Modesty Blaise (1966)

He Who Dared: Dirk Bogarde

5th August 2011

Jack Watkins celebrates the career of Dirk Bogarde, the pretty-boy star of the 1950s who sought more fulfilling roles and who is the subject of a month’s retrospective at the BFI.

A generation of females who grew up in the 1950s when Dirk Bogarde was the ‘Idol of the Odeons’ will be feeling very old this year when they realise that their favourite, had he still been with us, would have reached the grand old age of 90.

During that decade, Bogarde’s boyishly handsome features were regularly flashing across the big screen in such homegrown hits as the Doctor comedies – playing Simon Sparrow – or in dramas such as A Tale of Two Cities or The Singer Not the Song. It meant that he regularly topped cinema-goer polls of the era, see-sawing with Kenneth More, another actor who, like Bogarde, was successfully mixing light comedy roles with straight parts.

That was about as much as the pair did have in common, however, for Bogarde was a different to More as a rare orchid is to an oak tree. More was a loud and breezy, hail-fellow-well-met sort of actor, happy in tweeds or uniform. Bogarde was sensitive, bemused, introverted and fragile. More had more nuance than he is often given credit for, but Bogarde was nothing but nuance. In fact, there can never have been a British leading man who commanded such a heartthrob status, and yet was so adept at projecting unvirile intelligence and introspection, vulnerability and semi-detachment.

It’s well known now that, sickened by the demands of Rank Charm School conformity, Bogarde rebelled and sought more challenging roles from the early 1960s. This, in fact, is the theme of the British Film Institute’s two month retrospective, implicit in its title, He Who Dared. The season concentrates entirely on these later films, beginning with Victim (1961) in which, with seemingly reckless disdain for his matinée idol reputation, Bogarde played a homosexual lawyer.

Yet the sense that here was an actor who could offer something different can be detected far earlier in his career. Dirk Bogarde matters to anyone who loves British film because, while for other ‘greats’ – such as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud – the screen always came second to the stage, Bogarde quickly recognised the potential of film as the superior art form. Watch Olivier in some of his early films and he is a clashing symbol of an actor, as stiff as cardboard, and nothing going on behind the eyes. With Bogarde, however, you could always see the thought. Alec Guiness and Michael Redgrave were two other fine actors who showed up well in films of that time, but they too were essentially products of the stage, for which Bogarde, in all probability, lacked the vocal and physical robustness.

Like Guiness, Bogarde’s breakthrough in films came via the Ealing Studios. The Blue Lamp (1950) is a film still viewed with great affection for its depiction of the friendly begonia-tending neighbourhood bobby, PC George Dixon, as played by dear old Jack Warner, strolling round his beat at Paddington Green. With its fascinating documentary-style footage of police car chases around the still bombed-out streets of post-war Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, viewing it today is like a vision of another age.

The acting feels as though it’s from another age too – except that of Bogarde, playing the small time crook who kills PC Dixon. The latter is safe and dependable, representing order, decency and a Britain that probably never was, while Bogarde, emaciated, high-cheek-boned and bequiffed, acts with a pinched and dangerous insouciance – a chilly blast of the rude Britannia to come.

Even then, when so many of his contemporaries just stuck blandly to the script, Bogarde seemed to have an awareness of body movement, and of how to use the camera to show the processes of the mind. Later, he would attribute what he learned about film acting to the British directors of these early movies, but it would be with foreign directors that he would produce his best work.

Not the least of these were those that he made with maverick American Joseph Losey, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthyite Communist witchhunt. Among the best was the Harold Pinter-scripted The Servant (1963) in which he played – again with complete contempt for his old fanbase – ‘a mean and shabby’ manservant who coldly manipulates his feeble master (James Fox) to the verge of destruction. Accident (1967) was another successful Losey-Bogarde collaboration, which focused on academic rivalries at Oxford. Bogarde described his role as ‘quite the most exacting work I have ever had to do on screen’, which must have been saying something, as four years earlier he’d gone through the ‘brakeless roller-coaster’ of a shoot with the exhausting Judy Garland for I Could Go On Singing.

By the 1970s Bogarde, so often cast in his youth for his darkly handsome ‘Mediterranean’ looks, had become a thoroughly European actor, a darling of the art houses, working exclusively for the likes of Luchino Visconti, Alain Resnais and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It was for Visconti that he made one of his best-remembered films, Death in Venice (1971). This was at the more decorous end of the arty market, with lots of slow pan shots and not very much happening, but Bogarde was thoroughly moving as the repressed composer von Aschenbach – modelled on Gustav Mahler, whose music underscored the haunting atmosphere – trailing around the streets of the city in his obsession with an enigmatically beautiful young boy. The part was almost a silent one, but Bogarde made what could so easily have been a two-hour snore completely compelling.

In the mid 1980s, by which time he was living in Provence, the actor was interviewed by the late Russell Harty in a documentary for the BBC’s Arena series. Then 65, he talked philosophically about advancing age, and disparagingly (and one suspects, slightly dissemblingly) about his career. Unlike Gielgud, he said, he didn’t much like acting. “I made three or four films that will last longer than I will, for Visconti and Losey.”

The line-up for the British Film Institute’s season suggests he made rather more than that.

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