Instantly recognisable to anyone who grew up in the days when terrestrial TV channels still padded out their schedule with classic black and white films, Trevor Howard is one of the great screen presences of British post-War cinema. No matinee idol, Howard’s awkward looks and brittle manner made him the perfect choice for directors seeking a wounded British patriarch; a man of action who is forever tired, a romantic figure with just a hint of threat, a spy who gives away all his secrets and listens to no one. In fact, Howard was so effective in these sorts of roles that the end of his career saw him typecast as an impotent and dysfunctional authority figure: a symbol of broken imperial hubris to be mocked in Superman and denounced in Gandhi. Though lacking some of Howard’s defining roles (including the turn in Sons and Lovers that netted him his only Oscar nomination), this collection still manages to give a pretty good indication as to why it is that Howard came to personify a particular post-War archetype.
David Lean’s Brief Encounter is a film that has aged in an absolutely fascinating manner. Filled with the type of voice-over commentary that you simply do not see in contemporary works, the film tells of a married woman (Celia Johnson) who meets and falls in love with a young doctor only to come to her senses and break off the affair. On the surface, the film is a simple love story told with considerable wit and style but pay attention to the voice-overs and the film transforms into a heart-breaking study of passion, fear, self-loathing and regret. Far from clunky or old-fashioned, the use of voice-overs perfectly captures what it must have been like to live in a time where it was not the done thing to follow one’s heart or speak one’s mind.
Carol Reed’s The Third Man asks whether anyone can ever actually say that they know another person. Set in the ruins of post-War Vienna where Joseph Cotten’s pulp writer goes in search of a childhood friend. Sensing a conspiracy to murder his old friend, Cotton’s character delves deeper and deeper into the Viennese underground until he realises that, far from being the victim of a conspiracy, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is the one holding all the strings. Cast in a minor role, Howard plays the commander of the British section of Vienna as a paper-thin tough guy… a man with lots of military muscle and none of the nous required to use it.
Outcast of the Islands is widely considered to be film that began Carol Reed’s long and painful slide away from directorial greatness. Set in South East Asia, Outcast tells of a charismatic crook who is taken under the wing of an old sea captain (Ralph Richardson) only to team up with a group of sinister locals who are conspiring to break the white patriarch’s hold on power. Trapped between resentment for the powers-that-be and intense racial hatred for the local population, Howard’s character rants and raves while the world goes to hell around him. Based on a novel by Joseph Conrad, Outcast of the Islands shares Heart of Darkness’s complex racial politics. Indeed, while both works make extensive use of crude racial stereotypes and feature a worldview that associates non-white rule with a sort of blood-drenched existential anarchy, they complicate this racist message with an even more profound sense of pessimism about the colonial project. Much like Darkness’s Kurtz, Outcast’s crook is a man who moves beyond the rules of his society only to find some sort of tortured peace with the madness of the world. Insanely bleak and ineffectually melodramatic, Outcast of the Islands critiques the British Empire with blackface rather than reason.
Herbert Wilcox’s Odette comes as something of a pleasant surprise as while it features Trevor Howard as a celebrated superspy, the real focus of the film is the superspy’s heroic wife (Anna Neagle). Set during the Second World War, the film tells of a group of British Intelligence agents who are sent into occupied France. Lured into a trap by a morally ambiguous German spymaster, the British cell is gutted except for the character of Odette who refuses to break. Beaten, tortured and humiliated, Odette remains true to her country while her playboy husband rakes in all the plaudits. Filled with strong performances and classic lines, Odette is a moving and insightful portrait of one incredibly strong woman.
Based on a wonderful novel by Graham Greene, George More O’Ferrall’s Heart of the Matter casts Howard as a Catholic military policeman. Left alone when his wife goes on holiday, the policeman finds himself lured into a relationship with a local smuggler. Initially, the policeman is quite gung-ho about this relationship as he trusts his judgement and his ability to tell right from wrong. However, as time progresses and the relationship between criminal and policeman becomes more complicated, Howard’s character begins to be plagued by feelings of guilt, guilt compounded and expanded both by the character’s strict Catholicism and his decision to begin an affair with a beautiful refugee. Plagued by his conscience and the realisation that he was always powerless before temptation, the policeman slips further and further into madness until all he has left is fever and regret. Long unavailable on DVD, O’Ferrall’s film is surprisingly stylish and arguably the most contemporary-feeling work in this collection. Shot on location in Sierra Leone as well as in British studios, the film presents the backstreets of Freetown as a terrifying and claustrophobic warren of possibilities without ever dipping into the old Tarzan movie clichés of racial horror. Greene’s novel is not easy and neither is O’Ferrall’s adaptation but the depth of characterisation and the strength of Trevor Howard’s performance remind us of why it is that he remains one of the great screen presences of post-War British cinema.
Given that film actors frequently have limited input into the characters they inhabit, actor-based film collections often seem like little more than an excuse to re-package and re-release a section of someone’s back catalogue. However, while the rationale behind this collection may be somewhat dubious, there is no arguing with the quality of the films it contains. Any collection featuring Brief Encounter, The Third Man and Odette deserves to be taken seriously and while Outcast of the Islands certainly lets the side down, Heart of the Matter does a more than adequate job of rounding out what is ultimately a great collection of British post-War films.