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Writer director Arthur Dreifuss made a rare foray into A productions with the 1962 prison drama The Quare Fellow, adapted from Brendan Behan's first play. Although he and co-writer Jacqueline Sundstrom made some significant changes to the original, The Quare Fellow remains a fascinating look at life in a Dublin prison and contains one of Patrick McGoohan's best leading performances.
Behan's 1954 play had become an international sensation when produced by Joan Littlewood's improvisational Theatre Workshop in 1957. It told of the reactions among convicts in an Irish prison to the arrival of a "quare fellow," an unseen prisoner condemned to death for a crime never discussed, though it clearly is an object of disgust to the other men. With its claustrophobic atmosphere and liberal use of Irish slang and folk music, the play captivated audiences and launched Behan on his brilliant though tragically short career.
One of England's greatest producers, Anthony Havelock-Allan, picked up the film rights, hoping to add the picture to a string of hits that included Noel Coward's World War II drama In Which We Serve  and David Lean's acclaimed Brief Encounter (1945, from a Coward play). He turned the production over to Arthur Dreifuss, a German-born director who had spent most of his career in Hollywood directing and occasionally writing B movies like Eadie Was a Lady , with Ann Miller, and Boston Blackie's Rendezvous . Most recently, Dreifuss had been working with producer Sam Katzman on such drive-in fodder as Life Begins at 17  and Juke Box Rhythm .
In adapting the play, Dreifuss and Sundstrom turned Behan's rollicking folk drama into a social-problem film focusing on the evils of capital punishment. Although they kept much of his prison atmosphere and, as in the play, kept the main convicted prisoner unseen, he opened the story up with scenes set outside the prison and shifted the focus from the ensemble to a new prison guard (McGoohan) who starts out believing in capital punishment and, through his involvement in the quare fellow's case, comes to change his views. The most extreme changes, however, related to the condemned man's crime, which is clearly defined as a murder committed in a moment of passion. To accommodate that change, Dreifuss added a female lead to the all-male play, casting popular film star Sylvia Syms as the condemned man's bitter, hard-drinking wife whose involvement with McGoohan could bring out a secret capable of changing the man's sentence.
One wise move Havelock-Allan and Dreifuss made was shooting The Quare Fellow on location in County Wicklow, Ireland, giving the picture an air of authenticity. Adding to that atmosphere was Peter Hennessey's stark black-and-white cinematography.
The film's greatest asset, however, was McGoohan's performance in the leading role. McGoohan was working extensively in film and television and on stage at the time, and had won a British Academy Award for his television work in 1960. He also had spent a year in the popular British series Danger Man, which would be revived in 1964 and sold in U.S. syndication as Secret Agent. His role as Crimmin in The Quare Fellow was a distinct change of pace from his stage typecasting as angry young men and his usual film roles as fiery troublemakers. Also, the role of a farm-raised Irishman allowed him to draw on his roots in rural Ireland (although he had been born in the U.S., his parents had returned to Ireland while he was still young).
The Quare Fellow received solid reviews in both England, where it received the British Producers' Association Award for Best Film, and the U.S, with many critics hailing its sense of atmosphere, McGoohan's performance and the work of the supporting cast. The film's only drawback, in the eyes of many critics, was the unnecessary and poorly rendered supporting performance by Sylvia Syms. Nonetheless, the film did not move Dreifuss permanently into top productions. He would soon return to work with Katzman, directing exploitation fare such as Riot on Sunset Strip  until his retirement in 1968. McGoohan, however, would continue building his career with the second run of Danger Man and the cult television hit The Prisoner.
Producer: Anthony Havelock-Allan
Director: Arthur Dreifuss
Screenplay: Dreifuss, Jacqueline Sundstrom
Based on the play by Brendan Behan
Cinematography: Peter Hennessy
Art Direction: Ted Marshall
Music: Alexander Faris
Principal Cast: Patrick McGoohan (Thomas Crimmin), Sylvia Syms (Kathleen), Walter Macken (Regan), Dermot Kelly (Donnelly), Jack Cunningham (Chief Warder), Hilton Edwards (Holy Healy), Philip O'Flynn (Prison Governor), Leo McCabe (Dr. Flyn), Norman Rodway (Lavery).
by Frank Miller