Tag Archives: W. Somerset Maugham

The Narrow Corner (1933, Alfred E. Green)

The Narrow Corner runs seventy minutes; it speeds along. Robert Presnell Sr.’s script has somewhat lengthy, complicated scenes where he tries to fit in information. The movie doesn’t need all that information–the subplot about Reginald Owen translating a Portuguese epic poem–because director Green isn’t going to do anything with it.

The film has a somewhat peculiar structure–it starts with an affably odious South Seas captain, Arthur Hohl in a half great performance. He’s to set sail–for a year–with a single passenger Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fairbanks is on the run, but it’s all hush hush.

Once they’re underway, things skip almost immediately to Hohl and Fairbanks bringing Dudley Digges onboard. Digges is a doctor who’s grown tired of his particular island and wants passage somewhere else. Hohl’s got a stomach ailment, leading to non sequitor burping throughout the film.

Narrow Corner never builds the relationship between Hohl and Fairbanks. It starts to build one between Hohl and Digges, but soon gives it up. Digges and Fairbanks’s relationship is going to be important (ostensibly) for the third act; it would’ve been nice if Presnell or Green cared. They don’t. Digges is underutilized in Narrow Corner. His acting style is a lot quieter than Hohl or even Fairbanks. He gives the film its weight.

Only it’s off and on because once Digges is onboard, the ship goes into a storm and Fairbanks has to captain her all himself. Nihilist Hohl sleeps below as the first-time seaman is on helm. And Digges is busy with his nightly opium (while pre-Code, Narrow Corner still doesn’t delve into that subject at all).

The storm sequence has phenomenal editing from Herbert I. Leeds and some great special effects. The film doesn’t have good projection shots, but all the other effects are excellent. Including the miniatures for the seafaring action–the storm or when the ship has to navigate a treacherous reef.

The success of the storm scene should let the film coast for a bit. And it does, but that bit is only a few minutes because Presnell and Green rush to introduce some new characters. The ship’s anchored off an island. Fairbanks thinks it’s uninhabited, so does a nude swimming scene. The great lengths the film goes through to hide Fairbanks from the torso down behind scenery is amusing but only because it’s so distracting. Presnell and Green severely overestimate the dramatic traction they’re getting out of implied nudity.

Turns out the island isn’t uninhabited, but it’s actual a Dutch settlement. There are (unseen) plantations around and a variety of new cast members. They’re all related. Owen the poem translator is father to Patricia Ellis, who meets naked swimming Fairbanks and immediately enchants him. William V. Mong is Owen’s father-in-law. Mong’s an old man (in a lot of old age makeup) who used to be a scumbag South Seas captain like Hohl. But now they’re rich.

Ralph Bellamy is Ellis’s secret fiancé. It doesn’t end up being clear she knows they’re engaged. Her character is exceptionally problematic. Ellis doesn’t do a great job with it, but there might not be a way to do a better one given how the part is written and how events unfold.

Once Fairbanks meets Ellis and Bellamy, Narrow Corner starts running toward the finish. Sure, it’s only the beginning of the second act, but Presnell can write long enough scenes to fill the runtime. Fairbanks and Bellamy become buddies, with Fairbanks even moving into Bellamy’s huge empty (and mostly) unseen estate. Narrow Corner occasionally will hint at wanting to examine the cultural situation–all the white people, regardless of their station, exploiting the native peoples–but then Presnell thinks better of it and moves along.

It’s too bad, but not unexpected. Narrow Corner is light on character development. Fairbanks doesn’t really get any. He just doesn’t talk much. When he does have a monologue, it’s therefore important. It’s the meat of the part. Fairbanks does okay with it. He’s got three big reveals; two of them are identical in content, which is its own problem. The first monologue is to Ellis; Fairbanks narrates a flashback. The flashback, shown in an awkward split screen, has some well-cut action and probably Green’s most engaged direction. A prologue might have given things away but it also would’ve given Fairbanks a better arc.

The other two monologues–including the third act one, which is nowhere near as dramatic as anyone pretends–are from Fairbanks to Digges. Digges is trying to tell Fairbanks something about the world. Fairbanks doesn’t care. See, Ellis is throwing herself at him and even if Fairbanks does think Bellamy’s swell, a man’s just a man.

