Friday, 18 November 2016
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013)
Before I had ever heard of her as an actress or director, my somewhat unlikely introduction to Mai Zetterling was through a remaindered copy of her novel Shadow of the Sun, which – attracted by its Elisabeth Frink dustjacket of variously twined couples – I bought from a bookstall in Southampton Railway Station sometime in the early 1980s. Reading it, I entered its pungent world of madness, incest and mystical union, a world of outcasts and strays whose souls need a home, existing to one side of the society in which they find themselves. It’s a sense that is particularly strong in the semi-autobiographical main story of a troublesome child seeking a spiritual home and body.
My next encounter was some years later, when clearing out my mother’s house, I was distracted by reading through ageing piles of Hampshire, the County Magazine from the 1960s and 70s. There, in among John Arlott on books, cricket and villages and Norman Goodland on country matters, was, in the pages of the June 1970 issue, Mai Zetterling talking about the hidden treasures of Hampshire, getting her guests to gather sacks of leaf-mould for compost or taking them out for a fish supper in Portsmouth. It didn’t tally with the first impression I had gained from the novels, and nor did this square with the actress that I later came across in her 1940s and 50s English films. However, her 1985 autobiography, All Those Tomorrows, confirmed her as a shape-shifting being with amazing powers of reinvention, always the outsider, no matter how much she would have liked to fit in, if and when she cared about such things. Indeed, at the end of the book she writes, ‘perhaps I am a mad-hatter Swede who got lost in the world ... I feel very far from the norm of just about everything.’
She was the 14 year-old school dropout who became a voracious reader and the owner of a 12,000 book library, the teenage Stockholm girl in hopeless dead-end jobs with leery bosses, cutting out pictures of Tyrone Power from glossy film magazines who a few years later would be in a relationship with Tyrone Power; the fearful, hopeless, untrustworthy child who, years later, when asked what subject she wanted to pursue in the multi-director film about the Munich Olympics, Visions of Eight, chose wrestling because that was the thing she knew least about; the girl who worshipped Shirley Temple after sneaking into a Stockholm fleapit and catching sight of her on screen, whose 1966 film Night Games caused the same Shirley Temple to resign as director of the San Francisco International Film Festival in protest at its screening; and she was the serious stage actress who Jean-Paul Sartre described as ‘a tragedienne of our times’ who became a ‘dangle-dolly’ (her term) in a number of British films in the 1940s and 50s, when she was wince-inducingly dubbed ‘Britain’s swede-heart’ (she was, understandably, unimpressed by being made to sound like a prize root crop), and the aforementioned dangle-dolly who ended up directing social documentaries and feminist features in the 1960s and 70s.
Nor did critics know what to make of her when she left the zone of familiarity behind; ‘she writes like a witch’ said The Listener’s review of Shadows of the Sun, while ‘she directs like a man’ was one of the more nonsensical comments about her directorial feature debut, Loving Couples.
Although most of her documentaries seem destined to remain unseen or lost, at least a few of the films she made as an actress in England are available on DVD and it’s these I’ll take a look at now.
In Basil Dearden’s Frieda (1947), she stars opposite the saturnine David Farrar as the German girl who helps him escape enemy territory. He marries her, or half-marries her – she is Catholic, he not – under fire in a bombed-out church in No Man’s Land. He returns with her to his home in Denfield. ‘Nothing to be frightened of there’ he reassures her, ‘it’s like any other town in England’, somewhat underestimating the task of winning over the townsfolk by introducing a German girl into their midst while the war is still on. Casting a German girl in the part was still too contentious so soon after the war so Zetterling was chosen for her English language debut. Shy and fearful at first, clad in the protective layer of her leather coat, she is gradually allowed to relax a little into English life, and even let her hair down (quite literally as she loses her tightly coiled German braids) – but then a surprise Christmas visitor threatens to tear up all the careful groundwork of acceptance.
The following year she was back in Britain, after having returned to Sweden to star in Ingmar Bergman’s Music in Darkness, having a little fun in the Facts of Life segment of Quartet, the 1948 anthology of W. Somerset Maugham adaptations, as a smiling, thieving seductress whose wiles are unwittingly bested by the innocence of a young tennis player. Later, a twinkling streetwise scampishness does battle with a world-weary melancholy in her role as an author and imposter in the satisfying drawing-room comedy, Hell is Sold Out (1951), in which Herbert Lom and Richard Attenborough play the wartime prisoners of war who court her.
