Monday, June 18, 2012

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

“What we’re doing is a means to an end. Now you agree with the end, don’t you? Well then you must agree with the means. You can’t have one without the other.”

In Greek mythology, the Fates--also known as The Moirai--were three women: Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Allotter), and Atropos (the Unturnable or Unavoidable). Clotho spun the thread of each person’s life, Lachesis allotted a length, and Atropis chose the manner of death, and when that time came, she snipped the Thread of Life. Fate has a large role in the lives of noir’s doomed characters, for through noir, we see people who imagine that they are clever enough, talented enough, or even desperate enough to pull off a range of crimes and escape into lives of their choosing. While they run with this idea for a brief period, they inevitably and collectively fail. The image of The Fates spinning the threads which determine Man’s fate is integral to noir and seems particularly appropriate to the British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). This is the story of a mentally unstable woman who believes that she communicates with the dead. Her hubris demands that she control and improve her fate, and so she turns to crime in order to satisfy her goals.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon from director Bryan Forbes has the standard ingredients of noir, and yet this highly unusual film--one of the most unusual noirs to emerge in the 60s--explores those ingredients in a novel way. Myra (Kim Stanley) and Billy Savage (Richard Attenborough) are a middle-aged couple who commit a crime in order to accelerate Myra’s career as a psychic. If anyone respected the idea of Fate, it should be someone who dabbles in the paranormal--someone, let’s say like Medium Myra Savage. But is Myra a “real” medium? Asking that question, of course, raises deeper issues regarding whether or not the spirit world exists along with the authenticity of the claim that a Medium is an intermediary who communicates with the dead and possesses telepathic powers. But all those questions aside, for the purposes of the film, the important thing is that Myra believes she’s the ‘real thing’ and that she has the ability to communicate with the dead. Unfortunately, Myra is mentally unbalanced.

When the black and white film begins, a pitifully small number of people who’ve attended Myra’s weekly Wednesday afternoon séance trickle out of the Savages’ house into the rain. After they leave, the Savages smoothly segue into final preparations for the crime they are about to commit. On the surface, it would be hard to imagine a couple less likely to commit a crime than Myra and Billy as they appear to be the embodiment of respectability. Billy, who suffers from asthma, doesn’t work, and Billy and his wife live in the mausoleum of a house inherited from Myra’s mother. The house’s moody, gothic feel is depressingly accentuated by its heavy Victorian décor--including that staple of respectable Victorian living rooms, the potted aspidistra. In addition, there’s an early gramophone with its enormous unwieldy trumpet. This piece of equipment delights Myra, and she continually plays, much to her husband’s irritation, a scratchy recording of boy soprano Ernest Lough singing the solo version of Hear My Prayer/Oh For the Wings of a Dove. Incidentally, the film’s principal actor, Richard Attenborough says his father frequently played that particular recording during his childhood.

Myra’s plan, which she believes is the idea of her dead child, Arthur, is worked out matter-of-factly to the finest detail. The plan is to kidnap the daughter (Judith Donner) of a wealthy industrialist, and then hold her for ransom. At some point during the kidnapping, Myra will contact the family and reveal, in her capacity as a Medium, vital information about the child’s whereabouts. Naturally, according to Myra, this will authenticate her powers as a Medium and she will become a celebrity as “Arthur wants me to be recognized for what I am.” So you have a woman about to commit a crime on the basis on Spirit direction, and to add to this bizarre situation, she isn’t committing a crime for monetary gain--she has no intention of keeping the ransom money, but she does expect to become wealthier as a result of her new found fame.



The plan goes surprisingly smoothly, and while Billy is a nervous wreck, Myra conducts herself calmly but with a suppressed euphoria which reaches fever pitch when the child’s mother (played by the wife of Bryan Forbes, Nanette Newman) appears to attend a séance. Whereas Billy agonizes over the child’s well-being, Myra is nonchalant about the child’s increasingly compromised health. When Billy desperately challenges Myra’s authority, an interesting exchange takes place as Myra compares the child to an animal in a pet shop which adjusts happily to its new environment:

“Billy, what do you know about children? They’re really quite adaptable, children. They’re like… like, err, little animals. You know how animals look in the pet shop. In the windows when you see them? You take them home and you feed them and they adapt in a matter of hours.”

