MoM is proud to launch a new series named Have You Heard Of… in which various writers from our team look at films they consider worthy of a 6-out-of-10 rating or higher, but are simply not very well-known any more (if they ever were!) The series kicks off with Mike Baker giving his glowing verdict on Robert Hamer’s The Scapegoat (1959) starring Alec Guinness and Bette Davis.
HAVE YOU HEARD OF… THE SCAPEGOAT (1959)
Of all the Daphne Du Maurier stories adapted for the screen, the best known is probably 1940’s Rebecca. The least might be The Scapegoat, made nineteen years later and starring Alec Guinness in dual roles. Guinness’s casting was no accident. Du Maurier wrote The Scapegoat in 1957 with him in mind, and resisted MGM’s alternative choice of Cary Grant by forming a production company with Guinness in order to force through their preferences.
The reason for The Scapegoat’s relative obscurity is that it was a massive box office flop, the author and actor both blaming each other for its failure, along with co-star Bette Davis, whose presence on the set led to various tumultuous moments. Perhaps they were wrong not to go with Grant, the easier choice for ‘leading man’ and as close to a safe financial return as it got. Certainly, Guinness as star made for a less comfortable sale. Known for his chameleon-like qualities in playing various roles – as exhibited in Ealing’s Kind Hearts And Coronets, in which he portrayed all eight members of a noble family – Guinness was an easy selection for the two very different main parts in The Scapegoat, but not so palatable as a romantic lead.
What’s left is a half-forgotten curio of a picture, not readily available to buy (my copy came from Amazon’s Italian branch) and far down on a list of Guinness performances. And yet it has some serious names behind it – Ealing regulars like Robert Hamer directing and Michael Balcon on production duties, plus Gore Vidal being hired to write the script after Bridget Boland failed to come up with a suitable treatment. Vidal’s screenplay was treated as an insult by Du Maurier, especially as it downplayed some of the book’s themes to instead be realised as subtle undertones. The relationship between Guinness and Davis was another source of trouble. The Grand Dame thought many of her scenes had been cut to remove any focus from her character; Guinness had it she put in too overbearing a turn, even from the bed where the vast majority of her scenes took place, and fretted that she might set the sheets on fire because of her constant smoking. Then there was Hamer, struggling with alcoholism, whose drinking was by now threatening to ruin a gifted talent, the ability that could draw such a technically perfect job of acting from Guinness on Kind Hearts And Coronets. Rumours persisted that Guinness had to take over behind the camera when Hamer withdrew at times when his habits spiralled out of control. The same was said of the film, the BFI claiming it became disjointed after a promising start.
The film’s plot draws on the experience of Kind Hearts And Coronets, with a dash of The Prisoner Of Zenda and an overarching crime drama. Guinness’s first role is that of John Barratt, a disillusioned teacher who goes to France on holiday, seeking solitude and escape from his working life. Whilst there, he comes across complete strangers who think he’s someone else, before he bumps into his exact double, the aristocratic Jacques de Gue (Guinness). The pair talk, drink and swap stories, then they go back to Jacques’s hotel. Barratt is by now too drunk to notice that his new friend has been overloading his glass and eventually falls unconscious. The following morning, he finds Jacques gone, along with all his clothes and possessions. People start thinking that Barratt’s the Count, despite his protests, and soon enough he’s whisked off to ‘his’ lavish estate to meet the family. With no one believing his story and instead seeing another of the Count’s cruel tricks, he’s compelled to become Jacques whilst attempting to investigate what’s happening, immersing himself into his assumed life and getting to know his wife and child, his secret lover in the nearby village, and his dominating mother (Davis).
What makes it interesting is that Barratt, having overcome his initial concerns, starts relishing his new world. He likes his family, especially his young daughter (a precocious turn from Annabel Bartlett), and takes an active interest in the local foundry that his family owns and supports. These are all things that have been ignored by the real Count, who in absentia emerges as a self-centred monster. Posing as Jacques and just about getting away with it, Barratt finds something he felt was lost – redemption, and begins to defend it. There’s just the little matter of resolving the family’s fortunes, which are somehow linked to his marriage contract with Francoise (Irene Worth). It states that if she should die without male issue then her entire estate goes to Jacques, a matter that ultimately sets Barratt up as the eponymous scapegoat. What happens next, and how Barratt will deal with the real Count, defines the remainder of the story.
Far from the sorry mess of a picture you might be expecting, The Scapegoat is actually rather good fun and well handled by Guinness, who conveys the emotional complexity of Barratt to understated perfection. The increased happiness he feels is all shown in how he deals with other people and the way they react to him, personified most effectively in his relations with Jacques’s mistress, Bela (Nicole Maurey), who guesses he’s an impostor but comes to love the softer and more caring man he is. If anyone is short-changed in the film, then it’s undoubtedly Davis whose character was truncated, either to keep the emphasis on Guinness, or because she chewed every available bit of scenery, or for the simple sake of expediency. Davis fans are likely to be disappointed, particularly those expecting a ghoulish and domineering forerunner of her work on Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? But perhaps her minimal screen time was for the best. More Mother would have meant further thickening of an already convoluted plot, the interest instead placed squarely on Barratt’s predicament.
Whilst there’s the potential for the novel to be readapted, perhaps with a likeable actor such as Martin Freeman taking the two main roles, viewers can access the 2012 version made for television by ITV, starring Matthew Rhys. It isn’t a bad effort, but Rhys is no Alec Guinness and the enhanced sexuality of his character can’t make up for an altogether lesser performance.
MoM Rating – 8/10