Saturday, August 13, 2011

Grey Clothing, Black Morals

Film: The Man in Grey
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I wonder sometimes how a film gets made. Take, for instance, the case of Leslie Arliss’s The Man in Grey. When this film was made, England was at war with Germany, and it was very much a hot war. England had suffered through Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. Bombings in London were a constant affair, and civilian death tolls rose constantly. And in the middle of this, Arliss created a costume drama about a sadistic member of the ruling class and the petty jealousies of a couple of women. When the need for morale boosting and propaganda was at its height…they made this? I just don’t get it. It just feels so counterproductive, like it should have come five years earlier or five years later.

This film is bookended by a modern story, but this bookend isn’t important except that it connects the main story to the modern day, and in this case a connection to the war. Regardless, it’s only the first few and last few minutes, and this doesn’t truly impact the actual story in any way.

The main story concerns two women: Clarissa Richmond (Phyllis Calvert) and Hesther Shaw (Margaret Lockwood). Hesther is a woman from a fallen family who has taken a job as an assistant schoolmarm at a prestigious school for wealthy young women while Clarissa is a student at the school, and essentially minor nobility. Hesther dislikes Clarissa immediately, but over time, the two become friends. In fact, they become such close friends that when Hesther runs away and marries a poor ensign and thus disgraces herself in the eyes of the school, Clarissa leaves rather than stay in a place in which Hesther’s name has become taboo.

Clarissa eventually marries the eponymous Man in Grey, a Lord Rohan (James Mason). Rohan is a rake and a misanthropist who has fought (and survived) more duels than any three other men. There is no love between the couple. Rohan marries Clarissa to procure an heir for the family while Clarissa consents to the marriage to please her godmother. Hesther doesn’t stay away long from the picture; she returns under her married name as part of an acting troupe. She claims to be widowed, and Clarissa seeks to find her a place in her household. Clarissa also meets another of the actors, a man named Peter Rokeby (Stewart Granger).

As it turns out, Hesther is widowed, but not in the way she claimed. She left her husband almost immediately because of his lack of wealth. Rohan knows this, and is mildly attracted to it. Hesther and Rohan begin an affair just as Peter and Clarissa begin one, making an uncomfortable love trapezoid. While Clarissa plots to leave with a man who truly loves her, Hesther plots to take the place of her friend as the lady of the Rohan family.

Of course, we learn in the bookends that the young officer is a descendant of Rokeby and the young woman is a descendant of Clarissa Richmond. In fact, the two parts are played by the same actors, and we’re led to believe that this chance meeting between them might well lead to some new connection between the two families.

As I said at the top, my biggest question is how the hell this movie got made when it was. Who on Earth thought that a Regency-era costume drama about a backstabbing woman and a lady of the minor nobility both involved with a sadistic bastard had anything to do with what was going on at the time? It feels completely out of place, almost like a film that had been contracted to be made and was then forced into production simply because it had to be. Why depict the upper society of England as bastards? Why create a movie for the war-weary British populace about a savage man who acts in terrible ways? This may in fact be the purpose of the bookended story here, since the tale told here is at least more upbeat and positive than the main story.

One of the more interesting moments in the film comes at the start when a gypsy fortune teller arrives at the school and Hesther and Clarissa rush to the kitchen to have their fortunes told. Clarissa is told that she will marry a grey man, but that her true love will come from somewhere else. She is also told to avoid the company of women, because she will never have a friend among women. The fortune tell then refuses to tell the fortune of Hesther—as if she can foresee that Hesther will be the cause of Clarissa’s troubles later in life. And so, it’s an interesting moment in the movie, but one that seems to presage far too much—there’s no shock when Hesther turns out to be conniving and wicked, repaying Clarissa’s kindness with scheming.

It is a lovely picture, and little more. The settings are sumptuous and gorgeous, as are the costumes and even the women’s hair. But the story is cruel and ultimately sort of average and predictable. Were it not for the beauty of the film, there would be nothing here to recommend it, and even that doesn’t hold a whole hell of a lot of water with me. The real reason to watch this is to look at it, not to care about it, and there are plenty of better movies that are just as attractive to the eye.

As a penultimate note, Clarissa's servant Toby (Harry Scott) couldn't be more annoying if he had been directed to be as annoying as possible.

As a final note, this is another in the list of films that is incredibly difficult to find. There's a version floating around YouTube these days. It's not a great version and the sound has some loud humming in places, but one takes what one can get, no?

Why to watch The Man in Grey: It’s pretty.
Why not to watch: It feels like the wrong film at the wrong time.


  1. Interesting point. I guess the purpose was escapism. To let the audience dream away into a different time with heroes and heroines and bad, bad villains. I guess all the British could not think war all the time and needed some distraction. My surprise is that the production quality is pretty high for a wartime picture. It took quite some resources to make this film.

    1. Yeah, I can buy that completely. But if you need a distraction from war, why in hell would you want a picture about a complete bastard who 1) acts exactly like your propaganda about the enemy says the enemy acts, and 2) pretty much gets away with it?

    2. You got me there. Seem counter productive.

    3. Which is why I guessed that this one may have been contractually obligated in some way.

  2. The Man in Grey is pretty impressive for a 1943 British film. There are a few British classics from this period, but I tend to shy away from older British films because they're often kind of dull and creaky. But I really enjoyed he Man in Grey. It's no Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but I was intrigued the whole way through, especially by James Mason's eccentric performance and also by the sold calculating evil Hester! What a performance. When she kills Clarissa, she has that moment where her face shows a little remorse, but it's just so quickly smothered by that look of triumph where she thinks she's now going to get what she wants. Chilling!

    1. Not really a fan of this one, which is sad because I love just about anything with James Mason in it. Cruelty and predictability aren't a good combination for me.