As part of my double feature for Furious Cinema’s: Scenes of the Crime Blog-a-thon.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)
Séance on a Wet Afternoon 1964 is an astonishing film by British actor/director/screenwriter Bryan Forbes (Whistle Down the Wind (1961) The L-Shaped Room (1962) King Rat (1965) The Wrong Box (1966) The Whisperers (1967) Deadfall (1968) The Raging Moon (1971) The Stepford Wives 1975) Forbes who also penned the screenplay was only nominated for a BAFTA but actually won the Writers Guild of Great Britain and the 1965 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Richard Attenborough was co-producer on the film as well. Forbes actually adds a slight spin on McShane’s novel by the way he introduces the presence of the Savage’s dead son Arthur. In an interview Forbe’s recalls, ” It was a paperback written by an Australian, a very good paperback but it had something we couldn’t use because in the book, I believe the child was killed and we weren’t going to go down that way.”
In the same interview Bryan Forbes talks about his original conception for the screenplay. “I was counting up the other day, I think I’ve written about 68 screenplays in my career not all of which have reached the screen but which I’ve actually written. And you start with a blank sheet of paper and I had trouble writing it and at one point… I don’t think I told this to many people, we couldn’t as I say, ‘get it cast’ So I turned it into a burnt out homosexual case, that the medium became a sort of Maurice Woodruff who was living with a young man and it was sort of burnt out. Now had we got away with that it would have been an absolute trail blazer of a movie in 1962, I offered it to Alec Guinness and Tom Courtney and Tom said yes and after a month Guinness said no. But that would have been something. And then I sat down and rewrote another version. And changed certain things and eventually as I say, I managed to get Kim Stanley.”
Séance on a Wet Afternoon 1964 is based on the novel by Mark McShane. Gerry Turpin received a BAFTA nomination for his stunningly riveting Cinematography. The incredible composer/conductor John Barry (Day of the Locust 1975, Somewhere in Time 1980) wrote the music for the film. Derek York did the outstanding editing with art direction by Ray Simm.
The marvelously significant Set design that placed the narrative down in the center of the proper mood was done by Alan Roderick Jones and Peter James.
The film stars the incomparable Kim Stanley as the extraordinary Myra Savage, Richard Attenborough plays her feeble husband Billy Savage who twists at Myra’s powerful instability.
Nanette Newman & Mark Eden are The Claytons. Gerald Sim is Detective Sergeant Beedle who first starts poking around the Savage’s London house, and Patrick Magee plays Superintendent Walsh Margaret Lacey, Marie Burke, and Maria Kazan are the women at the first Séance, Lionel Gamlin appears at the Séances, Marian Spencer is Mrs. Wintry, Godfrey James is Mrs. Clayton’s Chauffeur and Judith Donner is Amanda Clayton the freckled little girl who falls into Myra’s warped plot to achieve fame.
Much like Bunny Lake Is Missing, this film could be called a Post-Noir offering, yet it situates itself flawlessly into the psychological suspense-crime genre as well. And much like Bunny Lake, the plot does revolve around an unseen child.
What lies at the core of the film is not the crime itself, and again while the film is seemingly a Post-Noir crime thriller on the surface it truly is much more of a psychological morality play about the depths of loss and alienation driving a soul, whose fragile psyche bends toward madness and it goes to the questions of maternal instinct and inherited destiny. It’s about human frailties and fractured human relationships that fuel both the alienation and the prevailing insanity.
Are these three women symbols as in the ‘three sisters’ from Macbeth signifying the ‘fates’?
Kim Stanley herself mystically occupies the role of Myra Savage a professed spiritual medium who truly believes she’s the ‘real thing’ and who holds weekly Wednesday afternoon séances in her London home. The film opens with the camera framed on the lit candle burning in the dark blackness and holds itself there silently for quite a few seconds before it moves to a close-up of hands clasped together in silent obeisance to the moment. We hear a quiet, measured voice speaking. As the camera moves from the hand grasped within the hand. “What… what is it? No, no no no… later, later not now..” Myra whispers to her unseen companion, “A message, what? It’s a young face, he’s waving” The youngest woman sitting around the table begins to cry. Myra continues. “Peaceful, very peaceful” The candle crackles, threatening to burn out. “Oh no, no ssshhh, hush, ssshhh. No, my darling, it’s alright my precious no more, no more, no more”
The candle flame cuts right up the middle of Myra’s face giving her an ethereal look of serenity. Yet the flame acts as as a declaration of the duality or paradox of Myra’s conflicted motherhood, denoting a split or fracture in her personality. A bit of symbolic camera play. And quietly as she begins to open her eyes, she snuffs the candle out with her fingers and we are in total blackness for a split second. It is also in this first séance that we see the presence of three women, which I infer as a signpost toward the symbolism of the three weird sisters or ‘fate’ from Shakespeare’s ”Macbeth’. Triggering a sort of marked destiny from this moment on.
As the séance guests leave the house, exiting into the pouring rain with their scarves and umbrellas, John Barry’s music is composed of trickling sparse notes like that of raindrops themselves, subtle, dripping, and as moody and dreamy as the opening sequence. The sparse melody is as slow and drawn out, and starkly subdued and somber as Myra’s voice when speaking to her child spirit guide that no one else can hear.