If Ellis’s writing were better, if her performance were better, if she and Fairbanks had any chemistry, everything would be different. Instead, Narrow Corner is a nicely acted, adequately directed, half attempt at grand melodrama. All of the actors could excel if the script would just give them the opportunity. Even with the monologues, Fairbanks doesn’t have a better part than anyone else. Worse, in fact, than Digges. And almost Hohl; with the exception of banter with Mong about who’s the more odious white man South Seas captain, Hohl gets zip in the second half of the movie.

Inglorious given he started it.

But still. Not bad at all.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred E. Green; screenplay by Robert Presnell Sr., based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Herbert I. Leeds; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Fred Blake), Dudley Digges (Doctor Saunders), Arthur Hohl (Captain Nichols), Patricia Ellis (Louise Frith), Ralph Bellamy (Eric Whittenson), Reginald Owen (Mr. Frith), Willie Fung (Ah Kay), and William V. Mong (Jack Swan).


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The Seventh Sin (1957, Ronald Neame)

The Seventh Sin has three problems. The first is the third act; it’s too rushed. Given the constraints of the film production–a shot-in-Hollywood production about a cholera outbreak in a rural Chinese town–there’s not so much to be done about it. The film has a limited cast, especially once the action moves from Hong Kong to that town, and the roles are restrictive. The second problem is Miklós Rózsa’s music. It’s occasionally perfectly good melodramatic stuff, but Rózsa also has a lot what he must have considered Chinese themes. Regardless of their origin, they come off as trite or condescending and completely alien to the film’s narrative. They’re as patiently false as the rear screen projection shots, only without the actors there to get the scenes through.

The third problem is the big one. It keeps The Seventh Sin down, even when everything else is working (though, obviously, not much of Rózsa’s score). “Leading man” Bill Travers is awful. He’s mediocre at the start, seemingly unable to fully handle the part of a vindictive cuckold, but once he actually has some character development to essay? Travers butchers it even worse.

Now on to the good. Lead Eleanor Parker. She starts the film desperately unhappy, floundering, angry, and completely transforms through her experiences. The Seventh Sin is front-loaded. The most dramatic story stuff is at the beginning, when dull Travers learns Parker’s having an affair with charming Jean-Pierre Aumont. By the time Travers drags Parker to the cholera outbreak, there’s not much drama left. They’re both resigned and burned out. Parker’s already gone through one entire dramatic arc with the character and then she has to build another one, only without any outside incitement. Despite Travers singlehandedly turning the tide of the cholera epidemic, Sin’s all about how Parker experiences it and how that experience changes her. And a lot of her experience is just sitting around miserable.

Sometimes she does have George Sanders, playing an Englishman who’s settled in the town to occasionally run an import and export business, but mostly to get drunk and snoop into people’s personal lives. He finds a kindred spirit in Parker and much of the second act involve his attempts to discover her secrets and then what to do with those discoveries.

All of Parker’s development comes in these quietly composed wide shots; she’s often alone in them, negotiating her place in space. When someone else comes into the shot–specifically Travers–it’s an intrusion. The subdued tension explodes. Parker argues magnificently in the film. The script never really gives Sanders a chance to keep up, which seems a missed opportunity (but not once the narrative plays out). At the beginning of the film, Travers actually does hold his ground for a moment or two but he quickly gets lost. It’s impossible to imagine how The Seventh Sin would’ve turned out with a better performance in his role.

While Ronald Neame gets the sole credit, Vincente Minnelli directed much of it–most of it? And given Neame left because he (incredibly and stupidly) disliked Parker’s performance, maybe Minnelli’s responsible for all the great direction of Parker.

Besides Parker and Sanders (who plays a soulful drunk just like he’s a soulful drunk), Aumont is pretty good. Françoise Rosay is excellent as a Mother Superior who gives Parker quite a bit of advice; it’s mostly from a humanistic standpoint, not a religiously influenced one, which makes the scenes particularly effective.

Good black and white photography from Ray June. He does a lot better with the matte paintings than with the rear screen projection.

Karl Tunberg’s script holds strong for almost the entire film, until the third act rush. That last minute stumble is mostly Tunberg’s fault, but Minnelli (or Neame) could’ve tried to do something to save it. The finale manages to have Parker in every second but lose the character’s depth. Her personal journey becomes perfunctory, which is a big problem given it’s the entire picture.

And most of the picture is quite good.

Except Travers. Travers is terrible.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ronald Neame; screenplay by Karl Tunberg, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Miklos Rozsa; produced by David Lewis; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Carol Carwin), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Paul Duvelle), George Sanders (Tim Waddington), Bill Travers (Doctor Walter Carwin), Françoise Rosay (Mother Superior) and Ellen Corby (Sister Saint Joseph).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.

