“The Sleeping Tiger” (1954) is a little like a Rorschach test -- an ink blot image whose design can be interpreted in different ways, but for which there is no "right" answer, or at least no conclusive answer.
All movies are subject to interpretation. This movie, either by intention, or the serendipitous marriage between a dynamic director and a quirky script, invites us, teases us to interpret whole scenes and even small gestures -- but never to be too sure about our conclusions. Our conclusions change, sometimes minute by minute, depending on how we hold up the inkblot.
His habit is to usually answer a question put to him, no matter how ordinary or innocuous, with another question (re: "Do you want some coffee?" -- "Is there any reason why you think I should want coffee?")...in the probing manner of a psychoanalyst. So does the director of this movie. You want to slap both of them after a while. We are never really given conclusions, only more questions, and sometimes this works to make the film fascinating, and sometimes it makes us frankly annoyed and impatient for a simple answer.
The director is Joseph Losey, who also gave us “The Prowler” (1951), which we discussed here. In this film’s credits he is listed as Victor Hanbury. He left the US in the early 1950s to escape the House Un-American Activities witch hunt, and worked for a time, as did many blacklisted filmmakers, under a pseudonym.
By the way, this post is going to be one long SPOILER. If you don’t want to know anything, then go into the kitchen and make me a cup of tea. Do the dishes while you’re out there. And see if the mail came.
It’s also going to be an excruciatingly long post. Yeah, big surprise.
The setting is England in the mid 1950s, still wearing its post-War bleakness. We haven’t got to Swinging London yet, that’s for later on in the Cold War. The script is taut, and often a curious mixture of intelligent lines, but hard-to-swallow plot turns. We are prodded to question our assumptions -- at the same time we are told to accept what seems improbable.
“How are his manners?” Alexis asks her husband, as if she were a school matron taking on a new charge. When one has a criminal under one’s roof, manners should be the least concern, but this is a clue to her personality. Even the most evil intent can be hidden with charming manners. Alexis does not like to look below the surface, unlike her husband. She is unsettled by what she may find there in others -- and in herself. She leaves probing under layers to the Doc.
It’s a low-budget film, you can see that from the start. A few shots of dark village streets under dim streetlamps, most of the film shot in the claustrophobic confines of their home. And it’s a public domain film, so of course the print could be better.
Dirk Bogarde’s manners, to begin with, are terrible. He is snide, rude, and quite mean to the maid when nobody is looking. He bullies her because he cannot bully Alexis or the Doc. He is immature, sullen, and resentful. He chafes under Doc’s grilling of his childhood memories.
His lair is spare, walls painted white, a set of narrow frosted windows placed high on the wall reminding one of an institutional infirmary, with modern furniture, peg-legged, Scandinavian design, utilitarian and not a bit cozy or ornamental.
But Alexander Knox plays the man with such a pleasant, easygoing, almost guileless devotion to the truth. He is honorable, and we trust him. He does not appear cold or indifferent, though his actions reflect an ironic insensitivity. On a mission to tackle the obsessions of others, he does not realize how obsessed he is with his work.
The Doc keeps a loaded revolver in his desk which we see from time to time, and one wonders at the lack of prudence, but we always seem to find loaded guns, and open checkbooks, in desk drawers in the old movies, don’t we? I think they are a more common plot contrivance than boy-meets-girl.
“I despise hoodlums of any kind…they’re just stupid little animals asking for cages.”
Alexis is not afraid to be alone with Bogarde. She seems to want him to know this. She wears the protective armor of her own superiority.
All three principals have great roles in this movie, and they perform very well. Mr. Knox plays that fine line of unwitting cruelty in a mask of cultured academia. Dirk Bogarde, though in real life the same age as Alexis Smith, convincingly plays a younger man just clawing his way out of boyhood. He flip-flops in his manners and attitudes so smoothly that we don’t always know when he is putting someone on, including his seduction of Alexis Smith.
in this previous post.
Alexis, bewitching in this dark role, starts the movie as a cool customer, classy and almost as self contained as the Doc, but by the end she downward spirals helplessly into an emotional train wreck. It was one of her last starring film roles and she must have savored the challenge.
We gradually learn all about Dirk Bogarde through his sessions with the Doc, because he tells us about his past, even when he lies about it. We do not have this open conduit to the other characters. Alexis reveals only briefly to Bogarde, meant as a put-down on his bad behavior, that she had an unhappy childhood, came from a broken home, and that her mother hated her.
“I made a life for myself just the same,” she slams him, not allowing him the convenient excuse of a bad childhood to entitle him to bad behavior as an adult. But Bogarde, bored with being the Doc’s guinea pig decides to get one for himself. Her. He astutely accuses her:
“You’re a phoney…inside you’ve got nothing. You’re empty. You’re hungry….You’re a tight wire and it wouldn’t take very much to break you.”
His wife and his lab assistant are like a platonic harem over which he is lord. His manner of being completely unaware of this, and what seems his earnest desire to help Dirk Bogarde makes Knox a still likeable character, fascinating for his contradictions. I love the contrast between his short military haircut and Bogarde's abundant pompadour.
And he persists in peeling away Bogarde’s protective lies about himself. Knox wants to know if he liked his stepmother.
Bogarde relents and describes her, “Tall, blonde, very smart. All ice on the outside and rotten inside.” He hated her. Is he describing Alexis, too?
He gets back at the Doc by sneaking out to commit robberies. He gets back at Alexis by probing her emotional hunger and suppressed desire.
