The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

When it’s on: Sunday, 20 August (8.00 pm)
Channel: London Live
IMDb Link

Roger Moore passed away in May this year, aged 89. It’s a personal regret that I had the opportunity to see him during his recent ‘An Evening With’ tour and turned it down. My feelings about his acting might be mixed, but I have a great deal of affection for the man and very much enjoyed both his autobiography and Last Man Standing, a collection of anecdotes about his peers that verged on the lovably scurrilous. The impression I get is that he was a lot of fun, didn’t take himself seriously and would have been very good value on the stage, recounting memories from his storied days as a major star.

There’s an enormous body of his work from the small and large screen in existence. It’s impossible to get beyond his lengthy stint as James Bond of course, and while I feel his entries have dated rather badly the truth of it is that I grew up with him playing and therefore being 007. Before then, he was probably best known for depicting Simon Templar aka The Saint, though neither role stretched him as a performer and Moore himself noted that playing The Man Who Haunted Himself gave him a lot more to do. It’s certainly a welcome film to write about, and one that hints there was a lot more to ‘Rog’ than a pair of performing eyebrows. As he wrote in My Word is My Bond, ‘I always reflect that it was one of the few times I was allowed to act.’

Moore plays Harold ‘Pel’ Pelham, a stuffy and conservative city worker who, while driving home after work, becomes strangely possessed with a devil may care attitude and starts speeding along the motorway. A strange smile plays on his face as he weaves his Rover dangerously through the traffic. Then he crashes, and it’s serious enough for him to need life or death surgery. During the operation he dies for a moment, and after successfully resuscitating him the surgeons briefly find two heartbeats appearing on the monitor. Pel recovers. He returns to his family, his two young children and his wife Eve (Hildegard Neil), with whom he suffers the middle aged tragedy of a marriage that has long since lost its spark. In work, the business in which he’s a partner, he’s in opposition to a mooted merger, and how much it’s worth depends on the non-revelation of a top secret technical development that he’s working on. But strange things start to happen. Colleagues report on activities they’ve enjoyed with him; he has no memory of them, also they’re completely out of character. He learns that the rival firm in the merger now has his support, and worse still that he’s involved in a romantic affair with a sexy young woman (Olga Georges-Picot). He starts investigating these queer happenstances, finding no answers and only more questions as it appears he’s now leading a double life and the other ‘him’ bears no relation to his habits and attitudes.

What makes it all work is Moore himself, playing against type as an increasingly angst-ridden and bewildered lead, growing more disheveled and distressed. At one point, convinced he is going mad, he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, where he’s treated by Freddie Jones’s offbeat Doctor who tells him his predicament is a result of repressed sexual neuroses. The plot seems to be building to a rational explanation – Pel is ailing from some sort of schizophrenia, or a doppelganger is posing as him and taking over his life. However, it’s to the film’s credit that it’s going exactly in the direction it’s been hinting at all along, leading to a conclusion that is both unsettling and comedic in the blackest sense. Moore essentially takes on two roles, the unhinged man whose closed world is collapsing before his eyes, and the kind of character we’re used to seeing in The Saint, only here he’s sinister because we know something isn’t right. It’s good stuff and the actor is clearly relishing that he gets to put in a nuanced and complicated performance that’s outside his normal shtick. By the end he’s like no Roger Moore we’ve ever seen – way beyond his comfort zone, delirious, on the edge of insanity.

The Man Who Haunted Himself was not a big hit when it was released. It was a product of EMI Studios, made on a £200,000 budget with its cast and crew agreeing to take low salaries in order to reduce costs. EMI boasted about its economical approach to movie making; Moore felt this was as though it was flaunting the film’s cheapness, which served to put off members of the paying public. A shame. While it’s possible to view it as a bit of a schlocker, it’s well made and hosts some fantastic turns from a great ensemble cast – Anton Rodgers plays Pel’s business partner who’s witnessing his friend’s personality changes; Thorley Walters shows up as a bluff old cove, clearly someone Pel has tried to distance himself from previously but is now moving back into his orbit.

It’s directed by Basil Dearden, at the end of his lengthy career serving the British film industry and doing a fine job with the little he had to work with. Dearden shows us much of contemporary London, the faded glories and dark streets of Hitchcock’s Frenzy, and he keeps the action moving at a decent pace, at first just teasing at something being out of place before steadily building up the moments that plague poor Pel. If there are shades of an episode of The Twilight Zone to it all, then that probably harks back to Anthony Armstrong’s source novel, The Strange Case of Mr Pelham, which was adapted in the 1950s for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  It doesn’t suffer for its longer form here. Sadly, Dearden died shortly after making it, ironically in a car crash that took place on the stretch of the M4 where the early scenes of The Man Who Haunted Himself were filmed, these too depicting a near fatal accident.

The Man Who Haunted Himself: ***

Victim (1961)

When it’s on: Thursday, 12 July (12.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Today’s matinée scheduling of Victim is a sign of the times. When it was made in 1961, this was a brave and controversial picture that turned people away thanks to its subject matter yet won critical acclaim and over time did much good.

Victim is on one level a crime film about blackmail, but it’s the people being extorted who matter. The early scenes are dominated by Boy Barrett (Peter McEnery), on the run for stealing money from his employer. Yet Barrett has little to show for his thievery and it emerges he needs the cash to pay off blackmailers. Largely shunned by those he turns to for help, the man ends up getting arrested and subsequently hangs himself in his police cell, just before the photographic evidence linking him with Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) can become public. Remorseful over Barrett’s death, Farr resolves to bring the blackmailers to justice, knowing full well that taking them to court will almost certainly spell the end of his prestigious legal career. Farr, despite his marriage to Laura (Sylvia Syms), is a closeted homosexual, and in early sixties’ Britain, ‘sexual behaviour between men’ was still very much a criminal act.

Gay people had never before been represented on the screen the way they were in Victim. Whilst the film comes across as sympathetic, what it really does is emphasise their normality, their very averageness. They present no threat to society, instead living their ordinary lives and forced to keep their sexuality a secret. As a distant study of repressed Britain, Victim pulls no punches. It must simply have been torturous to be homosexual and alive in such an era.

Bogarde wasn’t the first actor to be approached for the lead role. Jack Hawkins, who had worked with director Basil Dearden in the previous year’s The League of Gentleman, discretely turned it down. Others in the running included James Mason and Stewart Granger, and Bogarde was nobody’s idea of first choice after starring in a string of films that played up to his good, clean movie star looks. As it was, he relished the change. Bogarde was pushing 40 and sick of being offered parts for clean cut, younger men. His dignified performance in Victim – watch his face when the sympathetic Detective Inspector played by John Barrie speaks the word ‘homosexual’, the first time it had been uttered in a film – is revelatory. He plays Farr as a man weighed down with the burden of feelings he can’t express, which peels away cautiously as other characters accept him all the same.

The best bits are those between Bogarde and Syms. The pain expressed by both characters is right there on the screen, also the confusion over the fact they continue to have feelings for each other. By the end, the impression is of relief that theirs is an honest relationship, within which they can draw strength from each other.

Despite a wordy script, Dearden never lets Victim get suffocated with the weight of its political baggage. At heart, it’s still a crime flick, and whether that’s down to not overloading the audience with its ‘message’ or intending to make a thriller that just happens to focus on gays being blackmailed, the slow-burning tension is brought nicely to the boil. At the close, Barrie explains to Bogarde that he doesn’t have feelings about ‘this law against homosexuality [being] the blackmailer’s charter’, which suggests there was still some way to go before the law and, perhaps more importantly, the public attitude changed.

Victim: ***