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Although anthology films persist to this day (The Red Violin, Sin City, Paris, je t'aime), their reception has been spotty. The champion of this Cinderella form, after all these years, remains Quartet (1948) and the two sequels it spawned, Trio (1950) and Encore (1952). All are groupings of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham, who hosts on camera from his villa on the Riviera with no sign of his famous stammer; he's the soul of mandarin urbanity. In Encore, he looks into the camera and disarmingly tells us: "You probably are beginning to think I fancy myself a film star." Well, we do, and he is, although, ever the unsparing realist, he placed himself in the first row of the second-raters.
Still, a cat-licking-the-cream quality emerges from beneath the modest, gentlemanly demeanor of the on-screen author. Maugham (1874-1965) was one of the most commercially successful authors ever. His novels, short stories, plays, and more than 100 film and TV adaptations made him one of the wealthiest and most widely known of writers, and naturally earned him the disdain of the literary and critical establishments, who dismissed him as hopelessly middlebrow. Among his remarks in Quartet is a passage from his autobiographical The Summing Up: "In my twenties the critics said I was brutal, in my thirties they said I was flippant, in my forties they said I was cynical, in my fifties they said I was incompetent and then in my sixties they said I was superficial."
Nobody ever accused him of being sentimental. He was born in Paris, spent most of his life outside England, yet lived there long enough to reap the benefits of a miserable, emotionally isolated childhood and young manhood. He was an emotional expatriate as well as a literal one, a sharp-eyed observer, so much so that he was actually recruited into real-life World War I espionage an experience he incorporated, like everything else, into his fiction. Externally, the four stories in Quartet are different. Yet all seem to be delivered from the same vantage point -- that of a sharp-eyed sniper engaged in guerrilla warfare against stuffy, suffocating aspects of English life. They also have in common what can most softly be described as a wary view of women, although his women here aren't as fierce as in his novels Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge.
All four stories The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite, The Colonel's Lady -- were scripted by R.C. Sherriff (himself a playwright, Sherriff had the good sense to retain much of Maugham's dialogue), with four different directors. Three of the stories are stylish anecdotes. The Facts of Life (director: Ralph Smart) is little more than a vignette: Basil Radford's clubman is wracked with anxiety at the idea of his collegiate son (Jack Watling) going to Monte Carlo for a tennis tournament, certain that the boy will be ensnared. He is, by Mai Zetterling's gold-digger, who hones in on him during a casino interlude like a heat-seeking missile. But a surprise ending confounds some (especially the old man) and delights others. The secondary aspect of the tennis story hook provides the suite of stories with its match-point metaphor, with men on one side of the net and women on the other.
The skies darken in The Alien Corn (director: Harold French). It centers on an aspiring concert pianist played by a soulful, intense young Dirk Bogarde. His wealthy family is nudging him toward the family business. His would-be fiance (Honor Blackman) is nudging him toward marriage. Neither is a direction in which he wants to go. So he strikes a bargain. He'll isolate himself in Paris for two years studying the piano. Then he'll sit for an audition, at the end of which he'll either be validated, and keep going, or forget his dreams and yield to the expectations of those around him. Blackman does well in the ungrateful role of the genteel but stifling fiance, relentlessly steering the man she loves to what for him would be bourgeois hell.
Bogarde is affecting in a role more difficult than initially apparent. Laudably, he and director French bring to their gauging of the sound of his pianism the precise degree of rightness without which the story would collapse his Chopin is good, and replete with conviction, but just audibly heavy-handed enough to suggest that the young man's sensitivity of soul may not extend to his fingertips. Magnificent is the only word for Francoise Rosay's dignified, seasoned concert professional, brought on to render judgment. In every flicker of her eyes we believe she is a worldly, experienced figure, both sentient and commanding. So magisterial is she that the way matters play out after she renders her verdict seems almost anti-climactic. When she leaves the room, something leaves the picture.
