Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment / Morgan! (1966) ***

While Hollywood was capable of dealing with mental illness head-on in pictures like Frank Perry’s David and Lisa (1962), Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), the British were more inclined to take an alternative approach. The titular characters of Billy Liar (1963) and this film dealt with awkward reality by creating a fantasy world.   

Morgan, played by David Warner in his first starring role, is a failed artist and virulent Communist who cannot come to terms with being divorced by rich Vanessa Redgrave who is planning to marry businessman Robert Stephens. Warner forces his way back into his wife’s house and attempts to win her back with nothing stronger than whimsicality and when that fails resorts to kidnap. And it is clear that she shares his fancy for furry animals, responding to his chest-pounding gorilla impression with tiny pats of her own chest. For a slim guy, Warner makes a believable stab at a gorilla, shoulders hunched up under his jacket, chest stuck out. And he has an animal’s sense of smell – detecting his rival’s hair oil.  

But Vanessa Redgrave, in her second film and her first starring role, steals the picture, winning her first Oscar nomination (in the same year as sister Lynn for Georgy Girl). She is made of gossamer. Still attracted to a man she knows will only bring her pain, she is far from your normal leading lady. There is a touch of the Audrey Hepburn in her ethereality but she portrays a completely genuine soul, not a manufactured screen personality.

The tone of the film is surreal. Had David Attenborough been a big name then you could have cited him as one of director Karel Reisz’s influences, such was his predilection for inserting wildlife into the proceedings, not just primates but giraffes, a hippo, a peacock and a variety of other creatures. Some are comments on Morgan’s state of mind but after a while it becomes monotonous. The film is clearly intentionally all over the place, the class struggle also taking central stage, but it’s hard work for the viewer.

Having said that, towards the end of the picture there is an extraordinary image – possibly stolen from the opening of La Dolce Vita – of Warner in a straitjacket hanging from a crane. Had that been the film’s starting point, it might have dealt more demonstrably with the subject matter.  The whimsy is all very well and Redgrave is delightful and while Warner is clearly on a mental descent the focus on external animals does little to illuminate his internal struggle. Also, having said that, Warner is imminently watchable. He has an intensity that is hard to ignore and usually is cast with that in mind but here his vulnerability, his inability to grasp that he is living in a different reality, is very touching. Even when his imagination is at its most vivid – such as when Redgrave appears at the end supposedly bearing his child – you are partly convinced that this may actually be true. I would have preferred less of the animal imagery and more of Warner’s true reaction to the world around him. It’s a case of performances spoiled by over-direction.

Setting aside the director’s indulgence, the film is remarkable in one other way. It was almost revolutionary to find a British picture that, despite Warner’s working-class agitation, is effectively about joie de vivre as opposed to the more traditional British stiff upper lip, that inbred stoicism afflicting the entire nation regardless of class status. While Lawrence of Arabia (1962) represented an exhibition of flamboyance, again not a British trait, and the truculent Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) was determined to enjoy life to excess, Warner’s character epitomizes a desire to be free of normal cares in order to live life to the full.

Given the Warner would later be more famous buttoned-down roles – and that, in contrast, Redgrave would later portray another famous flamboyant in Isadora (1968) – it is surprising that this fun aspect of Warner’s screen persona was not called upon more often.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Blow-Up (1966)***

Movies can break all sorts of rules but they can’t cheat.

A film has to stick to an internal logic. For example, it can’t portray a photographer so obsessed with his calling that he even takes a camera with him to an antique shop and starts shooting off roll and after roll capturing the area’s rundown streets but then the one time he really could do with a camera – to prove there is a corpse at his feet – he is somewhat remiss. Especially when the movie turns on that plot point.

Setting aside what’s a somewhat contrived snapshot of “Swinging London” there’s a lot to admire here. The absence of music for one thing. Most of the movie runs without musical accompaniment, a bold move since so often we rely on the soundtrack to provide guidance for a scene or an overlay for the entire film. Here, Antonioni makes us falls back on our own interpretation.

David Hemmings, all mop-top and intense stare, is a high-flying high-living fashion photographer in the David Bailey mold (casual sex with wannabe models a perk) who turns investigator on being confronted in a park by Vanessa Redgrave after taking snaps she wants back. Tension is sustained by her sudden appearance at his studio, willing to pay with her body for the return of the photos, and then by Hemmings’ careful, photo-by-photo blow-up-by-blow-up analysis that slowly comes closer to the truth.

Everything in his world is judged through a lens, as if he can capture elusive truths, and he has aspirations to being more than a mere fashion adjunct, having spent time taking portraits of down-and-outs. He judges Redgrave as he would a model, she has a good stance and sitting posture. Even by the standards of the permissive society, he is a bit of sexual predator, taking advantage of two giggly model wannabes.

But the photography scenes are well done and Antonioni captures the intimacy between model and photographer that create the best images. If you can get past the cheat and the deliberate obtuseness this creates – and the tsunami of artistic interpretations it inspired about the director’s intent – then it remains intriguing.

This isn’t Hemmings’ greatest work – Fragment of Fear is much better – but it certainly provided him with a marketable movie persona. Redgrave is excellent as the nervy woman willing to do what is required and the movie might have worked better had she had been allocated more screen time and their duel had continued through other scenes. But then that would have been Hitchcock and not Antonioni.   I’d have given it a higher score except for the cheat.

Behind the Scenes: Isadora (1968)

“Only Vanessa Redgrave could portray the full range of emotions in the tour de force title role performance of Isadora,” runs the opening line to the sumptuous 52-page program (cover shown above) that accompanied the film.

Programs like this were part of the package for a movie intended for roadshow. I’ve no idea how many Universal printed but most were shredded since after an initial launch in Los Angeles, the movie was not shown in roadshow in America (though it was overseas). It was also drastically cut from 168 minutes to 138 minutes.

Redgrave had been on the cusp of major stardom after an Oscar nomination for Morgan!(1966) and box office breakout Blow Up (1966) but under-performing Warner Brothers’ musical roadshow Camelot (1967) and flops Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) had put a dent in her surge to the top of the Hollywood tree.

Directed by Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960, and Morgan!), the movie was filmed entirely on location – 72 of them – for six months. Main locations in Britain were Oldway Mansion in Devon and the British Museum.

Different rooms and aspects of South Lodge mansion in London, once owned by the Royces of Rolls-Royce fame, provided backdrops for scenes set in Moscow, Berlin, New York, Chicago and Boston. Yugloslavia doubled up for France and Russia, the Berlin Opera house represented by National Theatre in Rijeka, and the resort of Opatija on the Adriatic standing in for Nice.

The film was produced by the Hakim brothers, better known for arthouse picture like Purple Noon (1960) and Belle de Jour (1967). Jason Robards, on the first of two European excursions that year (the other being Once upon a Time in the West), played one of her many lovers. According to Robards, the art of acting “is an intuitive process; any actor can prepare only so much for any given part and the rest must come from a deep resource within him.” Although Redgrave received an Oscar nomination, the movie made a huge loss.

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