Woman in a Dressing Gown Review
Here’s a surprise: J. Lee Thompson’s 1957 feature Woman in a Dressing Gown rescued from obscurity, spruced up, due to be screened in cinemas once more and to makes its DVD premiere (with extras too). Admittedly that obscurity hasn’t been complete - the film has been treated to the occasional television airing over the decades (including the one I caught sometime around the mid-nineties) - but this is a worthwhile rescue mission for a number of reasons. For starters it’s a film deserving of a much better reputation. At the time of its release Woman in a Dressing Gown picked up some notable awards. The Golden Globes declared it the Best English-Language Foreign Film, whilst the Berlin Film Festival handed out a Silver Bear to Yvonne Mitchell for her performance and a FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Prize to director J. Lee Thompson. Closer to home, a pair of BAFTA nominations were garnered by Sylvia Syms for Best British Actress and Ted Willis for Best British Screenplay. And yet, despite such nods and silverware, Woman in a Dressing Gown has all but disappeared from memory.
In retrospect I suspect that the two Berlin prize winners may be inadvertently responsible. Mitchell’s Silver Bear never translated into international success (despite continuous work in film and on television until her death in 1979) and, consequently, there’s never been much in the way of critical attention, let alone any re-evaluation. Thompson, on the other hand, did find his way into international filmmaking thanks to The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear in the early sixties, but soon descended into anonymity. His career concluded at Cannon Pictures, making second-rate Charles Bronson vehicles and the Richard Chamberlain version of King Solomon’s Mines. As such, much like Mitchell, Thompson’s critical reputation has been somewhat low, although this does a massive disservice to his early British features.
Thompson made his directorial debut with Murder without Crime in 1950, a self-penned slice of British noir. It was followed up, two years later, by one of his finest efforts, The Yellow Balloon. Set amidst the Blitz-scarred back streets of London’s East End, this tale of a young boy struggling with the guilt of his best friend’s accidental death marked out its director (and co-writer) as a mature, socially-engaged filmmaker. The rest of the decade would see Thompson involved in musicals and comedies (most notably the all-star An Alligator Named Daisy), but the most lasting works are those which dealt seriously, and respectfully, with the issues of the day. The Weak and the Wicked, from 1953, was set in a women’s prison. Yield to the Night was loosely based upon the life of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, and released less than a year after her execution. Woman in a Dressing Gown continued in a similar vein: a story of infidelity and marital break-up, albeit one told with sensitivity, objectivity and refusal to err into melodrama.
Ted Willis’ screenplay started out as a teleplay, first transmitted in the June of 1956 as part of Television Playhouse. Just an hour in length (including ad breaks), it nevertheless contained the same set-up, situations and supporting characters who would survive the transition to the 90-minute feature. Jim (Anthony Quayle) is married Amy (Mitchell) and they live in a council flat with their young son (Andrew Ray, working with Thompson once more having played the lead in The Yellow Balloon). Amy dearly loves her ‘Jimbo’ but she’s scatterbrained, ill-disciplined, a little rough around the edges and rarely gets out of her dressing gown. As a result her husband’s attentions have turned to the secretary at work, Georgie (Sylvia Syms), who’s younger and more refined. Jim intends to tell her of the affair and his plans for divorce, though the results are likely to be messy.
As the title suggests Woman in a Dressing Gown concerns itself primarily with Amy. Certainly, Mitchell’s performance is at its heart and undoubtedly the largest on display. She latches onto the characters crudities and less flattering qualities - to add to the above, she also isn’t particularly bright - but never uses them as an excuse for caricature. The performance has to be loud and draw attention to itself because that is exactly what Amy does as she tries to get a handle on the housework with the radio blaring or joins in with a sing-along down the pub. Yet, for all these rough edges, at no point do we lose sight of the woman behind these characteristics: her love for her husband and her son, her best intentions, her heart. Quayle and Syms may put in performances of a lower key (in fact, Syms need only play the opposite of Mitchell to convey her role), but that’s not to say theirs are any more subtle or refined as their co-star. Mitchell deserved that Silver Bear award.
