SHIP OF FOOLS
In the late 1960s, Tony Richardson, still gilded with Oscar success from Tom Jones (1965), which applied nouvelle vague playfulness to a Henry Fielding 18th Century romp, using personnel from the Woodfall Films school of northern realism (screenwriter John Osborne, star Albert Finney), embarked on two disastrous ventures with Jeanne Moreau, with whom he was much smitten at the time (and why not? So was everybody).
Firstly, Mademoiselle (1966) adapted a Jean Genet screenplay that had been doing the rounds, with Genet selling the rights to various directors, including Jules Dassin, sometimes at the same time. Richardson’s film is aided by some of the best black-and-white cinematography ever seen, the work of David Watkin. The nameless, fire-raising, erotically obsessed, evil schoolteacher played by Moreau glows darkly in the grainy woods, her slightly raddled beauty hiding a hell-black mystery in her heart.
Nobody liked it.
VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED
The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967) takes Marguerite Duras’ novel as its source, adapted by Christopher Isherwood, Don Magner and Richardson himself. It stars Moreau, Ian Bannen, and Richardson’s wife, Vanessa Redgrave. To make a film with both your wife and mistress, while filming in Europe and North Africa, must have offered the bisexual Richardson a wide range of distractions, so it’s pleasing to see that the resulting movie maintains a good degree of focus and control, more so than Tom Jones, for instance.
Still, nobody liked it.
Richardson’s reputation has slid somewhat over the years. His untimely death may have something to do with it (he's not around to defend himself as he vociferously did when alive, denouncing the British press as "acidulated intellectual eunuchs"). But a large part of the problem may be that his commercial and critical failures, some of which are rather hard to see, and few of which are much sought-after even if they’re available, are often better than his successes. Tom Jones, for instance, suffers from Richardson’s loss of confidence in the cutting room, where he attempted to jazz it up with a panoply of pseudo-Richard-Lesterish trick effects, which do nothing but test the patience (Lester’s own gimmickry was generally thought of well ahead of time, rather than slapped on in post).
Whereas The Sailor is a slow, compelling and beautiful movie, which must have seemed unfashionably romantic when released in the age of free love – a tale of obsessions, in which a love affair takes on the qualities of myth.
Ian Bannen is bored out of his mind: with his job, his Italian holiday, his girlfriend (Vanessa Redgrave, magnificently annoying in a way that suggests levels of self-awareness I never suspected in her). Meeting Anna (Moreau), incongruously known as “the American,” he’s seduced by her beauty and exoticism and abandons his whole existence to help out on her ship, Gibraltar, which is restlessly sailing the seas in search of her Great Love, the Sailor, a fugitive murderer whose relationship with Moreau, indeed whose whole existence, may be nothing more than a fantasy. Maybe the Sailor is death? (In 1974's Identikit, AKA The Driver’s Seat, Ian Bannen again falls in with another fading beauty, Elizabeth Taylor, who really is in search of her own murderer.)
Bannen and Redgrave are great together, he studiously bored and repelled by her every vocalisation, nursing a volcanic explosion of rage that never quite erupts, she blithely carrying on, as if unaware of his alienation, but really just in denial of it. Her humourless dullard is ultimately moving and sympathetic, rejected for reasons she can't begin to comprehend. Then Moreau kicks it up another notch or ten. Her Anna is flighty and unpredictable, a mere mood-swing away from the Catherine of Jules et Jim — the action even stops so she can sing a song, which seems like a tribute to / swipe from Truffaut. The captivating performance strikes sparks with Bannen’s muted, brooding, watchful Alan.
When Orson Welles pops in for a guest spot, as “Louis de Mozambique”, it seems like it’s going to be wildly disruptive of the particular flavour of naturalism that's been simmering over the previous hour, but some how the film manages to encompass both performative approaches, and even survives the work of Hugh Griffith, an even bigger movie monster than Welles. The exotic settings (Florence! Alexandria!) allow the film to keep one foot in reality and another in dream – more than most British films, it’s aware of its own movie-ness.
THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA
I suspect contemporary observers saw Richardson straining to become a fully European filmmaker (Raoul Coutard photography, Antoine Duhamel music), and found the venture pretentious. With a bit more historical distance, the film seems closer to the cinema it aspires to – leaving behind the Northern grit of Richardson’s early work, reaching towards the fusion of romance and reality seen in something like Demy’s The Bay of Angels, or Welles’ The Immortal Story (both with Moreau). Dreams are incapable of being pretentious.
His relationship with la Moreau ended, his latest diptych of films shot down by the critics, Richardson ran for cover, making another period satire, The Charge of the Light Brigade.
It’s much better than Tom Jones.
Nobody liked it.
Mademoiselle, miraculously, is available on DVD. The Sailor from Gibraltar lies dusty in a nuclear bunker guarded by wolves. It has a stunning title sequence designed by pop art wunderkind Alan Aldridge, which you can see here.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.