The film’s titles begin to roll, as the camera catches little drops of rain on the lens, and frames the Victorian house in a small puddle in the street. A very effective way to bring us into the dreary moodiness of the story. The house drew Forbes to it because of its characteristic turret.
One gentleman remains a bit behind as he waits for the rain to let up. Perhaps reflecting. He then moves away into the rain-soaked streets. Once gone, Billy gives a paranoid look after him, then closes the door, and walks up the stairs following Myra who enters a very sterile and strikingly empty white room, devoid of any nuances or the shaded character of shadows or dark corners. The only room in the house that is bright, the only shadows present are that of Myra and Billy. For a moment Myra stares out the window at the rainy lines down the pane. Then Billy closes up the window with a large white wooden black-out shutter to erase any evidence that a window was there at all. Myra asks Billy what kind of impression does the room give him if he were to suddenly wake up in it. He answers her, ‘A hospital…’ framed near an overhead light that seems more like an interrogation lamp. She does sort of dole out orders, and ask him questions as if he’s under the stark blinding heat of some event he’s being quizzed about, as if she’s giving him lessons. An idea is unfolding, a plan… she’s pleased with herself. Her smile is triumphant and self-satisfied.
“That’s just how he put it, you have my blessing.”, referring to Arthur.
“It’s going to work Billy, the plan’s going to work!”
Billy looks as if his eyes are reflecting pools of tears. He exudes a detached sadness, a longing for something missing from his life as he listens to Myra begin to plot and scheme. He sits on the little bed and says “She’ll be comfy in it.” He tells her he himself found the bed comfortable when Myra was away. She asks when that was, and he reminds her, “That time you were ill dear.” Myra becomes irked by his remark, rebukes him, and we now get a hint at a history of some kind of possible breakdown. She tells him no one else has ever slept in that bed, “It was always Arthur’s bed til he went to school, I’ve never allowed anyone else to sleep in it.”
On this gray, dreary, and rainy London day, once the members of the otherworldly sojourn emerge from the throwback to Victorian spiritualist pageantry that the Savages begin to plot and scheme their great conspiracy to elevate Myra’s status as mere Wednesday afternoon table rapper to that of ‘celebrity’ as a truly authentic psychic medium who possesses great telepathic powers to communicate with the dead and the dearly departed. The Savage’s dark and ornately cluttered Victorian mise-en-scene aesthetic feels almost as oppressive as in Robert Wise’s The Haunting 1963. The house almost seems to hold a certain historical bit of familial dysfunction and emotional tragedy.
They leave the room, and Myra takes inventory of Billy’s tasks, asking him if he’s purchased the 150 Watt bulb for the room, so they can “see everything” and confirms that the drug will work immediately and last for 2 hours. As they move into the parlor where Myra plays her old gramophone with the huge horn that juts out like a tuba, Billy starts to fret about the dust in the house. He hates dust. They have sent away Mrs. Jackson their housekeeper on holiday while they execute their plans. His frustration with the presence of dust is his way of busying himself with minimal things of no real importance, a way to empower himself, and assert himself about something, as Myra continues her diatribe.
Billy’s face, and his pained expressions are always as if he is by himself, alone. As if he is merely ‘reacting’ and not engaging in the conversation. As if he is being pulled far away by his thoughts and his inner turmoil. At times, his eyes water up, or he smiles faintly, detached. Always reacting to Myra but not truly connecting with her. He orbits her, she is the candle that burns an insane sort of light and he is the moth that follows her flicker. His voice, spoken in the softest tones, always just a bit too weak to get the words out, merely whispers. Little efforts are weighed down by so much pain. Always looking off to a distant place. Cutting his newspaper up with his scissors to grab the letters that will be used for the ransom note. He asks if she really needs the music on, and she tells him it helps her to concentrate. Obviously, Myra’s obsession with her music tortures him, driving him to distraction. Billy is also a hostage of Myra’s insanity albeit a willing captive.
It is here that we start to notice how the camera frames both players from opposing angles. Myra is usually looming over him, ever dominant in the frame, larger and hovering from the top left-hand side, while Billy appears, smaller, more insignificant to the lower bottom right side of the screen, cornered.
Myra’s husband Billy played by the great film producer/director/actor Richard Attenborough is unable to find adequate work because he suffers from asthma, and is not only intimidated into submission by his overpowering, steely, and mentally unstable wife, he has been worn down by years of dysfunction and an apparent undying devotion to his wife. Billy helps Myra during the Séances. But Myra’s tragic state of mind and her work as a psychic are overshadowed by the obsession and affinity she claims she has with the spirit of her dead son Arthur, who died at birth. In fact, it isn’t actually Myra’s idea at all to concoct the kidnapping scheme of the little girl Amanda, but a plan conjured by her dead son Arthur who has worked it all out to the smallest detail.
“Listen to me Billy, listen to me very carefully… You know I can never really tell when you’re listening to me. I’m trying to understand. Billy… what I am, what I am, can’t just be thrown away, can it!!?
He quietly shakes his head in a gesture of ‘no.’
