Friday, September 23, 2022

The Rough and the Smooth (1959)

The Rough and the Smooth (AKA Portrait of a Sinner) is an almost entirely forgotten 1959 British melodrama. It was directed by Robert Siodmak, and that’s what is likely to attract most people’s attention to this film. Siodmak was a great director and an extraordinary visual stylist. He made several notable entries in the film noir cycle of the 40s as well as acclaimed thrillers such as The Spiral Staircase. He also directed the best of the 1940s Universal horror movies, Son of Dracula. So Siodmak’s name in the credits is usually an indication that a movie is going to be worth a look.

Michael Thompson (Tony Britton) is an archaeologist and he has a problem. He can’t find a cab. On this particular night cabs are totally unobtainable and he needs one badly, otherwise he’ll be in hot water with his fiancée Margaret (Natasha Perry).

Then he gets a lucky break. He goes into a pub for a drink and Ila Hansen (Nadja Tiller) agrees to let him share her cab. They don’t exactly hit it off but they’re only sharing a cab and at least it means Michael won’t be in too much trouble with Margaret.

Michael doesn’t seem to be all that excited about being engaged to Margaret. Her uncle is press magnate Lord Drewell (Donald Wolfit) and Lord Drewell has agreed to finance Michael’s next expedition (a hare-brained scheme to find Noah’s Ark). Margaret has it all arranged and that’s what bothers Michael. Margaret has Michael’s life all arranged. And both Margaret and Lord Drewell make him feel dependent. He doesn’t like that at all.

Then fate steps in. The following day he runs into Ila at the same pub. Of course it would be very foolish of Michael to start flirting with her. It would be even more foolish to invite her to dinner. It would be quite incredibly foolish to invite her back to his flat afterwards. But Michael does all these things. It’s clear that his intentions are far from innocent. He’s looking to get Ila into bed.

If you’re an ambitious archaeologist totally dependent on keeping in the good books with both your fiancée and her rich uncle then Ila is the sort of young lady you should avoid at all costs. She’s young, blonde, glamorous, very sexy and she’s European. Not the sort of girl you can explain away to a jealous fiancée.

Which could be an immediate problem. At the worst possible moment Margaret arrives on his doorstep. She’s very drunk and very amorous. She insists on staying. She insists on staying the night. That could be awkward since Michael has Ila stashed away in his bedroom. And it’s obvious that Margaret does not intend to spend the night on the couch. She has the bedroom in mind. But it’s Ila who ends up sharing Michael’s bed.

Michael thinks he’s a pretty sophisticated guy. He has no idea what he’s getting into when he steps into Ila’s world. It’s a world of twisted sexuality and he simply had no idea that such things were possible.

The question is whether he can survive Ila’s world. Or find a way back to the familiar comfortable world he knew before he met her.

The acting is pretty decent. Tony Britton went on to have a reasonably successful career as a TV actor and he’s quite good here. He’s very smooth but with a touch of innocence.

Nadja Tiller makes a splendid femme fatale. She’s cool, calculating, sexy and dangerous and she makes Ila believable. She really is superb.

William Bendix is excellent as Reg. Reg is Ila’s friend. Michael is not quite sure exactly what kind of friend Reg is to Ila but he will find out.

This was promoted as a shockingly daring movie and by 1959 standards it really is. There’s plenty of what would at the time have been regarded as illicit sex.It’s obvious that Margaret is accustomed to spending the night at Michael’s flat even though they’re not married yet. In 1959 that would have been considered pretty daring but this movie goes much further. It takes us into a world of sexual perversity. Lots of men have hurt Ila. Not just emotionally but physically. Ila likes it when men hurt her. The more a man hurts her the more she likes it. Not many movies at the time would even have hinted at such things but The Rough and the Smooth is fairly open about it. And there’s more sexual perversity where that came from.

This movie was based on a novel by Robin Maugham (the nephew of W. Somerset Maugham). Robin Maugham was a big deal in the English literary world for decades although he now seems to be forgotten.

Siodmak doesn’t go overboard stylistically but it’s a well-crafted movie with plenty of atmosphere.

I have no doubt that if this movie ever gets a Blu-Ray release it will be marketed as a film noir. I guess it could at a stretch be described as a noir melodrama. It certainly has a classic femme fatale. And a protagonist who finds himself drawn into a world that he just cannot cope with.

The Rough and the Smooth is all about sex and the things that sex makes us do. It tries to deal with sexual subject matter in a grown-up way and it succeeds surprisingly well. It’s an unusual movie and it’s a pretty good movie as well. It’s definitely a much much better movie than its reputation would suggest. Most people seem to think of it as a lesser Siodmak film. It’s different from his earlier better known films but I don’t think that makes it a lesser effort. Highly recommended.

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