Blind Tuesday: Where is love and who turned out the lights?

An obscure one — I’d never heard of MADNESS OF THE HEART until I stumbled across it. It has no reputation, but it does have points of interest: it’s written and directed by Charles Bennett, who collaborated on a half-dozen or so key Hitchcocks between BLACKMAIL and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (including most of the late-thirties espionage cycle, all reviewed elsewhere on this site as part of Hitchcock Year) and also adapted NIGHT OF THE DEMON for Jacques Tourneur, incorporating a number of Hitchcockian ideas, including the master-villain with the sweet, doddering mum.

And then there’s Kathleen Byron, reprising her mad love act from BLACK NARCISSUS, only with a cod French accent. Powell told her that Sister Ruth was a great part, the only problem being she’d never get a better one, and he was right. So basically repeating the role here seems a reasonable option: it beats Freddie Francis’s CRAZE.

In brief: plucky doctor’s receptionist Margaret Lockwood meets and falls for French aristo Paul (Who He?) Dupuis. Then she’s struck blind, and the best medical minds, including the one she works for (yay! Maurice Denham!) conclude there’s no hope. After an unsuccessful turn as a nun (blind AND a nun? doesn’t Audrey Hepburn have automatic dibs on that?) narrating the story so far in flashback (the structure’s a mess but so’s this sentence) she hooks up with Dupuis again and he marries her, blindness and all. FINALLY we arrive at the family château in the South of France where Kathleen Byron plays an old flame of Dupuis, determined to destroy Lockwood so she can have him for herself… Now things can get going, and going is precisely what they get…

Spoiler alert! The next paragraph contains plot details written in invisible ink: highlight to read.

A daft plot twist allows Lockwood to cure her blindness and return, faking it, in order to entrap her unseen enemy. This frustrates one of the best tropes of the blind person in jeopardy thriller, which is the disabled character triumphing over both unspeakable evil and their own disability. In fairness, this convention isn’t set in stone and hadn’t really been established at this time: WAIT UNTIL DARK really fixed the template. But when you see it done decently, it’s satisfying in obvious ways that alternatives, like the boyfriend barging to the rescue in SEE NO EVIL, really aren’t.

End spoiler.

Oddly, Bennett directs this one better than he writes it, but he’s dealing with a cheap novelette as source material (ugh! that title!) and struggles to inject real humanity into it. On the other hand, his filming is often stylish, aided by Desmond Dickinson’s moody photography.

Listening to Fiona’s extremely zestful reactions to Byron’s acts of wickedness against her sightless rival (from repositioning a wine glass to attempting to arrange a drowning), I was struck by how films like this encourage a complicity with the bad guy. At times, Fiona was virtually egging the madwoman on. This wasn’t due to any dislike of Lockwood, who embodies pluck, but simply because in a film like this, nothing entertaining can happen unless the villain is plotting villainy. If the supporting cast were full of amusing bit players, there might be some welcome distraction from the main event, but asides from Thora Hird as a no-nonsense maid, there’s nothing doing. So we require constant perfidy from la Byron or the thing is going to just lie there.

Kathleen in a saucy two-piece, something I never thought to see.

Fortunately, K.B. does not disappoint, seizing one of her last chances to be interesting in a dull film. No act of spite is too petty for the ironically named “Verity”, who amusingly goes from leaving sharp objects near the maid’s baby so Lockwood will get the blame, straight to murder attempts, then back to faking love letters (to a blind woman?), and back to murder again. In this she’s aided by the château’s offscreen architect, who for some reason has supplied the building with a door opening onto a fifty foot drop. Perhaps the castle was assembled from a kit, like the Keaton homestead in ONE WEEK?

Why didn’t Kathleen Byron go from strength to strength? Simply because the British cinema of the ‘fifties was too weedy to contain her, I think. There weren’t enough psycho-bitch roles to typecast her successfully, and nobody was bold or imaginative enough to see her in more varied parts, despite the proof offered by THE SMALL BACK ROOM that she could be really excellent in a less extreme characterisation. (The reason David Farrar’s so uncharacteristically strong in that film is that she lends him fire. And he’s strongest in BLACK NARCISSUS when she’s around.)