“And it’s not wrong, what we’re going to do is not wrong. We’re doing it for his sake. Arthur wants me to be recognized for what I am. I mean I can’t tell you. He… convinced me. I had to be convinced myself before I told you. I mean I know it’s different for you. I’ve known that all along and I do try to make a little…”
Suddenly a clock strikes and interrupts her tirade, she looks off to the right… the thought is broken for a moment and we see a shift in Myra’s outward machinations. There are long pauses of silence, a deathly silence. The death of their marriage perhaps, the death of Arthur. They are haunted by psychological ghosts from a painful past that invades the room and Myra’s manic vehemence for ‘the plan.’
“It’s so quiet in here. it’s suddenly so terribly quiet.” She asks him if he shut off the recording. “No dear you did it yourself,” Myra says, ” I did.. why would I do that… I wanted it on, why would I turn it off?” Billy swallows and closes his heavy lids. “Well, then it must have been me.”
Myra admonishes Billy, “Why did I ever marry you, Billy?” He answers her, unmoved by the single question, “I don’t know dear why did you?”
She tells him, “Because you’re weak… and because you need me.”
He answers her as if that were such a practical motivation for their union, placating her criticism, “Well those are two good reasons.”
“We’ve had so much sorrow Billy… too much sorrow… but it’s all going to be changed now. Everything’s going to be different.”
The slow pacing of the dialogue has an almost cadenced rhythm and projects itself outward as if it were a stage play. The music is carefully set down in between Myra’s little monologues so that the melodic tonal modulations allow her reveries to take flight, supported by stark and simply beautiful notes, faint musical preludes, and musical afterthoughts that fall within the intonations of her words. It’s here that we learn a little bit more about her inner sadness and touch with loss, as well as her growing disconnection with reality and her sense of otherworldly privilege.
“You know what I sometimes wish. I sometimes wish I were ‘ordinary’ like you. Dead ordinary dead like all the others.”
The camera focuses on Billy, his head bent down, framed in by the ornate furniture, the gramophone to one side and the heaviness of the air on the other. He shakes his head in profile, a little nod of acquiescence to Myra’s condemnation of the mediocrity of the living world and the people who inhabit it, like her husband.
“Too much sorrow Billy, yet you can’t buy your own happiness at the expense of someone else’s unhappiness. Who was it who said that, do you know?”
He answers her… “Yes”
She asks him, “Who?”
Billy tells her almost reluctantly…“Arthur said it.”
“Oh yes, of course… fancy you remember it… He didn’t say it to you did he?”
Billy half-heartedly replies, “No Dear… you told me.”
“Oh yes. Funny he’s never been close to you. Not that I blame you it’s easy for me. You don’t have my gift.”
And while she tells Billy that Arthur has given her the instructions from the spirit world to carry out the plan, the topic of Arthur is only invoked when Myra initiates it. Yet the unknowable Arthur’s identity is also tenuous as Myra wavers back in forth between referring to him in the ‘present tense’ as if he’s already grown up with the Savages, and the little glimmers of recognition that she’s lost him as an infant, with her allusions to there being, ‘Too much sorrow.’
The film is filled with an off-kilter pathology as she communicates with the dead son she lost in childbirth, in addition to her grand hubris as a spiritual medium, her supremacy over every aspect of the couple’s married lives, becomes charged by her delusions. Billy allows her to make him her whipping boy as she humiliates him further into submission. Myra dominates and directs him as if he were more like an incapable child himself. Over the course of the film’s narrative, the Savage’s tragic past is faintly revealed.
She walks to the staircase that belongs to her mother’s house and starts to reminisce in a child-like voice.
“You see when they first found out about me when I was little, You remember I told you about my Aunt. She was the first one who tumbled onto it. She used to go on endlessly to mummy in this room. I used to hear them. I used to creep to the top of the stairs to listen. And then at Sunday tea, all the family came and I had to perform. I had to get up and do my party piece. And in the end, I began to enjoy it. To look forward to it. It was nice being different. I mean you didn’t get told off, you just had all the nice things, you see.”
She goes back into the parlor where Billy is sitting at the table, listening to her.
“… It wasn’t a trick. It was there all those years ago, here in this room. And it was real. It was happening to me. I didn’t have to make it up. Don’t you see? That’s why, that’s why it has to happen Billy. ( Speaking so sweetly and impassioned to him, begging for his help and understanding) Otherwise, what’s it all been for? Just to take a collection every Wednesday afternoon rain or fine. I mean eight pounds ten and a biscuit tin. No, no… there has to be more than that, there has to be.”
For the first time, since the opening sequence, Billy looks at Myra with love in his eyes. And a sympathetic awareness washes over his face. I believe Billy does love this woman. He may be weak, and depend on her because he can not be alone, but later on, he tells her he loves her and agrees with her when she tells him that he ‘needs’ her. Myra reminds him that he can not make it without her, “You tried it once and you had to come back” Again hinting that they have been separated in the past, but are joined by their collective dysfunctional behavior.
“Well, Arthur’s quite certain you say?” He asks her.
She tells him, “If we’re ready.”
