The Ceremony (1963) ***

Actors taking the hyphenated route were quite a fad in the 1960s. Mostly, primarily for tax purposes, they turned themselves into actor-producers. But some went all-out for artistic glory, saddling themselves with the task of directing the movies in which they starred, by this point in the decade John Wayne (The Alamo, 1960) and Marlon Brando (One-Eyed Jacks, 1961) the most celebrated examples. Despite lacking that pair’s box office pulling power, Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, 1960) threw his hat into the ring with this often compelling, atmospheric, but occasionally pretentious, offering.

Irishman Sean McKenna (Laurence Harvey) is in prison in Tangiers – “a city of money” – for one crime he did commit (bank robbery) and one he did not (shooting a guard dead during the robbery). Although facing an imminent death penalty for the murder, he refuses to name the killer. Local prosecutor Le Coq (Ross Martin)  is intent on making him an example while the prison warden (John Ireland) pleads for clemency, especially as it is suspected the inmate is innocent.

Astonishing to imagine now but this went out on general release in Britain
as the lead film in a double bill with “Lilies of the Field.”

Meanwhile, McKenna’s girlfriend Catherine (Sarah Miles) and his brother Dominic (Robert Walker Jr) plan an audacious escape. The brother is not altogether altruistic. His price is half the hidden loot and Catherine, that part of the deal sealed when she submits to sex with him.

Dominic gains entry to the prison disguised as a priest, swapping clothes with his brother, so that when sirens sound to announce potential intrusion by Dominic’s sidekick Nicky (Lee Patterson), Sean can simply walk out unharmed. However, when Seans learns of the price to be paid he doesn’t thank Catherine for her noble sacrifice but turns against both. Dominic, now on the run and chased by the police, is virtually burned alive when his car explodes.

My apologies but in order to properly discuss this picture I’m going to have to take you through to the end. So SPOILER ALERT.

Dominic is so badly burnt in fact that he is unrecognizable and the police (decades before DNA would disprove such an assumption) believe he is actually his brother. Dominic is faced with  “the ceremony” – an ironic tittle if ever there was one – in which he is strapped to a wooden throne and shot by firing squad. Despite his brother’s betrayal, and the fact that his death would set Sean free, Sean decides it would better to “prevent the unjust killing of an innocent man” and gives himself up, too late, as it happens, to spare Dominic, but allowing Sean, in a Pieta-style gesture, to carry the corpse into the prison courtyard and announce “my brother died for me.”

Not quite the ending you would expect, not least because religious allegory has been distinctly missing from the proceedings unless you count the somewhat dotty Father O’Brian (Jack MacGowran) who spends most of his time delivering soliloquies unless you count cars, cows and mules as potential conversationalists.

You get the impression the ending was what attracted the director to the tale, and though it is quite a stunning climax, cinematically as well as thematically, Harvey has, like so many debutants, determined to make a big point. “There’s a little bit of God in everyone,” pronounces Fr O’Brian with a saintly air, which would beg the question of when the Good Lord channelled his inner bank-robber.

For all the film’s flaws there are several pluses. The atmosphere “of chilly hell” (to steal a quote about another book) is well done, footsteps echo off stone floors and cobbles, nobody in this black-and-white feature is seen without a dose of noir lighting, resulting in long shadows and aerial shots of tiny figures swarming. While everyone else over-acts for no apparent reason except directorial inexperience, when Sarah Miles (Term of Trial, 1962) overacts, lips constantly a-quiver, words delivered in gasps, she has every right to, since her character has succumbed to the most evil kind of temptation for the best sort of reason.

The only other interesting character, beyond the stock ones populating the prison, is lonely landlord Ramades (Carlos Casaravilla) who has outlived his four lives and whose rooms abut the prison and where Catherine takes refuge while the escape is going on. He senses her tension, but mistakes the cause, assuming she is here to wait for the shots announcing her husband’s death as a means of “sharing his punishment,” quite a piece of psychological insight for an ordinary guy. And there’s also a creepiness about the whole scene, a sense that she might have to give herself to him as well in order to prevent him wandering too far from the bedroom where he might discover Dominic putting into action a crucial part of the escape plan.

Among the flaws: no real tension, especially in terms of the escape, not enough directorial understanding that much more could be gained from greater focus on Catherine’s dilemma, the obvious lack of a body in the burning car, the fact that the Irishman shows no signs of an Irish accent, the priest’s scenes which provoke hilarity more than reverence, and as much as it is a strength the ending appears out of nowhere.

Robert Walker Jr (The Happening, 1967) is too much of a lightweight for this role, but John Ireland (55 Days at Peking, 1963) and Ross Martin (Experiment in Terror, 1962) excel. Look out for Fernando Rey (The French Connection, 1970).