There’s also the sad fact that she was apparently a little difficult, as talented people often are.  With the supremely difficult Michael Powell around to help her, that didn’t matter so much, but when they were no longer an item and his career was on the slide, that impetus was gone. (BTW, she always said Powell’s description of her, in his memoir Million Dollar Movie, standing naked and threatening him with a revolver, was sheer confabulation.) And nobody else owed her sufficient goodwill to help.

That was stupid: with the Rank Organisation embracing sappy bourgeois mediocrity in the ‘fifties, British cinema really needed a fierce talent who could heat up a moribund flick with a dash of hellfire.

26 Responses to “Blind Tuesday: Where is love and who turned out the lights?”

  1. Your invisible ink is broken.

  2. Fixed it! Just add lemon juice.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    This is truly bizarre! I´d never heard of this film either, but recently found a second-hand VHS. Did I lend mine to you and forget?

  4. No! That’s just strange. Stranger yet is the way Eddie Constantine has been repeatedly turning up in my life as late, but that’s just me.

    After a brief break from reading Ulysses I start up again and the wild coincidences cascade upon us.

  5. I trust Eddie hasn’t been showing up naked and holding a revolver.

  6. That topmost still, along with knowledge that Byron *swoon* is in stark raving howler mode, really lights my fire. How might we cineplebs set about tracking this down?

  7. David E, only the revolver part.

    Gerry (Mr Tongue), you can either try tracking down the out-of-print VHS, or we can do some kind of postal swap. But I don’t know if I’d recommend this one too highly. I’m going to see what other Byron pics are available, besides the famous ones…

  8. Hm. You get Eddie Constantine and I get Bobby Watson.

  9. Kathleen Byron always struck me, right from AMOLAD. Especially her first close-up as she looks at the newly-dead Robert Coote. BLACK NARCISSUS is great of course but I like her best in THE SMALL BACK ROOM.

  10. I do have a copy of The Silver Fleet with Byron, which P&P produced. I was very excited about finally acquiring it, and then of course I never watched it. Time to correct that.

  11. Re: the “heroine overcomes her disability to defeat the villain” trope also owes something to Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, as well.

  12. Better Eddie Constantine with a revolver than Pierce Brosnan with a revolver

    (One of my all-time favorite endings)

  13. David Boxwell Says:

    Just watched a beautiful 80something KB interviewed in the recent documentary on Jack Cardiff, lauding him for being just as essential to the effect of her astonishing performance in BN as “Mickey.”

    She positively DEVOURS a 13-year old Jeremy Spenser in PRELUDE TO FAME (50) as the stage mother to end all stage mothers!

    And who else worked for those polar opposites: David Lynch and Steven Spielberg?

  14. I really want to see Prelude to Fame!

    Powell retreated to a corner while Byron shot her big freakout with David Farrar in Black Narcissus, after they quarreled over how to play it. “Well, it wasn’t what I wanted, but I suppose it’ll do,” he grumbled.

    Hmm, lemme see, Spielberg and Lynch… Laura Dern!

  15. Never knew the anecdote of Powell’s, saying he’d been held at gunpoint by a naked Byron; a story she denies. Nevertheless, it does conjure up an image.

  16. And the image of her in a bikini takes us just that bit closer to picturing it accurately.

    That line of Powell’s comes completely out of the blue in his book, with no context or explanation! But she did say “I have no recollection of that.” And you’d figure it’s something you’d remember.

  17. In the third grade, and during the height of early 70’s feminism, I had a very attractive nun, for a teacher. The ocean was a block away. One day I see her walking to the beach in a bright orange bikini.

    Not exactly Black Narcissus, but…

    She was transferred shortly afterwards, probably a fair distance from the ocean.

  18. AQUANUN. Now there’s a show I’d watch, and it could help the Church with their PR problems.

  19. During the making of Black Narciissus the ever-naughty Mr. Powell was in the process of transferring his wayward affections from Kathleeen Byron to (wait for it)

    Deborah Kerr.

