Outcast of the Islands Review
Outcast of the Islands, Carol Reed’s 1951 adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel, had the misfortune of being the director’s immediate follow-up to The Third Man. In fact his entire output of the 1950s has become somewhat overshadowed by this most famous of Graham Greene features. Extended Orson Welles cameos and chases through Viennese sewers would appear to linger longer than those films Reed would subsequently turn his attention to (or at least until his multi-Oscar-winning ‘comeback’ of 1968, Oliver!). Yet the fifties were a fertile period for the filmmaker and certainly deserving of a second look. There were some lightweight offerings - particular the circus-set romantic melodrama of 1956’s Trapeze - but the decade also included some real gems. A Kid for Two Farthings, from 1954, still doesn’t get the respect it deserves; it’s superficial and sentimental, for sure, but brimful of character and atmosphere. Reed’s final collaboration with Greene, 1959’s Our Man in Havana should, at the very least, be considered a worthy follow-up to The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, whilst the wartime setting of 1958’s The Key ably reminds us that the director worked on some of the very finest WWII pictures of the forties: The New Lot, The Way Ahead and The True Glory.
Yet if there’s one particular title from Reed’s fifties output to prompt a re-think then Outcast of the Islands is surely that one. Not that it’s been an easy film to track down of late: its last television screening was in 1992 and its last home video incarnation was a now long out-of-print VHS that first emerged in 1990. Consequently Outcast of the Islands has risked becoming a forgotten film, which is why this new DVD edition is to be so gratefully received. No supplementary features and arguably not enough of a reputation to justify a Blu-ray, but nevertheless a superb presentation and, for some, finally a chance to see this wonderful film. (A German release emerged last summer on the Pidax label under the title of Der Verdammte der Insen, though reviews or reports as to its quality would appear to be hard to come by.)
The story of Outcast of the Islands, faithfully adapted from Conrad’s 1896 novel, is that of Peter Willems. We first encounter him drinking in a billiards club and (unbeknownst to him) during his final minutes as manager of a shipping firm in an Indonesian port. He’s a rogue, an embezzler and a man whose marriage has pretty much collapsed. Years previous he’d served as a young protégé to Captain Lingard (a recurring character for Conrad) having been rescued as a starving twelve-year-old boy. Lingard comes to his assistance once more after a mock suicide attempt, transporting him to a remote trading post presided over by the husband of his adopted daughter. Willems becomes employed by Lingard, after a fashion, though his inability to speak the native language makes his role largely useless. Instead this time in exile becomes a mere continuation of his downward spiral; here he finds more relationships to ruin and further means of realising his own weaknesses.
Willems is played by Trevor Howard, who very clearly relishes the role. Outcast of the Islands is an actors’ film, also populated by the likes of Ralph Richardson and Wendy Hiller, and one concerned more with character than incident as becomes apparent from the opening moments. Wilfred Hyde White, playing a subordinate at Willems’ soon to be ex-employers, gets only a few minutes of screen time but uses each to his advantage. His character is well aware of Willems’ impending plight and it’s fascinating to watch him sneak around the other man. He’s most likely as weak as Willems and certainly as manipulative: he’ll be Willems’ friend until it’s no longer to his advantage, at which point an entire other side of his character emerges, one that’s mean, vindictive and heartless. All this within a couple of scenes, and we haven’t even left port yet… Indeed, if Hyde White can convey so much in such little time, it should come as no surprise to learn that Howard and co-stars are able to produce some genuinely rich and nuanced turns.
Key to Howard’s portrayal is the fact that he refuses to soften Willems. This isn’t a man to sympathise with but rather one to attempt to understand. Howard would later portray a number of troubled souls adrift in the world (see also The Heart of the Matter, Mutiny on the Bounty, Dust, White Mischief), but Outcast of the Islands was the first. Previously he’d been best known for Brief Encounter and for playing essentially good men in brisk British crime dramas (the wartime spy drama I Saw a Dark Stranger, the medical thriller Green for Danger, the noir-ish They Made Me a Fugitive). It’s tempting to wonder how the audiences of 1951 must have responded to this new onscreen persona, all sweaty and increasingly insignificant as the film progresses. Willems remains as irredeemable as he did in the original novel: this is a man who plots his own downfall, however unwittingly, and suffers as a result. It’s a far cry from the Squadron Leader of The Way to the Stars or the gentle doctor of Brief Encounter.
