A Severed Head (1971)

severedSo this is some kind of shocking Horror film, right? Er, well its certainly shocking. Seriously, I came into this (I’d never heard of it before, which in hindsight is not surprising) expecting a horror film or murder mystery, maybe something like a Hammer or Amicus film. Its actually a British comedy film, something to do with sexual politics, social etiquette… it was possibly one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen, utterly crazy and strange and…utterly impossible to sum up, really. Some kind of horror, certainly. Very British, back when that meant something, although quite what I’m not entirely sure. 

So whats it about, then? Well its set in the ‘present’ of 1971 but it seems wholly of the 1920s, something from that era. I’m sure even in 1971 it must have seemed terribly anachronistic, totally self-absorbed. In 2020? Crikey. The great Ian Holm, who sadly passed away not so long ago, stars in this looking very young with his film career long ahead of him, playing Martin Lynch-Gibbon, a wine merchant who is enjoying an affair with a mistress, Georgie (Jennie Linden), until his wife Antonia (Lee Remick), ignorant of Martins infidelity,  announces she is having an affair with Martins’ best friend, psychiatrist Palmer Anderson (Richard Attenborough) and that she wants a divorce. Palmer and Antonia’s biggest concern is that Martin doesn’t feel guilty about their affair, they must all stay good freinds. It seems everyone can behave like utter bastards, but the important thing is to be civil about it and don’t cause a fuss. I think Billy Wlder would have had a ball making a film like this, but er, it definitely is not the film Billy Wilder would have made.

severed2Well, what about the severed head, then? I really don’t know. Honor Klein (Claire Bloom) the enigmatic half-sister of Palmer (who Martin at one point finds in bed with Palmer, this is so messed up) makes some kind of speech quoting something about severed heads but it was lost on me. By the time she says it, Martin’s mistress is off with Martins brother Alexander (Clive Revell) and Martin is chasing after Honor despite her tryst with her half-brother whilst Palmer of course is supposedly living with Antonia. Utter cads, the lot of them, but at least they are polite. So very 1920s. Maybe its a study in self-obsessed people who are overwhelmed with self-gratification at the expense of all others, who think they can get away with being complete bastards as long as they are pleasant and civil about it. But how is that supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny in any sane world?

Er… Yes, exactly, Somehow its supposed to be funny, wildly sophisticated, maybe. The biggest shock is the cast- as you may have noted from my notes above, its a brilliant cast so badly wasted its almost criminal. Some of them seem to know they are in a farce, but perhaps director Dick Clement (yeah, he that wrote Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) hadn’t been told. Certainly I’m not so sure some of the cast were in on the joke.

Bet you came close to pressing the ‘Abort’ button. Yeah, oh boy so awfully close. Sometimes horrible calamities like this can be morbidly fascinating though, like you can’t quite believe what your eyes are seeing. 

Anything good about it? Well I did quite like the music score by Stanley Myers (who would later work on The Deer Hunter, of all things), an orchestral score which seemed to have a gentle, sweet, almost timeless life of its own within the film. It was the best thing about the film, for me. That music, and the frankly bizarre alien-world London of so long ago proved quite entertaining, but the latter’s true of any film of that era, its like some other world now, and quite oddly mesmerising. 

A Severed Head is on the Talking Pictures schedules should you feel the urge to hunt it down.



Bunny Lake is Missing

bunny1This was a strange, weird film – vaguely like Hitchcock, or certainly more Vertigo-like Hitchcock, in that on the surface it seems a psychological thriller but there’s always a feeling (for me, at least) of some murkier subtext underneath, in this case the vaguely incestuous implications of the brother/sister relationship that proves the centre-point of the film. Maybe I’m ‘seeing’ too much into it, can’t tell if the 1960s were more daring or more innocent than now (I suspect the former, it certainly seems of late that you could oddly ‘get away’ with more years ago now than today).

Its the first film I have seen directed by Otto Preminger, whose name is familiar to me from reading about Blu-ray releases over the years. While I don’t expect his other films to be similar to this odd movie, its certainly made me rather curious about seeking some of them out. I was quite impressed by much of the location photography in Bunny Lake is Missing, some of the camera moves were surprisingly mobile and kinetic- not that they took me out of the movie, but quite a few times I noticed a clever camera set-up or framing (albeit I watched the film recorded from the Sony Movies channel on Freeview and it was unfortunately cropped/zoomed in, a practice that I thought had been abolished in these wiser  times). Its a very well-made film, done a disservice by its treatment here (Indicator released the film on Blu-ray awhile ago, I expect it looks much better on that disc).

An American single-mother, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley),  recently settled in England is busy moving house when she hurriedly drops off her daughter, Bunny, for her first day at school. When she returns later that afternoon to pick her up, Bunny can’t be found, and nobody at the school has any recollection of her or record of Bunny being registered there.  The police are called in (a frankly magnificent understated performance by Lawrence Olivier here as the leader of the investigation, Superintendent Newhouse) but their investigations reveal no trace of the girl- indeed, upon further inquiries they find no sign the girl even existed, with no trace of her (clothes etc) at her home, and no photographs of her. Suspicion arises that the girl is only a fantasy of Ann’s, something hinted at by her brother Steven (Keir Dullea, rather removed from the 2001 role of his that I’m most familiar with) seemingly by accident. Is Anne indeed mentally disturbed or is something else going on?

bunny2In what is clearly the genius positioning of the film, the opening sequences are framed and edited so that when Anne is at the school dropping off her daughter, we never actually see her daughter (and to be honest, dumping a girl at a new school without finally saying a goodbye prior to leaving did seem odd) so that when suggestions arise that she ever existed, as a viewer it does seem to become a growing possibility. A few Hitchcockian misdirection’s are scattered through the film- Noel Coward’s mesmerising performance as the frankly unhinged landlord Horacio Wilson offers a few tantalising possibilities, from the supernatural (the spooky African masks on the apartment walls) to the frankly obscene (his frequent touching of Anne, overtures to her and his own flat with objects referencing the Marquis de Sade and torture fetishes etc) and the knowledge that its his apartment that Anne is renting so he has access to it makes him an area of suspicion. Comments from forensic scientists going through Anne’s flat remind us of the grislier possibilities of what happened to Bunny, and there is a frankly batty old lady living above the school full of odd possibilities herself.

It is indeed a very odd and rather fascinating film. When the final twist comes and we realise what is really going on… well, I find the need to be obtuse here, oddly enough, considering that this film is well over fifty years old so unlikely spoiler-territory fodder. But I think its here, when the film falters into traditional genre thriller mode, that it also becomes possibly more interesting, certainly even darker into Vertigo-like territory. Some of it is quite disturbing (there is a scene midway thought he film when Steven is in the bath and Anne walks into the bathroom, casually chatting to him while he’s naked in the bath and she lights him a cigarette, that felt odd to me and foreshadowed the twist).

A nod to Clive Revell here, who would later turn up in one of my favourite films, Billy Wilder’s Avanti!. Actually, overall I’d say the film features a great cast. I haven’t seen much of Carol Lynley before other than her role in The Poseidon Adventure of all things, and appearances in tv show guest spots in the 1970s  but she is very good here- and Keir Dullea really does feel far removed from the cold robot of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. All round a very interesting, even mildly disturbing, film.