Monday, 28 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 74: Cage of Gold (1950)

Given I hadn’t see it, my description (in the last blog post) of this film as another of Ealing’s women-centred films might not be the most accurate description of this crime / psychological drama. That’s not to say that Judith Moray (Jean Simmons) isn’t at the heart of this film, but rather that unlike The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947) or It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) there is no real community of women, or spectrum of female characters, underpinning the drama. The closest we get here is Judy’s maid / nanny, Waddy (Gladys Henson) but we rarely see them together, or sharing confidences.

Judy Moray is a young, seemingly carefree, artist in London, whose burgeoning romance with reliable Dr Alan Kearn (James Donald) is torpedoed by a chance meeting with her first love, bad boy Bill Glennan (David Farrar). Thinking back to Joanna Godden and It Always Rains on Sunday, Judy’s dilemma mirrors Jo/Ellen and Rose/Vi/Doris, pulled between reliability and excitement, traditional values and shiny consumerism (or, possibly, as the film expresses it in terms of 1950s radio, between the Third Programme and ‘comics and crooners’). Judy opts for champagne and social whirl, but pays for it when, pregnant and newly married, Bill discovers her family isn’t wealthy anymore and abandons her, heading back to his Parisian lover Marie Jouvet (Madeleine Lebeau) and the life of a conman/gigolo/blackmailer. Judy goes to Alan for help and, after they see Bill’s name in a list of dead passengers in a plane crash, he marries her and they set up a solid middle-class life in Battersea. Bill, of course, isn’t dead and comes back to haunt Judy’s new life, stoking up Alan’s jealousy and Judy’s happiness, until he is shot dead, apparently by Judy. A quick investigation of Alan and Judy’s conflicting stories by Inspector Grey (Bernard Lee, playing Jack Warner’s usual role as the avuncular but stern detective) soon reveals an unlikely third truth...

Judy, then, is at the centre of this story, but she is rarely in control and is buffeted between the poles of Alan and Bill. She never embraces her independence in the manner of Joanna or Rose in those earlier films – we know she is an artist, but the only thing we see her paint is a portrait of Bill, and despite seeing a magazine article saying her work has been ‘highly praised’ by critics, it remains a ‘hobby’ (the magazine’s picture of Judy and her son defines her ‘real’ job) – and she can’t even kill Bill, and is instead freed from Bill’s influence by a murder of extreme convenience (Marie just happens to be near his flat at the same time as Judy and Alan, and sneaks in to kill him, with the gun Judy dropped). As for Marie, she is one of two continental women who feature in the film’s Parisian interludes. Marie is a singer at the Cage of Gold club, run by her ex-lover Rahman (the great Herbert Lom, underused here), and Bill’s haunt when in Paris. Here, Bill also meets and romances Antoinette Duport (Maria Mauban), hoping for a large payout from her father (Grégoire Aslan) to leave town. These one-dimensional French women seem to be there as set-dressing or spectacle (Marie wears a series of glamorous gowns, is shown singing in her introductory sequence), or to suggest a continental attitude to sex that is less puritan than Britain? Either way, with no interaction between these three women, they serve mainly to define Bill as sexual and desirable.

David Farrar is a suitably convincing lothario, and oozes his way around the screen whenever given the opportunity, but his cad is rarely more interesting than the women who flock around him. James Donald is given even less to do, although his rising jealousy in the final act does at least push beyond the solid and reliable caricature he provides early on. As for Jean Simmons, she is the reason why Judy remains interesting despite the narrative’s twists. She carries several scenes through expression alone – fear and desire when she sees Bill again, amusement at Alan’s inability to perform simple household tasks, rising panic when he returns from the dead – and the interplay between her and Farrar does create a few necessary sparks to root that relationship.

Returning to a theme throughout these blog posts, the film benefits from some excellent location work – starting off in Piccadilly Circus and in the tube station beneath, as well as some brief scenes on the streets of Paris – and shows off director Basil Dearden and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s visual composition, using expressionist lighting and strong fog-infused scenes, particularly towards the end as Judy confronts Bill. The small and personal nature of the drama – a three-hander between Alan, Bill and Judy – is also emphasised through camera framing, with noticeably cramped and claustrophobic shots of Bill and Judy (when he fishes for information on her family’s money) and Alan and Bill (when Bill stokes the doctor’s jealousy). There are strong uses of soundtrack – a Punch & Judy show (an obvious choice, perhaps, given the character’s name) that echoes in Judy’s head; a discordant piano being tuned in the background of one of the Cage of Gold scenes, as Rahman tries to get Marie to leave Bill – while the film’s visual emblem (the bird in a cage signalled under the opening credits) is used as both a literal and metaphoric prop. The Cage of Gold club features an impressive piece of set design, with a huge bird cage in the middle of the club, in which pianist Victor (Léo Ferre) and Marie perform, while the idea of enclosure and capture plays out through Bill’s ability to trap women. (when he leaves Marie, again, she is pictured within that cage, powerless)

On the whole, then, this is a solid piece of filmmaking, but one that doesn’t take the time to develop its female roles as well as some of the recent films covered in the blog. That is not to say that all Ealing films need to fulfil that role – after all, The Feminine Touch is a later example that does as little with its male characters – simply that this feels like a missed opportunity to deepen the film’s appeal.
[UPDATED April 2014: Cage of Gold is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 3, from Network]

Next time, we continue to look at Ealing's women with Mai Zetterling in Frieda (1947)...

No comments:

Post a Comment