“Don’t pretend you don’t like winding people up like little toys,” Alexis says in a rare moment of sniping at Knox. We see that she is more aware of things under the surface than she may have previously wanted to admit. Little by little she’s losing her protective reserve and finding the courage to look.
Interestingly, Alexis is an American, as Bogarde notes. I don’t know why she would not have been English, since she was able to do accents perfectly well, but being American also makes her an outsider, a stranger in a strange land. There the discussion of her origins ends. Too bad, we want more back story on her.
The other distinctive music in the film is the bluesy saxophone we hear whenever Alexis and Bogarde are together.
She is amused at slumming here, and teasingly tries to emulate the kids who cling to each other in couples by pressing herself against Bogarde. He verbally smacks her down, as well as with a cruel grip on her neck, just as she has discouraged him previously, and she is humiliated at being rejected. Like the horses they ride, he has learned when to give her her head, and when to rein her in.
The Doc does not deny it; the accusation is barely noticed by him, except with what appears to be faint amusement. Would Lab Assistant be amused at his amusement? I wonder. Instead he vacillates on whether to kick Bogarde out of their home now that he appears to be a danger to his wife, but the experiment is just too interesting to him. Perhaps if Alexis insisted he leave? She does not.
On another evening alone with Bogarde, they go to the jazz club again, and she’s having a blast. He is the responsible one, taking control, reminding her it’s time to leave. She doesn’t want to, and he daringly asserts that he’s “ready for a showdown” with her husband anytime she says.
Meanwhile, the Doc, covering up for Bogarde again, pontificates, “All of us are capable of anything given the right provocation…in the dark forest of every human there’s a tiger -- a sleeping tiger.”
Tonight, it’s his wife.
We know from the fact of his subduing Dirk Bogarde at the beginning of the movie, which happens off camera, that Knox is a physically powerful man. Bogarde still bears the bruise on his twisted wrist. His first chastisement from Papa. When we see Knox carry Bogarde, it strikes us that not once in this movie has Knox ever taken Alexis in his arms.
We see there is a triangle here, not with the lab assistant, though she’s still in the ballgame. Alexis has lost her lover to her husband. They spend father-son fishing trips from which she is excluded.
She anticipates their homecoming excitedly, but only Doc comes home, and only because he remembered he has a paper to write. He did not come home to be with her, and Bogarde is distancing himself because he now thinks the Doc is a swell guy, and he feels guilty about luring his wife into cheating on him. She is more lonely now than she ever was before Bogarde came into their lives.
The Doc just gets more and more interesting. How much does he really know about their relationship? He declares Bogarde is cured. He confesses how hard his job has been, that as a therapist he is not supposed to show fear, dislike, or jealousy.
“Jealousy?” Alexis asks. Is she flattered that he might be jealous of Bogarde’s time with her? Or is she worried that he knows about her passion for Bogarde?
He suggests that he and Alexis should go on a vacation together. Earlier she would have jumped at the chance, but now she doesn’t want to leave Bogarde and she can’t tell the Doc that. What power over her does he have that she simply cannot ask him for a divorce? She becomes secretive and paranoid. She finds Bogarde at the inn where he is staying now and begs him to come back. “You’ve never seen me really angry. I warn you, you don’t know what I’m capable of.” It’s not a threat, it’s an intriguing, whimpered confession and is one of those elements in the script that gets dropped in but never explained.
But Bogarde is firm in breaking up with her because he just can’t hurt the Doc anymore. When he returns to their house to pack up his things, she finally rages at the humiliation to which he’s subjected her.
When Bogarde swooned to the floor, Knox cradled him in his arms. When his wife crumples to the floor in a sobbing, confused mess, he stands over her with probing questions and a shining light in his narrow eyes in what is probably the most cruel scene in the movie. Doc is not a fiend, but his relentless clinical approach to everything has cruel repercussions. They are both tragic.
Alexis bolts out of the house, now that she knows Bogarde has gone and there still might be a chance for her to catch him.
Whoa, about time, lady. Where were you in the first reel?
But what exactly do you mean? Riddles are pointless without solutions.
There’s a bit of a chase scene here, and the upshot is Alexis drives through what appears to be a circus billboard with a lunging tiger painted on it. She dies. Did I mention there would be spoilers?
I have a problem with the protagonist dying at the end of movies like this. Wages of sin and all, I know, but still, it smacks of laziness and the writer’s inability to find a resolution so it’s just more convenient to kill the character off.
We have no resolution for anybody, except that Bogarde intends to give himself up to Hugh Griffith to set things straight. But Doc expresses no emotion at the physical wreckage of his wife anymore than he did her emotional wreckage. Lab assistant, always prepared, remembers to grab his coat as they leave together for the chase scene. What is her story?
In classic films I think we tend to know little about set designers, at least not as much as we know of costumers or cinematographers. In theatre they are immensely important because when it comes to deciphering a set, theatre audiences tend to be more sophisticated than film audiences. They know that everything on the set is there for a specific reason. The stage director hasn’t the luxury of a film director of soaking up a variety of images just by panning the camera. All he has to work with is this space.
The movie is one of a string of films made in this period about the mysteries of psychoanalysis, movies often lurid and fantastic, but in this case it’s interesting that psychology is used as the basis of a love triangle, and for manipulation. What Doc does is on purpose. What Bogarde does is on purpose. Only Alexis seems powerless, losing her grip on her emotions and on her thinking bit by bit until she destroys herself with her obsession.
As mentioned in Monday’s post, this movie is on YouTube here in a single file. Please go have a look, and when you’ve seen it, come back and tell me what you think. For once, we can all watch the same movie together. Pass the popcorn. And, as The Muppets say, no singing opera during the movie.