Need a solid, British character who can display authority with a hint of vulnerability in a changing post-war landscape? Viv Wilby recommends Trevor Howard.

From criterioncollection.blogspot.com
Major Calloway wondered if this was a good time to take up aromatherapy…

Were he still alive, Trevor Howard would have turned 100 yesterday. One of the striking things about the DVD boxset released to mark his centenary is the extent to which it confirms his own observation that he spent most of his career playing ‘number two’.

Five films are collected here, and only in two does he really have anything like a clear claim to the leading role. Supporting actor, co-star on occasion, but rarely is he asked to carry a film. Even where he arguably gets the main part — The Heart of the Matter and Outcast of the Islands in this collection — there’s a meaty supporting cast buoying him up and it’s still no guarantee of top billing. Yes, Brief Encounter is here, of course, but Brief Encounter is really all about Celia Johnson. She is where the emotional heft of the film resides. Trevor’s just there to look good and give her someone to play off. He’s a consort, a co-lead.

Selected from just an eight-year period (1945-53) in a career that would continue into the 1980s, the films collected here all reflect, in their different ways, the immediate legacy of the Second World War and British anxieties of imperial decline. There are two stone-cold classics here — Brief Encounter and The Third Man — that should really be in anyone’s DVD collection and it wouldn’t do to dwell too much on them, given the reams that have been written elsewhere. I’ll say a bit on the latter, though.

Major Calloway, the military policeman played by Howard in The Third Man, was, on paper, maybe a bit of a thankless role and in different hands could have been a dull one. I always used to imagine him as an embodiment of the cynical voiceover (narration provided by director Carol Reed, trivia fans) that opens the film. Calloway is the man who knows. The man who stands in the middle of Europe as it is being carved up, attempting to shield civilians —  in this case Joseph Cotton’s naive American novelist — from some unpleasant realities. But Howard finds notes of wit and humanity to lighten the world-weariness. It’s a performance of real complexity and depth.

The Walk of Shame, 1940s-style
The Walk of Shame, 1940s-style

Odette from 1950, just a year after The Third Man, sees Howard again in a supporting role and again in a military beret, but his performance couldn’t be more different in tone. As Peter Churchill (codename Raoul) Howard gets to play the action hero. He’s a rather cheerful British special forces agent coordinating a network of resistance operatives in occupied France. But just as Brief Encounter is all about Celia Johnson’s Laura, so Odette is all about Anna Neagle’s Odette (codename Lise). Based on a true story and directed by Neagle’s husband Herbert Wilcox, it is one in a long line of British heroine biopics they made together.

Odette Sanson is an Anglo-French housewife who is recruited into the Special Operations Executive after she sends some information to the wrong Whitehall department (true!). Sent into occupied France, she teams up with Howard and a young Peter Ustinov, is eventually betrayed, tortured by the Gestapo and dispatched to a concentration camp.

Neagle is marvellous as the middle-class mother-of-three stirred by patriotism to some quite remarkable acts of bravery and stoicism. There’s lots to admire about the film: the torture scenes are genuinely hard to watch, the concentration camp liberation scenes capture a real sense of chaos and there’s a striking cameo by Marius Goring as a suave German officer. Trevor Howard is merely required to do little more than look brave and a little bit hunky in a chunky sweater — he and Odette fall in love (as did their real life counterparts), but the film skirts rather delicately round their relationship. It’s an energetic and committed performance, though. I liked the way during a tense sequence he nervously licked his lips moments before parachuting out of a plane. A little bit of vulnerability showing through.

The biggest let down in the collection is The Heart of the Matter. Whereas Trevor Howard and Graham Greene made such a good combination in The Third Man, here it doesn’t work nearly so well. I’m not sure either man is to blame. Greene did not contribute the screenplay on this occasion, and Howard can hardly be held responsible for the leaden direction. The Heart of the Matter is a fine novel, but also a rather ponderous one, caught up so much with its characters’ interior lives and a probing of Catholic ideas of guilt and sin. It lacks the zingy thriller elements and smart plot turns of The Third Man and so perhaps any film adaptation would be doomed. The 1953 effort is a brave but ultimately unsuccessful attempt.

