UK / 100 minutes / color / Eaton, MGM Dir: Robert Stevens Pr: Anatole de Grunwald Scr: Karl Tunberg Story: I Thank a Fool (1958) by Audrey Erskine Lindop Cine: Harry Waxman Cast: Susan Hayward, Peter Finch, Diane Cilento, Cyril Cusack, Kieron Moore, Athene Seyler, J.G. Devlin, Brenda de Banzie.
In Liverpool, largely thanks to the efforts of obnoxious prosecutor Stephen Dane (Finch), Canadian Dr. Christine Allison (Hayward) is found guilty of manslaughter for the mercy killing, by drug overdose, of her patient and adulterous lover, Benson (uncredited). Two years later she’s released from prison and, stripped of her medical credentials, does her best to find a job—any job. Even under her phony new name, Christine Garden, she can find no takers.
She’s in despair when suddenly she receives a mysterious phonecall offering her a job as a nurse. Obediently, she goes to the designated rendezvous where she’s met by dotty Miss Chandler (Seyler)—Aunt Heather—who erratically drives her out of town to meet her new employer . . . who proves to be Stephen Dane, the man who got her sent down.
Christine’s patient is Stephen’s wife Liane (Cilento), who’s been suffering mental difficulties—schizophrenia, Christine eventually concludes—ever since she was involved in a terrible car crash, in which her father died, near her Irish hometown of Caragh. Liane seems to be getting iller and iller, whatever Christine tries to do, and it’s evident that most of the people involved—Christine herself excepted but including the Danes’s studly Irish stableboy Roscoe (Moore), who’s possibly Liane’s lover—are often lying through their teeth about what’s going on.
For most of the movie we’re convinced that Stephen, with the connivance of Aunt Heather, is actively godgaming Christine with the aim of bumping Liane off with a medical overdose, then letting the obvious suspect take the fall. Why else, after all, would Stephen have gone to such efforts to track down Christine and give her this job? (It’s a question that’s never in fact answered.) It becomes evident that, far from being dead, Liane’s horse-dealer father, Captain James Ferris (Cusack), is very much alive; indeed he called briefly by the house one day and chats with Christine, who’s moderately impressed by him.
Finally Christine becomes so discomfited by all the obvious deceit that she resolves to take Liane away, back to Liane’s stately home near Caragh where she can be with her father, whom she clearly regards as a marvelous man.
In Ireland Christine finds—just as Stephen told her but quite the opposite of the glowing descriptions offered by Liane and Ferris—that the Caragh castle is a broken down old dump occupied by a broken down old drunk, Ferris, and his floozy du jour. Stephen, who has followed, takes Christine and Liane to a local hotel preparatory to leaving for home in the morning; that night, however, Liane dies of an overdose. It doesn’t take the shrewd Irish coroner, Sean Conson (Devlin), too long to dig up Christine’s past and to start asking questions . . .
I Thank a Fool is one of those movies that, through falling just short of being a masterpiece, is not a near-masterpiece but a near-fiasco. The dialogue is oddly structured: if most movie dialogue can trace its ancestry to the loose, colloquial fluency of genre fiction, the screenplay here seems to belong more to the tradition of literary fiction. Lines like “The evenings in this place are longer than anywhere else in the world” and, spoken in Ireland by the Irish coroner, “There isn’t much to stimulate [the mind] around here, I’m afraid—hence the national addiction to drinking good whiskey and writing bad poetry” would be wonderful if found in a novel (for all I know they may be quotes from Lindop’s original), but they sit a little uneasily within the format of a thriller. (I should add that I myself actually like this elegance of language, and feel it adds to rather than detracts from the movie. But I have unusual tastes.)
Again, while Waxman’s cinematography is for the most part spectacularly good—a brief sequence in which Liane, disintegrating on being confronted by her father’s true nature, throws an ornament at a mirror, the camera’s viewpoint being from behind the mirror’s surface, is as fine as you’ll find anywhere—it’s every now and then critically wounded by the most awful matteing: whenever people get into a car the heart sinks, because we know we’re going to be treated to passing landscapes that not just are obviously matted in but also constantly shift in color values, presumably through having been shot piecemeal at different times of day, then stitched together. And yet, moments later, we find ourselves gasping at the skill with which Waxman creates a 3D illusion out of a panorama of Liverpool’s rooftops, or pans into stairways in such a way as to make their shapes seem to dance.
A beautifully crafted Harry Waxman sequence of a hysterical Liane shattering a mirror.
And then there are the accents. It took this viewer a while to work out the accent Cilento was using; it was only several minutes after her first appearance, when Ireland was mentioned, that things clicked. Even thereafter, it seemed as if she were speaking with the accent of the Mediterranean branch of the family. Her father James, by contrast, has no apparent Irish accent at all. The various Liverpudlians with whom Christine interacts in the earlier parts of the movie seem likewise devoid of the accents you’d expect: most sound like alumnae of Cheltenham Girls’ College.
Did I mention the unexplained red herrings? At breakfast after Christine was woken in the night by the phone ringing, an event everyone else says never happened, Stephen sports a scratch across his lip. Where did it come from? Who gave it to him? Did he try to bite the phone’s head off? We never find out. And the movie’s ending? Oh, heavens, let me not wake up in the middle of the night with a start, remembering the ending.
Yet, for all these flaws, this curate’s egg of a movie is worth watching—not just to see how a near-miss can be worse than a cynical, mediocre journeyman outing but because of all its undoubted strengths. Hayward moves through her part as if wishing she were Deborah Kerr in a roughly contemporary but enormously better movie, The Innocents (1961), Finch was never set to rival Olivier, and Cilento, as noted, loses her fight with her accent, yet Cusack delivers a bravura performance as the awful, perhaps sexually abusing father, and a stack of good performances lurk further down the cast list: comedienne Miriam Karlin makes a wonderful tart trying to console Christine on the way to prison; Peter Sallis delivers, within a matter of seconds, a near-definitive depiction of a scuzzy doctor whose patients are mainly female and pay him in either cash or kind, know what I mean? (“I like redheads,” he adds to Christine, who for some reason declines his employment offer.) Another actor known primarily for comedy, Richard Wattis, is again surprisingly good as sleazebag lawyer Dickie Ebblington. Peter Vaughan turns up briefly as a cop. Seyler is wonderful as the eccentric and on occasion potentially sinister tweedy old lady. And so on.
In her day, Lindop was a hugely popular novelist in the UK; she seems to have been largely forgotten today. She wrote thrillers, gothics, historical novels and more. Among her best-known novels were The Singer Not the Song (1953), a Graham Greene-style exploration of morality, The Way to the Lantern (1961), set during the French Revolution, and I Start Counting (1966), a psychosexual thriller that was controversial in its time because of its teenage protagonist. It’s about time for a Lindop revival.
UPDATE: There’s an excellent analysis of both book and movie at Tipping My Fedora; it appears that, in not having read Lindop’s novel, I haven’t missed much! That website, Tipping My Fedora, is strongly recommended, by the way: lots of good stuff.
On Amazon.com: I Thank a Fool