A few months ago we screened Odd Man Out (1947), which featured a scene with Robert Newton (1905 -1956) playing a drunken artist and, although this was not far from the character for which Newton would be remembered (i.e. Long John Silver, the quintessential pirate persona), it was not far either from the larger-than-life repuation of Newton’s real self.
But Newton was also a well-respected and accomplished stage performer, whose true talents were usually captured only fleetingly on film.
And in the 40 or so films he made, he was rarely given a lead role, so this month’s screening of Obsession provides an exception, both in that Newton plays the protagonist and also that he plays completely against that blustering, piratical eccentric for which he has been remembered.
In Obsession (marketed in the USA as The Hidden Room) Newton’s psychiatrist character, Dr Clive Riordan of London, is a quietly erudite and urbane professional with a passion for model trains and a distaste for emotional outbursts.
Unfortunately his wife, Storm Riordan (Sally Gray), is a philanderer and we soon learn that she has driven him to quietly desperate ends. Her most recent affair with American Bill Kronin (Phil Brown) is the last straw for him.
Rather than become sad or angry, Dr Riordan (being a quietly logical English person) has organised a carefully laid out scheme that deal with his wife’s next lover in a manner that seems to him most appropriate. He aims to follow through his plan meticulously without showing any sign of nerves or distress to his wife or the police.
And he even seems adept at dealing with the Super Intendant; but its the antics of a little dog that finally put the kibosh on his careful laid plans.
This is a tense and claustrophobic, dark little thriller that is perfectly set in a post-war London comprising bomb sites, gentlemen’s clubs, servants to do the cooking and bobbies on the beat.
This background is important to the plot, which is sustained further by a restrained and compelling, powerful performance by Newton. His every inflexction carries meaning both in his mannerisms and facial expression.
His performance is also very well supported by Sally Gray and Phil Brown, and the trio allow the direction to create psychological credibility that keeps us interested.
As well as the relationship between these characters, there is a study in mannered British politeness demonstrated in exchanges between Newton’s tightly calculated, criminal mind and the equally restrained – not to say mildly amused (and amusing) – demeanour of Super Intendant Finsbury (Naunton Wayne, right). Finsbury arrives to investigate a lost dog but things start to grow from this simple pretext (nor should we forget the fine performance of Monty, the dog).
Known in USA as The Hidden Room, Obsession was directed by Edward Dmytryk (1908-1999) and adapted into a screenplay by Alec Coppel from his own book and play. Born in San Francisco to Ukrainian immigrants, Dmytryck (left), had been considered one of Hollywood’s rising young talents in the early 1940s.
Always left-leaning, he had been a Communist Party member briefly during World War II so was subsequently called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked to named others. When he refused, he was identified as one of the so-called “Hollywood Ten” in 1947, which meant he would no longer be able to get work in Hollywood. Consequently he fled to England, where he stayed until his passport ran out. It was during this period that he directed Obsession.
Although Obsession is not at all a political film – unless you count reactionary comments made by characters at Riordan’s gentlemens club (which are surely meant as an amusing dig at old fashioned attitudes). Nevertheless, there is something of the filmmaker’s real life plight reflected in Bill Kronin’s situation; his freedom has been curtailed and his world turned up-side down – if not severely reduced with a view to being curtailed.
Furthermore Kronin is far from being an uncivilized ‘colonial’ frowned upon by old fuddy-duddies in the gentleman’s club. Nor is he simply some abrasive, fish out of water American bloke but a sophisticated, affable chap who contrasts sharply with his unbending gaoler. If anything, it is Riordan who is visually framed as a menacing obsessive, lacking humanity and behaving like a Nazi (as at right).
As it happened, on his return to America after his passport ran out, Dmytyck spent several months behind bars before decided to cooperate after all. In naming names before the committee, however, Dmytryck sealed his future. Although he directed more than 50 films over his career, Dmytryck was never forgiven by Hollywood insiders once McCarthy had been disavowed. His work as a director slowly dried up as the influence of HUAC faded and he was forced to seek academic work in the 1970s, eventually becoming professor of film theory at the University of Texas in Austin.
By contrast Phil Brown, who played Bill Kronin, the unfortunate American who gets involved with Storm Riordan, had a long career as a character actor in the public eye both on the big screen and TV. He died in 2006 aged 89 having appeared in many roles – including as Luke Skywalker’s uncle in 1977’s Star Wars (right).