Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mine Own Executioner (1947)

“Do I have to take off my clothes or anything?”

Mine Own Executioner (1947) from director Anthony Kimmins and based on the excellent novel by Nigel Balchin is a dark British noir tale which explores the burgeoning and controversial use of psychotherapy in post WWII Britain. Dedicated psychologist Felix Milne (Burgess Meredith) divides his time between middle-aged wealthy women who bore him to tears, and poor patients who attend free sessions at the Norris Pile clinic--an impoverished charitable institution. Milne is married to Pat (Dulcie Gray), a tolerant, loving and understanding woman who bears her husband’s short temper and unconcealed lust for her long-time friend, bad blonde Barbara (Christine Norden). When the film begins, Milne’s marriage under stress from financial constraints and work-related problems is in trouble. Pat acts as both a sounding board for her husband’s rants and the receptacle for his low-level frustrated rage.

One of Pat’s latest ‘mistakes’ is to book an appointment late in the afternoon for a Mrs. Lucien. Felix is certain that this new patient is going to be yet another bored, unhappily married middle aged woman, so he’s delighted when Molly Lucien (Barbara White) turns out to be a young, pretty woman who has some genuine problems. She tells Felix that she met her husband, RAF fighter pilot, Adam Lucian (Kieron Moore) in 1940, and that he shipped out shortly after their marriage. She received news that he’d been shot down “in flames” somewhere near Rangoon, but in spite of the odds, she always believed that he’d return. And she was right, but the Adam who returned some time later after escaping from a Japanese POW camp was ‘different.’ Molly describes Adam’s detached behaviour and the fact that he mostly seems “as though he wasn’t there.” There’s been a significant development recently in Adam’s behaviour when he suddenly and inexplicably tried to strangle Molly.

Felix is visibly intrigued by the case, but he immediately tells Molly that Adam really should seek the help of a “medical man,” a certified doctor. He also cautions Molly against remaining with her husband. Molly, an engaging young woman, spiritedly explains that her husband loathes doctors--that’s why he’s likely to agree to see Felix, and she further argues that if Adam’s “got to half-strangle somebody, it’s got to be me, hasn’t it?” The implication behind Molly’s statement is that she can protect Adam from the legal consequences of his actions.

While the film, at first, divides the plot between Felix’s troubled personal and professional life, the plot then veers to the case of Adam Lucien. Although Felix feels out of his depth with the case, he continues to probe Adam’s strangely detached behaviour which he labels as “schizoid.” At one point, Adam even undergoes an injection which induces a semi-conscious state in an attempt to force him to recall what happened when he was taken prisoner.

The characters of Felix and Adam are a study in contrasts, yet there are also some commonalities. Felix is a man who’s devoted his life to helping others, and all of his patient understanding--his better self--goes to his patients while he’s unpleasant and difficult at home. Felix is capable of some rather underhanded behaviour and considers that it’s alright just as long as he talks about it and doesn’t keep it buried. This is manifested in his explanations to Pat regarding his lust for Barbara who appeals, as he explains it, to his adolescent self. While Felix accepts his feelings for Barbara as a perfectly natural desire, his compulsion to be ‘above board’ with Patricia about the situation would provoke the patience of a saint. Felix also argues that this immature attraction to Barbara is harmless (Pat argues, ineffectually, otherwise), and meanwhile Felix, feeling sanctified by telling his wife all about his attraction to another woman, actively seeks an opportunity to engage in an affair. At one point, he even agrees to see Barbara at the request of her older, portly, clueless husband for Barbara’s so-called “sex complex.” Given the glaring, mutual attraction between Barbara and Felix (not to mention the question of professional ethics), this scenario provides a springboard for hanky-panky. Barbara’s stuffy husband, Peter (Michael Shepley) is oblivious to the dangers of throwing his wife into Felix’s hands to discuss sex, but poor Patricia is informed about it, even has to book the appointment, and is expected to swallow her anger about it too.

Felix acknowledges that he’s frequently unkind to his wife--even though she deserves better. For Felix, simply acknowledging the problem somehow makes it better. One fascinating scene shows Felix, almost entirely in shadow, as he leaves Patricia’s bedroom moments after he’s supposedly ‘openly’ explained to his wife about agreeing to see Barbara for her “sex complex.” Because Felix is apparently open with Patricia about his decision, he seems to think this makes it okay, but in reality, Felix isn’t being entirely honest with himself. This deception--this acting in the dark--is symbolized by Felix seen only as a dark shape as he stands in the shadow saying goodnight to his extremely upset wife.

Then there’s Adam Lucien, a dangerously disturbed, violent young man whose behaviour covers a lifetime of not talking about things. While his problems initially seem to have erupted after his time as a POW, there’s a craftiness, a wariness about Adam that hints at far deeper, long buried damage. Indeed the plot addresses this issue at several points, but ultimately the film, which throws out hints about Adam’s other problems, lands on safe damaged-war-hero territory when uncovering Adam’s mental illness. This is, after all the 1940s, and it’s easier, and probably more topical, to create a film about a hideously mentally damaged war hero than to portray the book’s complex psycho who happened to go to war and returns home even more damaged than he was before.

Both Felix and Adam are men who have two distinct sides to their personalities, and in each case, it's really up for grabs which side is going to win. That's where the title comes into play, for the better side of both men is in mortal conflict with the darker, buried self. Interestingly, both Felix and Adam’s wives act as buffers for their husbands against the real world. Molly is willing to be killed, if necessary, and Pat acts as a sponge for her husband’s disappointments and petty rages.

The film also includes a sub-plot regarding Felix’s tenure at the Norris Pile clinic. Felix is called a “lay practitioner” throughout the film, and the story taps into an issue of some topical controversy in the underlying thread of Felix’s lack of medical certification. Felix styles himself on the Freudian model, and Freud, who moved to London in 1938, did not believe that it was necessary to have a medical degree to practice psychotherapy. Due to limited funds, Felix decided early in his career to study in Vienna rather than go to medical school. The lack of a medical degree is raised by Felix’s colleagues in the film, and while most of them respect his training in Vienna, he encounters prejudice for not being a medical doctor repeatedly in the film. Apart from his sessions at the Norris Pile Clinic, Felix, like most “lay practitioners” of his time practices in his own home, and this, as it turns out, exposes his wife to danger. This pre-National Health film rather subversively addresses the issue of the value of psychotherapy and the dangers its practitioners assume since they are not under the protected, and respected, cloak of the established medical community. While subtle, the film’s implication is that Felix is barred from the upper echelons of his profession largely due to class and inherent money restrictions. Felix chafes against the fact that it takes a Harley Street reputation to save him from total disgrace.

Nigel Balchin, the author and screenwriter of Mine Own Executioner, is sometimes described as one of the most neglected authors of 20th century British fiction. It’s true that some of his books have fallen out-of-print, but a few film versions of those books have helped keep some titles alive: The Small Back Room, Separate Lies (based on the book A Way Through the Wood). Balchin, whose father was a baker, won a scholarship to Cambridge where he studied agriculture and psychology. Later he became an “industrial investigator” and pioneered the application of psychology to the workplace environment. Balchin was also responsible for the creation of the highly successful Black Magic chocolate marketing campaign. One sly scene in Mine Own Executioner shows Felix attending a dinner party and being solicited by Julian (Joss Ambler) an advertising agent for the “psychological angle on cream cheese.”


Written by Guy Savage


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