One of her most interesting roles comes in the strange, complex and ultimately rather offensive 1952 psychological drama Tall Headlines (aka The Frightened Bride – and with good reason). In the film, she plays the wholly innocent and undeserving victim of what seems to be the sublimated violence of suburban England, as embodied by Michael Denison’s nervy young Philip who fears that, having the same genes as his brother Ronald who was hanged for murdering a 19 year-old girl on Putney Heath, he is going to do the same to Mai Zetterling’s Doris. He doesn’t, but he might as well have done, the result being the same -– except that no-one except for him seems to care. When he first meets Doris he treats her with contempt (‘you’re a menace, that’s what you are, you’re the type that gets a fellow strung up’) – even though she is nothing of the kind – as his surest defence against her supposed wiles and his familial shame. Then one day, his sister nicks a fatal chink in his defences when she says that Doris is just like Ronnie’s girl. Soon they are off getting married by special licence against his family’s wishes – certainly against those of his repellent sister who writes a letter condemning him for going off to live with ‘that little slut’. It’s the ending of the film however that makes explicit its unpleasant subtext. After the tragedy has occurred and Doris has died, the father (André Morell), when confronted with his son’s confession that he thinks he has done away with her, makes plans to spirit him out of the country with the complicity of the rest of his family on realising there were no witnesses. Then, after Naunton Wayne’s police inspector has told them it was all an accident and that, moreover, Philip doesn’t look like the kind of chap that has it in him to kill a girl, the mother (Flora Robson) weeps with relief. ‘Oh thank God,’ she says, ‘it’s all over now, you can put it right out of your head, just forget everything’. And so they do, putting their son’s nasty adventure with that little minx out of the way and moving back to the old home they had left in the wake of their first son’s crime. As the strings swell on the soundtrack, the family – a would-be criminal, a mother surviving on sleeping pills and spiritualism, a damaged young man and his mean, vindictive sister – discover a house filled with gifts of flowers from the residents of Lauderdale Avenue, and a welcoming basket of fruit from the Avenue’s representative in the person of Sid James. After Flora Robson manages a slightly timid wave to her neighbours, the End title card comes up over a shot of the entrance to their home in the suburbs, the real victor here, whose dignity and position must be defended at all costs. Poor innocent Doris is forgotten, utterly – except by Philip, who we last see ascending the stairs with a measured and laborious tread recalling that of his brother descending them at the same rate into the care of the police at the beginning. Perhaps for him the story is not yet over.
Ten years later, the film’s director, Terence Young, was helming Dr No, and Mai Zetterling was also directing her own film, a brilliant pithy short called The War Game, in which global political madness is played out as adolescent bravado in a London high-rise block. It won the Lion of St Mark Shield for the best short narrative film at the 1963 Venice International Short Film Festival (where the award was presented in her absence to a ‘Dr Max Zetterling’. Filmed by Chris Menges and Brian Probyn, it follows two young boys on a London housing estate, one with a cap gun, the other with a gun that looks all too real and probably is. Their cowboy and indian play soon turns into a game of chicken as they jostle and square up to each other through the concrete world of balconies, corridors and pavements, ascending winding stairs, then a latticework of metal grids that leads to the roof, and then ever higher, by ladder into a world of skyline on the roof of the roof from where there is no further to go. Neither want to be there but both are there, and they stand on the edge, reconciling their fear with their loss of face as the lift mechanism clanks and whirrs nearby. One drops the gun, both reach for it, the film freezes and ends with their outstretched hands.
Of her other films as an actress currently in print, she is elegant and dignified in Dance, Little Lady (1955), a melodrama in which she plays a ballerina whose glittering career is cut short after her loathsome snake of a husband and impresario crashes their car. It ends in a tense and fiery climax, but the film is stolen by a pair of 10 year-olds, in this case Mandy Miller, whose bright-as-a-button ballerina-to-be gives some tough love to an unhappy, suspicious, puppy-fatted Richard O’Sullivan so that he will dispense with his crutches and also take to dance. And if Terence Morgan as her husband seems a little too rough-cut for the rarefied air of ballet, then it was a role he took to with relish a few years later in Piccadilly Third Stop – a tale of dishonour among thieves in which Zetterling plays an upstart gangster’s bored wife looking for out, though in the film she is little more than a tea maker, record changer and, fatally, getaway car driver.
In Faces in the Dark (1960) she is the coolly scheming wife, Christiane, to John Gregson’s bristling and abrasive factory boss, a man whose irascibility is in no way lessened after he blinds himself in an accident when testing the prototype of a new light bulb in a lab. On the verge of leaving him when it happened, she is now the one person he can trust in his sightless world. Reprising his emotionally stunted man-child act from Tall Headlines, Michael Denison appears as his business partner, who exudes shiftiness through every pore. The story is from Boileau-Narcejac (Vertigo, Les Diaboliques) but the adaptation lacks the motivation and menace that Clouzot, say, would have extracted from the situation. One problem is that Gregson’s bull-headed performance rather sucks the life out of the rest of the picture.
Two years later, she acted opposite Peter Sellers in Only Two Can Play (1962), scripted by Bryan Forbes from Kingsley Amis’s novel about the life, loves and fantasies of a librarian in a small Welsh town. After some quite static roles in previous films, playing opposite domineering men, it’s nice to see her get the chance to breathe a bit and have some fun with a role. With the stage her first love and opinion of film acting not very high, it’s no coincidence that her best roles out of these films were the ones closest to stage-plays, with the drawing-room comedy of Hell is Sold Out and the comic by-play with Sellers here allowing her to be more of an equal player.
And what of Mai Zetterling now? Her features have (as of 2016) never seen the light of day on DVD in the UK (The War Game especially is crying out to be a BFI Flipside extra on an appropriate film), her documentaries are all but lost (she mentions making a Van Gogh film, Vincent the Dutchman, with Michael Gough in the lead, but that isn’t even listed on her IMDB page), her candid autobiography and books are out of print, but readily available, as are a number of her 1940s-50s English films. Her spirit, ever unafraid of moving on or trying something new, outlasts it all.