The Kite (director: Arthur Crabtree) takes another dim view of marriage. It opens comedically, even farcically, with a newly married clerk (George Cole) in jail for leaving and refusing to support his new wife (Susan Shaw) because she destroyed his prize kite. Too dim to realize that in marrying a domineering woman, he was in part replicating the female model provided by his engulfing mother (a pungent caricature by Hermione Baddeley), he returns home, dismissing marriage as a bad idea, never to be embraced again. This is music to the ears of his mother, delighted to have her boy home again, assuring him that his room is ready and that he can go right on replicating his boyhood, wings (or in this case, kite) unclipped. Sensing that such a pronounced flight from the horrors of marriage would not win audience favor, Sherriff rewrote the ending, reuniting the young couple, far from convincingly. Still, Cole as the lower middle-class Peter Pan remains engaging in his obtuseness.
Not that he's any match in the obtuseness department to Cecil Parker's smug old Blimp in The Colonel's Lady (director Ken Annakin). It never occurs to Taylor's fogbound harrumpher why he gets little sympathy from his cronies at his club, or even his mistress, when he sputters with outrage upon discovering that the author of London's biggest erotic best-seller since Lady Chatterley's Lover is his mousy wife. Shocked out of his complacency and his obliviousness to the woman he's been married to for years, he's perhaps most insufferable when, asked by his lawyer whether he wants a divorce on the grounds that she must have cuckolded him, he replies, "Certainly not," on the grounds that he's been inconvenienced enough and that she runs the house seamlessly.
The short story has a bittersweet comic ending, with the husband wondering what the other man saw in her. The film rewrites this to a less bleak view, as Nora Swinburne's long-suffering spouse tells her outraged husband that the lover of her fictional best-seller is him, in his younger, more passionate days. Another less than idyllic view of marriage as the death of passion, made palatable by Swinburne's quiet, dignified, simpatico character, and by Parker at least having the grace to squirm with shame when he learns the truth. Parker and Swinburne get most of the emotive dimension in the stylish, idiomatically assured Quartet and handle it flawlessly. Bogarde and Rosay shine, too. Still, it's Maugham himself, smiling like a Cheshire cat, who looms largest over the lot.
Producer: Antony Darnborough
Directors: Ken Annakin, (segment "The Colonel's Lady"), Arthur Crabtree (segment "The Kite"), Harold French (segment "The Alien Corn"), Ralph Smart (segment "The Facts of Life")
Screenplay: R.C. Sherriff; W. Somerset Maugham (stories "The Alien Corn," "The Colonel's Lady," "The Facts of Life," "The Kite")
Cinematography: Ray Elton; Reginald H. Wyer (segment "The Colonel's Lady")
Music: John Greenwood
Film Editing: Jean Barker, A. Charles Knott
Cast: W. Somerset Maugham (himself, host), Basil Radford (Henry Garnet, segment "The Facts of Life"), Naunton Wayne (Leslie, segment "The Facts of Life"), Ian Fleming (Ralph, segment "The Facts of Life"), Jack Raine (Thomas, segment "The Facts of Life"), Angela Baddeley (Mrs. Garnet, segment "The Facts of Life"), James Robertson Justice (Branksome, segment "The Facts of Life"), Jack Watling (Nicky, segment "The Facts of Life"), Nigel Buchanan (John, segment "The Facts of Life"), Mai Zetterling (Jeanne, segment "The Facts of Life"), Dirk Bogarde (George Bland, segment "The Alien Corn").
by Jay Carr
The Summing Up, W. Somerset Maugham, Penguin, 1946
Somerset Maugham: A Life, Jeffrey Meyers, Knopf, 2004
Somerset Maugham, Anthony Curtis, Macmillan, 1977
So You Wanna Be a Director?, Ken Annakin, Tomahawk Press, 2001
The Cinema of Dirk Bogarde, Margaret Hinxman and Susan d'Arcy, Literary Services & Production, London, 1974