Signs of weakness are not restricted to Willems, however. We don’t see quite enough of Richardson as Lingard to make any judgements there, but it’s certainly true of both Hiller as his adopted daughter and Robert Morley as her husband. Again there’s an element of surprise as both performances don’t quite square with their popular perceptions. The role of Hiller’s character on the trading post would appear to be a mostly thankless one, but it’s an absolute gift for the actress. She has minimal dialogue and mostly just reacts, yet as Hiller would often do (most notably in the Sidney Lumet take on Murder on the Orient Express) she is able to conjure genuine character from even the tiniest of moments. It’s startling to see the confidence she demonstrated so forcefully just a few years earlier in I Know Where I’m Going! (the title and exclamation say it all) eroded to the complete opposite. Her silent response to one particularly mean-spirited revelation from the lips of Morley is absolutely heartbreaking.
Not that Morley fares much better. It’s easy to think of the actor as bumbling or a bit of a buffoon; numerous comedies, hammy supporting turns and plenty of roles portraying the dimwitted upper classes have allowed for that. Such a template fits Outcast of the Islands too, albeit with an added depth as expected from the serious tone and the performers around him. The pomposity has consequences here: it feeds into his character’s jealousies (specifically aimed at Willems) and the manner in which he treats his wife. We don’t laugh when we see this man - as is so often the case with a Morley turn - but rather we see the pathetic side. Interestingly Morley’s own five-year-old daughter, Annabel, plays his onscreen child here (and threatens to outshine them all). Their scenes together can only make his character seem all the more human, frailties, flaws and all.
Some of the this realism seeps into Outcast of the Islands’ handling of its exotic locale, though do bear in mind that this was an early fifties production. The credits unfold over three dancing natives, which doesn’t produce the best of faiths, but this is offset by the opening shot, a 180 degree pan across the port replete with elephants and genuine extras. Indeed, the effort has certainly been made towards authenticity, though budget and other considerations come into play. Back projection - especially during those early Singapore scenes - is heavily utilised and puts a dampener on one particular scene that nowadays would become an action set-piece. We also have to contend with Manchester-born actor George Coulouris in ‘black-face’. I’m not entirely sure as to whether this sits better given the amount of local extras around him or whether such a situation only points up incongruity. Either way, at least we have the French-Algerian Kerima making her debut and occupying the role of the native who attracts Willems’ eye and contributes to his inevitable downfall. Many of her subsequent films need only their titles to demonstrate the stereotyping she would have to endure - Native Drums, The Warrior and the Slave Girl - but here she’s allowed a genuine performance and a character as rounded as the rest.
Indeed, there is little in the way of favouritism on the filmmakers’ part between the natives and their white masters. How could there be when we are faced with so many weak excuses for human beings? If anything there is a certain mocking attitude towards the settlers: as one tribes leader puts it to Captain Lingard, “Don’t the white men know what is best for us?” It’s all part of an overall richness and seriousness that allows Outcast of the Islands to remain as powerful today as it would have been sixty years ago. As I’ve already pointed out, there are dated elements such as Coulouris’ casting, but these pale against the more remarkable aspects. Importantly this is a film which never loses sight of its source novel (right down to the ending) and stays true to the complexities of its characters. As a result it still stands out - with competition from Apocalypse Now and The Duellists - as one of the finest examples of bringing Conrad to the big screen. It’s also undoubtedly one of Carol Reed’s finest, even if it has been so little-seen over the past few years, and with that we have a genuinely welcome DVD rediscovery.
Outcast of the Islands is being released on January 23rd by StudioCanal and exclusively through MovieMail (here). The disc is encoded for Region 2 only and makes use of a print in excellent condition. The original mono and Academy ratio are expectedly in place with damage minimal in both cases to the point where you barely notice. Contrast levels are excellent as is the clarity. Indeed, this would surely have been a Blu-ray contender were it not for the film’s relative lack of popularity. (Seemingly StudioCanal’s HD attentions for British cinema are currently aimed almost solely at Ealing and Hammer.) There are also no extras to be had, but any complaints should at least be tempered with the superb quality of the transfer and the scarcity of the film until now. Indeed, I’d rather have Outcast of the Islands available and looking as good as it does than not at all.
Update - Outcast of the Islands will be available through all retailers from April 23rd.