Valiant effort by Harvey who only directed one other time, on his last film Welcome to Arrow Beach / Yellow-Head Summer (1973), plus a stint filling in for Anthony Mann who died during the filming of A Dandy in Aspic (1968). For The Ceremony Harvey was a quadruple hyphenate –  actor-producer-writer-director – for he also contributed enough dialogue to claim a screen credit along with Ben Barzman (The Blue Max, 1966) who adapted the novel by Frederic Grendel.

Term of Trial (1962) ***

Notable for the debuts of Sarah Miles (Ryan’s Daughter, 1970) and Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) and an ending that even in those misogynistic times was wince-inducing. The halcyon era of dull English schoolteachers being celebrated (Goodbye, Mr Chips, 1939) or finding redemption or even just managing to overcome pupil hostility (The Browning Version, 1951) were long gone, replaced by a more realistic view of the casual warfare endemic in education establishments, not quite in The Blackboard Jungle (1956) vein but running it close, with bullying, sexual abuse and ridicule running riot.

Self-pitying Graham Weir (Laurence Olivier) has failed to achieve his ambitions in part due to alcoholism, in part to antipathy to his conscientious objection during World War Two. And although he has a sexy French wife Anna (Simone Signoret) in the days when any Frenchwoman was deemed a goddess, she is embittered that the future he promised has not materialized. Like To Sir, with Love (1967) his classroom is filled with no-hopers so that he responds to the meek and innocent wishing for educational betterment.  

Weir’s only defence against endless indignity is a stiff upper lip and slugs of whisky. His lack of character contrasts with a young lad who takes revenge against constantly being chucked out of his house by his mother’s lover (Derren Nesbitt) by blowing up the man’s sports car.  

Spanning the twin cultures of religion and the razor, one falling out of favor, the other holding violent sway, opportunity to rise above kitchen-sink England lies with the self-confident such as thug Mitchell (Terence Stamp) who smokes in class, gives the teachers lip, takes photographs of girls in their underwear in the toilets, physically threatens classmates and when his target is bigger gets older men to give him a good thumping.  

A somewhat unlikely development is an end-of-term trip to Paris where the infatuated Shirley (Sarah Miles), who the good-hearted Weir has been giving free private tuition, ends up in the teacher’s bedroom and later accuses him of abuse. The impending court case and threat of imprisonment scupper Weir’s chances of promotion, make him consider suicide, and Anna to leave him.

The court scenes allow a number of famous character actors a moment of acting glory. Laurence Olivier (Bunny Lake Is Missing, 1965) must in part have been attracted to the role by a terrific court monologue. The movie is very downbeat in a country universally known never to enjoy an ounce of sunshine justifying the black-and-white movie rendition. If there is liveliness in the streets, cinemas, shops, it never translates into any of the main adult characters, all determined to uphold ancient values and endure constricted lives.

Exploiting audience expectation for verbal fireworks, the tension in Laurence Olivier’s finely judged performance comes from his untypical, unshowy delivery. You can almost hear him grinding his teeth. Simone Signoret (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) also acts against the grain, battening down her inherent sexuality, and her very presence speaks of lost hope, the fact that she was once attracted to Weir indicating he was once a very different prospect.

Sarah Miles excels as the wannabe seducer, that hesitant voice that would become her hallmark, struggling here to turn innocence into lure, expressing her adoration in heart-breaking simplicity, and yet aware that to catch Weir would require more than just the submission a guy like Mitchell requires. While hers is a stunning debut, I’m at a loss to see what marked out Terence Stamp’s typical surly teenager for speedier stardom.     

Oscar-winner Hugh Griffiths (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962) is the pick of the supporting roles. A remarkable scene-stealer, a shift of his head, a flicker of his eyelashes is all he needs while sitting in the background to attract the camera from another character in the foreground. Look out for Barbara Ferris (Interlude, 1968), Derren Nesbit (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), Allan Cuthbertson (The 7th Dawn, 1964), Roland Culver (Thunderball, 1965) and Thora Hird (television’s Last of the Summer Wine, 1986-2003).  

Surprisingly un-stagey direction from Peter Glenville (Becket, 1964) who was far better known as a theater director in London and Broadway. Probably in those days if you were setting a movie outside sophisticated London you had to present a gloomy version of Britain so you can’t really blame him for that and Olivier was hardly a major box office attraction so a budget trimmed of color would be a requisite. Although the older characters display grim determination, the younger ones have not had the spirit knocked out of them in the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) manner and the location shots reveal a buzzy atmosphere.

Glenville also wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by James Barlow.

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