Outcast of the Islands
Outcast of the Islands – 1952 | 102 mins | Drama | B&W
The success of The Third Man propelled Carol Reed to the peak of his career, making him a director of international importance whose movies accomplished the rare merger of commerce and art; they earned praise from the reviewers and sold plenty of tickets as well. His decision to strike off in a new artistic direction rather than cautiously husbanding the profitable aptitude for thrillers he had displayed was courageous. Weighing up a number of different potential film assignments, he settled on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s second novel, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), a work which Korda – a Conrad enthusiast – had been urging him to film. The endeavour would require a large and convincing cast and a Far Eastern locale, most of the movie was shot on location in the region where the story was actually set: Ceylon, Borneo and the Malayas.
The plot of Outcast is soundly constructed, yet the story is largely psychological in emphasis, and it is the passions of the characters which determine the events rather than the other way around. The boredom and restlessness from which Willems suffers in Sambir leaves him vulnerable to temptation and, since there is no money to steal, lust replaces greed, insatiable lust for Aissa (Kerima), the beautiful daughter of the blind chieftain Badavi (A. V. Bramble). The girl’s tribesmen, allies of Lingard’s rival Ali (Dharma Emmanuel), are thus able to blackmail Willems into revealing the treacherous route into Sambir, which the old captain has incautiously shown his young protégé.
From Willems’ first sight of the hypnotic Aissa to his final realisation that she is his doom, Reed’s camera follows the course of his swelling passion with silent eloquence. Although Kerima has no dialogue, she is all that one could hope for in an Aissa – a dark-eyed beauty who moves about with regal but savage pride and communicates great emotional intensity. As the agent of Willems’ downfall, she is completely persuasive. In the case of Almayer, Reed is entirely faithful to Conrad’s depiction of the trader as a self-important prig. The epitome of a respectable burgher, Almayer has felt compelled to transport his stuffy bourgeois life all the way to Malaya, with every bit of pietism, hypocrisy and smugness intact. His cosy domestic environment is made to seem airless and numbing, a miniature Kensington inhabited by his well-corseted, tea-bearing wife and his shrill daughter Nina (Annabel Morley, Robert Morley‘s daughter). The scapegrace Willems is repelled by the pompous proprieties of Almayer’s home -having abandoned his own in Singapore – and the rancorous scenes between the two men, which are among the strongest in the movie, leave the audience more sympathetic to the sneering Willems.
Reed follows Conrad in establishing Almayer’s stance towards Willems as one of outraged respectability throughout and in unmasking Almayer as the embodiment of self-interest and heartlessness. His loathing for Willems is fuelled more by anxious fears that Willems may supplant him with Lingard and become a partner than by disgust over Willems’ deterioration. Our loyalties gravitate decisively towards Willems when the latter comes to Almayer to beg for a chance to set up his own trading post (presumably as an alternative to betraying Lingard). His physical and emotional condition is pitiable, but Almayer turns him away ruthlessly. When the vengeful Willems returns at the head of the Badavi tribe – following the safe passage into the lagoon – we are not unhappy to see Almayer sewn up in his hammock and swung to and fro over a fire by the sadistic natives.
Outcast is easily the least appreciated of Reed’s major movies. Yet the Far Eastern milieu is as lush and reverberant as we could possibly have hoped it would be, and the story is almost never vitiated or debased by commercialism. Other than the softening of Lingard, there is not a single artistic compromise of significance in the movie. Beyond its other laudable attributes, it stands as one of the most powerful evocations of human degradation ever to reach an audience through a commercial medium like film. Its moods are all potent because Reed’s direction and Wilcox’s camerawork are supplemented by Conrad’s dialogue, which Fairchild sensibly and skilfully interpolated into his script. By transcribing Conrad’s dialogue so faithfully, Reed and Fairchild have also preserved the distinctive rhythms and intonations of each player in the drama.