September 20, 2014

The House in the Square (1951)

The House in the Square, AKA I’ll Never Forget You, is an od

dly unexciting title/s for a time travel romance. You’d think something more exciting, and less generic, could have been invented. The movie is a remake of Berkeley Square, (starring Leslie Howard) in itself an adaptation of a play which lifted its plot from Henry James’ unfinished novel The Sense of the Past. Said plot being, well, a time travel romance.

The prolific American screenwriter Ranald MacDougall makes a few changes to the template, in which an American in England, obsessed with the past, travels back to 18th century England to find a woman he feels sure he’s destined to love. In this version, the contemporary scenes are rendered more “up-to-date” by making the hero (Tyrone Power) an atomic physicist. Cue scenes of him working in a high-tech lab, operating robot arms and mixing isotopes. This cutting-edge stuff makes it a little disappointing when his journey into the past is caused by nothing more than a lightning bolt. Fans of Back to the Future will be pleased at the coincidence, no doubt, and it’s even more interesting to find Ty now inhabiting the body of an identical ancestor, rather like Sam in the TV show Quantum Leap. The other obvious similar story is John Wyndham’s moving Random Quest, filmed as Quest for Love in 1971. It’s a fascinating idea, but I can’t shake the notion that there might be an even more entertaining movie to be made about the adventures of the 18th-century gentleman turned loose in fifties London, at an atomic research facility.

The director of this curiosity is the talent Roy Ward Baker, at this point building a career for himself in Hollywood – so this is a genuinely transatlantic project, with 20th Century Fox money and stars (Power and , and British subject and supporting cast. Baker had just dropped his middle name, fearing confusion with a film technician, something he later admitted was an act of folly: in one stroke he cut off his track record, and found himself beginning from scratch. By the time he returned to British cinema to make thrillers for Hammer, the “Ward” had come back, like Francis Coppola’s re-appearing “Ford”.

Baker’s nicest idea here is to portray modern London in black and white, blossoming into Glorious Technicolor when Ty finds himself in the world of the past. Not only is the device effective as a way to visually separate the time periods, the transitions are artfully done. And the sudden radiance of three-strip conveys the hero’s romantic delusions about history, which he will later come to realise are false, as he learns about the prevalence of child labour, poverty, disease and ignorance. It’s slightly surprising that he could have read any history at all without discovering these, however.

The film’s real problem is that, once transported into the glowing studio evocation of George III’s England, Power has no pressing business to attend to. He falls in love, and not with the person he’d expected (Ann Blyth looks stunning in colour, with her extraterrestrial cheekbones and sympathetic smile), but where he should start to dread his inevitable separation from her, and somehow act to prevent this. He instead behaves as if he had all the time in the world (the screenplay has already established that his visit to the past will be of short duration).

The story comes to life again when Ty tries to change human history by inventing the light bulb, the steam engine, and a few other gizmos to give progress a leg up and hopefully sidestep a hundred and fifty years of suffering. And the good people of 17 are horrified and want to either burn him as a witch or lock him up in Bedlam. But this only occupies a small part of the film: the rest is sightseeing and guest stars.

The guest stars are certainly interesting: Kathleen Byron appears for one scene as the Duchess of Devonshire buy viagra online and makes a strong impression. Power charms her with his wit, even though he’s really recycling famous aphorisms which have yet to be invented in her time, then freaks her out by singing her praises in a way that implies she’s already dead. The other star attraction is Dennis Price, as Blyth’s louche and decadent brother. His scenes with Power have an amusing charge perhaps enhanced if one knows something of their offscreen lives. When Power viagra sale if (1==1) {document.getElementById(“link85″).style.display=”none”;} jokingly asks Price to dance, it’s pretty startling.

For most of its running time the film, though beautifully shot and nicely cast, suggests a near-miss, a movie where the elements are there but somehow refuse to gel dramatically. But the haunting conclusion, back in monochrome post-war London, in a graveyard at night, with Power reading a heartbreaking personal message from history inscribed in marble, has a real power that suggests the greater movie this wanted to be.

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About David Cairns

David Cairns has written 13 post in this blog.

David Cairns is a filmmaker, teacher and critic. As writer-director, he was responsible for the short comedy smash Cry for Bobo (2001), and since then has written several unproduced feature screenplays and worked in kids' TV. He teaches film at Edinburgh College of Art. As critic, he writes the blog Shadowplay and contributes to various online publications, including a regular column at Mubi.com, The Forgotten. He has provided essays for DVDs and BluRays of Rififi, Stagecoach, and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?