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Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The Man who Haunted Himself.

There are a number of supposedly undeniable laws of cinema that people seem to believe are absolute beyond all scientific deniability. For example, Law number 1; Roger Moore's only major acting skill in portraying any emotion was to raise an eyebrow ( just one at a time mind you). Law number 2; George Lucas lost the plot with The Phantom Menace (Yes Jar Jar Binks, I'm talking about you) . Then of course there is Law number 3; the old chestnut, that The Exorcist is the most terrifying movie ever ever made.......ever.

Now on the face of it, those three laws of cinema are pretty much water tight in their assumptions. I personally love The Phantom Menace, but even putting aside the absolute annoyance (& not to mention racist undertones) of Mr Binks and the sheer total mind wrenching annoyance of the brat kid who played Annakin, much of the movie is something of a meandering & soulless piece of cinema. The Exorcist is a great film I agree. It frequently tops various all time favourite horror film lists with it's incredibly frightening set pieces, a stunning ensemble cast and eminently quotable sections of dialogue. (It's not MY personal favourite, but it's up there somewhere). Finally, yes it's a well known fact that Roger Moore couldn't really act, even if his life depended on it. We all love him, he may not be a favourite bond ( he is actually mine), but we all snicker a little at his limited acting range. 

Well actually, dear reader, on that last point we may be quite wrong. In fact I would argue that people would be very, very wrong. For you see, Roger could act when given the right role, and boy was he given the right role in a little known 1970 psychological thriller/horror called The Man who haunted himself.

Just why this gem of British thrillers is still largely ignored outside its' small but loyal cult following will be discussed shortly. Suffice to say at this point, that it is criminal that it doesn't have a much wider following.

The story is taken from a short story from the  'Alfred Hitchcock presents' series. It features a very British, a very strait laced upper middle class character called Harold Pelham. "Hmm, so far that doesn't sound too much of a stretch for Mr Moore" I hear you say........well, hold on a moment, there's more. Harold is a very successful business executive in a large electronics company whose life reflects his very conservative outlook on life; 

He is your archetypal Bowler hat and umbrella brigade, he takes few chances, his relationship with his wife lacks passion, oh, he also has a rather unfortunate moustache. Still not convinced?Well lets continue.
All is running smoothly in Harold's world until one day when he is involved in a terrible car accident. The reason for the car accident seems either to be a panic attack or possibly some sort of momentary demonic possession of Harold that forces the car off the road at high speed. Needing emergency surgery he is taken straight to hospital where, whilst on the operating table, he is declared clinically dead. This is until suddenly a double heartbeat is seen momentarily in the scanner just before Harold then starts to slowly recover his vitals. 

After a long convalescent in hospital he's eventually released, only to find that his beautifully ordered world has been turned upside down. Harold soon discovers that a precise double of him has recently been seen in places that he's never been, and has upsurged his place as head of the family. His business has been undermined as a merger that he previously actively opposed has now taken place. It seems that he has even had the gumption to undertake an extramarital affair. This 'other' Harold seems to have a distinct taste for the high life.

At first he thinks that this is all some elaborate practical joke played by his family & friends. However , the number of occasions when he is confronted with stories of people having dealings with him when he couldn't have possibly been there lead Harold to start doubting his own sanity. So the question is  whether Harold is going insane or has his life been taken over by a malicious double of himself?

This is one of the great strengths of this movie, as from the moment Harold leaves the hospital and starts to 'discover' that he may have a doppelganger, the audience is left guessing right to the end about what is actually taking place. Are the series of events merely delusions of Harold lying unconscious in his hospital bed, is he suffering from Dissociative identity disorder or is he in fact really being forced out of his own life by his alter-ego? Consequently, the movie on one level becomes an exercise in examining the human condition. Psychological explanations start to abound in ones mind - Freudians would cream themselves trying to analyse the battle emanating from his unconscious between his Id (the new, bad, exciting and lustful Harold) and his superego (the old staid, conservative and rather boring Harold). 

