Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Dir. Bryan Forbes. Starring Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough, Gerald Sim

For so much of this film, less is more. In one of the film’s early sequences, Myra (Stanley) is revealing the remade child’s bedroom to her husband, Billy (Attenborough). It’s been redone to look like a hospital room, which Billy guesses at; Myra is dead chuffed. (It is an eerie coincidence that Myra Savage concocts the plan to abduct a child around the same time that Myra Hindley was taking part in even more heinous crimes around Manchester.) It’s a plain room, a white room, with a fairly plain bed. The shadows fall on it a little, and in one shot, Myra stands with the shades of the curtains falling just above her head, a symbolic shadow of Damocles over the skull of a woman with a gratified, self-impressed smile. There’s nothing on the walls that might distract our focus, no furniture to take away our view of that face. Forbes is a minimalist by the standards of studio filmmaking, at least when he’s working at his best. There are some really pure shots in Séance, such as one of Amanda (Judith Donner) lying in her “hospital” bed, a little girl with dark brown hair and freckles all over her face, subsumed in white. Even the shots of the Savages in their costumes, as a nurse and a doctor who keep the lower halves of their faces covered with (then-disquieting) masks, are slightly magnificent in their own way, placing them in that white room in their mostly white garments and glaring us into submission with the reflected light.

In Séance Forbes has a command of the frame, a way of paring down those distractions which would keep us from what’s most potent. There are the séance scenes, which are, perhaps uniquely among movies with seances, never close to frightening. The light is gone, people sit around the table, their hands are linked, the candle burns. Forbes keeps us close to the people in séance scenes, relying heavily on close-ups and letting us eat up the faces, whether the face is Myra’s expressive and pretending facade or Billy’s broken, hurting visage. There’s a moment where Forbes has all of Stanley’s torso in a shot while she sits at the table in the harsh glow of the candle, and then she bunches up her cardigan so it looks like a swaddled baby. Then he gives us the close-up of the swaddle, making it absolutely unmistakable, sending one of the movie’s few real chills down the spine. In another scene where Billy is trying to retrieve Amanda, the child he has just kidnapped, our eyes are on the space between them. Billy is outside the passenger door at the rear, and she has scooted to the other side of the seat. (This after a harrowing, music-only ride from her school to high weeds where Billy intends to transfer her from back seat to sidecar, after she has screamed and pounded on the windows for the whole of the trip, silent to everyone the car speeds by and to us as well.) The eye is drawn to that space, because the expression Attenborough or Donner might draw up is not all that important. It’s the void, visible through the car window and also partly the door itself, that matters. Will he manage to reach across it and grab her? Or will the void stay pure, unadulterated? In moments like these, I think it’s easy to believe in the genius of the movie. So few of the shots in the film seem tricky or showoffish—the only exceptions that come to mind quickly for me are some low-angle shots in the Clayton house that make it seem like we’re surreptitiously peering over a table during a conversation we shouldn’t hear—and so many of them are exceedingly effective.

Aided by Gerry Turpin’s penumbras, Derek York’s hard cuts, and the endlessly fascinating faces of Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes really has something here. It’s the kind of film that invites that most meaningless of film criticism words: “atmospheric.” It’s not atmosphere that he’s creating, but effect. He is slicing to the bone, and just as we find the strange whiteness of our bones so unsettling, getting down to the faces of the characters and their endlessly expressive faces is unsettling, too. For a long time, Séance lets us believe that these characters are what we can see they are. Billy is a weak man, the kind of weak man who accedes to his wife’s frequent and curt denigrations of him as a weak man. He does not work. He is asthmatic. He has a nose like a cinderblock, hanging precipitously off his face, and his hair is thin and his mustache unconvincing. What’s clear is that Billy, even if he’s completely given to fulfilling his strong-willed wife’s wishes, has no small amount of nerve. He kidnaps a child in broad daylight, showing her his face but, more importantly, the chauffeur who Billy deceives sees it as well. He helps keep the girl in a room in his house for some time, but moves her in preparation for the police coming to his home. He manages to take the bag of £25,000 out of the hands of Charles Clayton (Mark Eden), the girl’s father, who has brought the ransom along with the police. Billy is not a weak figure at all, but he is a hopeless one, and it’s hopelessness that makes him do all of these terrible things in service of what Myra wants, the desperate belief that maybe if she gets what she wants she’ll get out of his butt for a little while.

More importantly, as good as Attenborough is, there is Stanley’s Myra. Myra is bold in her own way, even if she never actually puts herself in the way of the police and never forces herself to do something obviously untoward. (Even her mental monologue has replaced some of the unpleasantness; they have “borrowed” Amanda, not “kidnapped” her.) She is insulting at all times with Billy, constantly belittling him for the slightest fears or anxieties even after he’s done something criminal and hateful. The house is constantly full of loud, indistinguishable musical vowels that she loves and that Billy tolerates. While Billy does all the stuff that one could actually get jailed for if he were caught in the act, Myra does go once into the lion’s den herself. The day after the kidnapping, she goes into the Clayton home, unsolicited, and volunteers enough information she’s already gleaned from Amanda to pretend that she’s had some dream about the disappearance of Amanda Clayton rather than masterminded it. The £25,000 is sort of unimportant to Myra, not so unimportant that Billy fails to retrieve it, but it’s not a point of emphasis for her. She’s tired of making eight pounds a pop by passing the hat around after a séance. She wants to gain fame and fortune by becoming a famous medium, not just one working in relative anonymity, and the kidnapping of Amanda Clayton is, in her mind, a small lie which will uncover a great truth. This charlatan is a fascinating character, and the fundamental cowardice of the charlatan who refuses to take physical risk herself, who chitchats uneasily with a police officer and who gets her picture taken by a sharp-eyed journalist, is just as fascinating as she.

It’s a shame then that this movie chooses to go down a completely separate road at the end. It’s not enough for Myra to be a fame hunter. She has to be crazy with her grief as well, over the stillborn child that she and Billy lost years ago, a child that she believes she speaks to during her séances but who she merely pretends to hear. (Isn’t it just like a woman to be unable to get over the loss of her baby, enough to make her cahrazy?) It’s reasonably interesting to watch her fade in mind and strength and to watch Billy become more and more assured as the film goes on. There’s an actorly scene where Billy gets to yell at her that their son is dead and has always been dead. More effective (heaps more effective) is one of the final lines in the film, a quick question-answer between a police commissioner (Patrick Magee) and Billy. Where’d you hide the money? the commissioner asks, all the traces of his pretend sympathy for mediums all gone. Billy responds immediately where it is. What Séance does not seem to know, at the end, is that it’s less interesting once the film goes away from the rigors and frights of the physical world and steers instead into the fog of memory and the wonky confines of “mental illness” and “grief.” It’s not that it’s not interesting, but that what was best about the film was what was explainable and empirical. Dodging into the pretend medium’s real anguish is not the successful tactic it believes it to be.

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