ALEX (desert warfare with an alcoholic hero), before decamping for Hollywood just when British cinema was rising to his level. TIGER BAY, the last film of his British period, is an extremely tense drama that made a star out of the young Hayley Mills. Her jangling, uncontrolled energy is breathtaking.
In the US, JLT won the admiration of Gregory Peck after taking over THE GUNS OF NAVARONE from Alexander Mackendrick, whom the producers had fired. Following this with CAPE FEAR, he made the kind of brutal, powerful and nasty thriller he’d been aspiring to in his British work, but after that everything seems to go wrong. The tail-end of his career is nothing but a string of substandard Charles Bronson movies. Thompson had become the poor man’s Michael Winner, and you can’t get poorer than that. Like the once-great Richard Fleischer, he could have enhanced his reputation immeasurably by quitting ten, fifteen, twenty years earlier.
(Theory: the qualities that make a good director also make someone who does not know when to quit.)
WIADG is maybe a little TOO dramatically shot. It’s not that there aren’t ideas underlying Thompson’s decisions, it’s just that maybe the style is overpowering and a touch hyperbolic. But that’s Thomson for you. YIELD TO THE NIGHT also achieves most of its best effects by shouting at the viewer, leaving just a few quiet, gentle spots to achieve their impact by contrasting with the overall sound and fury.
We breath a sigh of relief as Quayle escapes his home and heads out into the clean lines of the modern housing estate. From the outside, the Le Corbusier-influenced neo-brutalist “machines for living in” look positively soothing compared to the scrapheap our Dressing Gown Woman has made of the interior. Then Quayle arrives at his girlfriend’s house (he’s pretended to be going to work), a pleasant, old-fashioned house, and things get even more comforting and relaxed — though Thompson still edits with severity and pace, jumping straight down the line into close shots as if covering an argument rather than an embrace. There IS an underlying tension to the scene as written, and this strategy foregrounds it emphatically.
This may be the most stressful opening five minutes I can recall sitting through. There’s tons of “Sid Furie Shots” — those peaking-through-the-shelves shots beloved of the director of THE IPCRESS FILE. They’re gimmicky but they serve a purpose, making us feel trapped along with the characters, hemmed in and hampered.
This film is a great discovery for me because it’s an early instance of the social realist approach that came to the fore in the early ’60s films of Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, and which echoed the late ’50s Angry Young Man vibe of British theatre. I have a script project which requires a fusing of this aesthetic with the new movement in British horror of the late ’50s, inaugurated by Hammer’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. (I know that seems an odd thing to do, but that’s the way I am.) WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN fits the bill to perfection, not only because its gutsy, kinetic attack is a closer match for Hammer than most of the later Woodfall Films of Richardson et al, but because it’s made the same year as CURSE OF F, and both films feature future sitcom star Melvyn Hayes — in one film he’s the delivery boy, in the other he’s the young Peter Cushing.
The man’s a living legend — I should write him a part.