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The October Man (1947)

It’s perhaps a bit late for October, but The October Man is worth seeing in any month. Like many films made in the post-WWII American and British film industry, it is a (British) psychological mystery/thriller, and stars John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and Kay Walsh. What makes it fascinating is not the mystery, though, but the exploration of how a character who is labeled “crazy” becomes the prime suspect in a murder case.

John Mills plays Jim Ackland, who, at the beginning of the film, is in a devastating bus crash that costs the life of the young daughter of family friends. He sustains a head injury and suffers from suicidal depression, blaming himself for the young girl’s death. He spends time in a hospital/sanitarium, but when he is released now must suffer, not only the after-effects of his injury, but also the stigma of having spent time in a sanitarium.

He gets a good job as a chemist and even begins dating the sister of one of his co-workers, Jenny Carden (Joan Greenwood), but there is trouble at his cheap hotel. When his neighbor, Molly Newman (Kay Walsh), who he knows slightly, is murdered, he becomes the prime suspect, not only for everyone in the hotel, but also for the police. Everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that because he’s a “loony,” he must have been the one to kill her, despite the fact that his mental condition is described by the doctor as acute depression and that the only person he’s ever tried to harm is himself.

Initially, Jim emphatically denies having killed her, but soon he begins to wonder. Did he kill her after all? There is a moment of time when he was walking, lost in thought, and could he have had a blackout? The police believe so and interrogate him repeatedly and so persuasively that they actually begin to bring Jim around to their way of thinking.

It becomes fairly obvious, though, who killed Molly and the viewer is rarely in doubt that Jim is innocent. What is interesting is how all mental illness is lumped under one term – “crazy” – and therefore grounds for suspicion, despite a lack of substantial evidence.

John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and random character

In fact, the police seem to understand that they lack sufficient grounds for conviction and their tactics look less like investigation than an attempt to break Jim until he confesses, so certain are they that he is the guilty party. The situation is compounded by one overt lie from the real murderer and speculative gossip from the rest of the hotel’s guests. Jim is forced to wade through the wary guests to discover what they have been saying about him.

Jim is essentially set up, not so much by the murderer, but by the police. My sister was telling me of a book she was reading, which discusses how interrogators have to be careful – if they want the truth – because if they work on a person long enough (even an innocent person) that person’s story will gradually start to sound like what they want to hear. This is especially true for Jim, who is already emotionally fragile.

I have always admired John Mills as an actor and he is up to his usual excellent standards in The October Man. Always sympathetic and retaining his dignity, he definitely ready to break apart at any moment. He doubts himself and is tempted to escape, either by killing himself or returning to the sanitarium. The only thing holding him back is his fiance, Jenny Carden, and his wavering conviction that he did not kill Molly.

Joan Greenwood was hilariously wicked and seductive in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Kay Walsh remarkably sympathetic as Nancy in David Lean’s Oliver Twist. Their characters, however, are not fleshed out much in The October Man. Kay Walsh has the more interesting role, friendly and open-hearted, but also involved with a married man and pursued by another, mysterious admirer, and one actually regrets that we do not get to know her more, which makes her more than a convenient corpse.

If one is expecting a puzzling mystery, the film can be disappointing. However, if you think of it as an exploration of how the perception of mental illness can affect a person and expectations of that person, it becomes far more engaging.

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Chalk Garden (1964) – Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills, John Mills

download (2)1964-65 was a good year for governesses. Julie Andrews accounted for two of them, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, but Deborah Kerr does very well in her own, less known, 1964 governess role in The Chalk Garden. Of course, the film is not very like Mary Poppins and Kerr’s Miss Madrigal is not very like Fraulein Maria. She has a secret. And the child she must care for, Hayley Mills, makes Julie Andrew’s charges look like haloed little saints.

The film stars Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills – in a brief departure from her Disney films – and Hayley Mill’s father, John Mills. The film opens with Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr) applying for the job of governess at a large home near the coast. She has no references and no experience. However, the child she is supposed to take care of, Laurel (Hayley Mills), is a positive terror and scares away the other applicant for the job with outrageous behavior, statements, and tales of horror about governesses being eaten by sharks. But the butler, Maitland (John Mills) rather likes Miss Madrigal. She meets Laurel’s grandmother, Mrs. St. Maugham (Edith Evans), who is at first not willing to hire Miss Madrigal until she discovers that she is extremely knowledgeable about gardens. Miss Madrigal makes the observation that the reason the flowers won’t grow for Mrs. St. Maugham is because the soil, chalk, is all wrong for those particular flowers and mentions what sort of soil she would need. On a whim, and because she has been unable to keep any other governess around for long, Mrs. St. Maugham hires Miss Madrigal.

