A welcome collection of five films featuring the great screen actor Trevor Howard has been released, one hundred years after his birth, and featuring films from the earlier part of his over four decade screen career that ensured he became a highly respected icon of cinema. No sign of Superman (1978) or Von Ryan’s Express (1965) but rather a number of films that made him such a definable actor. Trevor Howard started his acting career in the theatre, he was educated in Clifton and RADA, before transferring to cinema. The box set comprises David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) , a film whose success led to projects that would keep Howard employed in a variety of genres over the years including the classic thriller The Third Man(1949) , fascinating WWII factual drama Odette(1950) , maritime Joseph Conrad adaptation Outcast of the Islands (1951) and a distinctly different WWII film The Heart of the Matter(1953) .
Brief Encounter (1945) was the fourth and final collaboration between David Lean and Noël Coward. Based upon Coward’s play Still Life, the necessarily staged elements of the play were altered to produce something more cinematic, not only in the elements set away from the single location of a railway station tea room (plenty of real trains, roadside encounters and countryside embraces in a car or boat) but also in elements of the narrative structure – here a flashback device engages the audience immediately – linked with careful use of sound, voiceovers and recollections that enhance the story and the characterisation. Every Thursday, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), who is married with a husband and two young children, takes a trip by train to do her weekly shopping and catche a matinee at the cinema, even if the films do vary in quality. One evening a piece of grit flies into her eye while she is waiting on the station platform and it proves to be quite painful. This problem is solved by a brief encounter with Dr Alec Harvey (Howard) who uses his medical skills to remove the offending grit. A chance meeting at a restaurant on a subsequent Thursday leads to the pair becoming friends but their friendship take on a whole new perspective as they get to know each other further – they meet for lunch, films, teas and any opportunity to be in each other’s company. Both are married and yet both have fallen in love with the other, despite understanding that their relationship is unacceptable and needs to be hidden from others no matter what lies and falsehoods are instigated. Brief Encounter remains a vastly compelling character drama that makes use of film to stage on a platform (if you will) an extra-marital affair that begins at a train station. Although the supporting characters add to the richness of the film’s themes as well as a sense of humour and culture to proceedings, central to this film are Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s performances, their characters emphasised by her narration and their social and emotional needs. Their desire for each other and need to ‘do the right thing’ is heart-rending, especially as we know that both are otherwise happily married. Clearly a film of its time, it is well constructed and understated, without needless emphasis on extraneous plot devices.
In The Third Man (1949) Vienna seems to be the ideal place for Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) to be taking up a job with his old acquaintance Harry Lime (Orson Welles). He might even come up with some good ideas for writing his next Western on the journey. But the original plan doesn’t come to fruition for Harry appears to have died just before Martins’ arrival. Lime seems to have been involved in a number of nefarious activities, something Martin discovers from Major Calloway (Howard) of the local military police who have taken the Lime case on board with gusto. Matters become confused, tense and dangerous for all concerned and the plot thickens than even one of Holly Martins’ most fictionalised of stories. The strength of The Third Man lies not just in the complex and thrilling story but with its noir style, notably the combination of composition, lighting and editing. This is a film where black and white really is a superior format to colour and its interpretation and use of Germanic cinema inspired expressionism is at the forefront of its implementation, right from the opening sequence, which really sets the tale in both its direction and its depiction. Shadows in a British film have never been more accentuated or better placed to enhance tension and revelation. The Third Man remains one of cinema’s ultimate noir thrillers which has an edge both from a narrative and aesthetic perspective.
