Reintroduction #3: Quartet (1948)
First Seen in: 2009
Slice-of-life vignettes don’t come around too often, so the decision to film four of W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories offer a relatively rare opportunity that I always jump for. These are stories within stories about learning lessons, the inability to compromise and the endless divides and desires of men and women. Each story is mild in execution and extreme in calculated observance, making for an under-recognized and charming low-key British treasure. Each story has recognizable scenarios in a broad sense, but none comfortably align to a full-length film parallel, making these specific stories feel new and untried. I was so pleasantly surprised by Quartet that I ended up buying the VHS copy I rented from my old video store before it went out of business in 2009, when I first saw the film. I’ll write a little about each vignette in the order they appear. All are competently directed by different people, with the subject matter of each largely dictating tone. There is also a bevy of British character actors to feast upon, including some favorites like Dirk Bogarde, Hermione Baddeley and Linden Travers. There were two sequels released titled Trio and Encore. Both Quartet and Encore are currently on Instant Netflix.
“The Facts of Life” (Dir: Ralph Smart)
Three times out of four, these are stories told by third-party characters who are introduced just a minute beforehand. This deepens our layer of involvement and extends the notion that these are stories being related after the fact. A disheartened man named Henry (Basil Radford) is concerned about his son Nicky (Jack Watling) and tells his friends the story of why. The teenage Nicky goes to Monte Carlo for a tennis tournament and is told by his father to stay away from gambling, lending people money and women. What adds some twist to this straightforward story about first experiences and naiveté is the way our expectations are toyed with. The father’s misleading disposition leads to a charming take on being had.
“The Alien Corn”: (Dir: Harold French)
The darkest of the four, and incidentally my favorite, is about an aspiring pianist (a very young Dirk Bogarde) whose upper-class family makes a deal with him when they hear about his desired profession. The deal is this; he will live in Paris as he requested for two years with a small allowance to develop his skills. After that, a trained professional will listen to him play and say if she thinks he has any potential as an eventual first-class pianist. If yes, he can continue. If not, he he has to give up his aspirations and come up with a new family-approved game plan. There is a cousin named Paula (Honor Blackman) who loves him but he is so wrapped up in music that he has no time to think of having a partner of any kind. The discordance between talent and ambition is not something I see explored in film nearly enough. So to see a story in just thirty minutes shed light on this common but rarely explored dichotomy is so dramatically and thematically rewarding. Dirk Bogarde gives it the proper weight it critically needs to make full impact.
“The Kite” (Dir: Arthur Crabtree)
Another story within a story, this one opens with an enticing hook where we hear the answer to a question, and then get to see how said answer came to be. A young man named Herbert (George Cole) remains inseparable from his overly involved parents. But when Herbert gets married to a young girl named Betty (Susan Shaw), he becomes torn between his wife and his mother’s (Hermione Baddeley) disapproval of her. Just as importantly, Herbert’s obsession with kites comes to a standstill because Betty disapproves. The quirkiest of the bunch is the most memorable, but it destroys most of its charm with its problematic depiction of Betty. Generally these four stories don’t do much for women. They deceive, aren’t very understanding, have one-track minds or are in this case downright malicious. That a girl would take her husband’s harmless character-defining hobby as a potential deal-breaker is pretty awful and the story is at complete odds in how to depict her and how we are supposed to see her. At times we are asked to sympathize with Betty and she’s shown to be generally likable except for this one thing she can’t seem to move past. She is too cruelly written and performed to generate anything that isn’t hatred but it’s the unintended kind of hatred and it almost ruins the story.
“The Colonel’s Lady” (Dir: Ken Annakin)
The fourth story connects back to the first via misleading expectations set forth by the characters. A colonel’s (Cecil Parker) unassuming wife (Nora Swinburne) has a book of poetry published which meets universal acclaim not least for its salacious passion. The colonel becomes suspicious, confused and frustrated as to where this material came from due to their detached marriage. It’s an amusing enough way to end the film and the main reason it works is because it realizes how empty-headed the husband is. But I wish it had been from the point of view of the wife, which would have been more enlightening and less slight.