According to the story he himself tells in the documentary series Hollywood, UK, Canadian filmmaker Sidney J. Furie came to England to take part in the British new wave, whose films he admired. First, he had to pay his dues with nonsense like Dr. Blood's Coffin, The Snake Woman and The Young Ones (starring pop singer Cliff Richard), but eventually, with The Leather Boys in 1964, he was able to make the kind of dynamic working-class social realism he'd been admiring from afar (Rita Tushingham's presence in the cast provides the stamp of authenticity).
But During One Night (1961) shows Furie working on a small-scale independent film that has more in common with his mid-sixties work than it does with the cheesy exploitation movies he marked time on, and its date shows how quick off the mark Furie must have been: Look Back in Anger only hit cinemas in 1959, and by '61 Furie was in Britain, having left behind his promising career in Toronto, directing this atmospheric curio.
The setting is wartime, which sets it apart from the usual contemporary concerns of the new wave. The subject, however, is sex.
The film was even called Night of Passion in the US. Both titles are terrible. But the film isn't. Don Borisenko plays a US airman stationed in Britain. When his buddy is castrated by shrapnel on a bombing run, and subsequently kills himself, our hero is plunged into a snowballing psychological crisis. He's a virgin. He doesn't want to die a virgin. But, when unable to perform with a sympathetic prostitute, he starts to worry that he's gay. He goes AWOL, determined to either have sex with a woman or kill himself. Well, many young men have felt the same, even without a war.
The film is serious, even painfully earnest, in line with its young hero. It's also strikingly explicit for its time, at least as far as female nudity goes. It's extraordinary to think this could have passed the censor, but the man in that position, John Trevelyan, was usually sympathetic to filmmakers who demonstrated seriousness of intent, which Furie does in spades here.
Joy Webster, best known for her later Hammer film roles, plays the prostitute in a scene startling for its eroticism even though it's nominally about a guy failing to get it up. Then Jackie Collins turns up as a seductive crook (before she became an authoress), and the Susan Hampshire steps in as the film's heroine, the nice girl who will straighten our flyboy out, and along the way prove that nice girls want sex too.
Former child actor Hampshire's extremely low-key playing style is eye-catching: she manages to be the still center of a film that's itself quite slow moving. Borisenko, meanwhile, seethes with inner turmoil, in a method-inflected performance full of angst and hesitations and mood swings.
It would all be impressively progressive were it not for the homosexual panic motivating the whole story, but even the acknowledgement of that topic is progressive for 1961. Borisenko's pal commits suicide not just because he's been neutered, but because he believes this will turn him queer, a strange assumption. There's nothing comical about castration, but the discomfort factor can make it a tricky subject for drama, and the movie's determination to admit no shred of humor runs the risk of raising bad laughs.
Rather than throwing himself into the vanguard of British cinema, Furie seems to be trying something even more audacious: making a markedly European film in Britain, a film where sex can be serious but still sexy. The visual style is muted, it's true, with none few of Furie's trademark occluding foreground objects... oh, wait, here's one:
Our hero is finally "cured" by a bit of psychodrama staged by an air force padre, and successfully consummates his passion for Hampshire (gee, I knew the church/Air force could do practically anything but I never knew they could do this), enabling him to fly off on his final mission the next morning. Which, of course, he might not come back from.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.