Question of Adultery, A (1958)

vt The Case of Mrs. Loring
UK / 86 minutes / bw / Flamingo, Raystro, Eros Dir: Don Chaffey Pr: Raymond Stross Scr: Anne Edwards, Denis Freeman Story: A Breach of Marriage (1948 play) by Dan Sutherland Cine: Stephen Dade Cast: Julie London, Anthony Steel, Donald Houston, Anton Diffring, Andrew Cruickshank, Frank Thring, Conrad Phillips, Kynaston Reeves, Arthur Gomez, Georgina Cookson, Richard Caldicot, John Rae, Mary Mackenzie, John Fabian, Rodney Burke, Philip Holles, Michael Logan, Sam Kydd, John Charlesworth, Max Brimmel, Van Boolen.

Question of Adultery - 1 Mary in Court

Mary (Julie London) in court.

A courtroom drama adapted from a play, with a long flashback as its centerpiece giving the backstory that has led the protagonists to the court.

UK racing car driver Mark Loring (Steel), plagued by anger-management issues and general juvenility, is obsessively jealous of his US wife Mary (London), who gave up her successful singing career to be his bride. She is cordially loathed by Mark’s tycoon father, Sir John Loring (Sydney), in large part because Sir John’s wife, who walked out not long after Mark was born, was likewise a US chanteuse, and in perhaps even larger part because Sir John wants to possess his son entirely; as Mary tells the old man early on:

Mark? Your property, that’s all Mark is to you. Just a piece of property, like your ships or your factories. And you try to buy him from me like a piece of real estate. Well, I’m not selling. You haven’t got enough love to buy him with.

At the Iberian Grand Prix, which Mark wins, he’s incensed when one of the mechanics, Mario Fiorenzo (a hopelessly miscast Phillips), takes a very obvious shine to her. That evening at the hotel, Mario engineers a casual meeting in the bar with her; she cleverly defuses the situation when Mark turns up. But it’s not so easy when the couple encounter in the restaurant some old friends of Sir John’s, Mrs. Pat Duncan (Cookson) and her husband (Caldicot); the latter stares into Mary’s cleavage as if at a distant view of Paradise. When the restaurant’s minstrels and audience pressurize Mary into singing “her song”—”My Strange Affair”—Mark’s jealousy becomes incandescent. Mary, unable to stand it any longer, runs out of the restaurant and down to the beach; Mark follows and, there on the sand, “forces himself upon her.” There’s some interesting crosscutting between the ongoing flamenco performance at the hotel and the scene on the beach, underscoring in part the passion of the deed but more its violence.

Ever one to apologize after having committed whatever’s his latest unforgivable act, he apologizes the next morning and she tells him there’s nothing to forgive. It’s at this point, dear reader, that you may feel impelled to beat your DVD player repeatedly against the floor. Much later in the movie, Mary’s counsel, Mr. Jacobus (Houston, in far more dynamic form than usual), spells out that this episode, while representing something that Mark was legally, as Mary’s husband, “entitled” to do—a point Mark stresses petulantly from the witness box—is really a form of rape. This was actually controversial material for the day; there’s plenty that’s wrong with this movie but it has to be given credit for its willingness to challenge some fairly vile but then prevalent assumptions.

Back to Spain. As they drive through the countryside the next day, Mary tells her husband that she’s expecting a baby. His response? “Ours, I hope.” Not unreasonably, she belts him one . . . and the next they know they’ve gone off the road. They’re rescued by a peasant (Boolen), who calls the emergency services. In hospital, Mary learns that she’s lost the baby and that Mark has been rendered sterile. (I’ve tried not to think too hard about the science here. It’s as if the crash gave Mark a sort of inadvertent vasectomy. He’s still perfectly, well, capable, but he can’t actually father a child. I suppose it’s theoretically possible that two slivers of glass or metal might have caught his two vasa deferentia just right.)

Question of Adultery - 2 Mark & Sir John after the crash

Mark (Anthony Steel) and his father Sir John (Basil Sydney) after the fateful accident.

Back at home in jolly old England, Mary persuades Mark that their best option, since neither Mark nor his ghastly father will tolerate the notion of adoption, is artificial insemination. Off the couple go to the Alpine clinic of Dr. Cameron (Cruickshank) and his loyal nurse Jane Parsons (Mackenzie). There Mark continues to act like a toddler in severe need of a spanking, but Cameron’s procedure is successful and Mary is delighted. Mark pouts and sulks but, as she has earlier told him: “What are you trying to prove? That you’re a man? You may have to prove it to your father but you don’t have to prove it to me.”

