The Beachcomber (1954)

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Muriel Box was a rare bird in British cinema:  a woman writer/director. This adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s story The Vessel of Wrath was written by her husband producer Sydney Box and stars the inimitable Robert Newton as Ted, a boozer sent by his family to the Welcome Islands where he encounters Resident Ewart Gray (Donald Sinden) and a missionary, Owen Jones (Paul Rogers) and his do-gooding nursing sister (Martha) the marvellous Glynis Johns. They take him in for a while but he finds their religiosity oppressive. He winds up in court after getting a local girl to steal money from the mission to fund his drinking. Martha decides he’s innately good after she gets stuck overnight with him on an island where he’s doing hard labour. Shot on location in Ceylon it was the second adaptation of the book and the colour cinematography greatly assists the atmosphere. A cholera breakout puts everyone on the back foot and Martha goes to the profoundly unwelcoming northern islands with Ted and they narrowly avoid being killed by the natives whom they’ve helped survive a disease the natives think they’ve brought. There’s a wonderful payoff with an elephant that Martha cured earlier in the film – these are probably the best scenes in the film. Although Maugham was a great writer this feels like mild stuff indeed but worth catching for that cast. Newton died a couple of years later, succumbing to alcoholism at just 50.

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The Seventh Veil (1945)

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Classical pianist Ann Todd is hypnotised by psychiatrist Herbert Lom to try to rid her of the obsession that she will never play again. He takes her back through her life and relationships to work out her problem. She’s the ward of second cousin James Mason, a brooding monster whose ambition for her knows no bounds and he takes her out of the country just when she seems to be settling for a loving relationship with bandleader Hugh McDermott. When she’s in love with another man, Albert Lieven, her cousin causes another cataclysmic situation. The Oscar-winning screenplay by Muriel and Sydney Box (directed by Compton Bennett) successfully blends elements of Victorian melodrama and au courant ideas about psychiatry onto a version of Jane Eyre with a bit of de Sade thrown in for good measure. And it all concludes with Lom doing an Hercule Poirot assembling all the men in her life for Ann Todd to choose between them to lift the seventh veil of her unconscious. This did huge business and made Mason a household name. Fabulous tosh!

Rattle of a Simple Man (1964)

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Charles Dyer’s play was a valuable property and producer Sydney Box came out of retirement to acquire it for £50,000 – a large amount at the time. Muriel Box (his wife) and he were hoping that Peter Sellers would take the lead role of the Northern naif in London for the football finals who ends up with an upper class prostitute for the evening after a bet involving his mate Michael Medwin who likes to flash the cash. Harry H. Corbett (famous for Steptoe and Son by then) substituted for Sellers who proved too expensive and the stunning Diane Cilento plays the well educated call girl with whom he spends his time discussing her upbringing, his mother and life back home. Neither will tell on the other about what they did. The play’s flaws are not ironed out and Box doesn’t really get more from the actors than they’re capable of and the sidebar antics – her pimp, his mates – don’t really add much and it doesn’t wholly work either as comedy or drama. However there is some nice scene setting and while Corbett is good,  Cilento is terrific even if she’s playing something of an archetype, albeit with the family revelations. It was Box’s final film. She left filmmaking (where she had experienced sexist behaviour – even from actresses like Jean Simmons and Kay Kendall) and founded feminist imprint Femina the following year.