Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Sleeping Tiger

Directed by Victor Hanbury, according to the opening credits. A pseudonym. ‘The Sleeping Tiger’ was in fact Joseph Losey’s first British film following his repatriation after his Hollywood blacklisting during the McCarthy witch-hunts*.

A melodramatic little number, but notable as the first time Losey and Bogarde worked together – they went on to make five films – and for the pointers it offers towards their most memorable collaboration, ‘The Servant’.

The plot, briefly: young thug Frank Clemmons (Bogarde) attempts to mug stoic psychiatrist Dr Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox), only for the older man to disarm him. Rather than frog-march him down the local nick, Esmond offers Clemmons an alternative: six months as house guest (or, as Clemmons puts it, “a prisoner here”) and guinea pig for Esmond’s thesis that he can reverse the youth’s tendencies to criminality. During his enforced stay, Clemmons begins an affair with Esmond’s wife Glenda (Alexis Smith).

All this malarkey wouldn’t be so bad if the scenes between Esmond and Clemmons attained some degree of psychological depth. However, what little tension there is (Clemmons is too busy making whoopee with Mrs E or sneaking out to further his criminal career to enter into any soul-searching conversation with the good doctor) remains unexplored. Resolution comes in a scene as intellectually facile as the “it’s not your fault” finale to ‘Good Will Hunting’, but without that film’s three-handkerchief sense of catharsis.

Ultimately, Losey becomes too interested in the pressure-cooker atmosphere generated by his three central characters, and in dissecting social mores and class hypocrisy, to bother with the central premise of Esmond’s sociological experiment. In this respect, ‘The Sleeping Tiger’ is certainly a cinematic limbering-up for ‘The Servant’. It’s also frustrating, since potentially interesting material is sacrificed for stuff which is merely formulaic.

It’s stating the obvious to say that Bogarde is the best thing about the film: again, there’s an immediacy to his performance that leaves the rest of cast in the shade. Knox is wooden, while Smith (although mercifully not as screechy as Peggy Evans in ‘The Blue Lamp’) piles on the hysteria in the overwrought and fairly pointless final act.

Still, ‘The Sleeping Tiger’ paired Losey and Bogarde for the first time; better things lay ahead …

*A pithy coda, thirty years on: in the late 1980s, Bogarde contributed frequent book reviews to The Daily Telegraph. His review of Elia Kazan’s ‘A Life’ is reprinted in ‘For the Time Being’, his collection of journalism: “I know he was responsible for ‘On the Waterfront’ … but he was equally responsible for the destruction of a number of good and honourable people … In Paris at the premiere of a film I had made with Joseph Losey [which Kazan attended] … Losey dragged me from my seat … ‘I’ll be damned,’ he said, ‘if I let you sit with an informer’.”

Yay, Sir Dirk – go tell it on the mountain!

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