Question of Adultery - 4 Dr. Cameron at work

Dr. Cameron (Andrew Cruickshank) at work.

There follows another plotting oddity. Having lost her first baby to a traumatic accident, Mary decides to celebrate by going out for some steep downhill skiing, an activity that surely might lead to an . . . and, yes, she does indeed have an accident, tumbling off her skis and falling a long way downhill, twisting an ankle in the process. Luckily reclusive local writer Carl Dieter (Diffring) comes across her; he helps her to his nearby chalet, dries her clothing and, despite occasionally tripping over his tongue, behaves like the perfect gentleman as they face the reality that they’re trapped for a few hours until a sudden blizzard dies down. This sequence is very nicely handled. Carl is clearly sideswiped when he catches a glimpse in a mirror of Mary as she’s changing her wet things for his pajamas, and even more so as she sits in front of her fire in said pajamas, yet, while making it plain that he’s there if she wants him, he makes not a single pushy remark.

His reward is that Mark arrives out of the night and beats him up.

Question of Adultery - 3a Why Carl looks like . . .

Why Carl looks like . . .

Question of Adultery - 3b . . . this

. . . this.

The next day Mark runs off home to Daddy. Over the next few weeks, as Cameron tends to Mary’s early pregnancy, Mary and Carl become great friends. And then the summons arrives for all three of them to attend Mark’s divorce proceedings against Mary in London, Carl being named as co-respondent.

The courtroom drama, when it happens, is a struggle between reason and prejudice. At one point the barrister retained by Sir John, Mr. Stanley (Thring), says: “I do not use the [legal] authorities as reference or substantiation in our case. Instead, I use the Bible.” Elsewhere he states: “I maintain that men like Dr. Cameron are striking at the very heart of our civilization, conjuring up these phantom powers to fill the world with test-tube babies.” His claim is that Mary’s acceptance of artificial insemination, even though done with the full consent of her husband, is an act of adultery. We are left to make a moral contrast between this claim and the claim that Mark’s act of marital rape was a matter of legal entitlement.

Fighting in Mary’s corner is her own counsel, Mr. Jacobus. At times when she seems to vacillate he pushes her into greater strength: She has claimed that she’s fighting the divorce because she doesn’t want her “child branded ‘father unknown'” and yet, after a tough cross-examination, she wants to pack it in. Jacobus refuses: “Does it really matter what you care, Mrs. Loring? Have you the right to deliberately bastardize your child?” Carl Dieter is in her corner too: when she comes out with the line that “It’s not [Mark] I’m fighting, Carl. It’s his father,” Carl makes it plain both that he loves her and that he’ll back her whatever she decides.

Question of Adultery - 6 Jacobus urges Mary to fight on

Mary’s counsel, Mr. Jacobus (Donald Houston), urges her to fight on when she’s ready to throw in the towel.

The biggest puzzle of this movie is why Mary shouldn’t welcome Mark’s suit for divorce with whoops of glee and a party for all her friends. To call his behavior adolescent, insufferable and obnoxious is to do those adjectives a great disservice; given the choice between this ethical and intellectual pygmy (who, just to add to things, has raped her) and the kindly Carl Dieter—or just freedom from Mark—it’s hard to know why she perseveres as she does. Perhaps the lesson is supposed to be the same as that of the Patient Griselde in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, except that Chaucer’s story, and the attitudes therein, predated A Question of Adultery by something over half a millennium.

London is surprisingly good as the spouse who’s steadfast in her devotion even while unwittingly acting as a man-magnet. She seems unaware that it’s solely through a superhuman effort that Carl is able to resist her charms while she’s swanning around in his oversize pajamas. Even Mr. Duncan, despite his advanced years, is as entranced as any teenaged male might be. In that small sense alone, then, Mark’s jealousy might have some foundation. Yet Mary makes it perfectly obvious that he’s the only man she’s interested in. It’s Mark, in fact, who’s the true betrayer of their marriage in that he’s incapable of trusting her.

