Accident (1966) ****

Intellect can present as powerful a sexual magnetism as wealth. And for young women, unlikely to come into the orbit of powerful movie magnates or wealthy businessmen, they are most likely to experience abuse of power in academia, especially in top-notch universities like Oxford and Cambridge or Harvard and the Sorbonne.

Young students, unsure of their place in the world, depend on praise for their self-esteem. To be on the receiving end of flattery from a renowned scholar, a young person (males included) might be willing to overlook other unwanted attention. For young women and men accustomed to being assessed on looks alone this might be a drug too powerful to ignore.

The British system ensured that potential prey was delivered to potential predators. As well as attending lectures, each student was allocated a tutor and could spend a considerable amount of time with them in private in congenial surroundings behind closed doors. And since essays marked by tutors played a considerable element in an overall mark, there was plenty of opportunity for transactional sex.  

And it was easy for women to think they wielded the sexual power. I once employed a woman who boasted that she had seduced her university tutor, little imagining that that took any opposition on his part, and that, in reality, she was just another easy conquest.

So you might be surprised to learn that when this movie about inappropriate behavior in a university of the caliber of Oxford appeared, nobody gave a hoot about the grooming and exploitation of young Austrian Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) by two professors, Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) and Charley (Stanley Baker).

The story is told in flashback in leisurely fashion. Hearing a car crash outside his substantial house in the country, Stephen finds inside the vehicle an injured Anna and her dead boyfriend William (Michael York). Then we backtrack to Anna’s arrival in Oxford, and how the love quadrangle is created. The presence of William suggests Anna has predatory instincts, but there is no sign of sex in their relationship, rather that he is forever frustrated at being kept on a leash and clearly suspecting he is losing out to others.

Stephen, a professor of philosophy, no higher calling in academe, endless discussion on the meaning of life manna to every student, has a purported happy home life, wife Rosalind (Vivien Merchant) pregnant with their third child. He’s no stranger to infidelity, reviving an affair with the estranged daughter Francesca (Delphine Seyrig) of a college bigwig (Alexander Knox).

But he can’t quite make his move on Anna, despite idyllic walks in the fields and their hands almost touching on a fence. The uber-confident Charley, novelist and television pundit in addition to academic celebrity, has no such qualms and seduces her under the nose of his friend and sometime competitor.

When opportunity does arise for Stephen it does so in the most horrific fashion and, that he takes advantage of the situation, exposes the levels of immorality to which the powerful will stoop without batting an eyelid.

The web Stephen is trying to weave around his potential victim is disrupted by William and Charley and if any anguish shows on Stephen’s face it’s not guilt at the grief he may cause or about his own errant behavior but at the prospect of losing a prize.

Director Joseph Losey (Secret Ceremony, 1968) sets the tale in an idyllic world of dreaming spires, glasses of sherry, tea on the lawn, glorious weather, punting on the river, old Etonian games, the potential meeting of minds and the flowering of young intellect.  The action, like illicit desire, is surreptitious, a slow-burn so laggardly you could imagine the spark of narrative had almost gone out.

Stephen is almost defeated by his own uncontrolled desire, taking advantage of his wife entering hospital for childbirth, the children packed off elsewhere, to have sex with Francesca, not imagining that Charley will take advantage of an empty house.

And the young woman as sexual pawn is given further credence by the fact that at no point do we see the events from her perspective.

Anguish had always been a Dirk Bogarde (Justine, 1969) hallmark and usually it served to invite the moviegoer to share his torment. So it’s kind of a mean trick to play on the audience to discover that this actor generally given to playing worthy characters is in fact a sleekit devious dangerous man. Of course, the persona reversal works very well, as we do sympathise with him, especially when relegated to second fiddle in the celebrity stakes to Charley and humiliated in his own attempts to gain television exposure.

Stanley Baker (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) was the revelation. Gone was the tough guy of previous movies. In its place a charming confident winning personality with a mischievous streak, a far more attractive persona when up against the more introspective Bogarde.

Jacqueline Sassard (Les Biches, 1968) is, unfortunately, left with little to do but be the plaything. There’s an ambivalence about her which might have been acceptable then, but not now, as if somehow she is, with her own sexual powers, pulling three men on a string. In his debut Michael York (Justine, 1969) shows his potential as a future leading man.

