Terence Davies on Dirk Bogarde
Terence Davies was born in Liverpool in 1945. One of the finest, most individual, talents the British cinema has produced, he has directed films both in the UK (’Trilogy‘ 1984, ’The Long Day Closes‘ 1992) and in the States (’The House of Mirth‘ 2000). His feature debut, ’Distant Voices, Still Lives‘, has just been released on DVD by the BFI at £19.99.
I’d left school in 1960 and was working in a shipping office. There was just the boss, the head clerk, and me. He was 18; I was only 15 and he seemed very, very sophisticated. He went to the cinema and noticed the photography and that kind of thing. Sometimes we would stay back after 5 o’clock and I would meet him and have a talk.
‘Oh, I must tell you, I’m queer’, he told me. And, of course, I was, too. He said: ‘Would you like to go the pictures?’ It was Dirk Bogarde in ‘Victim’. That was the first time I saw him and it was a bombshell. My friend said afterwards: ‘You do know he (Bogarde’s character, the lawyer Melville Farr) is homosexual?’ That word was never used. Homosexuality was a criminal offence and that was terrifying. I was a very deprived something, and I was a practising something. But the positive side of it was that I saw a great performance for the first time, and I was conscious of it being a great performance.
Bogarde’s only a great cinema actor at his best. He can be very mannered, at his worst, but he really is the best cinema actor we have produced. I don’t know what Bogarde’s motives were in making ‘Victim’, it was just an immensely brave thing to do – and it changed the law. But in those days we had an industry that tried to do different things. It really did try – didn’t always succeed – but it did try.
Running through his films, in order of importance, I’d say ‘Victim’ was Bogarde’s best. He’s very good in ‘Modesty Blaise’ – very good in comedy – ‘HMS Defiant’, ‘Despair’. Very good, too, in ‘Providence’. Again, it’s a dark and comic performance, but a great one.
‘The Damned’ is just very, very overblown. He makes the other actors look clumsy in a ‘A Bridge Too Far’; ‘The Night Porter’ doesn’t really work. And ‘The Blue Lamp’ is terribly creaky – ‘This is a gun, it works!’ – it’s almost Melvyn Hayes, and you want to say ‘No, save that for the panto, Dirk!’
‘Darling’ is almost unwatchable as a film, but he’s good in it. ‘The Spanish Gardener’ – I mean, with this cut-glass accent, he’s supposed to be Jose! The interesting figure in ‘The Spanish Gardner’ is Michael Hordern’s character.
Personally, I couldn’t imagine myself working with him. I couldn’t, I adore him too much. I can recall exactly how I felt when I first saw ‘Victim’.
It’s as vivid now as it was 40-odd years ago. And that’s upsetting in many ways The range of sensitivity and emotional truth is wonderful. The way he plays the scenes, it’s beautifully restrained, and yet you feel that there are all these things going on below the surface. Especially in a scene when he has to explain to his wife what has happened: he’s constantly got his back to her, and his voice is constantly modulating between the speaking voice, which is the middle register, and sotto voce, which is just below the speaking register, and his wonderful cough at the end is just fabulous. That range of sensitivity, not just in terms of emotion, but in vocal modulation, is like music, really. It’s just flawless.
The simplest things have real, real power and are really moving.
The Dirk Bogarde Collection is available now on DVD from Optimum Home Entertainment.
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