Saturday, 25 July 2009

W. Somerset Maugham

This long-lived and prolific British novelist, playwright, and short-story writer bequeathed a treasure trove of source material to both film and television, which is still being tapped today. Cinema versions of The Razor's Edge, Of Human Bondage, and the Painted Veil have been done and re-done, and Ashenden -- the Secret Agent -- continues to delight us. Several of his best short tales were sourced to provide three still-fine British compilation movies: Quartet (1948), Trio (1950), and Encore (1951). Apart from providing a Who's Who of acting talent from that period, the three also benefit from having Maugham himself on camera, introducing each collection.

Since these stories were originally written a quarter of a century or so before the movies were made, the attempt to update some rather dated behaviour to a contemporary setting does not always work, but that apart, all ten tales bring their enjoyment to the table. The first collection is probably the best of the bunch, with the young Dirk Bogarde's would-be pianist in 'The Alien Corn' and Nora Swinburne's unlikely literary cause de celebre in 'The Colonel's Lady' as the stand-out performances. The other two stories of a young tennis player proving that luck beats brains when enticed by a gold-digger in 'The Facts of Life' and George Cole as the young husband who refuses to support his wife after she destroys his precious kite (in the story of the same name) are also absorbing.

"Trio" has two charming stories in 'The Verger' where James Hayter becomes a successful businessman after being sacked from his church job for not being able to read and write and 'Mr. Knowall' where a boorish ship's passenger manages to annoy just about everyone but ends up nobly protecting a lady's honour. Unfortunately the third story, 'Sanitorium', takes up more than half of the film's running length and possibly marginally outstays its welcome, but is redeemed by a sweet turn from the very young Jean Simmons.

"Encore" also features three stories with, I felt, diminishing returns. The first 'The Ant and the Grasshopper' is a rather droll tale of wastrel Nigel Patrick ending up more successful than his very dull and careful brother. In 'Winter Cruise' -- another shipboard drama -- spinster Kay Walsh never stops chattering until the ship's officers on the return journey where she is the only passenger devise a scheme to divert her attention. Finally, in the story I liked least 'Gigolo and Gigolette', we have variety artist Glynis Johns beginning to lose her nerve for the high-dive act which she performs nightly with her husband for the thrill-hungry patrons of a Riviera club -- all waiting for her to fail and kill herself.

Despite any reservations outlined above, I can cheerfully recommend these three films to anyone looking for some mild diversion. Meanwhile, let us drink a toast to Mr. Maugham and his continued legacy.

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