Laurel is no ordinary problem child. The reason she is living with her grandmother is that several years previously her mother Olivia, (Elizabeth Sellars) had had an affair, divorced her father and remarried. The entire series of events set off something in Laurel, who became convinced that her mother did not love her and is obsessed with the notion of her mother living in sin, a notion reinforced by her grandmother. She feels abandoned and rejected. She is also obsessed with arson, murder, crime and is a chronic liar who likes to make outrageous statements to get a reaction from people. She speaks of having a desire to burn the house down, a desire channeled by her grandmother into simply burning large bonfires. Her grandmother comments wryly to Miss Madrigal that little by little they are making it smaller. “Laurel hasn’t noticed yet. One day it won’t be there.”

Laurel is attempting to scare away the governess while Miss Madrigal, on the right, is unmoved

Laurel is attempting to scare away the governess while Miss Madrigal, on the right, is unmoved

But Miss Madrigal sees something in Laurel. She sees something of herself when she was that age (it is amusing to try to imagine Deborah Kerr, young and wild and screaming). She sees herself as a liar, unable to appreciate that she is loved, filled with rage at the world and other people and she longs to to help Laurel.

The key, as she sees it, is to get Laurel away from her grandmother and back to her mother. It’s not that Mrs. St. Maugham is evil, but she “does not have a green thumb,” either for children or flowers, as Miss Madrigal tells her. Besides, she suspects that Mrs. St. Maugham is using Laurel to hurt Laurel’s mother, whether consciously or not.

Like Laurel, or perhaps Laurel feels this way because of her, Mrs. St. Maugham feels betrayed by her daughter. She and Olivia have a fraught relationship and the man Olivia left was the man Mrs. St. Maugham had chosen for her to marry. But Olivia desperately wants to take Laurel back with her.

But meanwhile, Miss Madrigal has to deal with Laurel, who specializes in investigating her governesses, snooping in their possessions (she can pick locks), finding out their secrets, or inventing secrets, and generally exposing them and sending them packing. Miss Madrigal is an especially interesting subject. She arrives with all new clothes, still in their wrappings, still with the tags on them. She paces the room at night. And she definitely has a secret, something definite in her past. What occurs is a kind of game of cat and mouse between Laurel and Miss Madrigal, though Miss Madrigal does not put up with half the nonsense that her grandmother does.

Edna Evans. John Mills, Haley Mills, Deborah Kerr

Edith Evans. John Mills, Haley Mills, Deborah Kerr

It partially makes me think of an English Country House murder mystery. Mostly because of the setting in a English home by the sea, the eccentric people (Mrs. St. Maugham and the butler, Maitland, who has rare privileges and feels free to make cheeky comments), and also the game of wits played out between Laurel and Miss Madrigal. Laurel is trying to find out who she really is, while Miss Madrigal deflects her inquiries and is trying to reach past Laurel’s lying and outrageous exterior to the wounded child within. Also, Maitland has a great, though healthy, interest in crime and detective stories. Ironically enough, a crime is discovered in somebody’s past, but it is not an indictment of that person and does not come as a huge surprise the the viewer, either.

Deborah Kerr does a marvelous job. She plays it both humorously – at moments she is enjoying this game of wits – but also deeply passionate, initially hidden behind her blank exterior. Ironically, she is hiding something, but must lose her secret and expose her heart to win Laurel. Hayley Mills also does a great job in a role quite different from anything she did at Disney. Underneath, there is a very vulnerable child playing games, until she realizes that she’s stumbled on something that is not a game at all.

HayleyMillsandDeborahKerrinTheChalkGarden-1The Chalk Garden is an adaptation of a play by Enid Bagnold and Edith Evans played Mrs. St. Maugham in the play as well as in the movie. She’s quite an interesting character, because she is not a villain, nor does she play her like a selfish harpy. She strikes me as one of those ladies who was probably a flapper in her day, witty and, as we learn, with a host of admiring men in her past, some of who she still knows (like the judge played by Felix Aylmer, who she wants to help her keep Laurel from Olivia). But she obviously does not have it in her to raise children. She is kind to Maitland, however, who has sad story in his past.

This trailer makes the film look quite melodramatic, which it is in a way, but not quite as hysterical as all that! I really enjoyed it. There is warmth and real feeling, learning to open up the heart to accept love, wry wit. Maitland, especially, has some good dialogue (he and Miss Madrigal are talking in the library when he notices that Laurel is spying on them and he closes the door, commenting “Laurel is not at her best through mahogany”), though he is not the comic relief. He is almost the heart of the film, though he does not seem to do much. He is the solid, kind presence that balances them all.

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Drama

 

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Tiger Bay (1959)

tiger_bay_posterBefore Hayley Mills became a Disney superstar with her performance in Pollyanna, she did one British film: Tiger Bay. She wasn’t even supposed to be in it originally. The script called for a boy, but when director J. Lee Thompson visited John Mills, who was to appear in the movie, he saw his daughter Hayley Mills playing at the house and asked if John Mills would be willing to let her take a screen test. He liked her so much that he changed the role from a boy to a girl.

