Wednesday, June 1, 2011

1984 (Holiday/Columbia, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was the 1956 film of George Orwell’s novel 1984, made in England by an outfit called Holiday Film Productions (an oddly cheery moniker for the producers of so dire a story!) in association with Columbia Pictures, and featuring American stars in the leads — Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith and Jan Sterling as Julia — with a superb British supporting cast headed by Michael Redgrave as the Inner Party leader who first recruits Winston to the supposed “Underground” and then interrogates and tortures him in the Ministry of Love; in the book this character was called O’Brien but the filmmakers, perhaps not wanting any confusion with the name of their star, renamed him “O’Connor.” (They also changed the name of the supposed leader of the Underground from Emmanuel Goldstein to “Kalador,” which makes him sound like a space alien — though the actor playing him, Bernard Rebel, was still made up to look like Leon Trotsky — and they changed the name of the population who aren’t Party members from “the proles” to “the people.”)

I had seen this film once before, at UC Berkeley in 1975 — just before Orwell’s widow, Sonia Brownell, regained the rights after a 20-year lease to the original producers and immediately pulled the film from distribution. Since it’s been unseeable for most of the time since, it’s been overshadowed by the remake from 1984 with John Hurt as Winston Smith (oddly made up to look like George Orwell!) and Richard Burton as O’Brien — I haven’t seen that version since it was new but I remember Burton, in his last performance, surprisingly underacting in a role that he could easily have let become an opportunity for his usual hamminess, and rock songs by Eurythmics (David Bowie wrote even better songs for this story, but his attempt to turn it into a rock opera was shot down by Sonia’s refusal to sell him the rights). When I first saw the 1956 1984 I was disappointed, to say the least — though it’s a book that’s been important enough to me (a lot of my political and social thought has come from it) I don’t think I’d have thought any film of it could have come close to capturing what is basically an intellectual novel, much of whose heart lies in the book-within-the-book, Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, which expresses a lot of Orwell’s thought and which a lot of readers simply skip.

This time around I liked the movie a lot better; the statement in the opening credits that the film was merely “inspired” by Orwell’s novel led me to dread what was to come, but in fact the screenwriters, Ralph Gilbert Bettison and William Templeton, actually followed the book quite closely and even used large chunks of Orwell’s dialogue. The director, Michael Anderson, shot much of it as film noir, which turned out to be quite appropriate — especially for the scenes in which Winston and/or Julia were wandering about after dark in the so-called “people’s areas,” which were supposed to be off-limits for Outer Party members like them. The best thing about this movie is that, even more than the book does, it dramatizes the horror of living in so total a police state that you are literally being observed 24/7, and though the telescreen is presented as a kind of giant glass eye in the wall (I’d always imagined it as simply looking like the sort of TV set we know, only with a camera inside it so that, as Orwell explained, it could send and receive simultaneously) and some of the scenes involving it are tacky (the first sequence of Victory Square shows a crude and totally unbelievable matte of the telescreen just pasted on the side of a genuine building), the horror of always being electronically observed comes through in this film and, in some ways, even registers more strongly now than it would have in 1956 (or, for that matter, 1984) now that the Internet not only reaches into just about every home that matters but has become a sort of voluntary version of the telescreen: today Americans meekly accept that giant corporations are going to be recording every time they ask for information, everything they spend money on and where, and even where they are located 24/7 when they go outside with their cell phones, and the corporate and political leaders who think this is all right sing the siren song of all dictatorships: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what do you have to be afraid of?”

The 1956 1984 is a surprisingly effective attempt to film a book that probably should not have been filmed, but within the limits of the medium it’s both a good thriller and a work that makes at least some of Orwell’s political points — and it was intriguing to see David Kossoff, the dotty Dr. Kokintz of the later films The Mouse That Roared and The Mouse on the Moon, surprisingly effective in the quite serious role of Mr. Charrington. The acting generally is quite good, though Edmond O’Brien is a bit beefier than I imagined Winston Smith would be (John Hurt was much more believable as a physical “type” for the role) and Jan Sterling, marvelous as the bitch in Billy Wilder’s cynical masterpiece Ace in the Hole, seems considerably less effective as someone we’re supposed to like. And for all the surprising subtlety of the writing and direction overall, the sequence at the end in which we’re supposed to believe Winston Smith has finally abandoned his rebellious ideals, ended what Orwell calls his “stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast,” won the “victory over himself” and come to love Big Brother really doesn’t come off — that’s one scene in which the advantage goes to the printed word; Orwell could simply, laconically say, “He loved Big Brother,” while Anderson and his writers can only have Edmond O’Brien repeat, “I love Big Brother!,” over and over again, more loudly each time, until we’re more or less convinced that he really does love Big Brother and is not just shamming the way we’ve seen him do all movie.

It was also amusing to note that the original advertising slogan for the film said, “Will Ecstasy Be a Crime … in the Terrifying World of the Future?” — indicating that the filmmakers, or at least the marketing department at Columbia, thought that the sexual deprivation of the world of 1984 was the aspect of it that would grip the moviegoing audience most of all and lead them to buy tickets. The literary precursors to 1984, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, were both written before Stalin made sexual repression the official policy of the Soviet Union; when Zamyatin and Huxley wrote, the USSR was the easiest country in the world in which to get a divorce, and in Zamyatin’s and Huxley’s novels the all-powerful state actually encourages promiscuity and discourages monogamy as well as love and romance — while in 1984 (at least in the book; the Production Code required that this element be softened for the film!) Julia proudly proclaims her promiscuity as a rebellion against the Party’s anti-sex policies.