The film was directed by Delbert Mann and was based on a play by Terrence Rattigan. It stars Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Rod Taylor, David Niven (who won an Oscar for his role as Major Pollock), Deborah Kerr, and Wendy Hiller in a role that won her an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress as Pat Cooper.
Often I will see a film that is adapted from plays that leaves much to be desired, generally because it's either over-directed with a heavy hand, or sometimes merely lensed in a bland way that mimics a stage (so what's the point?). This production altered the stage play somewhat, combined the two (altered) acts into a traditional screenplay, and delivers a really special movie.
Co-produced by Burt Lancaster, he portrays one of the major characters and delivers the usual performance that one expected of him, with his personality and physical presence pretty much overwhelming most of the scenes in which he appears. His character (John Malcolm) is often scruffy and confused and mildly drunk, and Lancaster seems to do his best to subvert that enormous screen presence that served him well. He obviously respected the script and the play on which it was based.
A mousy, drab woman Sibyl is played by Deborah Kerr who at this time seemed to be doing a series of roles that intentionally depressed her beauty to make her appear plain and subdued. I suppose she made a conscious effort to turn in these performances and choose these characters, because in my youth I had never thought of her as particularly attractive because I'd seen so many of them. Maybe this was the first such role she accepted and she liked being appreciated for her talent and not her striking beauty.
Sibyl is a young woman totally subjugated by her overbearing upper class mother who does not approve of her attraction to an older retired officer, Major Pollock as created for the screen by David Niven. I have always been accustomed to seeing Niven do characters larger than life and almost cartoonish in their British flourish. But here he plays a sad, deceptive man living on a pension who is not only lying about being a major (he retired as a lieutenant), but a bit of a sexual pervert in a mild sort of way. It is the discovery of Pollock's flaws and falsehoods that presents the thrust of the drama for the movie.
There is, of course, a secondary storyline involving a bit of a love triangle between Malcom (Lancaster), Pat Cooper, the owner of the inn where the story unfolds (played by Wendy Hiller), and Malcolm's estranged wife Anne (created by Rita Hayworth). To me, this story was secondary and pedestrian when compared to the one focusing on Colonel Pollock and Sybil, and Niven definitely turned in the finest performance I ever saw from him, and one of the best by any actor from any movie I've watched in a last few years. I was only one year old when the movie was first-run, so I guess I can be excused for only discovering it now.
The film does address some issues that I find are more and more important to me as I get older, especially the issue of class. For one of the levers used to punish Pollock when his secrets are revealed is that he is merely from a working class family when others who reside at the inn are from the UK middle class. He is definitely not one of them when he had posed otherwise. In addition, the entire situation with Niven as accused is a metaphor for the situation of gays in that day and age and not, of course, the crime of which he is accused in the screenplay. This was, of course, 1958.
Hiller is pretty much the glue who holds the entire production together and I have to admit that I mainly watched it because of her presence. When I was a kid I watched the film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" when I was in my teens and fell in love with her at first sight. What a gorgeous young woman she was, so I decided to watch "Separate Tables" without knowing anything at all about it other than her presence.
Oh. I have to mention Rod Taylor and Audrey Dalton as a young unmarried couple staying at the inn back in the days when cohabitation by unmarried people was forbidden. The pair serve as comic relief and each appearance by them definitely produces a lot of humor. At the time Taylor's star was in ascendance and he only agreed to take the small role because he admired the script and the folk producing the movie.
If you can, catch the movie. Carole and I watched in on streaming video via the Filmstruck channel. I suppose it's available on other venues and DVD.
|Wendy Hiller as she appeared in the 1938 film "Pygmalion" and not the 1958 movie I watched tonight. But this is what she looked like the first movie in which I saw her. Yeah, love at first sight for me when I was a teenager.|