“I was a writer who became an actor who became a screenwriter who became a director”.
There’s no better quote to summarize the decades spanning career of Bryan Forbes, than to report his own words. From those, one could wrongly assume the latter was the less interesting of the performing arts in which he excelled or that maybe he thought so at least, but to a deeper examination of his profession as a filmmaker, one could only retrieve the absolute conviction he was a great director.
After a successful occupation as an actor (An inspector calls), screenwriter (The league of gentleman), and producer (The angry silence) funding Beaver Films with Richard Attenborough; Forbes directed in the 60’s a string of big hits including: Whistle down the wind, The L shaped room, Séance on a wet afternoon, The wrong box and King Rat, before to write an adaptation of Robert Nicolson’s novel The Whisperers.
Starring Edith Evans, who was Academy Award nominated and won several prizes for her role in the film, TW is a dramatic exploration of the disintegrating mind of an old lonely woman overwhelmed by circumstances. Abandoned by her husband, constantly cheated by her only son, a cheap criminal who wants to take advantage of her; Margaret lives surrounded by dirt and trash in her flat; listening to voices that whisper around and hide behind the kitchen sink. These voices tell her to trust anybody, and suggest weird things that reflect on her strange behaviour. Walking alone in the desolated streets of the suburbs, the woman looks for old newspapers of which she’s very fond, keeping them in a closed room, reading them in search of news regarding her illusory fortune and an inheritance as imaginary as improbable. Living out of social service’s support and money, she’s visited one day by her son that, believing to be unnoticed, leaves her a package hidden in a closet. The wrap up contains money from a bank robbery, but the woman once has discovered it, thinks she’s finally got what she deserved from her investments and she starts to go out carrying large sums of cash. She then meets a woman who, with the excuse to bring her for a dinner at her place, drugs her and steals from her bag all the valuables. With the help of her husband the woman leaves Margaret unconscious and poisoned by the drugs nearby her apartment, where she’s found by a neighbour who calls immediately for assistance. Took over by the social services, her son in prison, Margaret is cured and recovered, even her husband has been found and recovered from alcohol as well. The social services clean the apartment, and bring the two back together for an illusory period of calm and peace in which the whispers seem long time gone, a forgotten memory of the past. But things go smoothly for a short time. The husband goes away, leaving her again, while Margaret plunges soon in her old behaviour, keeping dusty newspapers and listening once more at the voices that are back even louder than before.
Few times the old age has been exploited in movies, being the subject matter considered by the producers nor very profitable neither very pleasant for the audience. With different approach Leo McCarey's Make way for tomorrow and Marco Ferreri’s La casa del sorriso are some of the best examples. But The Whisperers shines of his own bright light, due to Forbes’ incredible style and approach. A distinctive of his career, Forbes come close to a mix between realism and surrealism; a combination so uncommon and so difficult to achieve that makes his cinema a unique example. An unnatural mood and unknown presences menace the protagonists of his movies, while the themes treated are always dealing with the lives of poor and neglected people. It’s Kitchen Sink style (typical of Brit films of the 60’s) meeting Gothic one. The ingenuity and innocence of the children in Whistle down the wind (trailer below), believing a thief hidden in a barn being Jesus Christ; the sincere and simple minded Margaret trusting everybody and not listening anymore to her beloved warning voices; the disbelief protagonist of Forbes’ late greatest picture, adaptation of Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives, unable to deal with the incredible facts involving changes of personality of his friends’ wives. All these characters are fighting with good faith against the evil and the unknown. They are placed in a context that is both familiar and comfortable for the viewer and for this reason even scarier: social desolation.
Shot in a splendid B/W by Gerry Turpin, the cinematography well captures the industrial landscapes and the devastated environment in which the story takes place, while the interiors and Margaret’s desperation are rendered through a series of close ups of the scant furniture of her apartment, with sounds of running water and small noises dip in a vast sea of silence; reminding of later Bergman's Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers). Music by John Barry is superb, delivering a score that goes along with us in this journey of disintegration with tenderness and sore notes.
Available for the first time on DVD, in the MGM Limited Edition collection; the disc is a burned in house DVD-R on demand. The quality of the picture is very good, but while the film has been remastered, MGM put no effort to create even a single menu for the DVD and mostly, while the film retains its OAR of 1,66:1 it has not been 16X9 enhanced. No extra material and no trailer as well.
I strongly recommend to watch this film, and Brian Forbes’ mentioned opus as well. Later his career declined, and while he was diagnosed of multiple sclerosis in 1975, he has remained active and celebrated by the British film industry. I really wish his films to be rediscovered by a modern bigger audience and that a major event and retrospective of his excellent career as a complete filmmaker could celebrate him before it’s going to be too late.
Film mass is ended you may go in peace
Whistle down the wind - Original Trailer