The Taking of Pelham: ‘The Man Who Haunted Himself’

❉ An appreciation of Sir Roger Moore’s cult classic.

After the sad passing of Sir Roger Moore, his many admirers (among whom your humble correspondent has long been counted) were quick to remind people of how underrated he was as an actor.  Of course, the received wisdom that he was not was mostly the result of the great man’s habit of self-deprecation – when asked of his range, he famously described it as consisting of, “left eyebrow, right eyebrow”.

When discussing his career more deeply, however, he would keenly bring up 1970’s The Man Who Haunted Himself.  It was, according to his autobiography, the only role in which he was, “dramatically stretched”: one which called for “emotion, drama and great intensity”.  Even viewing now, it is clear that when it came to these, he was more than able to deliver.

Rodge plays Harold Pelham, the epitome of middle-class Englishness in the mid-20th century.  Fond of stiff collars, always wearing the same tie (although changing to a cravat when going casual) and a stickler for the rules of the road, Pelham is a respectable, clubbable executive.  Director Basil Dearden is able to establish this character with no dialogue, opting instead to show Pelham as he drives through the beautifully-shot London of the late-60s in his Rover (because of course Pelham buys British).

Pelham is so British, in fact, that he has also lost all interest in marital congress with his wife, played by Hildegarde Neil.

As Michael J. Lewis’ theme tune fades out, however, Pelham is suddenly affected by change.  An expression of malevolence coming over him, he undoes his seatbelt and pushes his car to over 100mph, slaloming through the M4 traffic and causing a near-fatal crash.

Momentarily dying on the resuscitation table, Pelham briefly registers as having two heartbeats as he is brought back.  Soon afterwards, his stable life begins to unravel: he is claimed to have been where he was not, and a leak of secret research is uncovered at his place of work (‘Espionage isn’t all James Bond and Her Majesty’s Secret Service, industry goes in for it too, you know,’ Pelham quips, somewhat prophetically).

Most shockingly of all, Pelham discovers that he is apparently having an affair with photographer Julie Anderson, played by Olga Georges-Picot.

And who could blame him?

Beginning to doubt his sanity, Pelham wonders whether he is being blackmailed, is suffering a schizophrenic delusion, or whether he actually has a doppelgänger.

As Pelham’s faculties unravel, Rodge plays the part compellingly and sympathetically, lending the film much of its tension.  Also in the cast are Anton Rodgers – having only recently contended with doubles as Number Two in the classic Schizoid Man episode of ‘The Prisoner’ – and Freddie Jones, turning in a performance Moore described as “Kubrickesque” as Pelham’s psychiatrist, spinning Moore in his chair as he theorises on his condition.

Moore credited much of his performance to Basil Dearden, whom he found to be tremendously gifted “both technically and dramatically”.  The mystery is sustained without being stretched, and the reveal of Pelham’s other self is delayed for as long as possible, before culminating in both selves meeting in a split-screen shot which still holds up today.

Speaking at one of his ‘Evening With’ shows in 2013 – at which your humble correspondent was fortunate enough to be present – Moore reflected that he had tremendous fun being able to play both ‘Good Roger’ and ‘Evil Roger’, “Although I found it a lot easier to be Evil Roger.”

Sadly, The Man Who Haunted Himself did not perform as well as Moore felt it deserved to, a fact which he blamed on the film’s marketing.  Having been part of a series of economically-budgeted films featuring established stars, the distributers unwisely boasted that they had made a film cheaply, rather than of its quality for the cost.

“It saddened me greatly – not least because I owned a share of the profits!”

The film would also, tragically, be the final work of Basil Dearden, who was killed in a car crash not long after the its release.  According to Moore, this took place on the M4, near the spot where Pelham himself suffered his accident.  “The film industry was robbed of a great talent,” he reflected, having also helmed such movies as Khartoum and The Assassination Bureau.

In the years since its release, however, The Man Who Haunted Himself has been rediscovered by fans of Rodge’s work, and now receives the praise that he felt more appropriate.  For a tense psychological drama, and for seeing a beloved – and now greatly missed – actor playing against type, it can come highly recommended.

❉ Stephen Graham keeps the British end up on Twitter at @PlopGazette.

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  1. Hearing of Moore’s death I got out my box set of The Persuaders and watched my way through several episodes, including the famed ‘Greensleeves’. You recall the ep has Moore as Lord Brett Sinclair pretending to be an actor auditioning for a role pretending to be Lord Brett Sinclair. There’s a scene when the ‘actor’ turns to follow the valet up the stairs and he fumbles his suitcase and wobbles, moving completely unlike Brett Sinclair or even Roger Moore. It lasts barely 2 seconds but I always love that moment because it’s Moore maintaining the character that his character is pretending to be, even though the target isn’t watching. It’s just a lovely little bit of acting.

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