Basil Dearden first came to prominence in the 1940s as one of the directors who worked for Ealing Studios during the popular comedian Will Hay’s late career transition from his home at Gainsborough Pictures (where earlier successes had already turned Hay into a household name) to this soon-to-be-legendary British production house, just as Michael Balcon was employed there to take over its stewardship. Dearden directed the linking narrative and the shorter Hearse Driver segment of the classic Ealing anthology horror film “Dead of Night” in 1945, and was the first to introduce the nation to Jack Warner’s PC George Dixon in the social realist crime drama “The Blue Lamp”, probably his best known Ealing Film and one which later also spawned the successful BBC television series “Dixon of Dock Green”, which ran from the mid-fifties into the 1970s. Working alongside producer colleague Michael Relph for the last twenty years of his career until his sudden death in a car crash at the age of sixty in 1971, Dearden directed films that tackled then-sensitive subjects such as racism and homosexuality during the early-sixties, with films such as “Sapphire” and the classic “Victim” with Dirk Bogart. Later in the decade he oversaw some big name-starring features such as “The League of Gentlemen”, “Khartoum” and “The Assassination Bureau” but “The Man Who Haunted Himself” was to prove to be his last major outing as a features director, and was unfortunately a huge flop at the box office; he went on to direct three episodes of the short-lived ITC show “The Persuaders!” though, which reunited him with the film’s star, Roger Moore, who had been teamed up with screen legend Tony Curtis for what was an affably slick and sartorially flamboyant buddy-buddy comedy action TV series.
Moore took on the lead role in “The Man Who Haunted Himself” soon after leaving the part which had made him a star in the UK: that of Simon Templar, in Lew Grade and Robert S. Baker’s long-running TV adaptation centred on Leslie Charteris’ fictional amateur detective “The Saint”. It was one of a whole slew of cheaply made movies conceived by Bryan Forbes, then head of production at Associated British: the tiny production house and distributor which by this time was operating out of Elstree in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. The film’s failure to find adequate distribution, and therefore much of an audience at the time of release, probably contributed to its subsequent lack of reputation; but while other under-performing films from the period have since been critically rehabilitated, this one continues to find short shrift with many commentators: for instance, Jonathan Rigby’s otherwise authoritative survey, “English Gothic”, simply dismisses it in a few sentences as ‘stodge’!
However, now that Network have brought it back from the grave in a wonderfully vibrant new HD transfer for twin Blu-ray and DVD releases, “The Man Who Haunted Himself” proves itself a much worthier effort than has previously been acknowledged, showcasing a magnificent central performance from Moore (who gets to show more acting chops here than he was ever allowed again in any of his subsequent roles); great supporting performances from lots of recognisable British character actors of the period such as Anton Rodgers, Thorley Walters, John Carson and Freddie Jones; and some often inventive direction from Deardon, who shows real flair and dynamism in several key set-piece sequences. The entire film is lit beautifully by cinematographer Tony Spratling and given a catchy melodic score by “Theatre of Death” composer Michael J. Lewis, which kicks off proceedings by way of a particularly memorable signature cue that re-occurs many times later under various guises while sporting wildly different arrangements.
Adapted from a story by Alan Armstrong which had been earlier also made the basis for an episode of the anthology series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (“The Case of Mr Pelham”) helmed by the master of suspense himself in 1962, the film’s late-sixties period trappings see it now play more like a colourful contemporary-modern riff on a mixture of both Dostoyevsky’s “The Double” and Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Moore emerges in the opening frames dressed in the traditional garb of that doyen of the establishment, the stiff-collared city gent, in dark pinstripe suit, bowler hat and brolly. He’s a top executive at the mahogany wainscot-clad London head office of the venerable engineering firm Freeman, Pelham and Dawson (‘a nice, steady old firm.’), with clipped, thin moustache and sturdy, dependable Rover as his vehicle of choice. Amid the concrete and greenery of the London commuter belt, Harold Pelham (Roger Moore) unclasp his seat-belt and has a strange manic episode on the Hammersmith flyover, speeding recklessly through the traffic at 100 miles per hour whilst imagining him-self at the wheel of a silver Lamborghini sports car. He crashes through a barrier and ends up on the operating table of a hospital theatre with a life-threatening head injury. He survives, but returns from holiday to find his firm considering a merger with a major rival, and the elderly board members are looking forward to benefiting financially from the outcome of the deal, while still being able to sell it as ‘a good thing for all’ to the film’s shareholders. Pelham suspects that the whole bid is the first stage in a planned takeover plot which has been set in motion because the firm’s rival has found out about a top secret project being developed at its R&D branch. He and his younger colleague Tony Alexander (Anton Rogers) are assigned the task of investigating the merger proposal and finding out if industrial espionage has indeed been taking place and if it has who is behind it.
