…Noel Coward (Dr Christian Faber) and Margaret Leighton (Leonora Vail) slope out of a crowded West End theatre in THE ASTONISHED HEART (1950). Off they go to dance the samba (a notorious celluloid euphemism)¤ and drink “Stingers”¤¤ as a “prelude to adulterous criminal intimacy” – as the Divorce Courts reports used to say. The fleeting but triumphantly lascivious look on Leighton’s face as she makes sure of Nolly’s sexual infatuation is one of the few authentic reactions in a film of almost total glittering artifice. In a certain mood – perhaps slightly inebriated or incubating flu – THE ASTONISHED HEART is diverting if ultimately unsatisfying, but it was a disaster with post-war audiences on both sides of the Atlantic who at this period wanted grit not gloss.
The huge appeal of BRIEF ENCOUNTER in 1945 inevitably led to attempts by its creators to duplicate its success. That movie’s director David Lean achieved another – unaccountably neglected – masterpiece with THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (1949), while Coward developed the screenplay of THE ASTONISHED HEART from his own one act play of 1935. Noel sacked Michael Redgrave after several days’ filming, and took over the role of the tragic hero, the sexually obsessed suicidal psychiatrist Chris. He admitted later that he was unconvincing¤¤¤ but blamed this on the inadequacies of the part – which after all he’d written himself. Ironically one can imagine the tortured and twitchy Redgrave making rather a hit of the part whereas Noel is far too smug, stiff and middle aged in quite the wrong sort of way. He never for a moment forgets that he is The Master, relishing self-indulgent lines that enable him to enunciate words such as “grotesque” and “cataclysmic crisis” like an ENSA impersonator of himself. He and everyone else appear to live on a diet of cigarettes and cocktails: no wonder that the wonderful Amy Veness – as Alice the cook – although third-billed has her role cut to 2 lines.
The cast are Coward friends, lovers, pensioners and regulars; all great names but (especially boyfriend Graham Payn) rather strained and jumpy, not quite at their best, maybe on account of the sudden Redgrave departure and consequent presence of “Ole Nole” (Nancy Mitford’s soubriquet) amongst them on the studio floor. Leighton was initially shy of Celia Johnson, and Joyce Carey was dependent on Noel for all that she had. Yet the sheer abundance and extravagance of star quality and star “turns” in this frivolous and perhaps silly little movie is what makes it nevertheless so interesting and entertaining. A bad film but superbly done. As Coward remarked years later, they had all needed a stronger director than Anthony Farnborough to keep them in check: he would have preferred the iron hand of Carol Reed. (Or so he said in safe retrospect).
As so often Coward uses the rivalry/friendship of two women as the axis of the plot. Chris Faber’s sensible wife Barbara (Johnson) runs into an old schoolfriend, the flighty and unhappily divorced Leonora (Leighton) in a London hat shop: “Darlingtons, in the Fulham Road” – you know. Over their subsequent tea – “no biscuits, Madam” – Leonora becomes immediately, obviously and entirely unconvincingly fixated on the as yet unseen character of Chris, determining to seduce, dominate and possess him. She succeeds all too well, ruins him and he jumps to his death (not instantaneous) from the roof of his very ugly Park Lane apartment building (“70 Chester House”).
