The Deep Blue Sea, 1955 – ★★★★

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)!

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

NaBloPoMo November 2013


Scarlett O’Hara’s leading men

Yesterday I watched ‘Gone With The Wind’ for the second time on the big screen, this time at the BFI Southbank in a new 4k restoration, as part of the celebration to mark 100 years since the birth of Vivien Leigh.  I’m not going to use this post to review the film, or even to say how much I love it (I do), nor am I going to talk much about Vivien Leigh’s performance as Scarlett.  It was by far her best role, and the one which won her the first of two Oscars during her nineteen-film, one television play, career.

In this post I want to talk in detail about Miss Leigh’s leading men in the film, notably Clark Gable (1901-1960) as Rhett Butler, and Leslie Howard (1892-1943)  as Ashley Wilkes.  Both were major film stars at the time of the casting of the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s popular novel.  Gable had been moulded into a sexy leading man who had shared screen time with Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and, most memorable of all, Joan Crawford.   He was practically the only choice for the Charleston adventurer whose only cause is himself and whose only great passion in life is Scarlett, the Southern belle who treats him with disdain.  Howard had come into films via the stage, playing a mixture of artistic dreamers and sensitive souls in both Britain and America (with Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, and Heather Angel), as well as making the occasional successful foray into comedy (‘Stand-In’, with Joan Blondell; ‘It’s Love I’m After’, with Bette Davis).  His biggest successes prior to being offered the role of Major Wilkes were as Henry Higgins in ‘Pygmalion’, and as Romeo opposite a cast all scaled up in age for MGM’s adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’.


If Gable was the eye candy and the stuff of women’s dreams, then Howard was the intellectual with integrity.  Critics throughout the intervening years between the release of ‘Gone With The Wind’ and now have been much more complimentary about Rhett than Ashley, questioning why a free spirit like Scarlett would be drawn to such a low-key, unadventurous man as ‘the wooden headed Mr Wilkes’.  However I value both men’s performances – and the characters may be polar opposites but despite Rhett’s dismissal of ‘stupid Ashley, who can’t be mentally faithful to his wife, but won’t be unfaithful to her technically’, Ashley is a true Southern gentleman, a man of honour who can see that the world he lives in is changing.  He claims that he would have freed his father’s slaves at Twelve Oaks, but he also laments the loss of everything he held dear.  He’s also proved himself brave in battle when the Civil War comes.  Rhett, in contrast, has no honour, is sardonic and brazen (until the birth of his daughter, Bonnie Blue, softens his heart).  His scenes with his ‘old friend’, the whore Belle Watling (beautifully played by Ona Munson), hint at something more akin to values you would attribute to Ashley and his Southern friends, and you sense that he has supported their son despite the impracticality of him living a respectable life in Charleston.

Howard’s range was wider than Gable’s, and in my opinion, his screen presence has improved over the years.  He also discovered Humphrey Bogart and gave him his first real chance in films, in ‘The Petrified Forest’. Gable, according to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film was ‘sexy for his time (the only time for that trick)’ and we agree with Scarlett when, at Captain Butler’s first appearance at the bottom of those stairs at Twelve Oaks, he ‘looks as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy’.  He’s a predator, a chaser and discarder of women, and ‘not the marrying kind’.  Of course a well-brought up Southern lady would give him short shrift while looking for someone like her (i.e. Ashley, for all his hesitations and faults).  Scarlett’s only attraction to Rhett initially is as a provider of the money she needs, and only after that is she drawn to him from pure sexual frustration (no wonder, after her first two marriages, although it is interesting that the film presents these as barren when in Mitchell’s novel both Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy gave Scarlett children, even if she didn’t love them).


Gable as an actor (or as a star) has become the stuff of legend.  The King of Hollywood.  No matter than his early films are often dreadfully dated and his style of acting is only a short step away from the silent swashbucklers like Fairbanks.  You may see ‘The Misfits’, his final film, bloated and overrated and only valued for the final hurrah of Monroe and Monty Clift, or ‘Mogambo’ (a colour remake of his 1932 hit ‘Red Dust’).  He tried comedy in later years, with Doris Day in ‘Teacher’s Pet’, and it worked, but he was never as alluring or as romantic again as he was as Rhett Butler.   Howard’s films, if revived at all, present his patriotic side in the last couple of years of his life (‘Pimpernel Smith’ a Nazi nose-tweak version of his 1935 ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’; ‘The First of the Few’ as the inventor of the Spitfire) and his early films are hardly ever seen, although they are worth seeking out.  Howard was a 19th century gentleman (born Hungarian but somehow quintessentially English) and his acting style has something of that era.  His Ashley is beautifully drawn, but somehow lost with all the Gable bluster and charm.


As Scarlett’s hapless first and second husbands, a couple of names forgotten in time – Rand Brooks (1918-2003, who seemed to be a fixture in Westerns from Hopalong Cassidy to the Cisco Kid through the 1950s and 1960s) is the twittering Charles Hamilton, and Carroll Nye (1901-1974, an actor the same age as Gable but playing much older, who had done next to nothing before this film, and only a handful of titles after) is the ‘old maid-in britches’ Frank Kennedy.  They’re both good in cypher roles and are both mincemeat for the manipulative Scarlett!

NaBloPoMo November 2013

A quick London round-up …

At London’s Transport Museum, Covent Garden, you can see the exhibition of posters brought together under the umbrella title ‘Poster Art 150’.  It’s on until January 5th – more details at

The Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, has acquired Vivien Leigh’s archive and will display a selection of items from it in their Theatre & Performance galleries.  More details here –

In its last week at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank is the World Press Photo Exhibition –

The Royal Festival Hall’s Spirit Level gallery is also the venue for the Koestler Trust’s 2013 exhibition of art by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees.  As in previous years this is touching, surprising, and well worth a look.  It runs until the 1st December.

Staying on the South Bank, the National Theatre is celebrating its 50th birthday and has a small exhibition of images in the Lyttelton Gallery of Oliver’s first company amongst other celebrations –

At the BFI Southbank, we are halfway through the Gothic season of films (, and there is currently a Vivien Leigh retrospective which runs to the end of the year *, including a new restoration of ‘Gone With The Wind’.

From tiny musical boxes to the Mighty Wurlitzer, pay a visit to the Musical Museum in Brentford (, while at the Watermans just up the road the annual showcase of digital art, enter13, is running until 5th January (

At Pimlico, the Tate Britain has had a revamp and has an exhibition on until February of ‘Five Contemporary Artists’.  For more details, see

The Design Museum (at Butler’s Wharf) recreates Paul Smith’s chaotic office with its collection of miscellaneous objects until the 9th March –

Finally, over at the Barbican in the City of London, the Pop Art Movement is being celebrated at the Gallery –

NaBloPoMo November 2013