Was it magic or murder they planned?
Séance On A Wet Afternoon
Johnny Restall revisits drab, wet London for Séance On A Wet Afternoon, a 1964 psychological thriller with supernatural undertones…
Released in 1964, Séance On A Wet Afternoon is a dark psychological thriller with subtle supernatural overtones, the last in a short series of British films from the early 1960s directed by Bryan Forbes and produced by Richard Attenborough. (The previous two were The L-Shaped Room and Whistle Down The Wind.)
The film opens with one of the titular séances that punctuate critical points of the narrative, moving slowly from a single burning candle to the doleful faces of the sitters gathered in the darkened, strangely shaped room. Medium Myra Savage (Kim Stanley) murmurs vague descriptions from the beyond to her small audience (“A message…A young face…Peaceful”), before abruptly pinching out the candle, business concluded.
The attendees leave what seems to be an ordinary modern residence, save for a stylised turreted room, where the séance took place. (This was a genuine feature of the real house in Wimbledon used for this location.) As the opening credits begin, we see this turret room reflected upside-down in a puddle on the rain soaked pavement. This simple image prepares the audience for the themes and tone of the film beautifully – ordinary but odd, suburban but gothic, outwardly respectable but inwardly twisted, hidden secrets and sadness played out on drab, rainy streets.
Forbes’ screenplay, adapted from the novel of the same name by Mark McShane, tells a strange tale of dubious psychic powers, kidnap, marital strife and ghostly children. Myra, an unstable Medium, persuades her reticent husband Billy (Attenborough) to “borrow” the young daughter of a wealthy industrialist, so that she can use her abilities to help them find their kidnapped child, for personal and financial gain.
To describe the relationship between Myra and Billy as strained and dysfunctional would be an understatement. In an early scene, Myra complains that the house is too quiet, and chastises Billy for turning off the music, even though we saw her switch it off herself a few moments before. When Billy mildly corrects her, Myra responds, “Why would I turn it off?” Her defensive tone suggests that she will not rather than cannot remember. After a pregnant pause, Billy carefully replies, “Well, then it must have been me.”
This leads to the following exchange, captured in a beautifully framed shot with Myra stood looking down at the seated Billy, facing forward and avoiding eye contact, his face conveying quiet grief and resignation:
Myra: (like a mother lovingly scolding a wayward child): “Why did I ever marry you, Billy?”
Billy: (softly, after a pause): “I don’t know Dear, why did you?”
Myra: (tenderly, almost as though reciting an article of faith): “Because you’re weak, and because you need me.”
These lines could easily play as a clichéd, misogynist downtrodden husband / henpecking wife scenario. It is to the credit of Stanley and Attenborough’s tremendous performances that they bring almost unbearable realism and depth to the suffocated affection and tragedy of Myra and Billy’s relationship. When the inevitable explosion between the two does come, ushering in the final act of the film, it is devastating to watch.
According to Bryan Forbes (interviewed in the Blu-ray extra Memories On A Wet Afternoon), the role of Myra was extremely difficult to cast. Both Simone Signoret and Deborah Carr declined the part. Forbes apparently even considered recasting the two characters as a homosexual relationship, offering the parts to Tom Courtenay (who accepted) and Alec Guinness (who declined). Eventually, he came across Kim Stanley, an American actor best known for her stage work, and persuaded her to take the role.
Sadly, Stanley made few films, but she perfectly captures Myra’s domineering side and her desire for recognition, while retaining an air of vulnerability and isolation that prevents the character from becoming a monster. She is entirely believable as a person who has slipped away into her own fantasy life, aggressively unable to confront reality. Attenborough matches her every step of the way (despite a slightly distracting false nose), as Billy desperately tries not to shatter his wife’s fragile state even as she pushes him into increasingly criminal, foolish acts. At times, the more sinister aspects of Attenborough’s performance anticipate his insidiously evil John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971), although Billy is a far more sympathetic (if hopelessly flawed) character.
As in 10 Rillington Place, Séance On A Wet Afternoon takes place in a defiantly low-key, lived in, residential London, a world away from the popular landmarks and tourist traps. The mundane setting acts to heighten the macabre nature of the plot, while anchoring its more gothic aspects in reality rather than melodrama.