Encore (1951, Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French)

With the exception of some overly confident rear screen projection and a problematic middle story, Encore is an almost entirely successful anthology of three W. Somerset Maugham stories. Each story has a different director and screenwriter; otherwise the crew is the same.

Maugham introduces each story, usually saying something to mildly detract from it–he emphasizes the stories being fictionalizations of real life, which seems a tad pointless, but it’s better than when he assails one of his characters. More on that one in a bit.

The first story is an extremely dry comedy, with loafing Nigel Patrick trying to get money out of his successful older brother, played by Roland Culver. Pat Jackson directs it, T.E.B. Clarke does the script for it. Both Patrick and Culver are fantastic–Patrick’s solution to Culver not lending him money is to take menial jobs in Culver’s social circle to humiliate him. So for a while the segment is just Patrick being a perfect bastard and Culver getting more and more frustrated. The jobs are always funny–and always involve Culver’s bewildered client, Charles Victor–before it takes a very fun turn at the end.

Clarke’s script is fast and funny, Jackson’s direction is the same. Jackson lets Patrick walk off with scenes (usually over Culver–but not always) to great effect.

From that very high start, Encore immediately gets in to trouble with the second segment. It starts before the segment itself, with Maugham complaining about a woman he once didn’t like. It’s appropriate, dire forecasting.

Directed by Anthony Pelissier and written by Arthur Macrae, the second segment is about annoying cruise ship passenger Kay Walsh. No one can stand her. She’s talkative and friendly, which is obnoxious to captain Noel Purcell and ship’s doctor Ronald Squire. Lots of the complaints have to do with Walsh being a woman, which seems like lazy writing on someone’s part (Macrae’s or Maugham’s), and it reduces every character in the segment to a caricature. At the end, it turns out the caricatures were intentional so there could be a last minute reveal.

Despite the characters being astoundingly thin, the performances are all generally fine. Once she gets to do, Walsh is quite good (good enough someone should’ve rethought the adaptation of the story, as it’s no good for film). Pelissier’s direction, albeit peppered with stock footage of the ocean, the Bahamas, and so on, is quite good. He’s directing for the actors, shame the script isn’t there for them.

The final segment starts with yet another troubling introduction from Maugham. It’s going to be about dangerous stunt performers, he says, who he wishes would just do something safer.

Glynis Johns (top-billed for the whole picture) is a high diver. She dives eighty feet into five feet of water, which is covered in flames. She does it twice a night for rich diners at a Riviera resort. Husband Terence Morgan is her announcer and manager. Johns is getting sick of the life, while Morgan is negotiating longer and longer, and more and more lucrative, contracts for her. When they meet retired daredevil Mary Merrall (and her husband, Martin Miller), Johns’s crises become more immediate.

Harold French directs this segment, from a script by Eric Ambler. It’s the biggest segment–though there’s still some questionable rear screen projection on the Riveria, there’s a physical eighty-foot diving platform and a lot of sets. There’s the restaurant, there’s a casino, it’s a lot more open than either of the preceding segments. It’s not about the sets or the stunts, however, it’s all about Johns and her growing fear. About Morgan and his working class dreams. Of the three, it embraces its sentimentality the most and is the most ambitious. French and Ambler don’t have a last minute reveal or some really funny situational comedy to fall back on. They just have the actors. And the actors succeed.

Excellent performances–from Patrick, Culver, Walsh, Johns, Morgan, and Merrall–excellent direction, solid production values (excepting the problematic rear screen, of course) result in an entirely satisfactory, rather successful film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French; screenplay by T.E.B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae, and Eric Ambler, based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Desmond Dickinson; edited by Alfred Roome; music by Richard Addinsell; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Nigel Patrick (Tom Ramsay), Roland Culver (George Ramsay), Charles Victor (Mr. Bateman), Peter Graves (Philip Cronshaw), Kay Walsh (Miss Molly Reid), Noel Purcell (Captain), Ronald Squire (Doctor), Jacques François (Pierre), John Horsley (Joe, Mate), Glynis Johns (Stella Cotman), Terence Morgan (Syd Cotman), Mary Merrall (Flora Penezzi), and Martin Miller (Carlo Penezzi).


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Trio (1950, Ken Annakin and Harold French)

Trio is a lopsided anthology of three W. Somerset Maugham short story adaptations. The first two segments, directed by Ken Annakin, are deliberate, thoughtful, wry comedies. The last one, directed by Harold French–and taking up over half the film’s runtime–is something of a tragedy. It’s deeply, chastely romantic, full of characters and enough story to probably run for a feature length outing on its own. Instead, it gets fifty minutes to meander to its finish.

