The BFI have digitised the only remaining archival print of this film (faded, damaged, with splices and skips) as part of their major Vivien Leigh retrospective, which gives us a rare chance to see it as originally intended, in Cinemascope on a big screen.
Rattigan wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of his play, which was certified back in the 50s as very much for ‘adults only’, with its subject matter of adultery, attempted suicide, and dark secrets.
Vivien Leigh, faded with the years but still with the beauty she had as a younger actress, plays Hester Collier, a judge’s wife who teeters on the brink of genteel depression brought on by boredom and a marriage devoid of passion.
She leaves her perfectly decent and rich husband, Sir William (Emlyn Williams, in a lovely understated performance) for the RAF daredevil Freddie Page (Kenneth More, inhabiting the part he played on stage), who can give her little in the way of money or prestige but who presumably can give her what was lacking on the physical side in her marriage.
However, Hester remains caught between ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’, brought to desperation by – as she explains to her husband – ‘anger, hatred, and shame’. Her society name is ruined, she lives in a seedy apartment block alongside a resting actress who spends her evenings in Soho bars (Moira Lister, very good), and a struck-off doctor who now works as a bookmaker (Eric Portman, reminiscent of his Canterbury Tale role, and looking forward to his role in Deadfall).
This doctor is her conscience in many ways, her ‘white angel’ (a term which refers both to Freddie’s lodgings of choice towards the end of the film, and Miller the former doctor’s impact on both Hester and Freddie’s state of mind). Hester may be struggling with the black dog and periods of hysteria (not unlike Leigh herself at this time in her life) but she has the strength to get through this right up to the touching finale.
Anatole Litvak directed this picture with few exteriors and a sense of the seedy side of life in the flat inhabited by Hester and Freddie, in the succession of bars and nightclubs we see in the final third of the film, and in Hester’s bedraggled and desperate beauty.
Interestingly on stage this role was played by Peggy Ashcroft, and in the film was originally offered to Marlene Dietrich. Either actress would have been fascinating to watch, but Leigh is an excellent choice, a lady of quality who, as her actress neighbour says ‘belongs here (the apartments) as much as I belong in Park Lane’. She has paid a huge price for what she calls ‘love’.
There is a joyous section in a flashback part way through this film, where Hester and Freddie develop an attraction to each other on the ski slopes. It is the only time this film does not feel confined and overbearing in its surroundings.
Incidentally comedy watchers will spot Dandy Nichols and Sid James in straight parts here – both very effective.
I am now in the mood to rewatch the other two versions of this play which have been filmed (1994, for television, and 2011)!