The crime that occurs is secondary to the dissection of Myra and Billy’s pathological marriage, and consequently the most fascinating aspect of this incredible film is the dynamic that festers between this bitterly unhappy couple. Myra appears to be calm and in total control, but in reality, she’s clearly deranged, and yet Billy’s role is to protect her delusions and keep her in some sort of protected cocoon of her own importance. Her role as a Medium, her communications with their dead child, and her superiority are all aspects of her delusions which Billy props up with his continual humiliations. There’s only one normal exchange between them, and that occurs early in the film when Billy starts bitching about the cleaning lady who’s off holidaying in France, but even this conversation is one-sided and fails to garner a response from Myra. Myra mostly lives in the dark twisted corners of her mind when she’s not giving orders that are tempered with a false veneer of reason and rationality. Throughout the film, she dominates and directs Billy, treating him rather like a recalcitrant, slightly stupid child, and gradually we pick up hints about their past--a period of separation and Myra’s period of unspecified ‘illness.’

Billy, who walks a fine, dangerous line between placating Myra and indulging his wife’s every insane whim, leads a miserable existence. The camera frequently focuses on Billy’s face as he turns away from his wife--his face a mask which registers such emotions as pain, suppressed rage and finally pity. Myra claims she devised the plan after receiving orders from their dead child Arthur. Since Arthur is an off-limits topic for discussion, Billy’s hands are tied unless he’s willing to confront his wife and possibly risk a total breakdown. Some reviews argue that Billy is just another spineless husband, but the Savages’ marriage is more complicated than that. Myra manipulates Billy with sweet, docile-seeming words, but under her quietly restrained brittle manner she is just a heartbeat away from hysteria. Billy, if anything, is a tower of amazing--and misdirected- strength, self-restraint, and self-sacrifice

The film raises some interesting questions about the Savages’ respective responsibility in the matter of the crime. Crime duos frequently include a leader and a follower, and the leaders tend to be the most culpable. But is this true in the case of Myra and Billy? Myra may be the dominant figure in the marriage, and she’s certainly the one who devised the plan to kidnap a child, but she’s deranged whereas Billy is not. Although she’s the planner, and he’s in effect the muscle, is he more or less culpable than his wife?

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is based on the novel of the same name by Australian author Mark McShane. The script which was written by Bryan Forbes introduces an entire thread regarding Myra and Billy’s dead child, and this serves to make the couple more sympathetic than their fictional counterparts. The novel was recently republished by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon was made for about £140,000 by Beaver Films--a production company director Bryan Forbes founded with frequent collaborator Richard Attenborough. Deborah Kerr and Simone Signoret were originally considered for the role of Myra Savage but both turned down the part. Bryan Forbes then sought out Kim Stanley in New York. So in June 1963, 38 year old Kim Stanley, on her third marriage, with a drinking problem and in some financial difficulties, sailed to England to make the second film of her career. Primarily a stage actress, Kim Stanley had only previously appeared in one other film--The Goddess (1958), and she had little interest in furthering her career thorough this path. In the biography of Kim Stanley, Female Marlon Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley from Jon Krampner, the author repeats Attenborough’s praise of Stanley “The complexity of dramatic impression vital to the credibility of Myra was hard to find.” And further: “I don’t believe that Simone could convey, as Kim did, the otherworldliness which this woman inhabited in her private fantasies.” Indeed, throughout the film Myra seems to be listening to words and sounds others cannot hear, and Kim Stanley captures Myra’s complex character complete with her deranged tenacity and her brittle fragility. The eerie recording of Ernest Lough plays throughout the film and serves to underscore Myra’s mental state as she vacillates between this unhappy world and the next.

According to director Bryan Forbes, during the filming, Kim Stanley kept a vodka bottle on a string hidden inside the toilet tank. In 1965, Kim Stanley suffered a nervous breakdown which effectively ended her career. She moved to New Mexico, the state of her birth, taught acting, later held some television roles and starred in Frances (1982) and The Right Stuff (1983). A tremendous talent plagued with personal demons, she died in 2001.

The house used for the film is integral to the story’s macabre mood and deserves mention. Byran Forbes recalled seeing a house with a turret that he thought would be perfect for the film, and he drove around until he found it. The house located at 41 Marryat Road, Wimbledon was coincidentally owned by a woman who knew Kim Stanley very well. Forbes said he chose it for its turret, and there’s a good shot of the turret (the previous owner committed suicide in this room) reflected in a puddle as the credits roll.

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Written by Guy Savage





3 comments:

  1. Thanks for an insightful review of this film, a fine example of 60s British cinema.
    Richard Attenborough is a superb actor - as evidenced by his performances in Brighton Rock, The Angry Silence and 10 Rillington Place.

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  2. Thank you for this great review of a unique film. I read your blog not only to find out about films, but also for your wonderful writing style. You have talent!

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  3. This blog is representing for me a kind of bible-guide film noir and is increasingly difficult not to see the treasures that you put. I've been trying to have my collection in each of these extraordinary films! Thank you!
    Big hug!

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