Tiger Bay is a port city in Cardiff, Wales. A boat docks and Polish immigrant Bronislav Korchinsky (Horst Buchholz) disembarks. He is in an expectantly happy mood, on his way to his apartment to see his girlfriend, Anya (Yvonne Mitchell), and ask her to marry him. But when he arrives there, he cannot find her and eventually tracks her down at another apartment complex, where he discovers that she has left him and is now being kept by another, richer, man. Living in the apartment complex is also Gillie Evans (Haylay Mills), who is an orphan and lives with her aunt (Megs Jenkins). She’s a chronic liar, a bit of an imp, and a tomboy who just wants to play cowboys and Indians with the rest of the kids on the street, though they won’t let her because she does not have a toy gun.

When Bronislav and Anya get into an argument, Gillie hears them and curiously peeks through the letterbox. Bronislav is telling Anya that he wants to marry her, but she can’t stand the fact that he is a sailor and is always gone. They argue and she insults him and Bronislav begins to lose his temper. Finally, Anya grabs a gun, which he takes from her and in a burst of blind passion, shoots her with it. He runs out of the apartment and hides the gun, which Gillie takes to show to her friends.

John Mills, Megs Jenkins and Hayley Mills

John Mills, Megs Jenkins and Hayley Mills

The police question everyone, one of whom is Inspector Graham (John Mills), who has an inkling that Gillie is lying to him about what she knows. But the inspector is most interested in tracking down the man who was keeping Anya in the apartment, a sports announcer named Barclay (Anthony Dawson). While Inspector Graham investigates, Bronislav knows that Gillie has his gun and follows her to take it back, but realizes that she also saw everything. But Gillie likes him and when she finds out he’s a sailor, begs him to take her with him. He realizes that if he can keep her with him until he gets a ship out of England, then she won’t be able to tell the police. He agrees that she can come with him, intending to leave her just before he sails.

They hide outside the city and the police begin to search for Gillie and discover there could be another man besides Barclay involved. But the movie is not a police drama. The heart of the story is between Gillie and Bronislav. Although a murderer, he’s not a psychopath. You can see at the beginning of the film that he likes kids and when he meets Gillie, he has a natural way with talking to children. In some ways, he’s a big kid, himself. Gillie, somewhat lonely, completely attaches herself to Bronislav. These two people, without a trace of queasy pedophilia, form a deep bond of affection and both are ultimately willing to do anything for the other person. Gillie will lie and mislead the police and in the end Bronislav must sacrifice his chance for freedom to save her.

Horst Buchholtz, Hayley Mills

Horst Buchholz, Hayley Mills

Tiger Bay has a very realistic feel to it. There are lots of scenes of the docks and the poor, ethnically diverse neighborhoods. But though the neighborhoods are comprised of blacks and immigrants, the police force is entirely Anglo-Saxon and there is an inherent undercurrent of antagonism between the police and the rest of the people, which puts many of the people automatically on Bronislav’s side against the police. In contrast, there is also the smarmy, rich guy trying to weasel out of a murder charge without having his name besmirched.

John Mills as Inspector Graham, is a wonderful presence in the film. With a touch of wry humor, he steadily works his way towards his goal. The scenes between him and his real-life daughter are well-rendered, made even more interesting by the fact that the audience knows he’s really her father. He tries to ferret out the truth as her story constantly changes. But however much Gillie doesn’t want to betray Bronislav, he is able to use her inconsistencies to learn what he wants. The irony is that Gillie proves Bronislav’s ultimate downfall. But the touching thing about it is that Bronislav doesn’t blame her. What makes the ending so beautiful (I don’t think I’m betraying anything too unexpected when I say that he does not manage to escape) is the complete, accepting affection for each other.

I was thinking about it afterwards, and what struck me is that it is not clear that anybody has changed by the end of the film. He’s not necessarily a better person, she’s not necessarily going to stop being a liar. He’s going to prison and she’s going to return to her life with her aunt. What makes the movie touching is not that caring changes a person, but that people care at all. The point is that to love is a beautiful and ennobling thing in and of itself, regardless of what it does for you. It is good simply to care.

John Mills and Hayley Mills

John Mills and Hayley Mills

Horst Buchholz makes a very endearing Bronislav and although you are repelled by the act of murder, he’s still sympathetic. He’s done a terrible thing, but he can’t change it. He’s stuck with it and can only move forward. He and Hayley Mills also have a sweet rapport. The film was meant to introduce him, a German actor, to the English public, but what it really did was launch Hayley Mills’ career. As soon as Walt Disney saw the movie, he knew he’d found the person he wanted for Pollyanna.

The movie is currently on youtube.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2015 in British Films, Drama

 

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