    Talk about “subtext”!

  20. My friend Lawrie said that he found Bryon a little standoffish, difficult.

    “Of course, she was fucking Mickey,” I said.

    “HE was fucking HER,” Lawrie corrected me. I guess such distinctions mattered a lot to his generation.

  21. david wingrove Says:

    I thought Powell had notched up Deborah Kerr as early as COLONEL BLIMP, if not before?

    Like some feudal lord of the manor, Powell seems to have enjoyed droit de seigneur with most if not all of his leading ladies. Apart from Moira Shearer, who was too uptight, and Ludmila Tcherina, who was probably too flaky and flamboyant even for him.

    Oh, and not Jennifer Jones, either, because then he really would never have worked again!

  22. Ludmila’s husband was around during shooting (when did Moira marry Ludovic Kennedy?).

    James Mason expressed particular concern with the casting of Miranda in Powell’s proposed film of The Tempest, where he was to play Prospero, since he had observed that Powell’s taste in women was nothing like his own. They never got the film off the ground, but succeeded so well with the casting that Mason married his prospective screen daughter.

    Kathleen Byron complained that, although Mickey could be very caring, he might also ask her out to a premiere, never arrive to collect her, and she’d read in the papers the next day that he’d squired some other woman up the red carpet.

  23. Ah, Kathleen Byron! Never have I seen her appreciated as here (I’ve led a sheltered life!). All it took was her brief appearance in A Matter Of Life And Death/Stairway To Heaven and I wanted to see more of her, there’s something luminous about her, not just her *unusual* loveliness but something really *intriguing* she has that quality of *”thereness”* on film that few have, she feels like she has depths that she’s *interesting* and all that from the expressions on her face and the way she speaks the few words she has to say. Uhrm, at least she seems that way to me. It’s a travesty that she did not get more opportunities, I could see he playing many different roles well.
    It goes without saying she’s great in Black Narcissus. I admit to totally sympathizing with her character though I don’t know what that says about me. Deborah Kerr is eh okay but Ms Byron’s performance burns her off the screen, *she’s* the heroine. I never could understand what Sister Clodagh saw in that hairy-legged, shorts ‘n’ sandals-wearing (eugh!) buffoon, that, rather than any trifling erotomaniacal attempted murder, is the only proof of madness I can see. “He’s not good enough for you, Sister!”. Ahem. Great picture nonetheless. Any film with K and Jean Simmons would draw me in anyway (I would imagine quite a few people “fell in Love” with Ms Simmons as Estella when they were young) it must be said, but an Archers picture with Jack Cardiff cinematography gives true reasons.

  24. David Farrar’s long shorts and short donkey always made him an unlikely sex symbol in Black Narcissus. I think he’s at his best in The Small Back Room. And she’s great in that because it’s a rare chance to see her play a “normal” character, but not a boring one. I guess nobody in the British cinema knew how to use her, Powell tired of her as his lover, and she was “difficult,” so the considerable heat fizzled out in her career. Too bad for us.

    There’s a very nice little documentary, Remembering Sister Ruth, which she appeared in in the 90s… Nice of Spielberg to ask for her… a shame it was a role for an extra…

  25. Hm, it may be (is) an obvious comment but if she were a man I suppose her “difficult” nature would not have harmed her. Bah. I appear to have muddled up the name of Sister Ruth with Sister Clodagh above, either that or I was thinking of Clodagh Rogers. I can’t remember The Small Back Room you convince me I must seek it out and the pleasing-sounding documentary. As long as Mr Farrar is without “his long shorts and short donkey” I may appreciate him more.
    Seeing the older Ms Byron in various things over the years (The Elephant Man, I think; some terrible Midsomer Murders thing; other bric a brac) fills me with melancholy over what was lost. Yes, she was untapped but being responsible for at least two indelible perfs is more than many greatly praised dull actors can claim.

  26. Well, even if you don’t appreciate Farrar in The Small Back Room, you’ll be sure to appreciate KB! She’s terrific in it, in her second-best role.

    She is indeed in The Elephant Man, as a nervous society lady calling upon Mr Merrick.

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