“Well, (he holds the bottle of medicine that will be used to keep the child sedated and stares at it carefully) I mustn’t disappoint him… mustn’t I.”
Billy gets on his little motorbike with a sidecar and rides through the woods, til he comes to the back end of a building where Amanda attends school. Clayton’s chauffeur meets the little girl as he escorts her into the car. Billy emerges and tells the chauffeur that there is a message for him with the superintendent inside the school and so he leaves Amanda alone. This is where Billy seizes the moment to grab the child, telling her not to be afraid ‘it’s only a game.’ Something he has to convince himself as he carries out this ill-fated plan. Billy steals the car and takes her on a xylophone ride to an abandoned Race Track where he’s parked the motorbike. The openness of the scene as with many of the exterior shots, while photographed outside during daylight hours still convey a sort of oppressive nature, thanks to Gerry Turpin’s intuitive cinematography and Bryan Forbe’s direction.
Kim Stanley conjures the persona of Myra’s deep complexities, her camouflaged melancholia, and ultimately the delicacy of her madness… so seamlessly, with ethereal resoluteness as she tunes into the sounds and messages that no one else can hear. In the living world, there is a remaining sadness with a conduit to the other world… that of the dead which reaches outward touching her life with Billy, and her patrons of the séances and this charges her derangement like a galvanic battery.
Richard Attenborough straddles the role of Billy Savage as a man torn between his devotion to a woman who is losing her grip on reality and yet has suffered years of his wife’s verbally berating asides as honeyed as they pour from her lips when she delivers them.
Myra dominates Billy so much that she actually gets him to go along with kidnapping the little girl (Judith Donner) the daughter of a wealthy couple played by (Mark Eden and Nanette Newman) so that she can then insinuate herself into the investigation and guide the police and the parents to solve the crime and locate their daughter, proving her great skill as a spiritual medium and helping her achieve notoriety as an acclaimed psychic. Oh, what deliciously twisted and wicked logic right?
Myra, delusional and cold-bloodedly constructs a scenario of subterfuge for the little girl who she locks in a room decorated like a hospital ward, while she impersonates a nurse. It’s like a modern nightmarish childhood fairy tale, hearth, and home inverted into a claustrophobic trap analogous to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, or a Brother’s Grimm archetype of a wicked witch luring a little girl into her oven, as Myra pretends to be a nurse who is trying to make the little girl believe that she’s been hospitalized for ‘double German measles’ keeping her locked in this baffled room with no other human contact other than the damaged couple playing austere nurse and kindly doctor.
The entire house, within its art direction by Ray Simm, gives the appearance of a suffocating museum piece, paying homage to Myra’s mother who left it as an inheritance. The air is laden with the heaviness of Victorian Era bourgeois decadence, with its opulence, darkly lavish design, and the vintage gramophone equipped with an elephantine trumpet. All this bit of regalia from bygone days help sustain Myra’s delusion, cementing her dwelling in the past. She plays the gramophone incessantly which wears on Billy’s ever-fraying nerves, as the crackling remnants of a boy soprano intones a solo version of Hear My Prayer and On The Wings of a Dove.
Myra keeps insisting that she’s merely ‘borrowing’ the child so she can demonstrate her psychic abilities to the police. But she also asks for a twenty-five thousand pound ransom, which they intend to return only after Myra becomes famous for having helped locate and rescue the girl.
Myra and Billy’s marriage is a tenuous one, in which the dynamic of their quietly volatile relationship starts to slowly self-destruct for this very sorrowful, despairing, and ill-fate couple. While Myra appears to be a woman in control of the domestic realm, and Billy the lugubrious, debilitated, and inadequate man, its lacquer dissolves away to show that they have been inhabiting a suburban madhouse as Myra is clearly sadly deranged. Myra is always giving orders to Billy at times in her saccharine tone, he is no longer her husband, he is her minion and her psychological slave. Her reckoning for every motivation is crowded by eerie rationalizations, manipulating him, leaving Billy to modulate between assuaging Myra’s emerging hysteria and ever-crazier whims and actually indulging her budding insanity. He is a miserably broken man who is sitting atop a mountain of indignation who loves his sick wife, encumbered by his resentment and yet addled by his pity.
Once Myra and Billy set the plan in motion, she goes to the Claytons with messages about their daughter, revealing in her capacity as medium vital information that will help them find their daughter. Mr. Clayton is more combative and skeptical while Mrs. Clayton desperate to find her daughter wants to hear Mrs. Savage out. “Dreams are not without significance,” she tells them.
And at first, it seems to work perfectly and things move along smoothly. Billy is never comfortable with the plan, especially the first night the police show up at their house following up on Myra’s visit to the Claytons. In a tense scene, the police try to enter the dark house, as Billy creeps around securing the doors so they can not gain entrance. Myra keeps assuring him that everything is going along perfectly and that she’ll tell them where the little girl can be found and where the ransom money is hidden.
Myra comports herself with an even temperament, repressing her manic euphoria. At first, Billy is panicked at the sight of Amanda’s mother who shows up at the house to attend a Séance, but Myra tells him that it’s good news she’s come, because now she can “share my truth.” Eventually, Myra can not sustain her mental unbalance which culminates in disorientation and agitation as she collapses on the floor, Billy rushing to her side. Again, there is a frame where three women, this time including Mrs.Clayton seem to be present in the shot to signify the continuance of a doomed ‘fate.’
