Thursday, September 24, 2015

W. Somerset Maugham's "Quartet"

Released in 1948, Quartet was the first of three anthology films based on W. Somerset Maugham short stories and introduced by the author on screen. The follow-up films were Trio (1950) and Encore (1951). In each of these films, the short stories were treated as stand-alone productions, in that the directors and casts were different. Thus, it’s all the more impressive that the overall quality of Quartet is first-rate. None of the stories disappoint, though naturally some are better than others. We’ll address them as separate mini-reviews:

Mai Zetterling and Jack Watling.
The Facts of Life. As a young man embarks on his first excursion to Paris, his father offers him three pieces of advice: (1) stay away from the gaming tables; (2) don’t lend money to anyone; (3) avoid women. Once in the City of Lights, the young man proceeds to play roulette, loans part of his winnings to an attractive woman, and spends a chaste night in her apartment. The outcome is the punch line in this pleasant trifle that benefits from winning performances of a young Mai Zetterling and Jack Watling.

Honor Blackman.
The Alien Corn. George Bland (Dirk Bogarde) has been groomed his whole life to become a country gentleman and member of Parliament. However, his dream is to earn a living as concert pianist. His long-suffering girlfriend (Honor Blackman) convinces George’s parents to let the young man study the piano for two years. At the end of that period, a professional will evaluate his playing and determine if he has any potential. If he does not, he must agree to give up the piano and conform to his family’s wishes. There’s a tragic quality about this tale from the beginning, so the ending is not a surprise. Its leisurely pace (especially the lengthy piano performances) negates some of this story’s impact. However, Bogarde is strong, as always, and Honor Blackman—16 years prior to her most famous role as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger—gives a lovely, poignant performance as the girlfriend.

George Cole and Susan Shaw.
The Kite. Herbert, a  young man who still lives with his parents, is passionate about kites. Every Saturday afternoon, he and his parents fly kites together in the park. Much to his mother’s disapproval, he falls in love with a young woman named Betty and marries her. Alas, the new bride thinks that kite flying is a childish activity and—in a fit of jealousy—destroys one of her husband’s special kites. This is the story I remember best from my first viewing of Quartet several years ago. In some interpretations of the short story, the kite represents an “umbilical cord” that connects Herbert and his mother, effectively keeping him from fully committing to his marriage. My view of the film adaptation is very different—I think Maugham uses kite flying as an analogy for anything that sparks one’s passion. It’s a part of who Herbert is, even if he can’t quite explain his love of kites (though he tries). The future of Herbert and Betty’s marriage hinges on whether she can embrace his “childish activity.” Thematically, it’s not that different from The Alien Corn, although the outcome is decidedly different.

Nora Swinburne and Cecil Parker.
The Colonel’s Lady. A self-important country gentleman has little time for his wife, given his many “important” meetings…and clandestine visits with his mistress. Thus, he is surprised to learn that his wife has written a book of poetry. Moreover, her book has been published, hailed by the press and literary greats, and is “selling like hot cakes.” Although his wife gives him a copy, he doesn’t even bother to read it. Thus, he’s flummoxed when everyone—to include his mistress—starts talking about the book’s “earthy” narrative about an older woman’s passionate love for a younger man. This may be the best story in Quartet (though The Kite is a close second). Cecil Parker is ideally cast as a Colonel Blimp-type who has taken his marriage for granted for many years. He is well matched by Nora Swinburne as his wife, whose quiet exterior masks a burning love that turned to ashes long ago.


  1. All three of the Maugham anthology films are excellent but this is the best of the lot. My favorite of these tales is the last one. So bittersweet and extremely well acted.

  2. I'd never heard of these anthology films before, and they sound intriguing. "Quartet" sounds very appealing. Thanks for expanding my movie horizons once again. :)