Versatile, self-effacing director-screenwriter who created some of the most intelligent, thoughtful films of the British Film industry in the 1960s; hailed as the British film establishment’s ‘Renaissance Man’.
There are those directors whom the French film critics intellectually dub as ‘auteurs’; then there those who are branded ‘visionary’ directors by fans and critics whose predilections often engender a particular fad that runs the length of a particular cinematic epoch.
Actor, director, screenwriter and producer Bryan Forbes, who passed away aged 86 this Wednesday, was one whose works and persona consciously steered clear of any exotic ‘categorization’, while lending a peculiar thoughtfulness and solidity that made him a major creative force to reckon with in the British film industry of the 1960s.
As a talented screenwriter and director, Forbes specialized in linear, well-crafted, strong story-lines laced with that typical thoughtfulness that pervaded much of best British cinema through the 1950s and the 60s.
Like his older compatriot Ronald Neame, Forbes could, in a sense, be called an ‘actor’s director’, one who does not let his writ loom large over the picture.
But his powerful, unsentimental, often soul-searching screenplays hit audiences and critics in a manner that defy any narrow straitjacketing within a particular fad (the British kitchen-sink drama of the 1950s) or a movement (the so-called ‘British New Wave’) then permeating British cinema.
His best often films created meaty, memorable roles for women, with three of his actresses, Leslie Caron, Kim Stanley and Dame Edith Evans receiving best actor nominations for their performances in ‘The L-shaped Room’ (1962), ‘Séance on a Wet Afternoon’ (1964) and ‘The Whisperers’ (1967) respectively.
So was his talent in extracting unusually mature performances out of children in films that sensitively contrasted childhood innocence with the big, bad realm of adults.
This is evident in his handling of child actors Hayley Mills, Diane Holgate and the endearing, impish Alan Barnes in the now-classic ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ (1961) and Tatum O’ Neal in ‘International Velvet’ (1978) – the charming sequel to the classic family pic ‘National Velvet’ (1944).
At least two of the films he directed, the dark, allegory-laden “children’s” classic ‘Whistle down the Wind’ and the chilling, riveting ‘Séance on a Wet Afternoon’ are right up there with the best English-language films of the 1960s, besides ranking as two of the finest films to come out from Britain during that decade.
The son of a career salesman for the London Letter File Company, Forbes started out as an actor, having trained (but not finishing his studies) at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
Several bit parts ensued in popular war dramas of late 1950s, namely the famous P.O.W. escape dramas, ‘The Wooden Horse’ (1950) ‘The Colditz Story’ (1955) and classic dramas like 1955’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, from the J.B. Priestley play.
Around this time, his writing talents were beginning to shine through, gradually gaining the upper-hand over his acting abilities.
“I was a writer who became an actor who became a screenwriter who became a director,” he later reminisced.
Forbes co-wrote some of the wartime dramas (a typical feature of British cinema of that period) like ‘The Cockleshell Heroes’ (1955) and the tense and amusing ‘I Was Monty’s Double (1958).
He also had a bit part (with frightfully little to do) as an RAF officer in 1961’s star-laden ‘The Guns of Navarone.’
But the first year of that decade marked a turning point in his career, with Forbes, along with his great friend, actor-director Richard Attenborough, joining hands to found Beaver Films after they (as Forbes later recalled) had ‘had it’ working for directors who they thought were no great shakes after all.
The first film from Beaver Productions, fashioned on a typically low budget, was ‘The Angry Silence’ (1960) - a controversial drama about a man (played brilliantly by Attenborough) refusing to join a wildcat strike and the nasty consequences that ensue for him when he asserts his independence over the organized workers in his shop.
“We couldn’t ever afford to go over-budget,” he later said of ‘The Angry Silence’ in an interview given to the British Film Institute (BFI).
This hard-hitting look at British labour conditions met with considerable critical acclaim from the other side of the Atlantic, winning Forbes a best screenwriting (shared) nomination.
Praising the film, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote: “With a style of realism that is convincing and emotionally disturbing, too, the picture now displays the kind of vengeance the other workers wreak—how they scorn and abuse the nonconformist, keep him "in Coventry”… [sic] so energetic and compelling is the staccato style of Mr. Forbes' screen play and the taut direction of Guy Green that one inclines to accept the actuality of this episode.”
After directing ‘Whistle down the Wind’, which followed the next year, Forbes sealed his reputation as a major creative force within the British Film establishment.
The film, adapted from a novel by Mary Hayley Bell (the wife of Sir John Mills) and features 15-year old Hayley Mills (Mills’ oldest daughter) and Alan Bates, in one of his early roles.