Myra has no sentient wavelength of empathy toward the child or the moral weight of what she has put into motion, but Billy agonizes over the child’s growing health concerns. Then things really get complicated when the police want to check Myra’s background out, and by this time Billy is too frayed, ragged, and constrained to handle the stress and starts to buckle under the full import of what they are doing as Myra becomes more delusional and the unraveling scheme plays itself out.
It is when Billy finally challenges Myra that she spurts out her convoluted logic about children being like animals in a pet shop who will adjust happily to their new environment. This is absolutely false in any case, but Myra isn’t logical, she is desperate, delusional, obsessed, and in a state of manic displacement.
“Billy, what do you know about children? They’re really quite adaptable, children. They’re like… like, err, little animals. You know how animals look in the pet shop. In the windows when you see them? You take them home and you feed them and they adapt in a matter of hours.”
So as with all screwy plans that are forged out of madness, things don’t go as Myra had envisioned and as the plans go awry, she starts to devolve, as the thread that holds her sanity finally begins to snap.
I won’t divulge the ending as you should either re-experience this stunning film once again, or for the very first time, and see how ultimately fate plays out for the Savages… Either way, I think you’ll agree that this is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, with stunning performances by the lead actors.
Jon Krampner explains in his biography of Kim Stanley– Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley that both Bryan Forbes and Richard Attenborough were having difficulty casting the part of Myra. They had approached Deborah Kerr and Simone Signoret, who I think either would have been uniquely fabulous in their own special way, both being two of my all-time favorite actresses. Though in my mind Kim Stanley is the only Myra Savage. Thank god both actresses turned down the role. Forbes and Attenborough then contacted Kim Stanley, the American theater and television actress who was brilliant in writer Paddy Chayefsky’s (The Hospital 1971, Network 1976) The Goddess 1958.
Kim Stanley was actually also the uncredited narrator for the adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. One of my favorite books and films and I even named my cat Boo who was born with Cerebellar hypoplasia after sweet Mr. Radley because when he first set eyes on me at the shelter where they were going to euthanize him, he gave me the same look that Robert Duvall had on his face standing behind the door when he first looks poignantly at Scout…
Attenborough was later quoted as stating that Stanley was the best choice, noting that the “complexity of dramatic impression vital to the credibility of Myra was hard to find. Also an intellectual ability to follow and understand the character. I didn’t believe Simone (Signoret) could convey, as Kim did, the otherworldliness which this woman inhabited in her private fantasies.”-Krampner, Jon. Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley. p. 221.
Perhaps Attenborough was right about Signoret who has a very earthy and carnal brand of sensuality, whereas Kim Stanley does exude an otherworldly detachment. After completing Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Stanley did not appear in another film until Frances in 1982. She received Oscar nominations for both films.
The film hit critical acclaim with both the British and American media. Kim Stanley won the Best Actress Award from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review for what was only her second film. She was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actress but lost to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. I love Julie Andrews, magic umbrella, and All, but Stanley should have won for her performance as Myra Savage IMO. She was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress but again lost to Anne Bancroft for her work in The Pumpkin Eater that year.
“Kim Stanley was as close to a female Brando as we had in the theater.” –Sydney Pollack
According to director Bryan Forbes, during the filming, Kim Stanley kept a vodka bottle on a string hidden inside the toilet tank. In 1965, Kim Stanley suffered a nervous breakdown ending her career. She moved to New Mexico, taught acting, did some television ( I loved her as Elizabeth Croft working opposite Patrick O’Neal in Night Gallery’s A Fear of Spiders 1971)) and then she co-starred as Jessica Lange’s Mother in Frances (1982) and The Right Stuff (1983) Sadly, she died in 2001. I am currently reading Jon Krampner’s bio about this brilliant actress who was haunted by personal demons like so many other gifted artists.
Is Myra Savage a sympathetic protagonist or anti-hero? The character of Myra is a paradoxically rejecting mother in the way she religiously embraces her essentially non-existent child yet conversely manages to deny the value of another child, one who actually lives in the real world. Can she be considered a derivative archetypal “devouring mother’ which underscores the telos of a ‘lethal motherhood’? As Myra also becomes a nefarious figure of motherhood in a ‘fairytale sense as a sort of “wicked witch’ (in the guise of a nurse a supposedly ‘safe’ symbol) with magical powers who lures children in order to trap them in her lair. Myra’s nurse’s mask is quite intimidating, and sort of nightmarish as she impersonates ‘Nurse Johnson.’