Maugham introduces each story, though not for very long. Trio cuts away from him while he’s in mid-sentence, the uncredited narrator always cutting him off. Kind of strange, given Maugham’s one of the three screenwriters. Apparently someone thought he’d detract from the adaptations themselves.

Annakin does an excellent job with the first two segments.

The first has long-time church verger James Hayter losing his job. His boss finds out he can’t read or write and so does the Christian thing, throwing Hayter out on his butt (because liability issues). All right, so the vicar does give Hayter the chance to become literate but Hayter isn’t interested.

Hayter’s performance is awesome. It’s a quiet, cautious, deliberative performance. Much of the segment, at least in the first half, is just understanding Hayter’s perception of the world and his place in it. When he does make his moves for the future, involving landlady Kathleen Harrison, the segment speeds up quite a bit without losing any of its personality. Very nice work from Annakin, Harrison, and, obviously, Hayter.

The second segment has a much bigger principal cast. Nigel Patrick is an annoying passenger on an oceanliner, who irritates his roommate (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and his roommate’s colleague (Naunton Wayne) and the colleague’s wife (Anne Crawford). While the first segment does end with a bit of a punchline, the second just moves along until it gets to a smile.

The strong direction from Annakin, the excellent performances–particularly Patrick and Crawford, but everyone’s quite good–it gets Trio to a good place before kicking off the third story… the feature presentation, as it were.

Before cutting from Maugham, Trio establishes Roland Culver is going to be playing an analogue of the author. He’s got tuberculosis and he’s going to a sanatorium to recuperate. Sanatorium is also the title of the story. There he meets a cast of interesting people who have all sorts of things going on. Well, not Marjorie Fielding and Mary Merrall, who inexplicably don’t even warrant getting credited. They’re the two gossips who pishposh about goings on.

The main story is between Michael Rennie and Jean Simmons. He’s a retired Army officer and a determined cad. She’s the young woman who’s spent over a third of her life recuperating from tuberculosis but she’s not easily fooled. We never see her not be easily fooled, Culver just talks about observing it multiple times. Rennie pursues her, Simmons doesn’t want to be pursued, but doesn’t entirely avoid his attention.

Meanwhile, Raymond Huntley is a bore to visiting, suffering wife Betty Ann Davies. And John Laurie and Finaly Currie comedically bicker. André Morell’s the doctor in charge of the place, though he really doesn’t have anything to do. Neither does Culver. He’s just around to give Davies someone to talk with about Huntley. Rennie and Simmons function on their own, Laurie, Currie, Fielding, and Merrall are all background.

From the start, director French clearly doesn’t have the same kind of handle Annakin did on the first two segments. French and cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and Reginald H. Wyer frequently rely on bad projection backdrops, and French really doesn’t have anything interesting to do with all the talking heads shots. He’s seemingly more concerned with keeping it appear busy.

But the segment gets by. All the performances are good, even if the actors don’t have much in the way of parts. Whether due to the adaptation or the original text, the potentially good scenes (for the narrative) get avoided so there can be occasional reveals. When it does wrap up, it does so without much resolution. French is going for melodramatic effect, nothing else; shame the actors’ fine work adds up to so little. The segment needs more time. It’s got too much for the anthology and not enough for the story itself.

Trio’s universally well-acted, fairly well-written, either well-directed or at least mediocrely, but the lopsided nature of the segments–in terms of runtime and overall effect–hurt it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ken Annakin and Harold French; screenplay by W. Somerset Maugham, R.C. Sheriff, and Noel Langley, based on stories by Maugham; directors of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth and Reginald H. Wyer; edited by Alfred Roome; music by John Greenwood; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring James Hayter (Albert Foreman), Kathleen Harrison (Emma), Nigel Patrick (Kelada), Anne Crawford (Mrs. Ramsey), Naunton Wayne (Mr. Ramsey), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Mr. Gray), Roland Culver (Mr. Ashenden), Michael Rennie (Major Templeton), Jean Simmons (Miss Bishop), Betty Ann Davies (Mrs. Chester), Raymond Huntley (Mr. Chester), Finlay Currie (Mr. McLeod), Marjorie Fielding (Mrs. Whitbread), Mary Merrall (Miss Atkin), John Laurie (Mr. Campbell), and André Morell (Dr. Lennox).


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