The kidnap takes place in broad daylight, and makes use of a distinctly unglamorous disused greyhound stadium; the exchange of the ransom money takes place in a Central London tube station crowded with commuters; and of course, the séances and personal breakdowns take place on a quiet Wimbledon street. (Like many films of a similar age, several of these locations are now a ghost story in themselves, changing radically with the years or slipping quietly out of living memory altogether – the greyhound stadium is apparently now a roundabout on the M25).
Meanwhile, the interior of the Savage’s house (inherited from Myra’s mother) mirrors their stunted relationship. From the grandfather clock by the front door with its three carved wooden bears (perhaps a fairy tale reference, casting the kidnapped girl as an unwilling Goldilocks), to the imposing central staircase and turret room, Ray Sim’s art direction re-enforces the shadowy, stuffy atmosphere of their home. Antiquated furnishings choke the main living room, dominated by the enormous gramophone on which Myra repeatedly plays Mendelsohn’s Hear My Prayer (“In the wilderness build me a nest / And remain there forever at rest”). Repression, guilt, and old, unhealed wounds seem woven into the very fabric of the décor.
Gerry Turpin’s gorgeous black and white photography emphasises the sense of austere melancholy that pervades the film, making extensive use of minimal, naturalistic lighting. John Barry’s score further enhances this mood, alternately brooding and eerie, or urgent to the point of mania, a world away from the bold and brassy alternative vision of 1960s Britain offered by his contemporary scores for the early James Bond films.
Forbes’ direction moves adroitly between longer dialogue-led scenes in the Savage’s home, allowing the leads to flex their muscles, and tightly edited suspense sequences involving the outside world, as they put their scheme into action. Much is skilfully implied rather than seen, with misdirection keeping the viewer guessing. As Billy subdues the kidnapped Amanda (Judith Donner), the camera cuts away, the sound of a passing aeroplane drowning out the struggle.
The next scene opens with Billy back at home washing something dark off his hands – for a moment, the audience believes it to be her blood before we realise he is rinsing out his hair dye disguise. We are again deceived about her fate at his hands in a later scene (interestingly, the original novel provides a quite different outcome for her character).
Given the downbeat tone of the film, it is not a surprise when Myra and Billy’s plans do not go well. Their scheme is fundamentally flawed, and they lack the competence to put it into practice successfully. Billy accidentally sounds the car horn during the kidnap, and his intended victim locks him out of the back of the vehicle. Amanda easily exposes Myra’s lies with simple questions, and, in an irony particularly bitter in retrospect, Myra has no idea how to cope with a living child (describing them as “adaptable”, “like little animals” from a pet shop).
Despite the realism of the setting, the film’s attitude to the supernatural is subtly ambiguous, shifting quietly without ever being overt. Although they linked hands during the film’s opening séance, the sitters do not acknowledge each other as they leave the house afterwards as though, outside of the circle in the suburban daylight, their belief is an embarrassment. They seem to have found little consolation or companionship in their “communion with the dead” as they wander away alone down the rainy streets. Charles Clayton (Mark Eden), the father of the kidnapped girl, is brutally dismissive of Myra’s offer of psychic help, although his wife (Nanette Newman) is more receptive.
For most of the film, Myra’s skills as a medium appear to be delusional rather than authentic. The first two séances seem to yield only vague results, and her kidnap scheme obviously relies on practical rather than psychic knowledge. Even Billy does not believe in her abilities, furiously dismissing them when their conflict finally bursts to the surface: “It’s YOU, Myra! It’s always been you!”
Yet in the film’s climactic séance, Myra finally seems to enter a genuine trance – we even hear ghostly whispering on the soundtrack. She now knows of events that Billy has deliberately withheld from her, and seems to have little control over what she reveals in the presence of the attending police officers. The things she says could conceivably come from a final surrender to her personal doubts and demons – or maybe they show that Myra really has been led by her spirit guide, as she claims. If so, this unseen ghost must be among the loneliest and most resentful committed to film. The little seed of doubt planted by this subtle final twist only becomes more chilling each time you consider it.
Whether you believe the events are supernatural or not, the final scenes are an achingly sad conclusion to the Savage’s foolhardy scheme. The film ends as it began – with the gothic turreted room reflected in puddles on the street, a child’s music box poignantly accompanying the final credits.
Although Séance On A Wet Afternoon was remade for television in Japan in 2000, and even adapted into an opera in the US in 2009, it remains something of a neglected work, rarely mentioned in the canon of British cinema classics. Although it only touches only loosely on horror territory, I would urge you to seek it out.