Ultimately Myra Savage is a truly complex character with a fragile facade and multiple layers of psychological permutations. A tragic, disarming, dreadful, frightening, heart-breaking, divergent, disordered, and other-worldly figure…
Within the film noir canon Myra would not be considered as Pam Cook would refer to as “A Man Killing Amazonian Woman” from page 72 chapter 4 entitled Duplicity In Mildred Pierce, from the book Women In Film Noir- Edited by E. Ann Kaplan. Considered a film noir piece, Myra would also not be considered a femme fatale either, and yet she is a strong female character in a Post-Noir world. More aptly I would consider her to be the embodiment of the ‘monstrous feminine’, yet a sympathetic monster. She is what Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna Freud (considered to be the founder of child psychology) would call, ‘The Rejecting Mother‘ Which is a complex concept that folds in on itself within the plot’s narrative. Finding itself in bitter contrast with Myra’s affinity toward her own dead son Arthur and the cold disconnection she has exuded toward little Amanda, whom she has kidnapped. Being able to separate out her motherhood and view Amanda as an ‘Object’ which is merely a means to an end for her. Amanda is purely a ‘thing’ she has ‘borrowed’ not kidnapped and which she justifies in her ‘ethical suspension’ and does not create any maternal conflict for her to struggle with. Even to go as far as being able to impersonate a nurse, carrying out a bizarre ritual of subterfuge in order to control the child.
So how does Myra’s delusion and mania enable her to justify harming a child, and what pathology is at work? Basically, this is where the relevance as to whether this is a moral drama or crime thriller just goes right out the window and the film becomes a story that transcends judgment and delves into the notion of the maternal instinct and its imperfections and misconceptions, the idea of loss, alienation and it’s the catalyst that propels her spiraling into madness. Her sadness over losing Arthur and her already fragile personality as a child growing up in a household that exploited her as a girl with a ‘psychic’ ability in order to fill their biscuit tins with money. All this helped shape Myra into the fractured person she has become.
From Slavoj žIžek’s Enjoy Your Symptom! Why Is Every Act A Repetition? from 3.2 Identity And Authority “The ‘exception’ reconciled in the universal.”- 19-S.Kierkegaard, Repetition, Kierkegaard’s Writings VI p.227
Essentially what Kierkegaard is saying is that a person can live outside the laws of nature, and align himself with the universal truth he deems ordained by an outside influence, and when he justifies an action that is outside the laws of morality, and when he explains why the universe has made an exception for him to commit this act, he becomes part of the universe’s plan and can sustain himself, identity intact.
Myra- “You have my blessing”- that’s what Arthur has told his mother.
Myra-“We have borrowed, borrowed!!! just keep saying that.”
Myra – “What we are doing is a means to an end. Now you agree with the end, don’t you? Well, then you must agree with the means! You can’t have one without the other.”
In terms of Myra’s religious or spiritualist connection to the universe via her dead son Arthur and her deluded convictions that she can communicate with the spirit world, she can find this justification for what she must do, in order to progress herself, through the suspension of Ethics that her sacred spirit child has ordained for her. Billy likewise can justify his accepting Myra’s demand to kidnap the child, as ‘atrocious’ as it is, he obeys so as not to displease her, as she holds the authority in the marriage power dynamic. Arthur is an ‘imaginary’ creature who engages his mother in this game of subterfuge. ‘Arthur’ is the unknowable exception that is reconciled by the universe.
Does Billy sacrifice his own identity for the ‘object’ of his love, Myra?
To continue from žIžek’s book- 5.2 DIE VERSAGUNG “sacrifice of the sacrifice”
In referring to Charles Vidor’s film Rhapsody with Liz Taylor 1954 about a woman torn between several men. He basically talks about how eventually the male will renounce the object of his desire yet it will lead to the tragedy of alienation, which is linked to an underlying tie to ‘fate’ as in a ‘family curse’ a generational legacy that dooms the characters to an outcome, not of their own making. He also cites Oedipus within this framework. Freud called this sacrifice ‘die Versagung’. žIžek mentions Lacan and how he expands this sacrifice as it points to a blind ‘impulsive’ force where people do things that fly in the face of fate.
Both Myra and Billy challenge fate by pursuing their grand scheme. Billy begins slightly more unwavering in his support of Myra, although misguided and weak, he is still a figure of self-sacrifice. Carrying the burden of the family curse, preserving the ceremony, and the social status of a good English marriage. While Billy too is alienated by Myra’s growing delusion, he might also feel he is protecting her by allowing her to play out her fantasy, even though he inevitably might break down and expose the couple’s conspiracy of crimes. He finally allows himself to acknowledge the Ethical dilemma beyond placating Myra’s fantasies of fame and her delusions of spiritual primacy and begins his solemn renouncement of his ‘object’ Myra and their fractured married relationship.
If we are to think of Myra’s eerie connection to her stillborn son we could make the correlation as an Oedipal thread that runs through their relationship, as he directs her to commit the act of kidnapping the child Amanda. The lines between mother and son are blurred and they become accomplices to the crime…
Myra’s character predates the killer females in Fatal Attraction, Sea of Love, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Basic Instinct, Single White Female, etc. From Cynthia A. Freeland and Thomas E. Wartenberg’s Philosophy And Film section Failures of Marriage in Sea Of Love written by Nickolas Pappas,” It is fair to say that a genre is forming since these films all focus specifically on dangerous women., who are, or are suspected of being psychotic.”