You might wonder if Vivien Merchant (Alfred the Great, 1969) was cast, in an underwritten part I might add,  because husband Harold Pinter (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) wrote the script and Nicholas Mosley, who had never acted before, put in an appearance because he wrote the original novel.

Losey, a critical fave, found it hard to attract a popular audience until The Go-Between (1971) and you can see why this picture flopped at the time despite the presence of Bogarde and Baker. And although it is slow to the point of infinite discretion, it’s not just a beautifully rendered examination of middle class mores, and a hermetically sealed society, but, way ahead of its time, and possibly not even aware of the issues raised, in exploring abuse of power, a “Me Too” expose of the academic world.

The acting and direction are first class and it will only appear self-indulgent if you don’t appreciate slow-burning pictures.

  

Alfred the Great (1969) ****

The Prince Who Wanted To Be A Priest. The King Who Didn’t Want To Fight. The Husband Who Raped His Wife.

Not exactly taglines in the grand tradition of Gladiator (1999), but a succinct analysis of a Film That Wanted To Be A Roadshow. This is almost an anti-epic, a down-n-dirty historical movie far removed from El Cid (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). And one element that has to be taken into consideration when making a historical picture set in Britain in AD 871, if you are aiming for realism, is the rain. The battles in the three movies mentioned, as with virtually every historical movie of the decade, took place in bright sunshine on hard ground, not in the rain on mud-soaked fields. Director Clive Donner lacks the genius of an Akira Kurosawa who turned rain into a glorious image in Seven Samurai (1954) or even Ridley Scott whose first battle in Gladiator took place in a snowstorm. But he does make a battleground reflect the grim reality.

Alfred (David Hemmings) was fifth in line to the throne – and just to a small region of England called Wessex – and as was common practice all set, quite happily, for a career in the priesthood. So it was not surprising, envisioning religion as a mark of civilization, and the priesthood guaranteeing an education, that he was loathe to become a warrior just because his brother King Ethelred (Alan Dobie) was a useless leader. The price of taking on the warrior’s mantle and, after his brother’s death, of ascending to the throne is that Alfred must not only cast away his priestly ambition but his chastity in order to get married to unify rival kingdoms and produce an heir. So there’s a good deal of the religious quandary of El Cid and the sexual ambivalence of Lawrence of Arabia.

So repelled by what he is forced to do, that on his wedding night Alfred rapes new wife Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome) and when the marauding Vikings win a decisive battle and the price of peace is the wife taken in hostage Alfred offers no great protestation. So Alfred is hardly an appealing character. His wife hates him so much that she conceals her pregnancy from him. If you were an Englishman you might well prefer the straightforward lustful Viking leader Guthrun (Michael York) whose men are not restrained by Christianity – “it’s a strange religion,” he mulls, “ that wars with everything your flesh and your blood cries out for” – who makes a better fist of wooing Aelswith, whom he could as easily rape, than Alfred.  

Eventually, of course, Alfred gets it together, rallies a bunch of outlaws and steals back wife and son (now four years old). However, there is no romantic reunion. Instead, he plans to imprison her for life, “the whore shall rot in silence.” Nonetheless, Alfred has acquired some tactical skills, adopting the old Roman infantry tactic of forming his troops up in a phalanx behind a wall of shields. His battlefield address is to promise ordinary people a set of laws that will give them equality with the wealthy and powerful.

Given there are no castles and this is indeed the Dark Ages as far as costume and interior design is concerned and that therefore the camera cannot, for respite, be turned onto some glorious image, Clive Donner (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1968) concentrates on character rather than scenery. There are a couple of inspired touches. For a start, in permitting various characters to offer prayers to God, he introduces a number of soliloquies which take us to the heart of troubled souls, and then he does a clever split-screen number to effect a transition. You can’t blame him for British weather and the battles are well-staged. He does show the courage of his convictions in making the film concentrate on conflicted character rather than going along the easier heroic route of underdog rallying people to a cause.

