Art, which we can barely see, by Felix Topolski, creating a modern version of 18th century cartoons.
THE RAKE’S PROGRESS, directed by Sidney Gilliat, is the film Francois Truffaut says he likes when Hitch asks him if he ever saw any Launder & Gilliat movies. In FT’s opinion, GREEN FOR DANGER “didn’t quite work,” a frustratingly brief critique, but not as frustrating as the fact that, having raised the subject, Hitchcock doesn’t offer an opinion himself.
Well, time has been good to GREEN FOR DANGER, which has received the deluxe Criterion treatment and been discovered by American cinephiles who would mostly have been unaware of its existence. Here in Britain it’s an acknowledged classic, which means that the general public is even more unaware of its existence. A sort of combination of whodunnit, character comedy and giallo, GFD is a delightful, quirky and intelligent entertainment from the pinnacle of British cinema’s golden age. THE RAKE’S PROGRESS, meanwhile, is almost impossible to see — unscreened on television for years, never revived, unavailable on tape and disc.
I finally tracked down a curiously flickering copy of the film, which proved mildly disappointing, but not by any means bad. Detailing the misadventures of a reckless, increasingly caddish scamp, played by Rex Harrison, the movie seemed most useful as an illustration of the late Leslie Halliwell’s ability to colossally miss the point.
Halliwell, a ubiquitous film writer who penned the first film dictionary I owned (and just about the only one available here in the 80s, save Ephraim Kurtz’s less all-encompassing but far more intelligent rival volume), once wrote that the climax of THE RED SHOES suggested that Powell and Pressburger had run out of ideas and couldn’t think of how to end their film, which kind of demonstrates the scale of ass the man could be. With THE RAKE’S PROGRESS he surpasses even that: “with silly endpapers in which, quite out of character, the rake becomes a war hero.” The reason that’s dumb is that the entire point of the film illustrates a notion of Gilliat’s, which I suspect is true, that a certain kind of man — arrogant, reckless, fearless, motivated by thrill-seeking and attention-seeking — who is a total liability in time of peace, can be a very useful asset in time of war. The film’s greatest achievement may be the fact that it makes this point forcefully (it’s hard to see how anyone could miss it) without insulting Britain’s WWII heroes.
Sexy Rexy begins the film being heroic in a tank, and then we flash back to his youth, getting sent down from Oxford for climbing monuments (and putting chamberpots on top of them — the inter-war equivalent of TP-ing, I guess), a relatively harmless jape, it’s true. Meanwhile he’s carrying on with a friend’s girl, a less innocent form of fun.
His M.P. father finds him a job in a South American coffee business, an opportunity he blows when he realises how inefficient and inhumane the corporation is (nothing about exploiting the natives, however: Sexy Rexy gets himself fired after a researcher is made redundant). Returning to England, Rex seduces his friend’s girl again, but she’s now the guy’s wife, so that ends badly. A short career as a racing driver offers some success, but when the major European races are cancelled due to impending war, Rex is on his uppers again.
Now comes the strongest part — Lili Palmer (real-life Mrs. Harrison) enters the film (1hr 10mins in) as a Jewish refugee looking for a husband who can get her British citizenship. She has a bit of money to pay Rex’s debts, and motivated by some genuine unselfish feeling (hearing a Hitler speech booming out in the night) he agrees to help. But he’s not that nice — he invents a £3,000 debt in England which she has to pay too (this cleans her out), so that he can pocket the money. This is pretty nasty behaviour for a hero in a film of this period. Of course, the joke’s on him when his equally caddish best mate embezzles the money from him and loses it in a stock market gamble.
I was delighted to realise this must have been a film my late friend Lawrie assisted on. He worked on GREEN FOR DANGER the previous year, as replacement 3rd Assistant Director, and told me he had made a film with Harrison and Palmer, but didn’t seem to remember what it was. Mainly he remembered them constantly swearing at each other, “the filthiest language I’d ever heard” — and he had been in the Royal Air Force.
After destroying his marriage AND his father, Rex drifts into the seedy night-life of the taxi-dancer, at which point I realised the film was following the same path as Hitchcock’s DOWNHILL, which I had just seen. What makes THE RAKE more fun than the sombre (but still enjoyable) Hitch silent, is the way Rex manages to have a fair bit of fun on his road to ruin, and is generally completely guilty of everything he’s accused of. He’s a refreshingly irredeemable swine for a film of this era, and it’s a courageous way to depict an officer and a gentleman in 1945 (we also get glimpses of police corruption, class prejudice in action, quietly tolerated adultery, and a few other surprises). My guess is that Launder & Gilliat were still in their left-leaning, angry young men phase (they turned conservative soon after, as men if not as filmmakers: some of their later works do still show sparks of wild invention).
The ending is sweet. Rex’s pal and a senior officer look at his body in a bombed-out cellar, and hear of his dying words, “…a good year.” The officer remarks that it’s men like Rex who have made it one. The witness to the death says that he thinks Rex was referring to the champagne bottle he’d been glugging from. “He died as he lived: drinking champagne he hadn’t paid for.”
The officer says he considers the remark in very poor taste, and strops off.
“You’d have appreciated it,” says the cad to the dead rake.