The Couch Trip

I read Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room some years back, being a fan of the Powell-Pressburger film. It’s very good, and the film is very faithful, apart from softening the ending — Balchin had a weakness for bleak, all-is-lost finales.

I haven’t seen SEPARATE LIES, filmed by Julian GOSFORD PARK Fellowes, from Balchin’s A Way Through the Woods. Is it any good? But I do like 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET, which Balchin scripted. He did quite a bit of screenwriting, in fact.

This year I tracked down Darkness Falls from the Air, Balchin’s novel of the London Blitz, which is devastating (I guess they said the same about the Blitz). It’s not surprising that one was never filmed — for a book written in wartime, it’s quite spectacularly un-jingoistic. Again, Balchin’s pessimism prevents him from offering any pathway to victory: there’s an argument for the stripping away of bureaucracy to allow the can-do chaps to get things done, but no real hope that such a thing will ever happen. The nation will strangle in red tape as the bombs ceaselessly drop. All of this is tied up in a truly agonizing, wretched love story: the hopeless agony of the lovers in The Small Back Room seems actually desirable compared to the quandary of the stoic desk-jockey and his tender-hearted, unfaithful wife.

Pair it with Patrick Hamilton’s wonderful The Slaves of Solitude.

So, then I read A Sort of Traitors (terrible title, good book) and then Mine Own Executioner, which I discovered was a movie, scripted by Balchin himself and directed by Anthony Kimmins. I was intrigued: the book really doesn’t feel like it has a film in it. Having now seen the film, I kind of feel vindicated: there wasn’t a film in it, or anyway not a filmic structure: the action climax comes twenty minutes ahead of the supposed emotional climax.

But it’s very interesting stuff. The protagonist, Felix Milne, is a lay psychiatrist with a wife (Dulcie Gray) he’s ambivalent about, who has a sexy sister he’s somewhat less ambivalent about. He takes on a war-damaged patient (Kieron Moore) who has recently attempted to strangle his wife while in a fugue state. Most synopses of the story suggest that it’s a “physician heal thyself” yarn about a man who can solve others’ problems but is powerless to tackle his own. But in fact, Milne does eventually sort out his domestic sphere, whereas his efforts with Moore…

Milne is played by Burgess Meredith, because this was an era of frantically shoehorning Americans into British films wherever we could (how little has changed). Meredith is a good choice in that he seems intellectual enough, but a problematic one in that he seems a bit creepy. It’s not a quality BM can turn on and off, it’s just inherent. So that when the lovely Barbara White, as Moore’s wife, first describes the strangling incident, and Milne perks up, thinking “This case is more interesting than I expected,” Meredith’s rendition of this reaction inescapably suggests a man becoming sexually aroused by an account of attempted asphyxiation. Not what’s needed here.

Then, since he’s a psychiatrist, Milne must perforce smoke a pipe, and whenever we see Burgess with the stem clamped between his teeth, we’re reminded of his seminal turn as the Penguin in TV’s Batman, with his long cigarette holder (why the association of penguins with cigarette holders anyway?), and that’s kind of unfortunate too. Burgess doesn’t actually resemble a penguin, of course, he resembles a small, rat-like dog, eyes glinting with cunning and lust. His chemistry with John Wayne in IN HARM’S WAY is so good precisely because at any instant we expect him to start fervently humping the Duke’s leg.

Still, Meredith has that magnificent wet-gravel voice, so effective in the truth serum scene quoted below…

(And he directed the stage production of DUTCHMAN, developing the performances which were transferred direct to the movie.)

Everybody else is cast very well. I couldn’t work out what Moore was doing with his accent: it at first sounded like Welsh valleys, but maybe it’s Moore’s own Irish, a brand I perhaps haven’t encountered before. But it seems to change from scene to scene.

“The trauma lies in your childhood… your childhood… your childhood…”

Balchin is very faithful to his own novel, except that he’s forced to condense one subplot down to a series of montages (always a sign that something really ought to be discarded) and muffs one emotionally climactic death scene by rushing it badly. But Moore’s more extreme episodes of insanity and dissociation are chillingly powerful: the way he slides from first person to second person when describing his own actions, his inconsistent mood, and his mental blurring of the different people in his life is all very effective and convincing. The psychobabble is less so: “He’s a bad schizo,” says Meredith, concerned. But it’s slightly better than most Hollywood attempts at this kind of stuff.

Balchin himself worked as an “industrial psychologist”, a job his hero casually rejects in this book and film: he helped develop Black Magic chocolates, based on the absence of the colour black in the sweetshop window (economics plays a part too: the black box was cheap to make, allowing Rowntree to spend all the money on the choccies themselves).

Here’s the cinematic highlight.

