Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Discovering Carol Reed's Overlooked Outcast

                After awaiting its arrival in some format for many years, I was delighted to finally view 1951’s wonderful drama Outcast of the Islands, based on Joseph Conrad’s 1896 novel. Oftentimes a film one’s waited years to see can prove to be a disappointment, as expectations built-up over time can lead to a feeling of “Is that all there is?” after the movie is finally seen. Not so with Outcast, which manages to grab attention from the outset and remain a fascinating, engrossing experience. Carol Reed, in the midst of a very fruitful period which included Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, does another terrific job in capturing and maintaining a singular time and place with the aid of a concise, thoroughly involving screenplay by William Fairchild, and a supreme cast of top players doing some of their best work, along with a wealth of local Indonesian islanders who lend much to maintaining the exotic tone of the film. 

                Leading the cast, Trevor Howard is thoroughly engaging as Peter Willems, an irresponsible, childish near-middle-ager without a lot of prospects, but still possessed of enough ample charm to convince Lingard, the captain who essentially adopted him years earlier, to give him one last chance working in trade with a colleague at an isolated island locale. Willems is a tough assignment, as he requires an actor who can convince as an oftentimes reckless cad while still gaining an audience’s empathy. Howard portrays Willem’s as a carefree, lost soul who does possess some moral character to go along with his more disreputable behavior, and one follows the character intrigued as to how things will play out for him, hoping Willem can find a better way of life; Howard also craftily offers one of the screen’s best delineations of the havoc becoming passionately involved with someone can wreak on a person.

                Ralph Richardson lends his formidable presence as Lingard and does a great job suggesting the conflicts involved in illogically supporting someone destined to create strife, due to an unbreakable emotional bond felt towards the wayward soul. Richardson makes it clear Lingard is aware of Willems’ faults, but is reluctant to take action against this “son” figure; this character stands in direct contrast to Richardson's dominating, callous father in 1949's The Heiress, but the great actor is equally persuasive in both roles, and Richardson's adept, more compassionate work in Outcast made me wish cold Dr. Sloper could've cut poor Olivia de Havilland a break at least once or twice in that William Wyler masterpiece, instead of completely devaluing her. Robert Morley scores heavily as Almayer, Willems’ unwilling business partner and chief antagonist. Watching the portly, downcast, ridged Almayer take on the free-spirited Willems provides some of the most compelling drama and comedy in the film. 

                Wendy Hiller, playing against type as Almayer’s meek wife who is drawn to the romantic, adventurous figure of Willems, shows she can portray a quiet, kindly woman as memorably and adeptly as she did with the stronger characters Hiller often enacted. Based on past performances, I expected Hiller to come on strong and handle Almayer and their business operations in a practical, assertive manner. The dreamy, touchingly innocent quality Hiller brings to Mrs. Almayer, mixed with moments indicating a sager comportment exists underneath her soft exterior, makes the likable character linger, as a viewer wonders about Mrs. Almayer’s background, and how it brought her to less-than-rewarding circumstances. Wilfred-Hyde White is also resourceful in a brief change-of-pace role as a terse, vengeful foe of Willems, as opposed to the jovial, supportive gentlemen he charmingly played elsewhere, and George Coulouris also an air of uneasiness as Babalatchi, an islander out to gain Willems help in building his own business ventures at the cost of Lingard’s.

Viewing the Almayer’s petulant, outspoken offspring Nina, I was taken aback by one of the most precocious children I’ve seen onscreen, and marveled how this impish little girl managed to match Morley in appearance and somber comportment, before realizing it was a case of like father, like daughter (Nina is played by Annabel Morley, in her only screen role). Both Morleys are adept in depicting how ghastly selfishness can motivate a character to act impossible, and it’s fascinating to watch them behaving badly together (Nina doesn’t show much loyalty towards dad when the chips are down and Almayer is ranting, for example).  As Willems’ object of obsession, Aissa, Kerima has a unique, slightly foreboding presence which lends interest to her dealings with her smitten suitor, as the audience is never sure exactly how this pairing will play out, and what Aissa wants out of the relationship. Among the cast of natives, little Tamine makes the biggest impact as the smiling, Puckish-yet-helpful Boy Friday who intently follows Willems on his island exploits. 
       Kino Lorber has done classic movie buffs a great service in making this little-seen treasure recently available via an excellent print that properly showcases the stunning b&w cinematography by Edward Scaife and John Wilcox, which manages to convey a sense of exotic romance and island feverishness. Unlike any other film of its era, and featuring some of the most intelligent direction, acting and scripting found in a film then or now, Outcast of the Islands offers a mature, uncompromising look at a compelling anti-hero and those whose lives he impacts, memorably taking viewers into a tropical world with a vividness seldom captured in a fictional movie, thanks to the first-rate efforts of Reed and his peerless cast and crew.


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