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The Forgotten: The Mad Hatter

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"Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time."

So wrote William Topaz McGonagall, famed as the world's worst poet, of a tragic bridge collapse in which the vaunting ambition of Victorian engineering was cruelly crushed by the forces of weather and gravity. It's a sort of Scottish Titanic story, but it's never been as popular cinematically as the one about the ship.

Another Scot, more gifted with the pen, is responsible for the story Hatter's Castle (1942). A.J. Cronin was a doctor who turned to writing novels and plays about medical matters -- most famously, The Citadel, filmed in 1938 by King Vidor. In the film of Hatter's Castle, the doctor's role is sidelined, even though he's still in theory the story's leading man, and he's played by James Mason, young, sculpted and pellucid. Even the leading lady, Deborah Kerr (the only real Scot with a major role, though she sounds more English than the rest of them) barely gets a look in. That's because of the hatter.

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The villain of the piece, James Brodie, is played by Robert Newton, with fires of malevolence banked down inside, glimmering through his eyes, small protruberant orbs that seem to attest that evil, like sand, can be turned to glass by extreme heat. The film isn't brilliantly directed, but Newton makes it seem so, sidling up to the camera and stalking around it, flicking glances like stilettos, dragging the frame around with him by sheer force of appalling personality.

The favourite actor of both comedian Tony Hancock and Who drummer Keith Moon, whose concert performances and suicidal booze intake both seem to have been influenced by his thespian precursor, Newton was perhaps the first, and is perhaps still the only, actor to enlist the sense of smell into his performance. Of course, in the absence of Odorama, this must all be done psychically. Newton can make us smell each of his characters, and they're all subtly different, even if they're all equally unpleasant. His Bill Sikes in Lean's Oliver Twist is an earthy mixture of booze, tobacco and dog. In Kiss the Blood of My Hands, it's a bodily fluid tang released through the screen and into the auditorium, or aromatorium -- Newton co-mingles at least seven fluids not normally present at the same time in the same person, and he subjects us to all of them, with a dash of booze. In Hatter's Castle, his character is really a pillar of the establishment, so we get a certain soapy freshness, surprisingly pleasant, until he opens his mouth, lips retracted and tucked in, baring jagged little teeth like rows of broken glass, at which moment clouds of noxious whisky breath billow upon us, bringing tears to our eyes and burning our throats.

Director Lance Comfort, a perennial independent, never less than ploddingly competent, sometimes touched by dim half-inspiration, but blessed with a suave, suave name, is smart enough to let Newton run off with his film, playing a man of such reinforced repulsiveness that he can take a bullet in the face at point blank range and still keep leering. Never one to make love to the camera, Newton prefers to violate it forcibly, using every inch of his foul persona, without benefit of foreplay or lubricant. He looks apt at any moment to rend the screen like a veil, reach forth into the audience and molest the front rows. Only the tyranny of Newtonian physics prevent this possibility and allow us to enjoy his depravity in safety.

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Incredible as it seems, Newton is not the film's sole villain, nor it's sole point of interest. Welsh playwright and performer Emlyn Williams (the man who would have been Caligula for Von Sternberg) plays Dennis, who inveigles his way into Brodie's shop as an assistant, and proceeds to ruin everybody's life. He's a compulsive double-dealer, an embezzler, lecher, rapist and humbug. Such is his perfidy that Cronin and the film's scenarists feel compelled to rope in the Tay Bridge Disaster to eradicate this blight upon Bonnie Scotland.

Here we get a sense of the film's shortcomings. Time and again, dramatic incidents are piled on top of each other as if in a bad play. We expect the bullying Brodie, a man who's sin is to try and "impose his will upon others," to meet a comeuppance. But what a comeuppance! At the midpoint climax at the county dance, Brodie learns that his shop will be put out of business by a rival, his claim to the aristocracy is a sham, and his wife has terminal cancer ("That's a lie!" he grins). Meanwhile, his poor daughter, Deborah Kerr, is being impregnated by Emlyn Williams.

And so it goes on, with the collapsing bridge only a sideshow to the final apocalypse. Newton's son, the apple of his eye, upon whom he is particularly hard, is barred from sitting his exams for cheating, and shoots himself rather than face dad's wrath. His business is ruined, his finances are all invested in his folly of a mansion, his wife has died and his mistress has walked out on him. Newton goes bereserk, or rather more berserk, and trashes his shop, throwing his unsold hats at the gathering onlookers ("I'll make ye have them!") then sets fire to his home. It's at this point, the monologue delivered to a burning house, that the resemblance to the barnstorming melodramas of Tod Slaughter becomes complete. Newton, who has been smoldering fiercely since his first entrance, finally goes up in smoke.

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"I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed."

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

As I recall the characters in Pinter’s “Old Times” admire Newton a great deal. He’s a marvelous slabe of ham. As for “Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!” I do hope you’ll do Joe McGrath’s “The Great McGongall” soon. It’s the greatest piece of Brechtian cinema EVAH! And talk about “The Forgotten”!
That’s true, a movie and a career pretty well buried. I’d love to meet McGrath, perhaps the greatest living Scottish filmmaker?
Good old Robert Newton. Always a joy. His Pistol in Olivier’s HENRY V is a pure delight. What actor alive could get away with calling someone a “prick ear’d cur of Iceland”?
Possibly the line he was born to say! Although in Hatter’s Castle he gets a world of maleficent intent into the simple query “Whaur’s ma tea?”
IA
I second David E.‘s call for The Great McGonagall, surely Spike Milligan’s finest moment on celluloid.
I think it was just about the only time he found a feature film mad enough to contain him. And he had to write it himself. I think I’ve written a tiny bit about it on Shadowplay, but more could be arranged…

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