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Forgotten by Fox: Am I Blue?

A suicidal woman in love with a younger man tries to make it through a day in Anatole Litvak's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play.
David Cairns
As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
There are some films where, lacking access to one's own personal cinematheque, one has to speculate. For example, some of Fox's fifties films, shot in CinemaScope as all movies at that studio had to be, have never been made available in widescreen formats. Richard Fleischer was one the directors who adapted zestfully to that format (he was good at 3D, too), so it's a crying shame that Crack in the Mirror (1960) seems to exist only in blurry, 4:3 TV recordings. His other Orson Welles film, Compulsion (1959), is a cracker.
Anatole Litvak's The Deep Blue Sea (1955) is equally unseeable. Watching the smudgy, cropped atrocity available on YouTube, which switches abruptly back and forth between a blue and red tint as if one were watching through anaglyphic specs, closing each eye in turn, one can only extrapolate, from such clues have survived the telecine process, as to what the film is really like.
I've never quite seen the point of filming Terence Rattigan's plays. Eventually, I had to grudgingly admit that he was a brilliant writer, in the way he built his dramatic jigsaws within the traditional stage's confines. You can admire this in faithful adaptations like Mamet's film of The Winslow Boy (1999), or Asquith's The Browning Version (1951). But it's a skill that's curiously pointless when applied to film, which can go anywhere, and has no confines. Freed of this spacial unity, Rattigan's original screenplays, for instance The Sound Barrier (1952), seem to suffer a kind of fatal diffusion.
But there must be a solution, right? The plays are good, some kind of effective adaptation must be achievable. Does the YouTube scrap, with half the image lopped off and the remainder a blotchy and discolored mess, offer any clues as to whether Litvak succeeded?
Well, having recently rewatched The Snake Pit (1948) to commemorate Olivia de Havilland's passing, I had admired the way Litvak arranged his soundtrack into a rhythmic, pulsing, often startling symphony, using the babble of psycho ward inmates as sound more than dialogue. Being unable to see his compositions in The Deep Blue Sea, I opened my ears and was able to appreciate the musical flow he got from Rattigan's dialogue. And as a Brit, I got a kick out of seeing actors like Eric Portman (familiar from Powell & Pressburger's films) rub shoulders with Dandy Nichols (from TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part and The Bed Sitting Room). Portman's dry, throaty delivery is thrilling (has the art of acting lost or gained by the decline in cigarette-smoking? Our actors live longer but sound less like gods): "Seems to me her mind is perfectly sound." "How could it be sound, when she tried to kill herself?" "She wanted to die, I gather."
The "she" is played by Vivien Leigh, and upon recovering from her overdose-and-gas suicide attempt she starts making up a story about how it was an accident: we surmise that the film will explore the truth. Even her cover story amplifies rather than conceals her melancholy: she had been to the cinema on her own, she says.
It's a story of amour fou: Rattigan, who was gay, based it somewhat on his own experiences but made his protagonist a married woman who leaves her stuffy judge husband (Emlyn Williams) for an alcoholic flier (Kenneth More, reprising his stage role), who is predestined to let her down. The suicide attempt sets up the stakes: the film, moving in and out of flashback as did the play, covers a single day.
The structure allows Rattigan to bring his characters on in a very particular sequence, which stores up the film's biggest problem, Kenneth More, until fairly far in. He'd evidently made a success of it in the West End: being further away from him might help. This is supposed to be a tale of amour fou, and he's supposed to be an irresistible, self-destructive cad, but More's bounding fatuousness put me in mind of Neddy Seagoon, if you know who that is. I suppose fashions change and More may have passed for a romantic lead in the fifties. Someone like Stewart Granger would have been better, but then Litvak would have had to spend time with someone like Stewart Granger.
Litvak is lucky to have Rattigan adapting his own work, in that the dialogue is very particular. Crisp, acidulated, with characters seeming to roll a muffling carpet over their most painful emotions. Classic British understatement.
Litvak also, as far as one can make out through the murk and ragged amputation of the image, uses the interior space of Leigh's flat elegantly, with fluid movements from room to room. (I once chapter-hopped through a DVD of his next film, Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman, and kept seeing the same door, with different people coming through it, suggestion that a kind of exhaustion had overtaken the old master.) There is some good sound design with ticking clocks, then a chase through Soho nightspots which should play more desperately than it does, a vision of hell rather than of Shepperton Studios. Other attempts at achieving the elusive "cinematic values" include flashbacks to a ball, an air show and a ski resort, places I would find dull in real life, let alone a movie, and which steal valuable time away from the characters, Portman's in particular.
He's a doctor who's been struck off and briefly imprisoned (I assumed for performing an abortion but apparently Rattigan intended a homosexual scandal): he now lives upstairs from Leigh and works as a bookie, profiting, as he puts it, from humanity's pretensions to prophecy. And he is, for whatever reasons in his own life, the only one in the film able to understand her desperate love.
The Deep Blue Sea was remade in 2011 by Terence Davies, who applied his considerable cinematic sensitivity to Rattigan's theatrical structure: he opens it out, he fragments time, he gets inside the heroine's head and shows us what she's thinking. And all it does, essentially, is delay the dramatic action, get in the way of the story and the emotion, and destroy the tension, which the original author had found a sure route to using his chosen medium.
There's another post-script: studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck was evidently impressed by Rattigan's writing, and for a while he became the highest-paid screenwriter in the world. In 1968 he foolishly agreed to adapt The Boston Strangler to the screen, despite having no feeling for the material whatsoever. Floundering horribly, he wrote himself out of the job by concocting the following scene:
The Boston police, baffled, feed all the data on the case into a super-computer and anxiously await its identification of the true culprit. A card comes out of the computer. The lead detective snatches it up and reads what is printed on it.

"Darryl F. Zanuck."
Forgotten by Fox is a regular fortnightly series by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


Anatole LitvakColumnsThe ForgottenForgotten by Fox
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