RSS Feed

Tag Archives: John Mills

The October Man (Aug. 28, 1947)

The only problem with a really crackerjack opening is that sometimes it can make the rest of a film seem staid.

Roy Ward Baker’s The October Man, which was written and produced by spy novelist Eric Ambler, features a stunning, completely wordless opening sequence in which a bus full of passengers navigates twisting English country roads at night in the rain.

Jim Ackland (John Mills) sits next to a little girl. The two are friendly with each other, and he ties his handkerchief into a rabbit shape to amuse her. The film cuts from them to an axle under the bus with a loose screw, to the sleepy driver, and back to them. When disaster comes, it is swift.

Before the accident, Ackland had a good job as an industrial chemist and was quite sane. During the accident, however, he suffered a depressed fracture of the skull and multiple brain injuries.

The little girl on the bus next to him was the daughter of some of his friends, and he blames himself for her death, twice attempting suicide during his convalescence.

Eventually, though, Ackland starts to get his life back on track. He moves into a boarding house full of fusspots and weirdos and gets another job as a chemist. He meets a nice girl named Jenny Carden (Joan Greenwood) and starts seeing her regularly.

But when one of the other residents of Ackland’s boarding house — a woman named Molly Newman (Kay Walsh) — is murdered, suspicion falls on Ackland. The only person who should know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether he’s guilty or not — Ackland himself — isn’t even sure, since he’s a paranoiac who suffers from blackouts.

The October Man is a good film. It’s well acted and well shot, and the central mystery is intriguing, if not particularly difficult to unravel. My main problem with it is that nothing in the film is equal to the suspense and power of the first minute.

This was the first feature film that Roy Ward Baker directed. (He’s listed in the credits as “Roy Baker.”)

Baker was a prolific director of British film and television who worked into the 1990s, and who died last year at the age of 93. During World War II, Baker worked under Eric Ambler in the Army Kinematograph Unit, which eventually led to him directing The October Man. If you’re a fan of Hammer Studios’ horror films, you’ve doubtless seen films directed by Baker, but he worked in all manner of genres. His most enduring film is probably A Night to Remember (1958), about the sinking of the Titanic.

Advertisements

Great Expectations (Dec. 26, 1946)

I’ve never held Charles Dickens in the high esteem that many others do. Granted, I’ve only read one of his novels in its entirety — Hard Times (1854). Based solely on that book and the story “A Christmas Carol,” which I’m pretty sure I’ve read in its original form at least once, Dickens was a splendid caricaturist. I could picture every facet of the grotesque antagonists and tenacious protagonists of Hard Times. They looked and acted like real people. But it was all on the surface. None of them felt like real people, and I was never convinced that they had internal lives or realistic motivations. I’m a big fan of psychological realism and believable characters, so if I’m going to read a Victorian novel, I’d much rather it be by George Eliot or Thomas Hardy than by Dickens.

The only other Dickens novel I’ve ever taken a crack at was Great Expectations (1861), which was assigned reading in my 9th-grade English class. I never finished it. (Sorry, Ms. Lee-Tino.)

But based on the roughly 25% of the novel that I did read, David Lean’s Great Expectations seems like a pretty solid adaptation. Orphaned boy Phillip “Pip” Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his ill-tempered older sister (Freda Jackson) and her husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles), a kind-hearted blacksmith. One night, out on the moors, Pip is accosted by an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), who makes him promise to return with food and a file with which to saw through his chains. The terrified Pip keeps his promise, but the authorities arrive on the scene, Magwitch attacks another escapee, and they’re both taken back to prison.

Soon, we meet one of Dickens’s great grotesque characters, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), a mentally twisted shut-in who is gleefully brainwashing her beautiful young charge Estella (Jean Simmons) to be the ultimate heartbreaker, and punish men who are foolish enough to fall in love with her. Pip is sent to Miss Havisham’s on a regular basis to improve his manners, but it should go without saying that he ends up receiving a very different kind of education.

All of this is very well done, and beautifully filmed — especially the scenes at night on the moors. The problem for me came after about 40 minutes, when several years pass and Anthony Wager is replaced by John Mills — as the adult version of Pip — for the rest of the picture. Although Pip has only supposed to have aged a few years (from boyhood to manhood), Mills was 38 years old, and the effect is jarring. He’s perfectly handsome, but he just doesn’t look like a young man starting out in the world. The other major actor to change is Estella, which is even more jarring. The gorgeous 17 year-old Jean Simmons is replaced by the 29 year-old Valerie Hobson, who is far less charming than Simmons and looks nothing like her.

Great Expectations premiered in the United Kingdom on December 26, 1946, and opened in the United States during the spring of 1947. At the 20th Academy Awards, it was nominated for best picture, David Lean was nominated for best director, and the film was nominated for best adapted screenplay. It won two awards, one for best black and white cinematography and one for best black and white art direction.

I enjoyed it, but the change of actors in midstream and the general Dickensian nonsense of the plot kept me at arm’s length. Great Expectations is beloved by a great many people, however, so if it sounds as if it’s up your alley, by all means check it out.