It is hard to believe that there was a time when some of the last century's greatest artists were considered mere entertainers: Hitchcock made thrillers, Sirk made weepies, Hawks made comedies. Of course, we now know that these auteurs worked in genres that many other directors worked in, but transcended them by subversion, critique, extension, parody, genius.
There aren't so many English genres - the documentary-style war film is probably the most persistent - but in the 1950s, there were a spate of comedies that ran the gamut from glossily glamorous (GENEVIEVE etc.) to the cheerfully cheap (all those precursors to the CARRY ONs, like TWO WAY STRETCH and TOO MANY CROOKS), all of which invariably starred a small pool of exceptional players, including Alistair Sim, Terry-Thomas, Kenneth More, George Cole, John le Mesurier, Michael Hordern, etc.
Like most generic products, these films were modest, content to entertain in an unsurprising fashion, which they did. But, as with every genre, there is always a superior artist who expands its limits. Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat may not, as a directorial team, reach the dizzy heights of the Archers, but, since writing THE LADY VANISHES for Hitch in 1938, they produced a steady stream of highly literate and cinematically inventive comedies, which, while smuggling in complex and disturbing ideas, never failed the first duty of comedy, which is to be funny.
THE CONSTANT HUSBAND may not be a masterpiece, but it is extraordinarily daring. A lot of critics like to talk about disjunction and alienation implied in films, disturbances in character, crisis in identity, but it's rare to find a supposedly frothy comedy which has this as its overt subject matter. A man (Rex Harrison) wakes up dazed in a strange country with a strange language, no idea who he is, or how he got there.
With the help of a professor of psychiatry, Llewellyn (THE LADYKILLERS' Cecil Parker), he pieces together his life, and discovers that they are indeed pieces, that he is a cad, a gold-digger and a bigamist, who hit on women with the prospect of wealth, and dumped them when it fell through. He is rather appalled by his past, and is brought to court for bigamy. Yet such is his charm that all his normally intelligent wives pay for his defence, and declare they would gladly take him back.
From the opening sequence, you know you are watching something special, as Gilliat presents us with a series of fragments (a lampshade, a view out the window, a wardrobe mirror) as a dazed man comes back to consciousness. We do not see him first, but his reflection, as he looks in the mirror; the sequence is very broken in its editing to suggest the characters alienation from himself. In one hilarious sequence, he ponders the various possibilities of who he is - judge, priest, sportsman etc. - which are visualised in the mirror.
And this is what the film essentially is, a detective story, as a man searches for himself, his true identity. As such, it can be counted as an early anti-detective film, three years before VERTIGO. Unlike a normal detective, objectively analysing a crime, Harrison is personally involved; like Oedipus, the first detective, he is the answer to the question. But it is not a reassuring answer - the further Harrison searches the truth, the more diffuse that answer is - he is not one person, he is a series of endlessly proliferating identities, an abstraction made concrete in the number of wives he collects. And while this might seem to minimise women, it obliterates him until he becomes nothing. This leads to genuine, if comic, bewilderment in the court, as legal questions of identity and responsibility take on an ontological aspect.
This is a man who has so effaced himself that he can no longer live in the world, and sees prison as a refuge. I think it was Andre Breton who once suggested that Surrealism never took off in England because its desperate normality is already so surreal, and it is amazing how many predictions of the late Bunuel can be found here, as in so many English comedies of the period.
The great thing, though, is how accessible all this is: the comedy is expert and witty; the identity mystery compelling; the ending up in mysterious Wales mind-boggling. The faded 50s colour is beautiful, doubly so when you think of the monochrome uniformity of the war films that dominated the period; and the old hands in the cast are a joy, as is sexy Rexy, who cannot help (unconsciously?) repeating his past mistakes, adding another ironical layer to the film.
Marriage a la Mode
Marriage a la Mode
Charles Hathaway (Sir Rex Harrison) wakes up in West Wales with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. With the help of a Cardiff specialist, he traces his life back to his gorgeous wife and their large London house, so all seems well with the world. But more detective work starts to uncover an alarming chain of further stunning wives and a way of going on that the new Charles finds pretty unacceptable.
Uploaded By: FREEMAN
March 31, 2021 at 03:19 PM