British Drama Mystery/Noir

Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Fleabag & Killing Eve Director Helming Seance on a Wet Afternoon ...

Most movies fit into particular genres, with plots that in at least some respects are recycled. There is nothing inherently wrong with this: The same thing could after all be said of almost all of Shakespeare’s plays. But just as The Tempest is refreshing because of its novelty, so too are films with unique stories that one can’t really analogize or trace back to any earlier films, or even to a cinematic genre. Love and Death on Long Island and Junior Bonner are two of my favorite movies of this highly original kind. Another is this week’s film recommendation: Seance on a Wet Afternoon.

The film opens as a two-handed play about a strange and strangely compelling married couple. Myra (Kim Stanley) holds seances for her credulous neighbors and is convinced that she has remarkable psychic gifts. Her asthmatic husband Billy (Richard Attenborough) seems afraid to disagree with her. It soon becomes apparent that the two are hatching some sort of bizarre kidnapping and ransom plot, though it would be better said that Myra has hatched it and Billy is too uxorious to resist. Despite the ransom demand, the motive for the planned crime is nothing so simple as money. Many twists of story and anguished human psychology follow, taking the audience on a journey that is suspenseful, dramatic, and ultimately, quite sad.

This 1964 film is the most artistically impressive product of the highly successful, long-running collaboration between British cinema worthies Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes. The two men took on different roles in their various films; in this case Forbes wrote and directed and Attenborough acted and shared producer duties with Forbes.


As producers, the team’s masterstroke was reaching across the pond to cast Kim Stanley, who was then a stage and television actress barely known outside of New York City. As Myra, Stanley gives one of the outstanding performances of the 1960s as the sort of person who is deeply disturbed and fragile yet at that same time exerts enormous power over those around her. Stanley was dubbed The Female Brando by her biographer and she puts on a method acting clinic here in what sadly turned out to be one of few opportunities movie audiences got to see her masterful work. After being nominated for an Oscar for Seance on a Wet Afternoon, she returned to the stage and virtually disappeared from films until 1982, when she garnered another Oscar nomination for Frances.

Forbes’ direction and Stanley and Attenborough’s performances are truly above reproach. The way Billy is lacerated by Myra’s every critical remark and disapproving look, yet also clearly loves her and feels protective of her, is beautifully, painfully brought out. Their marriage is not quite a folie à  deux because Billy retains some grip on reality and decency, which serves to create tension in the relationship and the plot that propels the film forward.

Though the script could have been slightly tightened, every line of dialogue rings true and the plot is consistently compelling. Gerry Turpin’s photography is also a virtue, both in the interiors of Myra and Billy’s house but also in, around, and underneath bustling 1960s London. Overall, one gets the sense of a production in which every professional in front of and behind the camera knew exactly what they were doing.

Billy and even moreso Myra will haunt your imagination after you see this movie. Don’t miss it.

British Drama Mystery/Noir

Brighton Rock

The 2010 remake of Brighton Rock got mixed reviews, so I recommend discovering instead the 1947 original, which is both a fine character study and a solid piece of British film noir. Made just after the war by the Boulton Brothers, this story of razor-wielding gangsters was considered shocking in its day. Though a bit dated, it remains worth watching for its strong acting, emotional impact and truly memorable visuals (particular during some jolting violence).

Scripted by two lions of British cinema, Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan, the plot centers on a small criminal gang led by the cold hearted Pinkie Brown (A genuinely chilling Richard Attenborough). The former boss of the gang has just been murdered and Pinkie is struggling to revenge the loss while fending off internal and external threats to his control. A saintly, pretty young girl named Rose (a pitch perfect Carol Marsh in her film debut) has evidence that can put Pinkie away for a killing, but also, strangely enough, seems to be falling in love with him. Meanwhile he grapples with Catholic guilt at the life he is leading.

Richard Attenborough in "Brighton Rock" (1947) | Brighton rock ...

As in many British dramas of the era, highly experienced actors take every advantage of the smaller roles in this movie. A pre-Dr. Who William Hartnell plays a complicated criminal who is heartless when committing violence yet develops a paternal protectiveness towards Rose. Veteran stage actor Harcourt Williams steals scene after scene as a Shakespeare quoting shyster.

Only quibble: In trying to contrast “carefree tourist Brighton” with the seedy underbelly, the film makers go overboard early in the film with annoyingly upbeat music that detracts from the mood of menace. But that trope fades out after the first 20 minutes or so, leaving the viewer plenty of time to be both fascinated and repulsed by Pinkie Brown and the criminal world which he inhabits.

Action/Adventure British Drama

In Which We Serve

Pour yourself a small gin or a nice cup a tea, stiffen your upper lip, turn off the wireless (radio, that is) and watch one of the best films ever released in a time of war: 1942’s In Which We Serve. Made almost single-handed by Noël Coward (with some directorial assistance from the legendary David Lean), this is an unabashedly patriotic tribute to the Royal Navy, told as “the story of a ship”, the HMS Torrin. The primary purpose of the film is to encourage a nation facing annihilation, and it clearly succeeds in that respect. But it’s also — even today — moving, exciting and worthy of admiration as a piece of cinema.

The story telling style is reminiscent of Coward’s magnificent Cavalcade. Rather than following a strictly linear narrative, the film instead presents a series of recollections by different characters, all of whom are literally clinging to life after their ship has been torpedoed. In flashback scenes, they recall their families, their friends, and most of all their experiences on the H.M.S. Torrin. It’s stirring stuff. The Dunkirk rescue operation and the battles near Crete are brought vividly to life, using a well-edited mix of documentary footage and scenes shot for the film.

Noël Coward’s Mountbatten-esque performance (the two remarkable men were good friends) as Captain Kinross is probably a bit too mannered to be completely accessible to most viewers. The heart of the film is much more Bernard Miles as CPO Hardy and John Mills as his nephew by marriage, ordinary seaman Blake (Following this movie, Mills became a David Lean favorite, and won a best supporting actor Oscar under Lean’s Direction almost 30 years later). They and the other perfomers playing junior officers, ordinary seaman and family members back home are more vulnerable and therefore particularly sympathetic for the audience. We admire the formidable Kinross from an emotional distance but the “average” fighting men and their loved ones on the home front have more common humanity, particularly as we witness their courage, their fears and their loves.

In Which We Serve (1942) | From The Dam Busters to Dunkirk: the 31 ...

The film does not skimp on the horrors of war, including the terror of combat and the grief at losing loved ones. If you can’t shed a tear during the scene in which Blake tells CPO Hardy the latest news from home, call a cardiologist immediately because you are missing a vital organ from your chest.

The Brits and indeed the world were up against it when this film was made, so don’t expect cynicism, unhappy families or emotional breakdown by the characters (Even Richard Attenborough, as a coward, mans up in the end). A more realistic take on the war was possible after it was all over and people had the security to look back with a more gelid eye (see for example my recommendation of 1953’s The Cruel Sea). But none of that takes away from the power of this straight-faced tonic for the people of Britain at a time of unimaginable peril. It’s a triumph for Coward and the whole cast, who received a special and much deserved Academy Award for their efforts.

In Which We Serve is in the public domain and you can watch a high-quality copy for free by clicking here.