❉ In every dream home a heartache… The final feature of writer-director Sidney Gilliat reviewed.
Often caricatured by the lazy fauxtsalgia brigade as a decade of desperate and dismal sex comedies, sitcom spin-offs and toothless horror, the British film scene of the 1970s is a fascinatingly fertile period for lovers of the kind of often bewildering but rarely boring films that probably wouldn’t get made now (and in some cases, one might argue shouldn’t have been made!) in today’s ‘big top’ world of focus-grouped genre-pleasers and where more maverick efforts are likely to end on Netflix after the briefest of theatrical runs.
The old saying ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’ was never truer, with the ‘70s output of producer-distributors British Lion Films being a typical case in point: For every Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth or The Wicker Man – films that have only grown in stature with the passage of time – there’s the shlocky horror picture shows I, Monster and The Beast Must Die, where Castle/Corman-esque gimmicks rub shoulders with a bevy of Equity card-toting thesps picking up their paychecks, quirky time period capsule curios like Waris Hussein’s Melody, and 1972’s Endless Night, an enigmatic adaptation of Queen of Crime Agatha Christie’s 1967 novel reuniting once again Hywel Bennett and Hayley Mills (The Family Way, Twisted Nerve), who share billing with familiar faces from both sides of the pond – Hollywood legend George Sanders in his penultimate film credit before taking his own life in 1972, Bond-botherer Lois Maxwell, Scandi starlet du jour Britt Eckland, the debonair Peter Bowles, and everyone’s favourite Sargent Major, Windsor Davies (There’s also an uncredited appearance from Doctor Who‘s Nicholas Courtney).
Behind the camera Endless Night’s pedigree is no less intriguing – its executive producer and writer was Sidney Gilliatt, one half of prolific film-making duo Gilliatt & Launder, and the film’s score was provided by Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann, whose familiar tense, dramatic style was enhanced with washes of Moog synthesiser.
So its pedigree alone marks it out as one of those snapshots of the industry’s awkward growing pains as it found itself in transition as styles, tastes and standards changed, in what could be seen as either a bet-hedging marriage of dependable old guard and bankable new faces, or a genuine attempt to see what a conventional crime/mystery drama (complete with token village madwoman uttering portentious threats of doom) would look like in the guise of a typically 1970s psychological horror where paranoia, psychosis and calculated flashes of bare flesh were very much the order of the day.
Either way, the results, in Endless Night’s case are decidedly mixed – as indeed were the reviews – and the film ultimately failed to find favour, not least with Christie herself, who was said to be less than satisfied with it. But it’s not to say it isn’t worth a look, not least for Bennett’s central performance, playing a working class chauffeur to the minted, looking down with disdain on his employers’ loose morals while harbouring fantasies of manifest destiny based on a childhood dream that a plot of land in the English countryside is his birthright. Narrated by the protagonist himself, the film chronicles the lengths he goes to secure his dream home, by forming a close friendship with a jet-set architect and unwittingly wooing Mills, the ‘sixth richest woman in the world’, and charts how those dreams come crumbling around him no sooner than his aspirations are realised – with a few Christie-patented twists along the way, as Bennett’s true motivations and affection for those closest to him are not as clearly defined as they initially seem, even to himself (all the moreso as Bennett’s character is the definition of an unreliable narrator.
He’s one of those characters permanently walking a highwire between outwardly projecting unassailable self-belief and inwardly on the verge of psychosis, the kind of role which it must be said Hywel Bennett always excelled at, with his heavy-lidded, piercingly blue eyes, angelic yet sinister good looks, and his clipped, Welsh accent. If nothing else, Endless Night is a timely reminder that Bennett, a little too edgy and cynical in demeanour to make a convincingly conventional leading man despite his protean beauty, remains one of Britain’s most under-appreciated stars, best remembered (with good reason) as layabout philosopher Shelley in the sitcom of the same name.
Elsewhere, its female leads Hayley Mills and Britt Eckland do good work with the thin material they have to work with – Mills is lumbered with a less than convincing (and often MIA) American accent, although she would be given more intriguing character work in 1975’s Deadly Strangers, another one of those wayward entries into the ‘70s Brit flick canon. Eckland, meanwhile, essays a character not too dissimilar to ‘Lucy’, the vivacious embodiment of mischief in the recently re-issued Asylum. Bowles and Maxwell are essentially window dressing, as snooty, meddling upper class gatekeepers immediately distrustful of Bennett’s Non-U interloper suddenly thrown into their ranks as if to the manor born. Silver-tongued Hollywood veteran George Sanders’ role is worth a look in his last screen performance before checking out permanently, filmed after but released before We Are Cult favourite Psychomania – as the ‘family lawyer’ and self-confessed “dessicated poove” Lipincott.
Stylistically, Endless Night feels indebted in no small way to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, with whom of course Gilliatt and Herrmann had previous with; Herrmann’s score evokes Vertigo, as does a dream sequence where Bennett sees Mills in a dream sequence, only with her face blank and featureless, while Eckland is a more corporeal manifestation of the ‘other woman’. The stings of Moog synth that punctuate the score make for an interesting addition to the legendary film composer’s sonic palette, and have aged better than the monumental eyesore of taste-free interior design that is Bennett’s dream home…
For Christie fans, this idiosyncratic adaptation of one of her most atypical, yet critically praised, novels is undoubtedly worth a glance, particularly for those not of a purist disposition; for British cinema admirers, it may well only appeal to completists and obscurists, being more of a curate’s egg than a hidden gem, but for those happy to stump up for the price tag, the overall presentation is well up to Indicator’s usual high quality standard of restoration and presentation (including a booklet essay by the superb Anne Billson) while it remains on catalogue.
❉ ‘Endless Night’ (Sidney Gilliat, 1972) Limited Edition Blu-ray (UK Blu-ray premiere) was released 24 February 2020 by PowerHouse/Indicator, RRP £15.99. Click here to buy.
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of Me and the Starman, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.