The Man Who Haunted Himself Review
Basil Dearden is one of those British directors whose name is familiar but who was for a long time rather underrated. He made epics such as Khartoum, excellent comedies like The Smallest Show on Earth and the peerless caper movie The League of Gentlemen, but it’s only comparatively recently that his knack for the seamier side of London life in mid-century has been recognised and films such as Victim, Pool of London and Sapphire have received their due. It is in this context that his final film The Man Who Haunted Himself seems particularly interesting as a final fling with myriad London locations and a particularly crazy storyline which hovers on the edge of comedy, some of which is not entirely unintentional. It also plays around with some interesting notions about identity and paranoia which help to make a generally old-fashioned film seem a little more contemporary.
Roger Moore, much more engaged than usual in his early film work, plays Mr. Pelham, an engineering company executive. Mr Pelham, or Pel as he is known to his friends, is a conservative, conscientious man whose life revolves around the boardroom and the club. But he has a darker side, one which likes to live dangerously. One night while driving home from work, this darker side comes to fore and encourages him to drive increasingly fast until he loses control and drives straight into a concrete support pillar on the motorway.
This is a fabulous opening, made even better by the nostalgic tourist views of London in 1969, and by Michael J. Lewis's delirious upbeat theme music. It sounds rather like a cross between Ron Grainer's theme for The Prisoner and John Cacavas’ score for The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Believe me, this is a very high recommendation indeed.
After this unfortunate episode, Pelham is taken to the hospital, where he momentarily dies before being resuscitated. The hospital incidentally appears to have worryingly few facilities, but then it is set during one of Harold Wilson’s balance of payments crises. Oddly, however, upon being revived, two hearts appear momentarily on the ECG. The medics assume this is an electrical fault, but, needless to say, they're wrong.
The first half of the film builds up a most satisfying atmosphere of unease as Pelham’s life begins to become increasingly strange. There’s a security leak at the company; his friend claims to have met him the previous week; a girl approaches him claiming to be his lover. This is all rather well achieved, since Dearden keeps his cards close to his chest. We are encouraged to believe that there is some sort of conspiracy against Pelham, and then to think that he is becoming mentally ill. Roger Moore, always a somewhat undervalued actor, is very good as the stuffy, repressed Pelham, and manages to make believable the character's increasing frustration at what is happening. Our only hint of the truth is the occasional appearance of a flashy sports car outside Pelham's house.
There are a lot of hints dropped in this part of the film and when we discover the truth it’s perhaps a little disappointing. But what is peculiarly effective is the tightly restrained and very, well, British nature of the thing. All sorts of subjects are skirted around – not least sex – but never quite confronted head-on. A few years ago this might have seemed irritating but enough time has passed for it to look rather charming and a reminder of the sort of reserve of which a contemporary film, Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance, would thoroughly dispose.
Roger Moore, whose acting talents have so often been derided, does a great deal to hold the film together during the second half. It’s a tricky role, for reasons which would involve a massive spoiler, but Moore carries it off with aplomb. He’s joined by a cast of familiar faces including reliables like Anton Rogers, Thorley Walters and John Carson who provide the film with a certain credibility. Less reliable but certainly very entertaining is Freddie Jones who gives a fine example of dedicated hamming, as he plays one of those movie psychiatrists who are appear far more nutty than any of their patients. Clearly afraid that the part isn’t good enough, Jones decides to adopt a ludicrous accent which sounds like a cross between Brian Cox and Dr Finlay. Having thus ensured that he will steal every scene in which he appears, he also dons a pair of sunglasses with which he can toy in order to distract the viewer’s attention even further and goes around playing with the props and the scenery. No-one else can compete, particularly not the actresses who are both very beautiful but, in acting terms, little more than mannequins.
There’s about enough story in Anthony Armstrong’s original story for a short film and it was indeed adapted as a half hour for Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955. Extended into ninety minutes, the padding does show a little although the film does move at a spanking pace, propelled by that splendid Michael J. Lewis score. It’s a pretty good capper to Dearden’s distinguished career and, although a critical and commercial failure at the time, it has gone on to gain a deserved cult following.
Network’s new, fully uncut, transfer of The Man Who Haunted Himself is exceptional. It’s taken from original film elements, which seem to have been in excellent condition, and framed at the original ratio of 1.85:1.
The best aspect of the transfer is the quality of the colour which is little short of sensational, so striking and vivid that the film could have been shot yesterday. Reds and yellows seem to burst out of the screen. But it’s not merely the bright colours which stand out. For example, when the directors are gathered round in the traditional boardroom setting, the various subtle shades of brown are carefully delineated and suddenly a potentially stodgy scene bursts into life. This careful colouring is matched by the level of tactile detail, strong enough to bring out the different textures of the various three piece suits, along with some particularly horrible wallpaper. The only scene which stands out as less than superb is right at the end when there’s an optical effect which is vital to the plot. This is well done as far as it goes but does stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.
The sound is also very good. I have no complaints about any aspect of the LPCM 2.0 track and the music particularly benefits from the lossless format.
A number of extras are included on the disc. The most substantial is a commentary track from Bryan Forbes and Roger Moore. Forbes was in charge of EMI at the time the film was produced and offers some insight into the production while Roger Moore offers his usual wry and self-deprecating observations. It’s clear, however, that he takes some justifiable pride in his performance and is very fond of the film. Alongside this track are several galleries with promotional materials and storyboards and the original theatrical trailer which trades heavily on the presence of Roger Moore. Finally, and particularly welcome, is a 40 minute music suite which, like the transfer, is taken straight from archive materials.
Unlike on many of Network’s releases, optional English subtitles have been provided. This is a definite improvement and one to be encouraged.