However Pelham is also distracted by odd occurrences involving colleagues who claim to have seen him out and about in the city while he was in fact away on holiday, recuperating from his near-death experience: bluff old school pal Frank Bellamy (Thorley Walters in another one of his traditional overgrown schoolboy roles) turns up at the house swearing blind Harold invited him there for a drink and talks about a riotous night out they both shared at their mutual club, during which Harold supposedly thrashed him at snooker. When Harold checks up, numerous patrons of the club claim to have witnessed the event even though he was not even in the country at the time. Meanwhile, Harold Pelham’s seemingly perfect marriage to his wife Eve (Hildegard Neil) is also starting to show signs of stress. Behind the wrought-iron railings and perfect flower beds of the couple’s suburban home Harold is in fact impotent and unable to give his wife the third child she yearns for. She’s also getting fed up of their ‘dreary and suburban’ lifestyle and turns to the Roulette wheel for kicks. On one such occasion they bump into a bohemian female photographer who behaves as if she knows Pelham intimately (causing a further rift with Eve) even though they only met once by accident at the swimming baths. When he tracks her down and confronts her at her flat (decorated with ethnic art and Japanese ink sketches), the woman (Olga Georges-Picot) claims they are lovers and that he previously made love to her there!
The investigation at work takes an unexpected turn when a contact on the board at Electronics General makes it plainly known that Harold was the source of the leak that provided his company with the top secret information which precipitated its merger bid, just as he comes to suspect that the impostor who has been impersonating him while he was away is now trying to take over his entire life -- turning up at his home in Pelham’s place while he’s out, and even answering the phone in his name when Pelham rings his wife from the office. The replacement seems to be displacing Pelham from his own reality, and, now under investigation from his own colleagues for alleged industrial espionage, he begins to crack, turning eventually to an eccentric psychiatrist (Freddie Frances) for help. However, after being admitted into Dr Harris’s clinic for a few days of tests, Harold Pelham emerges to find the impostor really has now taken full control of the situation, having gained the trust of his wife and children and his work colleagues, who have accepted the merger/takeover bid the new improved Pelham has been masterminding all along.
Roger Moore gives an enlightening performance in this film from the perspective of those used to seeing him only as the one dimensional, eyebrow-arching incarnation of 007 that his Bond would become by the end of his fourteen year tenure in that starring role. Moore is able to move from the clipped formality of the repressed version of Pelham seen at the start of the film to the broken down, perspiring wreck of a man he later becomes as his world fragments into a kaleidoscopic series of shards seemingly splintering around him. The performance works as a psychologically truthful representation of a man experiencing an extreme mental fugue state, at the same time as it successfully functions as the core plank of a subtly creepy supernatural chiller in which all the sexual repressions and inadequacies experienced by Moore’s up-tight character, are unleashed in the form of a much more likable and successful alter ego, representing a version of himself that he wants to be in fantasies which he normally does not acknowledge to himself or others.
There’s also a social dimension adding depth to the Twilight Zone aspects of the story, with the business takeover subplot in which the old and somewhat hypocritical but accepted standards of business previously adhered to -- which have survived for decades off the back of the Establishment’s old boys’ network -- is being ‘taken over’ and superseded by a new, more ruthless business dynamism, where the law of the jungle applies and a man’s word counts for little or nothing. Freddie Jones’ comically offbeat psychiatrist explains to Harold how Harold is ‘a man of rigid habits, almost puritanical in the strictness of [his] principles, both in business and in private life.’ An outmoded quality that is at its most apparent in his rejection of sex, even though this is what has driven his wife away and threatens the continued happiness of his family.
Moore gives a powerfully moving performance as his confusion and helpless inability to get to grips with the uncanny events destroying his life break him down more and more. The fact is that the original Harold Pelham has become a barely tangible anachronism, and no longer belongs as part of the current milieu; he’s becoming less and less real as his replacement becomes more and more comfortable taking on the role of family man and modern business executive.
Dearden concludes the movie with a tour de force set-piece that comes soon after Pelham’s double informs the original that ‘one of us will have to go!’ and sets about attempting to run his Rover off the road with his Lamborghini in a night time car chase sequence that mirrors and parallels the opening crash scene itself (there are several paired and symmetrically mirrored scenes spaced throughout the film), except that it takes place amid a psychedelic kaleidoscope of fragmented images with washes of primary coloured gel lighting effects (this whole section practically prefigures the effect created by the taxi ride sequence at the start of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria”, released seven years later) and tight, flash-frame editing. The film is beautifully played, smartly constructed and inventively directed, looking much more modern than many films of this vintage often do. It uses real London locations throughout as backdrops rather than painted scenery hangings, for instance – although there is still much reliance on what from today’s film-making perspective seems like an overuse of back projection. Wisely, the two Pelhams rarely appear on screen at the same time until the very climax of the movie, when there’s a clever piece of effects work in which Moore seems to walk right the way around his back projected double.
The new DVD and Blu-ray release from Network Releasing is being put out as part of its British Film Collection and looks fantastic. We’re given equally stunning 1.85:1 cinema aspect ratio and 1.33:1 maximum ratio open matte versions and there’s an easy flowing audio commentary with Roger Moore and Bryan Forbes, moderated by Jonathan Sothcott, which was recorded back in the early 2000s. There’s a trailer included and several picture galleries of marketing materials, portraits and promotional shots, together with an animated sequence of Dearden’s original storyboards.
“The Man Who Haunted Himself” is a cheaply made but classy B picture -- a slow burn that gets by on good all round performances and a slowly escalating sense of the lead character’s gradual unravelling rather than on overt horror. It’s a pleasure to see it afforded such a fine presentation for this terrific looking new UK release.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!