Saturday, 13 May 2023

When Thora met Marlon… The Nightcomers (1971), Stephanie Beacham and Verna Harvey Part I

Creative combinations you never expected, Michael Winner and Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando with Thora Hird… This was indeed the last film Brando made before the career reviving and legend cementing Godfather and, whilst it was not a commercial success, we can now view it as the actor in his peak, knocking off a film for the still striving Winner and presenting as the kind of enigmatic free-spirit who could lead the children to behave in the way they did in Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, which had already been adapted into the 1961 film The Innocents. The idea of a prequel to that story and film is an odd one and so is this film with a sickly feeling of dread permeating throughout and embodied so well by the children; young Christopher Ellis as Miles and the 19-year-old Verna Harvey as Flora.

Harvey had to be older as she had to take on more of the perversity descending on the children’s normality although I’d check to see if Master Ellis was un-touched by some of the tying up, he was asked to do… there’s a case study there.

Marlon conducts his performance in a mumbled Irish accent that seems to be making its way slowly from South Dublin to Cork via Galway, dragged by a donkey and lubricated with Jameson’s.  Marlon O’Brando is nonetheless convincing and carries so much indistinct yet heavy presence that we can well believe in his corrupting influence not just on the children but also their teacher/governess Miss Jessel as played by Stephanie Beacham, who Winner claimed was slightly nervous about her more adult scenes although not so much that you’d notice with her 1973 Italian film Mafia Junction, about which more anon.

Thora Hird

If this film is a masterclass for anyone then it’s surely Lancashire great Thora Hird, who is more than a match for Brando and anyone else who is sent against her. Flora and Miles’ parents have both died on their travels and left their children in the hands of a guardian (Harry Andrews) who has rather more important things to do and therefore entrusts them to the care of housekeeper Mrs. Grose. He decides not to let the mostly redundant former valet, Peter Quint (Brando), who he tells to attend to the vast garden and assist Mrs Grose as required in the house.

Quint is a queer one with a troubled upbringing of his own with a nare-do-well father who abandoned him and an outlook on life that respects little of the boundaries of formality and lets his earthy animal heart seek what is so wilt. Mrs Grose trusts him not but he’s more interested in Miss Jessel’s physical charms and the children who listen so intently to his stories. Is he “evil” though or just a man who finds it hard to love without sado-masochistic stimuli and who is anti-authoritarian but still fascinated in the word whether it be childish cruelties like blowing frogs up with cigarette or larking around in the grounds with his two young pals.

Verna Harvey, Marlon Brando and Christopher Ellis

The children are an important part of their own subsequent story and whilst they take everything Quint tells them to heart, they are also more than willing to take his ideas to logical conclusions even as they lack the maturity to properly assess his moral ambiguities. Flora and Miles are also masters of the house even if they are not yet of majority and everyone around them here is their subordinate especially with their new father figure absent… It’s open to interpretation but I think Winner should have put in a second prequel to explain the children’s openness to turn so wild but perhaps all we need to see is here… parents who were absent, a guardian who got away as quickly as he could and an exceptionalism unbridled.

Quint leads them astray but mostly it’s harmless until they start spying on his sexual liaisons with their teacher. Following his soapy sexual success in Paris, Brando has no problem putting Stephanie Beacham in some sadistic sexual positions which are more uncomfortable to watch than erotic. How much of this is scripted is anyone’s guess but he definitely assumes the dominant role and grabs hold of whatever he feels in their first session. The next time Quint ties up his lover and proceeds from there. Consenting adults and all that but young Miles has been spying on this and starts to get ideas.

He tries to play out these love rituals with his sister, the two of them having no real idea of the missing elements and the feelings involved. They are interrupted by Mrs Grose who bans Quint from the house and threatens to write to the master.

Stephanie Beacham

The children’s capacity for cruelty is demonstrated when they invite the housekeeper out to the tree house they have built with Quint and then pull the ladder away so she’s trapped there for long hours. They only bring her back when Miss Jessel gets hurt and needs medical aid, persuading Mrs Grose to finally get rid of Quint.

But in trying to help Quint and Jessel find true love, as they have heard him describe it, the children may be doing more harm than good… are they the ones who really need help in the end?

Dusty Verdict: The film stands on its own unsettling two feet in the end despite Michael Hastings’ attempt to reverse engineer an “origin” story based the beginning of the Turn of the Screw, plotted backwards. Does that story need an origin and one this vague? The story of the children seems to have already begun before the twisted imagination of Quint connects how they react to that surely says all you need to know about how they had already been brutalised by their parents and their class circumstance… the true horror lies in how ordinary that may have been.

Angles were calculated to hide Brando's girth and Stephanie was the distraction...

Brando’s accent is a distraction but he does deliver a fascinating and feral performance. Winner’s account of the filming vary but it does seem that Marlon was quite pleased with the end result. Sadly, the public didn’t agree and he was soon on top of his game with the Godfather and everything that came afterwards. Sometimes it’s enough to see a man of his capabilities in a simpler role to appreciate his gift more fully. I’m pretty sure Thora would have been impressed and even more certain that the feeling would have been reciprocated.

On the last day of filming Brando commented to Winner that Verna Hervey “she’s got a very nice ass, I wish I’d noticed it earlier.” We presume that she escaped his attention even as Stephanie Beacham probably did but Brando, despite staying in a rented cottage with his girlfriend of the time, still had frequent visitors… a man of great appetite and not just for food. Brando stayed pals with Winner after filming and perhaps the two shared the same “philosophy” as well as exuberance/dominating instinct... complex men and sometimes it’s uncomfortable to watch their work.


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