UNDER-RATED CLASSICS #6 – SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964)
Directed by: Bryan Forbes
Produced by: Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes
Written by: Bryan Forbes (based on the novel by Mark McShane)
Cast: Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough, Nanette Newman, Mark Eden, Judith Donner, Gerald Sim, Patrick Magee
Music by: John Barry
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I started this series a while ago and posted a few times on the subject with multiple entries; however, I have now decided to make it a feature, like ‘Classic Movie Scenes’, concentrating on singular films. My rules are simple. An under-rated classic can be a film I love, plus satisfy the following criteria:
- Must not have won an Oscar.
- Must not have won a BAFTA.
- Must not appear in the AFI Top 100 list.
- Must not appear in the IMDB Top 250 list.
- Must not appear in the BFI 100 Great British films.
- Must not appear in the all-time highest grossing movies of list.
The latest film I have chosen did receive some critical acclaim when released, but it has since slid into mild obscurity. I only caught it on the cable channel Talking Pictures by chance. This channel, if you didn’t know, is like a British equivalent of TCM. However, it does have less well-known films and TV shows when compared to the American cable channel. Occasionally though, Talking Pictures will have a total gem and that is the case with Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964).
Adapted and directed by experienced British writer and director, Bryan Forbes, Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), casts Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough as a married couple called the Savages. Stanley portrays Myra Savage. She is a psychic medium who hosts seances for small groups of people, while her more timid husband, Billy (Richard Attenborough), assists. They seem to have a comfortable life and live in a nice house; however, their history is blighted by the tragedy of losing a child. This leaves Myra’s personality, while dominant over Billy, somewhat neurotic and nervy. Determined to elevate her career as a psychic, she plots the kidnapping of a millionaire businessman’s young daughter. With Billy reluctantly agreeing to carry out the physical part of the crime, Myra intends to then use her psychic “skills” to help the police and family locate the missing girl. This and the ransom money will secure their financial future.
While we are all familiar with hostage plots, Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), is more complex than a basic crime thriller. It explores themes relating to psychic ability, grief and mental illness. Rather creepily, Myra often uses the spirit of her dead son, Arthur, as a guide to her decisions. Moreover, it also contains a series of suspenseful scenes relating to the kidnapping of the girl and the handing over the ransom money. While these are staple tropes of the kidnap genre the film does break with convention. Indeed, while revealing the kidnappers from the very start, the narrative also concentrates many scenes on the gradual breakdown of their fraught marriage. The Savages are not your everyday career criminals and their risky plan is testament to that.
Overall, Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) is a brilliant film which should be held in much higher regard. It contains one of the greatest acting performances I have witnessed in a while. Kim Stanley as the psychic, Myra Savage, is a haunted individual full, not only of hidden grief, but also a controlling sociopathy. One feels equally appalled by her and sympathetic at the same time. Richard Attenborough gives a quieter and unselfish performance as husband Billy, his character attempting to keep his tragic wife from going over the edge. The Savages may be kidnappers, but the skill in the writing, while not condoning their actions, makes you understand their skewed motives. In the end, Kim Stanley would be deservedly nominated for an Oscar, but lose to Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins. As we are aware, there is no justice in the world, and it doesn’t take a psychic to know which film and performance is the more memorable.