David Hemmings (Blow-Up, 1966) is both the film’s strength and weakness. He is excellent at capturing the torment, the soul divided, and the inherent arrogance as well as the preference for peace instead of war. But in terms of his leadership skills he is on a par with Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven (2005). That part was originally intended for Russell Crowe and Peter O’Toole was first choice for Alfred and you can’t help thinking both would have been a substantial improvement. On the other hand, Alfred was just 22 when he became king and for someone intent on the priesthood there would be no need for him to develop his physique or political skills. So this is a far cry from your typical Hollywood hero and in that regard the casting makes perfect sense and Hemmings a bold actor to take on such an unlikeable character.

Prunella Ransome (Man in the Wilderness, 1971) does well in her first leading role, suggesting both vulnerability and independence and while virtually imprisoned by both Alfred and Guthrun remaining principled. Michael York (Justine, 1969) was a definite rising star at this point and plays the Viking with considerably more gusto than his tendency towards passive characters would suggest.  

There’s virtually a legion of excellent supporting players in Colin Blakely (The Vengeance of She, 1968), Alan Dobie (The Comedy Man, 1964), Ian McKellen (Lords of the Rings and X-Men), Peter Vaughan (A Twist of Sand, 1968), Vivien Merchant (Accident, 1967),  Barry Evans (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1968), Sinead Cusack (Hoffman, 1970), Christopher Timothy (All Creatures Great and Small, 1978-1990) and Robin Askwith (Confessions of a Window Cleaner, 1974).

Oscar-winner James R. Webb (How the West Was Won, 1963) was an improbable name to be attached to a British screenplay. But this was a pet project he had been trying to get made since 1964. Ken Taylor (Web of Evidence, 1959) was brought in to lend a hand.

Not being a student of English history but familiar with the ways of the movie business, I am sure the picture has many historical inaccuracies, but it does present one of the most complex individuals ever to feature in a historical film of the period, when audiences preferred their heroes more black-and-white. So it is a significant achievement in the canon.

Justine (1969) **

In pre-WW2 Alexandria in the Middle East with the British on the point of departing, impoverished young poet Darley (Michael York) becomes the latest plaything for Justine (Anouk Aimee), wife to Egyptian banker Nessim (John Vernon) who encourages her multiple relationships in order  to smooth the path for his gun-running activities. Matters are complicated since Darley is having an affair with belly dancer Melissa (Anna Karina) and some of Justine’s other lovers float in and out of the picture. Political intrigue which might have anchored the movie also shifts in and out of view. In this cross-cultural hotchpotch various groups – Jews, Moslems, Coptic Christians – look to seize control.

Cluttered is the best way to describe this. Despite excellent performances by Anouk Aimee and Dirk Bogarde it is still a mess. Whatever story there was has been buried by “atmosphere” and too many characters adding too little to the overall outcome. Entangled lives end up being just that – wrapped around each other with nowhere to go. Over-emphasis is placed on the louche background, nightclubs featuring cross-dressing belly dancers and a  massive carnival. Luckily, we can’t entirely blame venerated Oscar-winning director George Cukor (My Fair Lady, 1964). He was picking up the pieces after Twentieth Century Fox fired Joseph Strick (Ulysses, 1967) but was stuck with a lot of footage that had already been shot and a screenplay that didn’t make much sense.

When you realize the movie encompasses religious prejudice, racism, same sex arrangements, incest, child prostitution, nymphomania, revolution, and police and political corruption and is hardly able to give any of these themes more than a fleeting glance you soon realize this is one of those films that is just going to go on and on until sudden conclusion rears up and all is revealed. And that would be fine since many movies of this decade meander at length and sometimes appear to be completely lacking in plot or logic, but whose flaws are more than compensated by outstanding direction or performances. Alas, even the stunning evocation of this city and period cannot save the day.  

And it would have worked if Justine had been a femme fatale of the film noir school or if the politics been more grounded, but that doesn’t occur either and although Justine does have many influential men in her clutches you could hardly say that Darley is one of them. His role is merely to act as narrator and apologist.

One last point which has little to do with the film. In this film and in the same year’s Topaz, John Vernon gives very good dramatic performances, in both cases, coincidentally, wounded emotionally. So what happened that he is mostly remembered for villainous tough-guy roles from the following decade?

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