Watching old movies, it’s like looking through the lens of a time machine, and can become a rather sobering experience at times. I’ve written about this before- watching an old film, being curious about an actor that I’ve just seen, looking them up on the internet, suddenly reading of an entire life and career summed up in a paragraph. How can an entire life be summed up within a few lines? Of course it can’t, it just leaves us with a tantalizing glimpse, and its human nature to just try fill in those gaps, haunted by those images from films, of lives frozen at that moment, actors/actresses unaware of the futures ahead of them that we can read now, looking back. In some ways it offers a horrifying perspective. Not every story ends well.
Last night I watched The Full Treatment (review coming later), another Hammer film from the recent Indicator Hammer boxset, and I was fascinated, somehow, by the performance of Ronald Lewis in the lead role. To a degree it was one of those have I/where have I seen him before? moments, but I must say I was very impressed by him in The Full Treatment, hamstrung slightly by an awkward script, and thought he looked a good leading man for the time. In looks he reminded me a little of the great Jack Lemmon. I suppose I was just curious why I hadn’t seen him in any other Hammer films, as Hammer seemed to have a group of actors that it used in so many films (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing perhaps the most famous, but many other actors continually resurfaced in minor roles), and it seemed odd that Lewis didn’t get used by them in other films (as it turned out, I learned that he turned up in another two Hammer films, The Taste of Fear, which I haven’t seen and is apparently superior to The Full Treatment and was much more successful. So Hammer did use him again, Lewis later appearing in 1965’s The Brigand of Kandahar, another Hammer I have not seen).
There was something, though, seeing The Full Treatment, and Ronald Lewis in his presumed prime, frozen in time over fifty years ago. So here again, obituaries offer glimpses of entire lives: Ronald Lewis, born 11 December 1928 in Port Talbot, Glamorgan (which would make him about 31 when he was filming The Full Treatment) died 11th January 1982, aged just 53, having committed suicide- a drugs overdose, likely connected to having been declared bankrupt the year before. His life summed up as being a Welsh actor most famous for his work in the 1950s and 1960s, his films and television appearances listed. Its inferred he suffered from a drinking problem, with bad press from having allegedly assaulted his wife in 1965, and his career suffered a decline arising either from his bad image or his drinking affecting his work. IMDb alleges that ‘he was known as an aggressive and perhaps unstable man, with a history of violence towards others, including women’. Two marriages, one child.
So who was Ronald Lewis? Of course, I have no real idea, and after so many years most of those who knew him are likely gone, too. Just the clues left, his life beyond those images from The Full Treatment summed up by a few scant lines. With The Full Treatment his career was still on the rise, a leading man in British film, a career soon to take a bad turn into slow decline, bankruptcy and suicide. But somehow he lives forever in film, frozen in time- in The Full Treatment, it will always be 1960.
In 1962, Lewis appeared in Twice Around the Daffodils, with Kenneth Williams, who in his diary dated 12th January 1982 reflected on the news of Lewis’ passing: “The paper says Ronald Lewis has taken an overdose! He was declared bankrupt last year! Obviously nobody offered him work & he was driven to despair. I remember Ronnie… and that drinking session at the White Horse all those years ago… he was a kind boy & people used him. He was 53.”
Watching old movies, it’s like looking through the lens of a time machine, and yes, it can be a sobering experience, measuring those years, catching glimpses of the lives on that screen.