Quartet (1948)

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An anthology film adapted from stories by W. Somerset Maugham, with four episodes: The Facts of Life.  Mr. and Mrs. Garnet (Basil Radford and Angela Baddeley) allow their promising tennis player son, nineteen-year-old Nicky (Jack Watling) to travel by himself to Monte Carlo to compete in a tournament. Mr. Garnet gives him some advice: never gamble, never lend money, and don’t have anything to do with women. Naturally, Nicky ignores it all … Directed by Ralph Smart. The Alien Corn. On George Bland’s (Dirk Bogarde) twenty-first birthday, his aristocratic father (Raymond Lovell) asks him what he intends to do with his life. George’s answer is incomprehensible to his entire family: he wants to become a concert pianist and he goes to Paris to train for two years … Directed by Harold French. The Kite. Herbert Sunbury (George Cole) marries Betty (Susan Shaw), despite his overly involved mother’s (Hermione Baddeley) dislike for the woman. The newlyweds are happy, except for Herbert’s lifelong enthusiasm for flying kites … Directed by Arthur Crabtree. The Colonel’s Lady. A colonel’s (Cecil Parker) mousy wife (Nora Swinburne) writes a book of poetry under a pseudonym, but is unmasked by the papers and his mistress tells him that the saucy work must have been inspired by his wife’s real-life affair … Directed by Ken Annakin… The strength of this compendium of post-war stories lies in Maugham’s usual powers – themes of morality and irony unravelled in tales of poor parenting and lack of communication within marriage. There are some amusing and tragic incidents performed by a terrific cast of great British names with Maugham himself introducing each segment. Adapted by R.C. Sheriff. A classic of its kind.

Encore (1951)

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My great aunt Louise very nearly had a man’s mind. She also very nearly had a man’s moustache. Anthology dramatization of three short stories by W. Somerset Maugham.  The Ant and the Grasshopper: Tom (Nigel Patrick) is a thorn in the side of his diligent brother George (Roland Culver) but a chance meeting with a wealthy woman changes everything. Directed by Pat Jackson and adapted by T.E.B. Clarke. Winter Cruise: Miss Reid (Kay Walsh) is boring her fellow cruise ship passengers with incessant talking, so  led by the captain (Noel Purcell) they set her up on a date with a handsome steward (Jacques Francois) that has surprising consequences for everyone. Directed by Anthony Pelissier and adapted by Arthur Macrae. Gigolo and Gigolette: Stella (Glynis Johns) and her husband Syd (Terence Morgan) are professional daredevils, but her worries about the future upon meeting two old troupers with a similarly dangerous act prompt her to risk it all at the casino in Monte Carlo. Directed by Harold French and adapted by Eric Ambler. I’ve always had a taste for Maugham’s stories and this is a pleasingly piquant collection, each introduced by the man himself from Villa La Mauresque, his home on the Riviera, where some of the action is set. Each story has a different rhythm and tone and yet they all coalesce into a solid whole with the obligatory (and rather unexpected) twist ending, giving Glynis Johns one of the best of her early roles. This was the third of a trilogy of films based on Maugham’s stories and it’s a treat.

The Letter (1940)

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With all my heart, I still love the man I killed. In Singapore, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a rubber plantation administrator, shoots and kills a man, Geoff Hammond, claiming that he tried to take advantage of her. She is arrested and her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) hires attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. Her claim of self-defence is doubted by the locals. During the trial Howard uncovers an incriminating letter that casts doubt on Leslie’s story. The two become embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving a Malayan clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) and the dead man’s widow Mrs Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) … One of the great melodramas of the era, this Somerset Maugham adaptation by Howard Koch had already received an interpretation in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels in the leading role and Marshall had played Geoff Hammond. With the dream team of Davis and director William Wyler it became an opportunity for Warners to make an intense, lush festival of emotions concerning race and sex shot by Tony Gaudio, costumed by Orry-Kelly and scored by Max Steiner. Davis is simply unforgettable, as is the opening scene, when a shot rings out under a full moon …

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.

Of Human Bondage (1934)

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This is such a disconcerting film adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s most famous work:  Bette Davis’ performance as the peroxided, abusive Cockney waitress still startles and her chemistry with Leslie Howard is compelling. It’s shot so oddly – with all those pieces to camera – and the power of their driven love/hatred has twice the erotic power of anything more obvious so that it adds up to a rich and strange viewing experience.  Davis was widely expected to win the Academy Award but she wasn’t even formally nominated;  this, however, made her a star. Howard was a legendary swordsman and late in life Davis regretted that she was the only one of his leading ladies (allegedly) that didn’t succumb to his charms (which are admittedly elusive at this point in time). Lester Cohen adapted the novel and it was directed by John Cromwell (father of actor James) who would later be blacklisted.

The Razor’s Edge (1946)

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Somerset Maugham’s magnificent novel of the Lost Generation gets the A treatment from Darryl F. Zanuck’s Twentieth-Century Fox. It was a vehicle for the ludicrously beautiful Tyrone Power, newly returned from the War, just like the hero, socialite Larry Darrell, on a quest to find himself after WW1. The obscenely brilliant Lamar Trotti (who died far too young) crafted a faithful screenplay and Maugham himself, who drifts in and out of the story (“as if he leads our lives for us”) is played by Herbert Marshall.  Only Gene Tierney was gorgeous enough to cast opposite Power and she is the woman who can’t let go of him – even after she has. He turns up years later in Paris after his Indian odyssey and she is still in love with him despite husband (John Payne) and children and gets in the way of his self-sacrificing marriage to their childhood friend, the tragic alcoholic Sophie, played in an extraordinarily vivid performance by Anne Baxter (despite the boxy costumes which accentuate her disproportionate frame). Uncle Elliott, the social climber, is played by the wonderfully epicene Clifton Webb (he’ll always be Waldo Lydecker to me). It is meticulously directed by the overwhelmingly gifted British actor/writer/director Edmund Goulding who would be reunited with Power the following year for the simply astonishing Nightmare Alley. Those were the days. The material was so potent that writer/director John Byrum did a version in 1984 starring Bill Murray and Theresa Russell, but that’s another story.