The theme of sexual obsession – “The Lord shall smite thee with madness and blindness and the astonishment of heart”¤¤¤¤ – is (according to that durable star Joan Blondell, who should have known) the only plot in the movies. Margaret Leighton is – as usual – quite extraordinary and one can almost believe in her driving a “plain straightfoward alienist” nuts. Leighton’s current Wikipedia entry celebrates her sense of “exquisite grandeur and refinement”. It’s a good line – and one of the reasons why she always seemed years older than her true age (she was 28 in THE ASTONISHED HEART, looking and behaving like a glamorous 65 year old). Robert Stephens, who worked with her, described her in his memoirs as screamingly funny and common beyond belief. In private life she had terrible eating problems: she was also unusually tall* – 5’10” – in a profession of the tiny, and the height accentuates her sometimes alarming thinness. There are scenes in THE ASTONISHED HEART where her sumptuous and heavy Molyneux satin evening gowns seem to be falling off her, and her poor chest bones stick out alarmingly. Leighton has an alluring and varied repertoire of mannerisms and tricks to keep the viewer’s eye on her – a vertical butterfly flutter of her right hand, a slurring of her r’s as though tipsy, the word ‘extraordinary’ pronounced with at least seven syllables and ‘my’ said as “m’ . It’s all supremely actressy but perfectly suited to her character and put across with brio. Leighton is unrivalled at playing self-absorbed manipulative neurotic beauties with tragic secrets in their past**
And Celia Johnson, very crisp & snappy – though not above some rather rich eye rolling – is a perfect foil for her. Certainly Johnson is the most adroit of the three leads at suggesting the bleak tragedy of the situation behind the cocktail party banter and tomfoolery. THE ASTONISHED HEART, BRIEF ENCOUNTER and THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS have certain curious tropes in common: a flight from a stale chilly marriage, adultery-as-escapism, illicit sex as a cure for ennui. This risky game of make-believe is counterpointed and emphasised in each instance with rendezvous in the furtive scented darkness of masked balls, cinema balconies or theatre stalls *** plus real or imagined flight to exotic holiday locations in the guilty footsteps of Vronsky and Anna Karenina: Venetian canals, palmy tropical islands, Alpine lakes. And each film relies on a elaborate structure of flashbacks: these distance the guilt and enhance the fantasy, which is perhaps why we tend to forget in a casual review that all three pictures culminate in an attempted or successful suicide – and showy “public” suicides, too: under trains (Karenina, once again) or jumping from high places. The species of self-destruction that amateur psychologists say springs from a deep loathing of the human race.
But – for Heaven’s sake! – to happier thoughts. Coward was highly sensitive to smell and a born lover of perfume. It was an essential part of the theatrical act and celebrity persona. One of his short stories is entitled “Ashes Of Roses” and he famously makes extensive reference to Caron’s Narcisse Noir in his early shocker “The Vortex”. A later personal Coward favourite was Guerlain’s Vetiver. In the saucy tale “Me and The Girls” he pithily describes a nightclub – “the name of the joint was La Cumparsita & it smelled of fresh paint and piddle…”. In his only novel “Pomp and Circumstance” he memorably describes one Ursula Gannet as looking “…like an only slightly effeminate matador…her eyes…had an intense, almost hypnotic quality, and she’d put on a little too much ‘Arpege'”. Throughout his life, reporters and friends noted that, when receiving, Noel was as invariably surrounded by scent bottles as by cigarette holders, cocktail shakers and a piano. Actress friends in clinics were showered with flowers and perfume. Elaine Stritch remembered Coward giving her a nearly empty flacon of parfum as a first night gift: Noel told her it was so delicious he’d used most of it himself. Despising anything relating to ‘The Method’, he would douse himself before going on stage in his favourite scent of the moment : a habit other members of the cast might find off-putting, as when he played the working class patriot and pater familias Frank Gibbons in “This Happy Breed” drenched in Chanel. “Get on with it!” was his only response to tentative objections. As his friend the Queen Mum used to say,” And why not?”. Perfume, like life, is for the living.”
¤ just as “dance hall proprietresses” are not always quite what they seem.
¤¤ “brandy and creme de menthe, mixed”.
¤¤¤ his mother, with bland maternal candour, told him she hated the film and that she thought he looked hideous in it.
# Coward regretted that the alienist is not shown at work: on the contrary, Dr Faber is presented in a succession of scenes with a variety of patients discussing their complex, lurid and eminently distressing sex lives
¤¤¤¤ “Deuteronomy 28… I think”. Noel’s text for his important lecture on Jung’s concept of the inferior function. Guess who’s gazing up from the floor with huge soft-focus swimming eyes?
* in long shots with Noel she wears large flat shoes which look strange beneath those opulent couture gowns.
** maybe most effective of all as David Niven’s sociopathic but fatally irresistible wife in CARRINGTON V.C.
*** with the concomitant opportunity for sly parodies of various genres.