Mine Own Executioner from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Anthony Kimmins had an odd career, swerving from George Formby comedies to this bleak and noirish melodrama. And then onto the reputedly dreadful BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE. This may be his high point. The framing and lighting in the psychiatrist’s office is great, but the subjective camera flashback (the first of several) is a stunner. Mucho credit to W. Percy Day for the process work, Ned Mann for the models, and special effects supervisor Cliff Richardson. If Kimmins conceived the idea for this, a major tip of the hat is in order.

Meredith’s therapeutic methods may be unconventional, but he GETS RESULTS, damnit! 

14 Responses to “The Couch Trip”

  1. I reviewed SEPARATE LIES for a local newspaper when it first came out–I probably overpraised it (and I definitely sidestepped discussing Fellowes’ tame direction), but here’s my jejune capsule piece:

    “The title may sound generic, but it’s an accurate summation of this story of death in plush places, a low-key thriller of manners that becomes a modest and quietly satisfying tale of a tested marriage. A fatal hit-and-run accident in the Buckinghamshire countryside ensnares a stolid, well-off solicitor (Tom Wilkinson), his emotionally neglected wife (Emily Watson) and her affectless playboy lover (Rupert Everett) in a roundelay of guilt-transference and complicity. Who was behind the wheel? Who should confess and who should keep quiet? Separate Lies first seems like another exercise in civilized nastiness and beastly bourgeois hypocrisy, but it avoids petty misanthropy, instead treating even the trashiest characters with very old-fashioned humanism, so that when the screws are steadily tightened, each plot twist seems organic rather than just another hoop for the players to leap through. Making his directorial debut after having written Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes operates with finesse, but the film would be slight if Wilkinson and Watson weren’t giving some of the best performances of their careers.”

  2. I quite agree. The unspeakably stupid Rupert Everett is good in it too.

    Rupert (who has obviously visited Isabelle Adjani’s plastic surgeon of late) seems to be angling to become Bret Easton Ellis’ boyfriend these days. And I for one hope he wins that Booby Prize. They so deserve each other.

  3. Everett has been something of a professional contrarian for some time now, though most of his utterances haven’t been picked up so widely. It’s something for him to do since the whole acting thing hasn’t worled out, I suppose.

    Fellowes has found his niche in Downton Abbey — sadly, this signals an end to the social critique side of his work and he’s plunged foursquare into Masterpiece Theater heritage drama territory, which was always part of his persona. He’s also outed himself as a rabid Tory.

    The plot of Separate Lies is pure Balchin: it sounds like the same trio exactly from Darkness Falls from the Air, and no doubt they were drawn from Balchin’s own life — he ruthlessly used everything that ever happened to him in his fiction.

  4. Hadn’t seen him recently out of drag. Crikey. Trying to figure out which sci-fi creature he resembles most. He’s a bit like Tim Curry in Legend.

    “The very rich are no longer remotely human.” – William Gibson.

  5. Kieron Moore and Barbara White were married offscreen, too. Moore’s accent is a bit all over the place in other outings, too; it’s not easy to conceal one’s Skibbereen origins.

  6. The pessimism of THE SMALL BACK ROOM struck me too, and even if the ending, as you say, softens it, it’s still a very gloomy film. Raymond Durgnat compared it to film noir but it’s a fair bit darker than the usual stuff, though it sits with films like THE MAN I LOVE by Raoul Walsh.

  7. The journey from A Matter of Life and Death (“We won”) to The Small Back Room (set in the past, the war still to be won, and unanswerable questions about “And then what?”) is surely one of disenchantment. Similar to the post-war disillusion of Hollywood maybe. But Britain got a dose of socialism and that may not have been to Michael Powell’s taste, as a romantic.

    I’m a bit in love with Barbara White. The character is American in the book, but Burgess Meredith was taking up the US quotient in the film. She absolutely captures the role Balchin wrote, though.

  8. Well, she’s single again if you want to drop her a line.

  9. I’m not, otherwise I might.

  10. David Boxwell Says:

    Moore got an especially bad rap for being an inadequate Vronsky in Duvivier’s ANNA KARENINA (48). Not without reason. But he’s just dandy as the gay member of the heist gang in LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN (60).

    When Meredith died, the only thing he was remembered for in the American popular press was ROCKY.

  11. And yet Meredith had a huge career, with work for Lubitsch, Preminger, with Laughton.

    Of course, I was forgetting about League of Gents. Everybody’s terrific in that.

  12. David Boxwell, Meredith was also remembered for playing the Penguin on the Batman television show. Such is the state of “the press”.

  13. I remember “Paddington Bear Man Dies” when Sir Michael Hordern — a knight of the realm, mark you! — passed. He was remembered for a kids’ show voice-over (admittedly a very nice one).

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