“You ought to know I’ve always had a liking for dramatic effects.”
Corridor of Mirrors, made in British cinema’s most exciting year,1948, was the first film of both director Terence Young, and a youthful bit-part player named Christopher Lee. The actor recalls in his autobiography that Young loaned him a tuxedo for his big scene (a few snarky lines purred in a nightclub) so I watched with interest to see if Young had Lee make a little square out of his pocket handkerchief, the way he had Sean Connery do as Bond, years later in Dr. No. Sadly, he didn’t.
The movie is a real oddity, proof if nothing else of the confidence and imaginative freedom being unleashed by British filmmakers at the time. If it’s a misfire, it’s at least an honourable one, since its faults are vaulting ambition and fearless bravado. Who else was imitating Cocteau at that time? Even in France, hardly anyone dared. Perhaps it helped the filmmakers to be actually shooting at a French studio, who knows?
The writing team of Rudolph Cartier (later director of the TV Quatermass shows) and Edana Romney adapted Christopher Massie’s peculiar gothic novel, replete with waxworks, ancient artefacts, reincarnation, insanity and murder. Cartier also produced, while Romney co-starred as the over-euphonious heroine, Myfanwy Conway, making this something of an incestuous affair. Perhaps that’s the only way such a strangely-shaped film could be born.
We first encounter Myfanwy awakening from a dream or nightmare, suggesting the influence perhaps of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. It will be the first reference among many in a film which sometimes feels like a patchwork quilt of gothic romances. Leaving her wooden husband and giggling offspring, the long-faced, strangely placid Romney slips off to London to visit her lover. And in the first of several surprises, he turns out to be a wax effigy of Eric Portman, standing in the rogue’s gallery of Madame Toussaud’s.
As tourist Thora Hird rabbits on in the background, the film plunges into the misty waters of flashback, where it will spend its entire first and second acts, before resurfacing in the present as Hird embarks upon a fresh sentence. The suggestion that the entire central part of the narrative has flashed through the heroine’s mind in between two utterances by Thora Hird seems like a borrowing from the time-condensing tales of Cocteau, although the French opium fiend and poet was never lucky enough to work with Dame Thora.
The swank nightclub, where Chris Lee and Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny!) decorate the scene. The film seems to be populated entirely by long, thin people. Some of their heads are extraordinarily thin. If Romney’s head were any thinner it would be a neck.
Then Myfanwy is smitten with, well, mild curiosity anyway, at the arrival of Eric Portman, resplendent with cape and silver-tipped cane. What follows is one of those awkward gothic seductions where Romney as Conway is required to be intrigued by Portman, while not noticing that he’s, like, really strange.
Upon returning with him to his Regent’s Park address (saucy tart!), Myfanwy discovers his collections of old jewellery, antique perfumes, and ancient dresses, and yet this sophisticated urbanite does not for a moment suspect that he’s gay. The casting of Portman alone should have raised her suspicions.
What follows is one of those sinister makeovers, as Portman gradually seems to take over Myfanwy’s mind, as he restyles her in the dress of the Borgia period. “I was becoming like a wax figure,” murmurs her voice-over, “all head and shoulders.” It transpires that he’s formed an obsession with a portrait of a lady from that period, Venetia, who bears an uncanny likeness to M.C. (This is perhaps because it’s clearly a photograph of her.) As Portman plans a sumptuous Venetian-style ball, complete with commedia dell arte players, Myfanwy rebels against his brainwashing and runs away.
Alert observers may be impressed by the plot’s resemblance to that of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with its alluring painting and reincarnation angle, but this movie came first. It seems possible that Boileau and Narcejac, who wrote the novel Hitch adapted, may have been influenced by Massie’s book or Young’s film. Although if so, they certainly improved on it.
The problem may be one of sexual chemistry: Portman is a compelling performer, if a little one-note (and that note is the same one struck to such memorable effect in Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale: the somnolent voice, the faltering melody of his delivery, the hypnotic gaze) but he seems unable to rouse any interest in Edana Romney. She in turn is an unconventional presence, but not really naïve or vulnerable enough to convince as a heroine in a suspense story. She’s too mature and worldly: we don’t fear for her.
Since this lack of tension cripples the film as a thriller, it’s actually fortunate that it contains strange, unresolved mysteries and narrative dead ends. If it’s going to fail as a straightforward yarn, it may as well achieve the dysfunctional poetry of the bad art film. Bad art films, a genre identified by bad-art buff John Waters, exert all the fascination and radiate much of the beauty of good ones, but resolutely fail to gel. As such, they make good exercise grounds for what John Keats called “negative capability,” the art of appreciating things which don’t make sense.
“…and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
Reaching after fact and reason is going to get you nowhere in the corridor of mirrors! Bad art films strain for ambiguity and glimpses of the ineffable, and exude instead confusion, pretension and kitsch. There’s plenty of all of those in Corridor of Mirrors, which could have been rescued from the swamp of bad art only by an injection of lusty Gainsborough sexuality, or tawdry Hammer bad taste. Without either, it becomes a curio like Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, another mystical love story in which nobody has a proper job (everybody here is a playboy, a costumier, an artist’s model or a high court judge).
As Myfanwy is lured back by an invitation to the grand ball, her behaviour inexplicably changes, becoming that of the mocking and manipulative Venetia, a Lucretia-like femme fatale (why was Portman in love with this vixen?). Portman goes psycho, threatening to strangle his muse with her own hair, and she flees. When a trollopy life model turns up strangled, Portman is convicted (by Myfanwy’s dad, the judge). The fact that Man in Black Valentine Dyall does an uncredited turn as counsel for the defence seems absurdly apt.
Our lead character, returned to her former placid temperament for no readily discernible reason, visits the condemned Portman in his cell, where he gets the best speech of the film (there are plenty of good bits) ~
“Before I was searching for something. I know I must have seemed mad and frightening to you. But have you ever thought that everyone, from the very minute he’s born, is searching for something? Most people die without even knowing what it is. I knew. That’s why I’m one of the lucky ones. All sorts of people before me have tried to live outside their time. Quite futile. ‘There is a time to be born, and a time to die.’ So please don’t spoil the exit I’ve chosen for myself. You ought to know I’ve always had a liking for dramatic effects.”
Thereafter come more dramatic twists, including the revelation of the real killer, and more mysteries, as either Myfanwy drives the killer to death, or the killer imagines it, or the spirit of Venetia possesses Myfanwy and makes her do it, or the spirit does it herself. I’m reminded of Alexander Mackendrick’s observation that ambiguity is the choice of one thing or another, not the choice of many things.
Is Corridor of Mirrors a failed poem, a curate’s egg, a vanity project. Quite likely. But it’s also rewarding in itself as an exercise in imagination, and the product of a confident industry that dared to dream. For a brief time, the classics of gothic literature and
poetic realist cinema did not seem out of the grasp of our national cinema. The makers of Corridor of Mirrors may not have found what they was looking for, but at least they knew what it was.
Many happy returns to Christopher Lee on this, the occasion of his birthday.
David Cairns Shadowplay film blog