Roald Dahl reviews the 1964 British neo noir drama film Séance on a Wet Afternoon. I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but imagine that Patricia Neal would have winced a bit at some of those jabs about “glamorous world-famous stars of only moderate ability”!
LIFE MOVIE REVIEW
The Painful Pleasure of Suspense
SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON
It is a subtle and a recondite truth that pleasure, even in normal individuals, is frequently associated with pain. The guppy, whose first approach to mating is to bite the rear end of the other fish, found this out long ago. Writers also have been aware of it for centuries and have successfully devised a number of methods of their own for giving pain-pleasure to their readers. The most effective of these is to present the reader, first of all, with a sympathetic character—a child, perhaps, or a gentle young woman or a kindly old man—and having done that, the writer proceeds to put this sympathetic character in extreme jeopardy. Thus anxiety and apprehension are created in the reader’s mind. and if the writer be skillful, he will increase the jeopardy and prolong the agony to a point where the narrative becomes painful to read. At this stage, he will pause to sow a tiny little seed of false hope, and the reader will start to relax. Then, slowly, the screw will begin to be turned again, tighter and tighter and tighter, to the limit of the writer’s ability; and this, as we all know, Is called “suspense.”
By creating suspense, the writer is simply playing upon the subconscious masochistic instincts of his reader. He is torturing him. And if the torture is expertly applied, the reader will cry out, “I can’t stand it, not for another moment! Oh, isn’t it wonderful!”—and he will read on.
Good suspense, prolonged to its utmost limits, is not easy to write. Even in a short story that takes no longer than 20 or 25 minutes to read, it is extraordinarily difficult to accomplish. And if somebody had come to me a week ago and told me that a writer and two actors had made a film in which an atmosphere of absolutely nonstop, unrelieved, ever-mounting suspense had been successfully maintained over a period of no less than one hour and 55 minutes, I would have said, “It can’t be true. The tension must begin to sag somewhere. It must!” But now that I have seen Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough in Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I know that the miracle has been accomplished.
I refuse to discuss the plot except to say that it concerns a weak husband and his domineering, mentally deranged wife, and also a child who is kidnaped. If you are going to go and see the film, and I hope you are, then it would be foolish of me to tell you any more.
As a study in suspense, this film must surely be a kind of classic. It is also a perfect demonstration of the fact that the most effective suspense is invariably created in a low key and without any violence at all. For me, at any rate, the screw was turned and turned and turned so remorselessly that there came a point about three quarters of the way through when my compassionate instincts (as the father of children) rebelled against my love of pain-pleasure, and I said to myself, “I really can’t stand this any longer. I want to get out.” But I stayed in my seat, and I was glad I did.
The acting of Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough is of a very high order. What a pleasure it is to see two such splendid, subtle, intelligent performances on the screen at the same time, with both players complementing one another so beautifully. Richard Attenborough, a small, portly Englishman, comes onto the screen looking like a well-nourished muskrat who has been dressed p in human clothes by Beatrix Potter. But in the very first moments he had me spellbound. His is the least menacing of the two parts, yet in everything he does, the way he walks down the stairs or seats himself in a bus or stares silently at his wife across the room, he manages continually in some magical manner to intensify the atmosphere of suspense and doom. And Kim Stanley, who, as everybody on Broadway knows, is one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, here dominates her seedy little husband in the gentlest and most sinister fashion imaginable. With a seraphic smile she forces him to do the most terrible things, and I think that many a husband in the audience, after watching Stanley’s performance, will look rather carefully at his own wife the next time she gives him her sweetest, most angelic smile.
A great deal of the applause must obviously go to English actor Bryan Forbes, Attenborough’s close friend and collaborator, for he not only wrote the script but also directed the film. With both, he has done a superb job, and he has proved, if any more proof be needed, that a fine scriptwriter and a fine director and fine actors of only moderate fame will make far better films than glamorous world-famous stars of only moderate ability.
Attenborough and Forbes are a two-man film company. Nobody interferes with them or gives them orders. Both men are extremely bright, and they make a potent combination. Séance cost $420,000 to make, which is peanuts by Hollywood standards. In the U.S. it will be seen in art houses first, and the distributor, appropriately, is Artie Shaw—the old maestro himself.
Well, Artie didn’t blow this one.