The Rocking Horse Winner (1950)

Director: Bryan Forbes
Cast: Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough
(Allied Filmmakers, 1964) Rated: Not rated
DVD release date: 24 September 2002

by David Sanjek

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As Real As a Dream

For many years, British cinema seemed to be the whipping boy of the film community. The body of work associated with the nation has been, at best, ranked as mediocre and, at worst as an out and out waste of celluloid. The depths to which this rhetoric has descended can be quite startling. They range from the Indian director Satyajit Ray’s curt dismissal, “I do not think the British are temperamentally equipped to make the best use of the movie camera” to Francois Truffaut’s outrageous assumption of “a certain incompatibility between the terms ‘cinema’ and ‘Britain.'” The fact that he made this statement during the course of his celebrated conversations with Alfred Hitchcock makes it even more questionable. Where did he think his idol was born?

Critical commentary does have a way of correcting itself over the course of time. The slew of books and articles on British cinema that have appeared in the last decade have so successfully revealed the complexity of their subject that it seems as if earlier commentators willfully dismissed the subject out of hand. The only explanation for their knee jerk belief that the country’s films lacked any appreciable style or character has to be they did not pay too much attention. For every British film obsessed with the mundane realities associated with the “kitchen sink” drama, there are many others that illustrate a more colorful and often deliberately excessive side to the national character.

As Julian Petley states in the Charles Barr collection, All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, “These form an other, repressed side of British cinema, a dark, disdained thread weaving the length and breadth of that cinema, crossing authorial and generic boundaries, sometimes almost entirely invisible, sometimes erupting explosively, always received critically with fear and disapproval.” Examples of this subterranean tradition include the horror films that emerged from the Hammer studio with their colorful, over the top elaboration of Gothic traditions, the romantic melodramas of the 1940s with their bombastic visual style and tempestuously assertive female protagonists and the long standing, taboo-busting slapstick of the “Carry On” series with its randy lads and busty women. Elements of this attractive excess also run through the career of the late Michael Powell. Director of such major films as Black Narcissusand The Red Shoes, he is now revered by many as perhaps the greatest home grown British stylist but was often reviled in his day for pictorial bombast.

The fascination of British filmmakers with the visually dynamic even occurs in films that seem concerned with quotidian subject matter. This is illustrated by both the literary adaptation and the domestic drama. Subject matter that in less able hands would be nothing more or less than pedestrian comes to possess an unusual spark of peculiarity. This is the case with these two DVDs, both of which seem at first to succumb to all the stereotypes espoused by Ray, Truffaut and others but prove, upon closer examination, to manifest, with greater in the case of the first and lesser success in the second, elements of the more compelling tendencies of the national cinema.

The Rocking Horse Winner is an overlooked and undervalued example of the British tendency to adapt major works of their national literature. Taken from a D. H. Lawrence short story, it tells of the traumatic downfall of an upper middle class family struggling to maintain appearances in the face of habitual overspending. The worst offender is the status-conscious mother, Hester Grahame (Valerie Hobson, the scientist’s spouse in James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein). Troubled by the fractious debates between his parents, Paul Grahame (John Howard Davies) yearns to find a way to solve the family’s fiscal crises.

He soon discovers he has a psychic connection with his toy rocking horse, such that when he rides it, Paul can predict who will win at the track. Tragically, no matter how much money Paul earns, his mother’s extravagant tastes only escalate, and in a final, frenzied effort to discern the winner of a major event, the boy collapses and dies from exhaustion.

Anthony Pelissier’s astute translation of Lawrence’s richly symbolic tale takes a two-pronged approach to the material. For the most part, he focuses on the familiar British fascination with the common events of daily life, in this case members of the leisure class with their friendly, middle-aged housekeeper and an affable workman. However, when Paul mounts his horse, the visual approach becomes more baroque and stylized. Pelissier uses eccentric camera angles and exaggerated lighting to heighten the scenes. The one realm inevitably collapses into the other with Paul’s death, and Pelissier makes his final sequence all the more effective by matter-of-factly shooting the burning of the boy’s horse as overseen by his distraught mother.

It is the deliberate commingling of the domestic and the dynamic that makes The Rocking Horse Winner so successful as a literary adaptation. The expressiveness of the sequences on horseback only makes the presumed splendor of the family’s commodity-obsessed existence come across as all the more vacuous. In light of how much the English were destitute of luxury goods at the time of the film’s release, its implicit attack upon consumerism takes on greater significance. One can only imagine how some members of the audience felt when Hester Grahame covets goods that they too were unable to possess.

Bryan Forbes’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon similarly combines a domestic setting with an element of the fantastic, in this case the belief in communication with the dead. Myra Savage (the American actress Kim Stanley) maintains her meager living by working as a medium. She hopes to rise above her station by concocting a kidnapping scheme with her weak-willed husband, Billy (Sir Richard Attenborough) — to kidnap young Judith Donner (Amanda Clayton), the daughter of a well-to-do family. Myra believes she can raise her public profile as a psychic by “revealing” the girl’s location to the distraught parents. In the end, however, the hollowness of this plot leads to her capture by the police.

The bare bones of the plot offer ample opportunities for Forbes to engage in atmosphere and suspense. Forbes attempts to balance the depressing details of the Savages’ lower class life with the psychological complexity connected to Myra’s fragile mental state. But the two approaches do not, as in Pelissier’s film, comfortably coexist. Séance on a Wet Afternoon amounts unfortunately to a tepid exercise in emotional manipulation and primitive plot mechanics. Forbes handles the domestic portion of the narrative with some aplomb, although at times the film comes across as a showboating exercise for Stanley’s method acting.

Mostly, Forbes brings little energy to the routine requirements of a thriller. He rarely ratchets up the energy of the plot line or takes advantage of what little physical action is involved in order to put the audience on the edge of their seat. The sequence in which Billy eludes the police after he receives the ransom money from the Claytons would seem to be a natural for close cutting and split second transitions. Rather than a gripping succession of near escapes, Forbes imparts remarkably little tension as he prosaically shows Billy nervously eyeing the undercover police or racing down hallways in order to escape them.

While Séance on a Wet Afternoon won several prizes at film festivals and led to Kim Stanley’s nomination for an Academy Award, it seems in retrospect to pale in comparison to other works of the period that more successfully complicate a domestic setting. One wishes that a film like The Nanny, a Hammer feature directed by the underrated and long forgotten Seth Holt, was more readily available, as it succeeds where Forbes fails.

Despite the casting of Bette Davis in the title role, The Nanny appeared at the time as a better than average program feature, nothing more. In retrospect, Holt combines with a skill that puts the better-known Forbes to shame the daily affairs of an upper class English family with an unnerving sense of the hollow foundations of their lives. Little in Forbes’s film compares with the nerve raking sequence when Davis watches impassively as Jill Bennett’s character succumbs to a fatal heart attack.

It should be stated that Bryan Forbes did go on to have a successful, even illustrious career, winning critical plaudits, serving as managing director of EMI studios and even helming the camp classic The Stepford Wives. However, it is the work of unsung individuals like Pelissier and Holt that reinforce the validity and continuing fascination of the “dark, disdained thread” in British cinema that Julian Petley memorialized.