US / 28 minutes / color / Bloom Dir & Pr: Jon N. Bloom Scr: Craig Buck Story: “The Colonel’s Lady” (1947; Creatures of Circumstance) by W. Somerset Maugham Cine: James Glennon Cast: Robert Loggia, Louise Fletcher, Shari Belafonte-Harper, Parley Baer, Lee Garlington, Vincent Guastaferro, Ed Bakey, Kirk Scott, Marcelo Tubert, Mary Woronov, Joanne Dusseau, Eric Poppick.
I’m beginning to think that W. Somerset Maugham is a sort of unsung hero of film noir. A couple of his novels gave rise to SECRET AGENT (1936) and the much later CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944), while his play The Letter (1927) spawned The Letter (1929), The LETTER (1940) and The UNFAITHFUL (1947). His story “Pearls” (1927; vt “A String of Beads”) sparked several TV pieces, including A String of Beads (1953 TVM), which I recently covered on this site. I’m sure more will turn up as this site grows.
Overnight Sensation is a loose adaptation of a Maugham story that I haven’t read. (Thanks to an unfortunate encounter with his Cakes and Ale [1930; vt The Skeleton in the Cupboard], which bored me silly when I was about 14, I’ve grossly underread Maugham, something I should rectify.) To be honest, aside from the Maugham connection, its connection to the noir ethos is tenuous at best until the final moments, when the true ironic horror of the situation is revealed. (I’m going to explain that comment, so, if you don’t like spoilers, throw your Tonka truck at the wall and stop reading now.)
George Peregrine (Loggia) is a successful commercial photographer—Paris Match, Playboy, etc.—and a self-obsessed asshole. He’s tolerant about the hobby of his supposedly mousy wife Evie (Fletcher)—writing—but most certainly doesn’t take it seriously.
Even after Evie’s novel, When Pyramids Decay as by E.K. Hamilton (her maiden name), is published and becomes successful, as does she—American Book Award nominee, The Johnny Carson Show, you name it—George remains in denial about the fact that she, not he, is the creative genius of the family. As for actually reading the novel, George is in denial about that too: he tells one of his models, Daphne (Belafonte-Harper), that the prose just makes him “want to barf.”
So Daphne tells him the plot. A mousy woman, married to an inattentive husband, is seduced by a much younger man, with whom she falls riotously in love: “Her passion is worlds beyond anything she’s ever felt,” as Daphne describes it. Everyone assumes the novel is autobiographical, and that George is the ghastly husband in question—as does George himself, after he finally summons up the intellectual muscle to read the thing.
When he finally confronts Evie she tells him the story is in its essentials true. Rage-maddened, he demands to know the identity of the younger man who, in the novel, is dead now, having perished in a car crash. Her devastating reply:
“He was you, George. He was you. The man I fell in love with twenty-five years ago. The young man who loved me. But he’s dead now.”
Briefly glimpsing his own awfulness, George promises things will get better, he’ll change, he knows he can: “I can change. Change is my middle name.” The trouble is that “is my middle name” is a catchphrase of his and, every time we’ve witnessed him use it before, it’s been bullshit on a par with a Trumpian “the best ever.” In the movie’s final shot, as the couple embrace, we see it clearly written on Evie’s face that she, too, recognizes this.
Both principals produce quite superlative performances, as does Shari Belafonte-Harper in the main supporting role, as George’s model Daphne, whose intelligence even George notices behind the picket fence of her beauty.
But those performances shouldn’t blind us to the fact that there are some nice cameos. I enjoyed Parley Baer as George’s lawyer, Harry, and most especially Eric Poppick as New York Review of Books critic Henry Dashwood. The latter, encountered by Evie and George at a publishing party held in her honor, is given some glorious lines, which he delivers with pitch-perfection:
“It’s really quite extraordinary how she has taken a sort of burlap sexuality and somehow tailored it into [a] silk gown.”
I’m sure every writer will recognize echoes of Evie’s situation; at the same time, I’m sure every honest husband will recognize a bit of himself in George: however hard we might (or might not) fight against it, we guys were most often raised in a social milieu where it was assumed husbands were the stars and wives the support acts. I’d love to think this was true only of 1950s Scotland, but I know that in reality it’s still a problem on a worldwide scale. Too many boys are reared with the notion inculcated in them that girls are inferior in all fields—writing, cricket, science, whatever—except things like cooking the supper and cleaning the lav.
By 1984, husbands were (rightly) beginning to be expected to have got past the indoctrination of their childhoods; in 1947, when Maugham first published the (jolly good) story upon which this short movie is based—where George is a stuffy British Army colonel and Evie his supposedly sweet-little-thing wife—its satirical sting must have been severe. The tale was first adapted for the screen (by Maugham himself) as one segment in the anthology movie Quartet (1948), the director of this sequence being Ken Annakin, with the leads played by Cecil Parker and Nora Swinburne.
Overnight Sensation is a comedy, but it’s a comedy with a somewhat stark underpinning. I spent much of its running time with a grin on my face, but at the same time it forced me into some self-examination. James Glennon’s cinematography is of the sort that’s both unobtrusive and, when you think to examine it, wonderfully observant. As you’ll have guessed, my admiration for the screenplay and performances knows few bounds. Overall, one to seek out.