Noel Carroll refers to Catherine Deneuve’s repressed female sexuality and lack of male contact as her psychosis unfolds in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion 1965. Pappas adds that “I would add that the impossibility of film psychotics hints that madness in the movies works as an allegory of something else. In the films in question, the madwomen move toward their violence because of a symbolic lack, interpreted as the loss of a marriage.”
Not only does Myra’s failing marriage perpetuate her instability, but I take this further and extend this psychosis of Myra’s to the loss of her only son Arthur, she is experiencing a ‘lack’ of the fruits of that marriage which is a by-product of or ‘loss of marriage.’
In Leo Braudy’s wonderful The World In A Frame: What We See In Films, Braudy writes in his section The Theme of the Object about how the ‘object’ of the film takes on a life of its own, beyond the director’s initial intentionality, beyond the frame.
I also see Amanda the kidnapped child as the presence of one of the main ‘objects’ in the film, as well as the catalyst for the chaos that will ensue, and the final wedge that will split Myra from her sanity. Braudy writes, “Just when the world seems most totally explained when its pattern is about to become visible, the centrifuge force of objects, their escapability, threatens a return to chaos and separateness.”
Braudy refers to director Jean Renoir, one of my favorite directors, he says “Renoir’s attitude toward objects highlights their freedom. But, while his style is loose and episodic his themes are often those of confinement and limitation.”
I think of Renoir’s The Southerner 1945 and how the landscape had a vast openness and yet the narrative told a story of a great oppressing force of nature. As with Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Forbes’s use of space is very confining, and yet the ‘object’ which is trapped within that space has a momentum that can not be mitigated by any interference by Myra who is supposed to be the one in control. There is no certainty that even trapped within the confines of the fabricated hospital room, the little girl is not a free agent. Another point Braudy makes which is integral to how I feel about Myra and Billy, “The simultaneous fear and courtship of the invisible characterizes closed films much more than open films… but with the greater visual control of the closed film comes a greater apprehension about failure.”
The sense of the film being visually closed-in precipitates the impending courtship with a doomed fate for both Myra and Billy, the perception of failure has already been laid out for us. During the exterior sequences although we are taken through vast open spaces the film still manages to feel stifling and strained because of the character’s emotional tensions. And composer John Barry’s use of tonality with very specific instrumentation accentuates the feeling of alienation perfectly in these seemingly open yet closed-in key sequences.
The entire film has a closed-in feel, and we are spectators to a world that stems from within Myra’s mind, a world we can not truly understand, creating a closed-in sense about all the environments surrounding the plot, extending to even The Underground in London, the woods, the bus and so on. The Savage’s imploding marriage and the austere set decoration also create the sense of a ‘closed’ film, not to mention the literal ‘trap’ that is set for poor Amanda.
One could also say that the dead son Arthur is also an ‘object’ of the film. Perhaps the most significant ‘object’ yet unseen by the viewer.
Billy in terms of following a Noir archetype is the ‘weak male’ in line with Farley Granger’s Guy Haines in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stranger’s On A Train 1951, or Wendell Corey’s flimsy stooge Cleve Marshall in director Robert Siodmak’s The File on Thelma Jordan 1950. These men are easily manipulated by domineering alpha personalities, they are gullible and not in control of their environment.
Billy- “We’re mad you and me, we’re both mad.”
The film also taps into the nightmare of the ‘ordinary family’ doing extraordinarily grim and grotesque acts out of desperation and madness. The Savages appear to be the utmost respectable British married couple who are not capable of criminal activity let alone kidnapping a child or harming them.
It doesn’t matter whether Myra is a legitimate psychic medium or delusional. What matters is her belief that she’s the real deal and the underlying pathology that drives her motivations for promoting that fantasy or reality. Is it the need to stay connected to her dead child Arthur or a deep-rooted kind of narcissism to be the center of the universe and beyond? Remember she began to ‘like’ the attention the family would give her when she did her ‘party piece’ as a child at Sunday tea.
Again the film is not so much about the crime nor a film about psychic power, as much as it concerns itself with a woman who has fallen under delusions of grandeur and mental illness due to loss. And neither justice nor morality plays a part in the narrative. It is inconsequential to the core themes.
The Philosophy of Film Noir Edited by Mark T. Conrad page 38 Jason Holt from The Darker Shade: Holt contends that with Neo-Noir there is more of a sense of poetic justice that prevails that did not exist in classic Noir. That good classic Noir downplays the aspect of justice prevailing.
“People ought not to have bad motives or commit bad acts, but often enough they do. By contrast, the endings of classic noirs, an artifice of the Production Code and compliant creative intentions, almost rings a little off, false not only to life but much worse, to themselves.”
He goes on to say “within allowable limits making it seem less a matter of moral necessity or accidental rectitude and more of a matter of pure chance with no significance besides... Realism about values in particular has always been an essential part of the essence of noir. Values alone have nothing to do with what really happens.”
In terms of qualifying this as a suspense thriller with a moral compass, I refer to Noël Carroll’s Toward A Theory Of Film Suspense Carroll emphasizes how the moral factor doesn’t really depend on conventional notions of ‘good and evil’ but merely whether we empathize with the protagonist.