‘Odette’ (1950) is an utterly compelling true story about an ‘ordinary’ woman who became a spy in France during World War 2 and was a vital part of the war effort to defeat the Nazis. The agents and all who helped them were placed in very great danger during those years and members of their families left at home in England were unaware of the gravity and importance of their missions. Filmed less than a decade after the events portrayed and with the consent from those who survived the personal sacrifices and danger, Odette shows us elements of the WWII struggle that gets relatively little exposure and is a revelation because of it. Odette (Anna Neagle) is a mother of three children who sends some holiday photographs, her original home in France prior to the Nazi occupation, to the war office. This leads to a proposition to aid the war effort, despite the danger that such a job would involve. She is to become part of a military organisation, the SOE (Special Operations Executive), a special agent who is likely to be particularly useful because she is a French speaking female, a cunning disguise that can help aid resistance units in France as well as provide vital information to the allied forces in their fight against the oppressive regime. This involves her departing the country and her children, who are told she is going to Scotland, to join with a group of fellow SOE members in France. She is given a new name, Lise, the agent number S23 and three sets of pills to sedate enemies, keep her awake or, if the worst happens, end her life. Her team in France includes Raoul, actually Captain Peter Churchill (Trevor Howard) and Arnauld , actually Lt. Alex Rabinovich (Peter Ustinov). The group form a strong bond and, after a few successful missions, Raoul declares Lise to be indispensable to the operation. Indeed, the pair become very close. But not everyone can be trusted and they are eventually captured by the Nazis. A horrific outcome is inevitable it seems. And indeed Odette does not flinch from the horrors that await her: Gestapo brutality, incarceration, torture and treachery abound. Odette is a fascinating true story and it is good to see it receive a wider release.
Outcast of the Islands (1951) is another film from director Carol Reed and a complete contrast to The Third Man. Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad, Outcast of the Islands sees Peter Willems (Howard), a rogue on the run from a scandal, take on a new ‘job’ with his former employer, Captain Tom Lingard (Ralph Richardson), who leaves Peter on a remote island to stay with his daughter (Wendy Hiller) and her husband Elmer Almayer (Robert Morley) and young daughter. The locals, who live on stilt houses across the river estuary maintain their own customs but Peter ingratiates them and irritates them in equal measure and he discovers a passion for the tribal leader’s daughter Aissa (Kerima), whose beauty is only matched by her reputation for violence when she determines that the situation requires it. A distinctly different film, Outcast of the Islands has a plethora of characters, none of whom are distinctly heroic or even likeable, but it tells a tale of personal interests and conflicts and the struggle for wealth or power. Children are the only honest characters, from Almayer’s toddler daughter to the local boy who constantly watches and follows Peter. A number of elements make this an interesting film, not least of which is Howard’s performance, capturing a protagonist whose needs cannot fully be understood nor defined – he does not even have even a proper sense of morality.
The Heart of the Matter (George More O’Ferrall ) is another film from writer Graham Greene (and another that is very different to The Third Man). It’s 1942 and in the violent British colonised Sierra Leone, groups are often engaged in savage beatings and richer members of society are involved with a variety of criminal activities including diamond smuggling. Police commissioner Harry Scobie (Howard) aka Scobie, is one of those posted to Sierra Leone to deal with matters (‘They’ll all be murdering each other without him’), something he has done for some time even if he is overlooked for promotion, but his wife Louise Scobie (Elizabeth Allan) is increasingly frustrated by their situation and wishes to depart the country at any opportunity. Scobie tries to assuage his wife’s misery by getting her a voyage by ship to South Africa, something that his salary is hard pressed to purchase, but he manages to achieve it by borrowing the fare from the local lender Yusef (Gérard Oury). Yusef is suspected by the authorities as having even more dubious business practices than money lending as they think he is one of the major figures involved in the diamond smuggling. World War 2 is causing additional problems for Sierra Leone and the surrounding countries. A U-boat has attacked a ship with devastating results, leaving many dead. Scobie helps some of the survivors including Helen Rolt (Maria Schell) who needs rehabilitation. Scobie and Helen become attached and a romance between the two ensues, but in a wholly different situation (naturally) to Brief Encounter. The Heart of the Matter takes in politics, crime, social situations, romance and war and confronts them in an environment where the protagonist has to deal with his job, his emotions and the situation around him even when the outcomes are not only unclear but often morally difficult to define. There is an affair, blackmail, violence and criminality, healthcare and the increasingly militaristic and territorial aspects of the war. The complexity of the situation ensures that any outcome is impossible to predict.
Overall this is a very welcome collection of some films from Trevor Howard’s first decade as a cinema actor, showing the emergence of the screen icon he was to become.