Thursday, July 6, 2017

Dirk Bogarde and Olivia de Havilland Seek the Truth in "Libel"

Dirk Bogarde as Sir Mark Loddon?
During a two-day stopover in London, a Canadian World War II veteran named Jeffrey Buckenham sees a snippet of a television show about English country estates on a pub’s television. Buckenham recognizes the estate’s owner and is next seen participating in a tour of the manor house. He remains behind when the tour departs and confronts the owner, Sir Mark Loddon.

Buckenham is convinced that the man claiming to be Loddon is a nefarious imposter named Frank Wellney. Loddon acts perplexed and becomes angry when Buckenham snarls: “I want to see you crawl, Frank.”

Buckenham pursues his contention and convinces a local newspaper to publish an open letter in which he exposes Loddon as a fraud who assumed a dead man’s identity during an escape from a prisoner of war camp.

Loddon claims to have virtually no memory of his pre-war life due to his traumatic war injuries. He wants to ignore the allegations. However, his wife Margaret feels strongly that he should file a libel lawsuit against Buckenham and the newspaper. Loddon reluctantly agrees—even though it’s quite possible that it will become a trial to prove his identity.
Olivia de Havilland and Dirk Bogarde as the Loddons.
Based on a 1934 stage play by Edward Wooll, Libel (1959) is an exceedingly well-crafted film with plenty of drama inside and outside the courtroom. Its most intriguing element is that there are three possible outcomes to the story: (1) Frank Wellney could be impersonating Loddon; (2) Loddon could be the real Loddon; or (3) Loddon could be Wellney, but doesn’t know it because of war-induced amnesia. During the trial, though, the evidence against Loddon becomes so persuasive that even his wife begins to have her doubts. (It’s interesting to note that the plot wouldn’t work today as DNA tests could determine Loddon’s identity.)

Dirk Bogarde is superb in the lead role, leaving the audience to determine if his character’s perpetual haunted look is because he can’t remember what happened during the POW escape or because he fears being exposed as a fraud. His most impressive work is in the flashbacks in which he portrays both Loddon and Wellney in the same scene.

Olivia as Margaret Loddon.
The rest of the cast provides outstanding support. As Margaret Loddon, Olivia de Havilland has one of the best roles of her later career and her climactic scene with Bogarde is charged with emotion. Paul Massie is quietly convincing as Buckenham. The only other film I’ve seen him in was Hammer’s The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, in which he played Jekyll as a milquetoast and Hyde as a dashing villain. Finally, British veterans Robert Morley and Wilfrid Hyde-White are ideally cast as the battling barristers who are best friends outside the courtroom.

Robert Morley as a barrister.
Director Anthony Asquith obviously knew his way around cinematic courtrooms, having earlier helmed legal dramas The Winslow Boy (1948) and Court Martial (1954). He also directed several other highly-regarded British classics, to include Pygmalion (1938), The Browning Version (1951), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).

Libel was nominated for one Academy Award…for Best Sound. Inexplicably, it’s not a well-known movie despite the acting pedigree and intriguing plot. Fortunately, it’s currently available on Warner Archive’s streaming service. Really, though, TCM should have a Dirk Bogarde day and include Libel as part of the schedule.

Here's a clip from Libel. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. (You can also stream the entire movie at


  1. Sounds like a fascinating film. Will have to check it out.

  2. I've been meaning to catch this one, but it has lingered long at the bottom of the list. Thanks for the kick in the pants.

  3. One little thing ...

    Morley and Hyde-White are playing barristers, with the wigs and the courtroom costumes.
    Solicitors are the lawyers who prepare the cases for court; as a rule, they don't actively participate in the trials.

    Otherwise, right on.

  4. I really enjoyed this little gem. I have a soft spot for courtroom dramas and I keep being reminded that Dirk Bogarde is quite talented!

  5. Have watched it 3 times - always like it!