“Must be hard getting servants these days,” muses Dirk Bogarde –
– before tripping the poor skivvy and sending her crashing to the floor amid crockery and glassware –
– and leering over her misfortune in sexual fashion…
THE SLEEPING TIGER is a somewhat eggy juvie delinquent melodrama made by Joseph Losey, recently blacklisted in Hollywood and now using producer Victor Hanbury as a front — while no blacklist applied in England, it was thought wise for blacklistees to work pseudonymously to avoid any problems with American distribution. Within a few years Losey would be working openly under his own name, but he would never film in the States again.
Joe and Dirk both reported;y thought this film was sheer hocum, but got on well and saw each other’s potential, resolving to work together again on something worthwhile. THE SERVANT in 1963 would give them that opportunity in spades. Dirk plays Frank Clemmons, a troubled young criminal taken in by psychiatrist Dr. Clive Esmond, played with unbridled lassitude by Alexander Knox. Knox, a Canadian who worked in Hollywood before settling in Scotland, would soon play another woolly liberal for Losey in THESE ARE THE DAMNED.
Inspector Hugh Griffiths of the Yard casts a beady eye over some dodgy Joan Miro.
Mrs Esmond, token yank Alexis Smith, is soon smitten with the arrogant D.B. Catching him bullying the servant, she blazes, “I wish I were a man!” before snogging him violently. It would be ungentlemanly of me to suggest that the feeling was mutual.
Losey puts far more into this film than into his next British time-waster, FINGER OF GUILT / THE INTIMATE STRANGER. Although much of the film passes in short, montage-like sequences devoid of any tension or dramatic gristle, whenever there’s a longer scene of interpersonal conflict, he pulls the stops out and goes for maximum sizzle. Extreme angles and sinuous camera moves provide nicely modulated variation between snapping whipcracks and seductive oozings of emotion. The seeds of THE SERVANT are sewn. The film actually aspires to the theatrical, and through it reaches the cinematic, in fits and starts. There are genuine flickers of that Pinter Wonderland of menace and powerplay, often stifled at birth by the rather inane script. Every fade-out feels like a betrayal.
Since Dirk is committing robberies while under Doc Knox’s care, AND cheating with the Doc’s wife, we can’t help but feel that the liberal head-shrinker is a bit of a sap. Which leaves the film without a point, unless it’s a right-wing Daily Mail type point, since Dirk should clearly be in jail, Knox should be struck off, and Smith should take a cold shower.
“One day we should run up to Scotland,” suggests Knox, who lived there. Bogarde, who endured an unhappy childhood in Glasgow, makes a sour face.
Losey goes mad in the jazz cellar scenes, just loving it, daddy-O, and here we see what a really inventive director he is: the same dynamic style showcased in the scenes of domestic conflict, but sexed up with music and mood lighting and eroticism and WOW!
Far from being a second feature, SLEEPING T unites Losey with the editor of THE RED SHOES, the future composer of BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and cinematographer Harry Waxman (THE WICKER MAN) all of whom acquit themselves admirably, when the sketchy plot allows them space to do so. Harry Waxman’s photography of nocturnal London streets is particularly fine, and Losey has him try even more trick mirror shots than are found in THE SERVANT.
I keep trashing the script, which is by blacklistees Harold Buchman and Carl Foreman, but as Gavin Lambert wrote, “There is a splendour about this film, which has one of the most absurdly extravagant plots on record, and never flinches from it.” Which shows that Lambert was way ahead of the curve as far as appreciating Losey in the UK. I just wish the film (which is a pretty nippy 89 mins) allowed the psychodrama time to build, while avoiding all the scrappy little scenes of fishing and horse-riding which do nothing for the plot (and really, how could they?).
Then, unexpectedly, the shrink has a Dirk breakthrough and our juvie is cured, alright. Several minutes of desperate vamping ensue as the plot seems to be over, then Dirk announces he wants to go to jail to pay his debt to society, but it’s really to escape the doc’s clingy wife, and now suddenly SHE’S the psycho one, and it all ends in a high-speed car chase with a thrilling syncopated jazz fusion abstract montage smash-up into a symbolic tiger billboard!
Moral: women are evil.