Thring’s quite excellent as Sir John’s (and supposedly Mark’s) odious counsel in the divorce trial; only someone with a truly stony heart could fail to feel the urge to wring his neck as he exploits the court rules in his attempts to smear Mary’s behavior: “Answer just yes or no” he insists to such questions as whether or not Mary knows the identity of her child’s father. Houston, more usually known for the blandness of his playing in romantic roles, is here commendably fiery as Mary’s counsel.

Question of Adultery - 5 Mr Stanley

Bible-thumping barrister Mr. Stanley (Frank Thring) wastes no opportunity to besmirch Mary’s reputation, even though aware of her innocence.

Cruickshank, as Dr. Cameron, presumably was unaware of the role he’d take just a few years later in the hugely popular BBC TV series Dr. Finlay’s Casebook, based on characters created by A.J. Cronin, which ran from 1962 until 1971. In that series he was not a fertility specialist in the Swiss Alps but an ageing Scottish rural GP, yet the name was the same: Cameron.

The song “My Strange Affair” was written by Bobby Troup. The year after this movie was released, Troup would become London’s second husband, her first having been Jack Webb, best known for the movie DRAGNET (1954) and its various related radio and TV series. The couple would remain married for the four decades until Troup’s death; London died a matter of months after him.

The excellent Sam Kydd has a small-bordering-on-tiny role here as a court reporter.

20 thoughts on “Question of Adultery, A (1958)

    • It’s certainly well worth a watch if you do. I tend to forget how effective an actor London could be (I’ve never been a great fan of her singing), and in places here she’s surprisingly sultry.

    • I think you’re being a tad harsh on it. Some of the characters have astonishingly objectionable attitudes, true, but the movie as a whole has some merit.

    • Yes, I know: even for the era her Patient Griselda-style acquiescence is a good stride or two beyond credibility, especially since otherwise she’s portrayed as an intelligent, free-thinking woman. But suspend that particular bit of disbelief and the movie’s certainly well worth a watch.

    • I would watch this just for Julie London alone.

      Yes, as I noted above to Col, it’s far too easy to forget how good an actress she was. Hope you enjoy the movie when you get to it!

  1. This sounds weirdly familiar to the later Hammer movie THE FULL TREATMENT (aka STOP ME BEFORE I KILL), which Val Guest made partly on location in France with Ronald Lewis as a racing car driver obsessively jealous of his wife. Sounds a bit turgid this one John, but I do like a courtroom drama – thanks!.

    • I’d forgotten all about that movie but, yes, you’re perfectly correct: the setup’s very similar, although subsequently the stories diverge considerably. A Question of Adultery based on a 1948 play, came out the year before the novel upon which The Full Treatment was based, so there’s no doubt as to which has precedence. I wonder if it was just coincidence or if Ronald Scott Thorn and Val Guest (who coscripted the later movie based on Thorn’s novel) liked the setup in A Question of Adultery but thought they could do something better/more plausible (sort of!) with it?

  2. This might be a case of art imitating life. According to Carl Steward’s essay ‘Her Name Was Julie: Sultry, Smoky Songstress of Noir’s Wee Hours’, Jack Webb tried to convince her to give up her music career during their marriage. “He didn’t want me working,” she said to Jim Bawden in an interview.

      • The essay appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Noir City and was reprinted in their 2013 Annual. Every fan of noir cinema should subscribe to this magazine. It’s the best online film magazine of any kind.

    • How extraordinarily kind of you — very many thanks indeed. I’d actually ordered the annual through my library, but this is very much better (even assuming the library’s actually able to get it for me).

      Um, how did you find my e-address? Just curious.

      Again, many thanks! I’m touched by your kindness.

  3. So glad you got it. The annuals are only reprints of the articles, well-produced on glossy paper but entirely in black-and-white, so the beauty of the posters is lost. Each issue is usually better than the last, though the latest dealt mainly with comics, so it’s not typical. It’s no trouble for me to send you other issues if you like.

    How did I get your e-address? I went to your John Grant/Paul Barnett website and clicked on ‘Contact’, so I guess I won’t be winning the Philip Marlowe Award for Detection any time soon. So, you have two names, and you moved to Noo Joisey. Is there something we should know? If it’s a Witness Protection Program, it isn’t working!

    • Ha! As soon as I’d asked the question, I realized the likely answer. I very rarely go to my website, which my wife kindly maintains for me, so I tend to forget its existence.

      It’s no trouble for me to send you other issues if you like.

      That’s kind, but I ought to invest in them myself!

  4. Pingback: My Death is a Mockery (1952) | Noirish

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