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The Singer Not the Song
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The Singer Not the Song

By all rights, The Singer Not the Song, a 1961 philosophical Western set in Mexico, shouldn't have worked on any level. Both the director and the leading man felt themselves miscast. Nobody would mistake the rest of the cast, composed mostly of Englishmen, along with one French actress (Mylene Demongeot), of being Mexicans. And the production company, The Rank Organization, clearly screwed up big time when they refused to approach the one director who could have made something out of this tale of a priest (John Mills) and an outlaw (Dirk Bogarde) fighting for the soul of a Western town. Yet for all the mistakes in its production, The Singer Not the Song has developed a strong cult following partly because of the way star and director responded to a project they thought had disaster written all over it.

In 1961, director Roy Ward Baker was at the top of the British film industry on the strength of his 1958 A Night to Remember, often hailed as the best film ever made about the Titanic. Like many under contract to Great Britain's The Rank Organization, he was feeling stifled by the production company's relentlessly commercial approach to filmmaking. When the studio offered him the chance to adapt Audrey Erskine-Lindop's 1953 novel, he turned them down, claiming that he couldn't really understand the story because he wasn't Catholic. Instead, he suggested they offer the film to Spanish director Luis Buñuel, known for such surrealistic films as Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Los Olvidados (1950). Buñuel might have made a powerfully subversive film about the conflict between the worldly and the spiritual, and could have found all the irony in the Mexican thief's question about which is more important, the singer (the priest) or the song (the religion).

Instead of taking a chance, however, Rank simply gave Baker no choice in the matter. For over a year, they turned down everything he suggested filming, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), which would become a big hit for Albert Finney and director Karel Reisz. With no other prospects in view, he finally agreed to make The Singer Not the Song.

At least he had some consolation in the chance to work with his friend Mills, with whom he would make five films in all (he also directed Mills' daughter Hayley in the 1981 mini-series The Flame Trees of Thika). Although Mills had built a solid career in England by that time, internationally he was primarily known as the father of child star Hayley Mills, who had just won a special Juvenile Oscar® for her performance in Walt Disney's Pollyanna (1960). The Singer Not the Song gave him a chance to visit Spain while Hayley and her mother were in Hollywood working on The Parent Trap (1961) and his other daughter, Juliet, was appearing in Peter Schaffer's Five Finger Exercise on Broadway. During a break from filming, he witnessed his first bullfight, and was so repulsed he had to leave. He almost triggered an international incident when he hit a young Spaniard who found his reaction to the bullfight funny.

But the real problem with The Singer Not the Song -- or the real blessing, depending upon your perspective -- was the casting of British matinee idol Bogarde as the Mexican bandit Anacleto. Like Baker, Bogarde was forced to take the film because of his contract with Rank. The ideal choice, many thought, would have been Marlon Brando, but the studio either couldn't or wouldn't cast him. Bogarde responded to his absurd casting by camping it up in the role. He decided to play the character as being in love with the priest, and Baker let him do it. It was Bogarde's decision to dress the character in tight leather pants. With long, lingering glances at Mills and unexpected line readings, he created a clear picture of a gay man more spurned in love than fighting for control of a town. His over-the-top performance has won The Singer Not the Song a cult following over the years, particularly among gay critics and fans fascinated with covert expressions of homosexuality in films made before censorship began to loosen.

Ironically, Bogarde was himself gay, but heavily closeted. Though he lived with his manager/partner Anthony Forwood (a former husband of actress Glynis Johns) for most of his adult life, he publicly denied his sexuality. Yet he also had the courage to play such pioneering roles as the closeted lawyer in Victim (1961), the first British film to deal openly with homosexuality; the seductive gentleman's gentleman in The Servant (1963); and the aging composer infatuated with a young man in Death in Venice (1971). What freed him to do such roles, ultimately, was the expiration of his Rank contract in the early '60s, at which time he decided to devote himself primarily to more challenging roles in independent films.

Also of interest about The Singer Not the Song is the way it anticipates the spaghetti Westerns of director Sergio Leone and star Clint Eastwood, which would appear the next year with A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Not only did the film share Leone's use of Spain as a stand-in for the American West, but Philip Green's sparse, tough score, composed mostly of themes for each major character, anticipated Ennio Morricone's work on the Leone films.

Producer-Director: Roy Ward Baker
Screenplay: Nigel Balchin
Based on the novel by Audrey Erskine-Lindop
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Art Direction: Alex Vetchinsky
Music: Philip Green
Principal Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Anacleto), John Mills (Father Keogh), Mylene Demongeot (Locha), Laurence Naismith (Old Uncle), John Bentley (Chief of Police), Eric Pohlmann (Presidente). C-132m.

by Frank Miller VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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