"Borrowed" from the Fotoloncho collection.

Howard plays Scobie, a police chief in Freetown, Sierra Leone, during the war. Passed over for promotion, he’s trapped in a loveless and childless marriage from which his Catholic faith forbids him to escape. Scobie eventually embarks on an affair with Helen, a young widow (played here by the Austrian actress Maria Schell) who is also trapped, literally marooned in Sierra Leone. A subplot involving diamond smuggling and a Syrian blackmailer puts Scobie’s faith to the test in a different way.

Howard does well conveying Scobie’s disappointment and self-loathing, and the scenes between him and Schell are highlights: as in the novel, things really improve when her character is introduced. But the film is hindered by awfully flat direction and some crude editing. It fails to establish a believable sense of place, crucial to any Graham Greene I would have thought. Location shots of Sierra Leone and its people are taken but are not well integrated with the majority of the drama, which has been filmed on cramped, flimsy-looking Shepperton sets. And while the film has a go at dealing with “Catholicism”, it’s all a bit half-hearted, as if it’s embarrassed to go there. A row between Scobie and Helen about whether he goes with his wife to Mass or not is just a bit silly: the film hasn’t done enough to make Scobie’s Catholicism carry any weight.

The biggest surprise of the boxset is Outcast of the Islands (adapted from the Joseph Conrad novel), which, like The Third Man, is directed by Carol Reed. If Trevor Howard’s characters in the other four films are all iterations of the same basic type — authority figures, professionals, fundamentally decent, tiniest bit of a wobble to the stiff upper lip — the character he plays here is their antithesis.

Malaya, where men are men, and vests are optional
Malaya, where men are men, and vests are optional

A colonial trader, Willems is a rascal and a rogue, hounded out of Singapore for embezzlement. He is rescued by his old mentor, kindly sea captain Ralph Richardson (top billing, despite getting half of Howard’s screen time) who takes him a to a remote island trading post run by his daughter (Wendy Hiller) and her husband (Robert Morley). Once there, Willems becomes sexually obsessed with Aissa, a voluptuous native girl (Algerian actress Kerima in a completely wordless performance). His lust is exploited by a crafty tribal elder who causes him to betray the colonists.

It’s terrific, if rather dated, fun. Reed’s direction has great energy and scenes bustle with activity. Howard is clearly having the time of his life playing the bad boy for once. The role and Reed’s bold treatment of the material allows Howard’s natural charisma to shine through; there’s far more sexuality here than in either Brief Encounter or The Heart of the Matter. Just watch him toss and turn beneath the mosquito net and smoulder as he watches Kerima swing her hips. It’s the kind of swaggering, grand-standing performance one can imagine Richard Burton or Oliver Reed turning in in later decades.

There are many other incidental pleasures to Outcast of the Islands: Robert Morley, perfecting his pompous ass routine, and Wendy Hiller is sensitive and subtle as a woman disappointed in life and love but not able to say so. There’s also a delightfully precocious turn by Robert Morley’s five-year-old daughter Annabel as his and Hiller’s screen daughter. Plump and pampered, her naive questions and comments torment the adults around her, particularly Willems, who can barely conceal his disdain for the child.

In his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the critic David Thomson blames Trevor Howard’s second-league career on bad role choices and a reluctance to move to Hollywood. Maybe. Or maybe he was hidebound by a British film industry that struggled to see him in anything other than upper-middle class officer roles.

Or perhaps he was just born too early. Were he in his prime in the 60s rather than the early 50s perhaps he would have had more interesting choices to make. One of his favourite roles was apparently the eccentric aristocrat in Vivian Stanshall’s 1980 film Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. That would have been a more interesting addition to a Trevor Howard boxset than, say. Odette. But even in this rather narrow selection of movies, Howard shows himself to be an actor of great versatility and sensitivity and there’s much to admire and enjoy.

Studio Canal’s Trevor Howard boxset was released on September 23.

1 thought on “A VERY BRITISH ACTOR

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