Thursday, September 20, 2012


Myra and Billy Savage are eking out a middle-class existence in an old Victorian house which Myra inherited from her mother. Myra is a psychic who holds afternoon seances for a small circle of clients; her spirit guide is someone named Martin (whom we later discover was her son who died in childbirth). The meek, passive (and apparently unemployed) Billy genuinely loves Myra and is at her beck and call, but struggles with her unbalanced mental state: it's unclear if she has accepted that Martin is dead because she talks about him as though he's just away temporarily. It's also unclear how much of her psychic talent is theoretically genuine and how much is chicanery. Wanting to beef up business, Myra plans to "borrow" Amanda, the daughter of a local businessman, hold her for ransom, then hold a seance to reveal her whereabouts and prove her psychic powers. She doesn't want the money, just the publicity. Billy goes along reluctantly: he grabs the girl after school and they put her in a prepared room in their house, set up to look like a hospital room, and convince her that she is recovering from a serious illness. Myra goes to the girl's mother and tells her she's had dreams about the girl; she is initially rebuffed but later the mother comes to a seance at which Myra gets worked up and faints. She later tells Billy that Martin wants a playmate, leading Billy to realize that she may not be so willing to give Amanda up. Finally, he decides to take matters into his own hands, even if it means exposing their plan to the police.

Despite the title and some of the near-Gothic trappings, this is not a drama of the supernatural but a bleakly compelling psychological thriller and character drama, beautifully directed (by Bryan Forbes), photographed (by Gerry Turpin), scored (by multiple Oscar winner John Barry) and acted. Even though it's mostly set in a somewhat cluttered old house and there's a claustrophobic feel for much of the film, it needs to be seen widescreen for the stunning shot compositions. Kim Stanley steals the show with her powerful performance as a woman who has been nearly driven mad by unresolved grief over the death of her child—not to mention the question of how much she believes in her psychic powers—but Richard Attenborough (pictured with Stanley) is just as good, if quieter and more subtle, as a man who truly loves and wants to understand his wife who is slowly drifting away from reality and into her own world of delusion. Much of this feels like a filmed play, with the two of them in intense conversation; add the fact that it's in black & white, and that a non-existent child is at the center of the couple's anguish, and it can be compared to WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, though without the wit or psychological violence. The only other actor to make much of an impression is Patrick McGee (husband of the rape victim in CLOCKWORK ORANGE) as a police inspector. The DVD is out of print, but this is worth tracking down on cable or Netflix.  [TCM]

1 comment:

Steve said...

Good review-I never thought about the comparison with WAOVW. And as with that play/film, there's the idea that the characters are alternating back and forth between truth and illusion.
I luckily managed to snag this DVD before it went OOP. It is indeed a fine suspense film, made in what I consider to be an unimpressive year overall for English-language movies. Stanley was an Oscar nominee, and she'd have easily snagged my vote that year.