The story about three Lancashire farm children, who in their naivety, mistake escaped convict (Bates) to be Jesus Christ, shows Forbes’ remarkable talent for extracting from children in what essentially is a tale of conflict between the worlds of childhood innocence and cruel adult sensibilities.
The duo followed it up with the L-shaped room, a film, about an unmarried, pregnant 27-year-old French woman (played by Leslie Caron), who, undecided whether to keep her baby or not takes a momentous decision to move into a seedy boardinghouse filled with an assortment of social misfits an outcasts.
While appearing to be a part of the British ‘New Wave’ in its examination of race and sexual discrimination, the film differs in its approach and narrative with Forbes bringing in establishment values to an otherwise offbeat film.
Forbes and Attenborough reached the summit of their collaboration with 1964’s ‘Séance on a Wet Afternoon’ adapted from a novel by Australian author Mark McShane.
This strange, creepy, claustrophobic psychological thriller about the hatching of a kidnap plot by a crazed, fame-hungry ‘trance medium’ and her meek, devoted husband is undoubtedly Forbes' masterpiece and a watershed in the acting careers of Kim Stanley (who plays the demented Myra Savage) and Richard Attenborough (who plays her passive husband).
The mercurial, yet fragile, Lady Macbeth-ish Myra Savage, prevails upon her quietly suffering husband, Billy, to kidnap a rich businessman’s little girl so that she can reveal her miraculous powers and achieve fame by inviting the girl’s kin to a ‘séance on a wet afternoon’. The caper, which soon begins to go horribly wrong, serves as a prism to explore the fraught relationship of Myra and Billy.
Aided by composer John Barry’s fantastically effective, pulsating score, this film made on a shoestring budget of £140,000 was remade into a TV-made Japanese film in 2000 simply titled ‘Séance’.
Forbes brought the same psychological acumen of ‘Séance’ to his first Hollywood feature he helmed in 1965.
‘King Rat’, with its finely nuanced shadings of human character under, stands out as one of the best and most unusual of P.O.W. dramas of the Second World War.
The tale, adapted from James Clavell’s novel, focuses on a black marketeering camp run by an amoral, manipulative Corporal who has a strange hold over British and American officers in the Japanese prison camp of Changi.
The psychology, humiliation and pain of day-to-day survival in a wartime prison camp in face of inhuman deprivation have never been brought out as skillfully in this unusual drama, with one of its high points being the feeding of rat meat by Corporal King (Segal) to high-ranking British officers, claiming it to be ‘mouse deer’ meat.
Forbes manages to extract excellent performances from all three leads – George Segal as Corporal King, James Fox (fresh from his stint in Joseph Losey’s ground-breaking The Servant) as Marlowe, his only ‘friend’ and Tom Courtenay as the inflexible, almost sadistic camp provost haunted by the hypocrisy of the British class system.
It is in many ways far superior to its heavyweight and heavily decorated older cousin ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) and the popular, hugely successful ‘The Great Escape’ (1963).
His last great directorial effort was, once more, a masterful psychological thriller called ‘The Whisperers’ (1967) that starred Dame Edith Evans as an old lady walking a delicate tightrope between sanity and senility, now reunited with her husband after a long separation.
Forbes returned in 1975 with the successful ‘The Stepford Wives’, based on Ira Levin’s popular horror-sci-fi novel of suspiciously ‘perfect’ housewives slumming about in the quiet suburb of Stepford, Connecticut.
If Forbes’ name strikes a chord with any of the younger generation, it is ironically through this trashy, glossy, unimaginative film (that has seen an even trashier remake in 2004) which appears to have more recall than his best works in the 1960s.
In 1992, he also wrote the screenplay for Attenborough’s striking, yet uneven, biopic ‘Chaplin.’
Forbes embarked on a career as a novelist in his twilight years, penning Cold War spy novels and novels of humour. One of his spy stories, ‘The Endless Game’ - a strong, twisty, suspenseful cold war thriller in the John le Carre-Francis Clifford vein - was filmed in 1990, with Forbes helming the show and casting Albert Finney and George Segal in lead roles.
As an assessment of his legacy, it’s a real shame that great films like ‘Whistle Down the Wind’, ‘Séance on a Wet Afternoon’, ‘King Rat’ and ‘The Whisperers’ languish in virtual obscurity as we enter the second decade of the 21st century.
A self-effacing man of parts, we shall not see another of his like in this age of mediocrity and derivativeness.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @ShoumojitB on Twitter)