Such a sympathetic rendering - and in a film which doesn’t have any agenda when it comes class or its big screen representation - has prompted some commentators to connect Woman in a Dressing Gown with the soon to emerge British New Wave. (The first Free Cinema programme had already screened at the National Film Theatre in February 1956, whilst Look Back in Anger had premiered at the Royal Court three months later; the big screen adaptation, and that of Room at the Top, would appear in the first half of 1959.) There’s no denying the ‘kitchen sink realism’ on display - one that’s full of dirty crockery, naturally - although Thompson’s style doesn’t have a great deal in common with the later films of Tony Richardson, say, or Karel Reisz. His cinematographer on this venture was the great Gilbert Taylor, a regular collaborator during Thompson’s British years and the man who would later shoot A Hard Day’s Night, Roman Polanski’s London features, Frenzy for Alfred Hitchcock and the first Star Wars film. For this picture he favoured the carefully mounted and minutely composed - there’s a slickness at work that you won’t find in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, say, or A Taste of Honey. The opening shot is the perfect example and a far cry from the New Wave aesthetic: a crane shot following Mervyn Hayes’ paperboy up the stairs of the council block, the front of the ‘building’ removed so as to allow the camera to glide with him.
From a visual standpoint Woman in a Dressing Gown is arguably closer to that of a prestige pic. It’s slickness never draws attention to itself, aping that of a Hollywood production rather than opting for the semi-documentary vibe. As such we shouldn’t really position the film with those of the British New Wave but instead consider it alongside Thompson’s other social issue movies and, indeed, those of British cinema as a whole. Much like Yield to the Night’s anti-capital punishment sentiments or The Weak and the Wicked’s look at life in a women’s prison, Woman in a Dressing Gown is a sober and serious look at infidelity and clearly shows that Thompson had a knack for handling such sensitive issues. Of course, signs of the time do come through. Had the film been made a few years later it’s doubtful that it would have made the impending divorce so central to its narrative. It would have been a tale of an everyday woman who just happens to have a cheating husband rather than that fact being key to everything that happens and every single scene. Similarly a space of a few years would also likely have had an effect on the ending, which sits a little too tidily and rings a little bit untrue.
None of which negates the achievement of Thompson or his central cast members. One of the great pleasures in seeing Woman in a Dressing Gown given such a push by StudioCanal (they didn’t have to go for a theatrical re-release and could have just buried the film on a zero-fanfare disc) is that it will hopefully open eyes to some neglected talents. I’m sure few will argue the qualities of Anthony Quayle or Sylvia Syms, but Yvonne Mitchell certainly deserves another turn in the spotlight as does J. Lee Thompson. He may be better known these days for his war movies, eighties action flicks and Planet of the Apes sequels, but so many of these films do him a complete disservice. It all went a bit wrong for him after that first flush of international success with both Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone in the early sixties. But up until that point he was quite the filmmaker and much of his British output deserves a proper, considered look. Hopefully Woman in a Dressing Gown will spark some fresh interest.
Woman in a Dressing Gown returns to cinema screens on July 27th (details here) with a DVD to follow on August 13th. It looks very good for its age and whilst the accompanying PR sheets make no mention of any restoration work this presentation is clearly a step up from the usual DVD handling of forgotten British flicks. Framed at 1.33:1 the film is in a mostly solid shape. Some instances of damage make themselves known from time to time, but the clarity is consistently excellent and the level of detail very good. The contrast is perhaps a little off - not too much detail in the blacks and the whites have perhaps been boosted a touch - though hardly to the point of distraction or annoyance. The mono soundtrack is in a similar condition with very occasional signs of age coming through but for the vast majority of the time coping just fine with the dialogue-heavy script. Optional English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are also available.
As for extras it’s a welcome surprise to find a worthwhile selection. As well as the original theatrical trailer and a gallery of production stills (including Thompson at work) we also get a trio of interviews. Melanie Williams (co-editor of the forthcoming BFI publication, Ealing Revisited) offers up the textual analysis and historical context. Producer Frank Godwin discusses, among other things, the ill-fated handling of the film in the US and its original TV version. And Sylvia Syms talks about her involvement and offers up her thoughts on the character.