One of the moral questions of the Savage’s accountability for the crime and the aspect of the couple’s macabre intersectionality of Folie à deux will challenge viewers to decide whether they can suspend their judgment and find Myra and Billy sympathetic victims themselves. Is this a case of premeditated malice or a case of systemic collective delusion with Myra being the dominant force and Billy being the submissive devotee? The fact that Myra has lost a child does make this couple somewhat sympathetic characters.
Earlier I mentioned one interesting bit of symbolism that I’ve injected into my impression of the film which might stem from Shakespeare’s Three Weird Sisters, Macbeth’s three witches in regards to the three women who frequent the Séances acting as catalysts or symbolic archetypes of the ‘FATES’, the women’s attachment to mystic powers that feed the situation for Myra Savage to develop her plot to manifest greatness through celebrity via her twisted scheme. The three women at the Séance act as symbolism.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the weird sisters are “goddesses of destinee” The Weird Sisters are fore-tellers of Macbeth’s fate. The emphasis on the presence of three women at each gathering might truly be a signpost toward Myra’s destiny.
Interesting Fact from an interview with Bryan Forbes:
“The actual house that we shot, there’s a story to that because when I was planning the film. I had always had in mind, I’d seen a house somewhere with a turret and I thought that would be ideal and one night after dinner I’d gotten into a car with Ray, I said, ‘ I think I saw it in Wimbledon somewhere. So we drove around Wimbledon and I suddenly spotted it. So I was a coward I said to Ray go and knock on the door and ask whoever owns it, whether they’d be prepared to let a film unit shoot inside. And he beckoned me and there was a woman there, and she said yet that’s fine provided you insure it and that. She said, why did you choose this house? So I said well, there are sequences in the film of seances with a medium and I thought that the turret room would be marvelous. And she said oh yes yes I can understand that, the previous owner committed suicide in that room. And then she said to me, who’s in the film? So I said Richard Attenborough and an actress you never would have heard of, a very fine actress but she’s from New York… Kim Stanley. And she turned absolutely ashen this woman, and said, Kim Stanley… So I said yes do you know her? She used to be my closest friend she said, we lived together next door to each other for seventeen years, I haven’t seen her since. Such an extraordinary coincidence in a film which is about something psychic you know…”
Here is a link to a documentary in development about the extraordinary actress –
The Needs of Kim Stanley: The Extraordinary Legacy of an American Original.
Bunny Lake Is Missing 1965 & Séance on a Wet Afternoon PART I: Otto Preminger/Bryan Forbes-“A CONSPIRACY OF MADNESS”
11 thoughts on “Séance on a Wet Afternoon 1964: A Conspiracy of Madness Part II- “They’re really quite adaptable, children. They’re like… little animals.””
Oh boy. This sounds fascinating…AND with Richard Attenborough too?! It looks like it raises some interesting questions. I don’t watch this kind of intense psychological thriller very often – for fear of not getting to sleep that night, seriously! – but I must put this one on My List.
It won’t keep you up I promise, it might just break your heart a little watching Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough portray such complex characters. Attenborough produced with Bryan Forbes who called him Dickey a lot.. This one and Bunny Lake Is Missing is a must see and they won’t give you nightmares…just impress you with darn good performances and dialogue
Joey, I caught most of SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON and I won’t spoil any surprises for others, but I will say that as a mom, I wished I could somehow dive right into the TV and throttle Myra and Billy senseless (and then call the cops, of course :-))! Damn loonies, trying to get fame and validation from kidnapping defenseless children! But of course, your post was truly awesome in every sense, as it always is, so please consider my comments as high praise for stirring my emotions. BRAVA on a nerve-wracking, thought-provoking post, my friend, as always!
Dori, I can only imagine how films like this bring out the mama bear in you, and I can empathize. That’s what’s so complex about films of this nature, that walk the fine line between wanting to crucify these lunatics for even conceiving of a plot that would harm an innocent babe to being able to suspend your animosity even for a split second to feel sympathy for people who are just so damaged by mental illness. It does stir emotions, and when it does that, it’s doing it’s job correctly. Glad you liked it, but sorry if it made you want to punch the computer to get to Myra and Billy…lol Go give that wonderful kid of yours a hug….
Fascinating analysis of a mesmerising film. Those who enjoy ‘Seance’ might want to take a look at the 1997 ‘Photographing Fairies’, which has a more ambiguous take on a protagonist’s obsessive grief and determination to prove the possibility of communications with the departed.
For folks who may be in the San Francisco Bay Area during May (2013), the Mechanics Institute Library will be screening 5 Chayefsky films, one each Friday evening, beginning with ‘The Americanization of Emily’ this Friday May 3rd, and including Kim Stanley in ‘The Goddess’ on May 17:
Cinemalit – Paddy Chayefsky: Scenes from American Lives:
Edward thanks so much for stopping by, and leaving such great info for people. I wish I was going to be in the Bay Area during the film festival. I love Chayefksy’s work. I think I’ll watch the Americanization of Emily tonight, just adore James Garner. And I have seen ‘Photographing Fairies’ I have a vague recollection of the film, but can see the connection you draw between grief and the thread that links us to the spirit world. Please come round again with your much valued comments here. Cheers-Joey
Thank you very much for prompting me to see this, Joey!