Clinical Psychologists would counter that (nonsense) with the argument that Harold's disorder is thought to stem from trauma , in this case, physical and mental trauma from the car accident. That Harold's separate dual personalities are in fact  a coping mechanism. Or, as the rest of us may argue, this is a supernatural event and that a doppelganger has indeed being created and now it's a battle between the two to see who will come out the winner. I'll leave that up to you if and when you get to see the film.

So this brings me back to addressing one of the laws of cinema. Namely, Roger Moore's limited acting ability. Moore himself has gone on record as saying that this is the only movie he ever appeared in that he was allowed to 'act'. Always regarded as a pretty boy leading man, firstly in the 60's television series, The Saint, then with Tony Curtis in The Persuaders and finally as a certain secret agent chappie - all a good body of work no doubt in which no-one of sound mind could deny the charm and humour be brought to his roles. The problem was that none of these roles tested the RADA trained actor as he fast became a hostage to the typecasting roles that came his way. On the one hand Moore is far too much of a gentleman to complain about this situation, after all he has gained riches and fame on the basis of a perceived lack of acting range. However, it is clear from numerous interviews that he feels  this movie, out of everything he has ever been involved in, is clearly his best work. He isn't wrong.

Quite simply, he is a revelation in this role, or rather, roles. He is on camera in virtually every scene of the film as either the good or bad character. This revelation may be in part due to the fact that he was directed by one of the finest of British directors, Basil Dearden, who had previously been responsible for such cinematic classics as The Assassination Bureau, Khartoum and Dead of Night. Dearden brings out in Moore a performance of genuine depth and conviction that perfectly conveys the range of emotions in his character which start from vague confusion and ending in raging fear and unrelenting paranoia. Not only does Dearden let Moore show the true range of his acting abilities he moves the pace of the movie along at a cunningly effective pace until the final thrilling climax. I won't spoil the ending for those that haven't seen it, but the final scenes where Harold finally 'see's the truth are spellbinding, traumatic and thoroughly effective.

Sadly, this was to be Basil Dearden's final movie as shortly after he was decapitated in a car accident in virtually one of the locations where he had filmed only months before.

So why is The Man who haunted Himself  a triumph of supernatural story telling and yet performed poorly on it's initial release? Indeed, to this day the film has yet to attain the level of acclaim that other releases that suffered the same initial fate have now garnered. I will be the first to admit that some aspects of the movie haven't aged as well as some of its contemporaries of that era, the musical soundtrack for one. However, it's partly because of how it's aged which I suggest actually gives it an added charm. I think the reason why it is underrated is two-fold. Firstly, Moore has gone on record in his autobiography that the movie had no chance from the moment it was completed due to the amateurish marketing and diabolical under promotion on  the film's behalf. It's not an uncommon problem, British horror has historically suffered from lacklustre or inaccurate marketing and publicity campaigns. Movies such as The Wicker Man, now regarded quite rightly as classics of their genre's, suffered from problematic theatrical releases but have gained huge status in the intervening years. 

The Man who haunted Himself has not achieved that modern day classic status, which brings me onto the 2nd reason for it's continuing obscurity; and that it Roger Moore himself. In the 1980's the satirical puppet show Spitting Image featured a long-running joke about Roger's acting (or rather lack of) ability. Scenes would feature his director pleading with him to show anger, the puppet Moore would respond by raising his left eyebrow. The director would then ask for fear, the right eyebrow would be raised… get the picture? 

The fact is is that Moore has never been taken seriously as an actor by the general public, and also by various 'film critics' that quite frankly should know better. When I am king of the world (and its only a matter of time) I will make it my first job to make sure sure everyone gets the chance to watch this masterpiece. Because my friends, one of cinema's laws has been broken, Roger Moore can act.

Have a looksee at the rare cinematic trailer to wet your appetite.

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