In retrospect, Laurence Harvey’s fate seemed preordained when he burst big time on the movie scene in Jack Clayton’s lavishly praised 1959 kitchen sinker Room at the Top. As the angry working class bloke fucking his way to the top, Harvey didn’t closet his real Lithuanian-South African roots as much as alter them; by self-determined image he was the perpetual upstart snob longing to be legit and respected. (And by nearly all published accounts, he was still looking to belong when he died in 1973.) There was something insistently aloof about him—here, and in BUtterfield 8, The Alamo, Summer and Smoke, The Manchurian Candidate, Walk on the Wild Side, Of Human Bondage, Darling, in Columbo: The Most Dangerous Game. We sensed in him an innately creepy operative and about him a misfit never able to shed a simmering animosity. And his tall emaciated frame exacerbated the problem by showcasing a snit’s labeled air while barely masking warning signs, most of them ignored by his on-screen conquests to their own peril. It’s what made him interesting to watch, up to the point which almost always came when he had to fire his verbal guns in a not very disguised male bitch assault. Not that Harvey suggested sexual evasiveness—though in real life he was briefly a male prostitute, liked young men, was mentored and unrequitedly loved by producer James Woolf—he just never really suggested something solidly masculine. Notwithstanding his roboticism in Manchurian Candidate, in which his relationship with Angela Lansbury inadvertently mirrored in ways his marriage to Margaret Leighton, he never played characters most audiences were convinced he was right for, even if he was born to play them. So in watching him opposite Simone Signoret in Room at the Top the question arises whether he’s enough of whatever he is to get it up. Signoret’s a decidedly late thirtysomething used-up married who knows casual sex should but likely won’t remain casual and except for her fake “acting” in a local theatre production in the movie, she appears to be a marvel of naturalism. Possibly too much of one: like Harvey, she’s insistently being what she is; there’s no action she indulges, despite matter-of-factness or instinct, not planted for us. Especially the cigarette smoke streaming from her nose—we want to cough away the fumes but, like Oscar voters, we’re mesmerized by the nostril potency. (I’d have checked the ballot for Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story.) Different from Anna Magnani’s “naturalism,” originally raw and earthy yet in short order reduced to drama queen scenes, Signoret’s technique is grit with quiet measured sensuality, a force of studied intuition. Heather Sears is a British version of Sandra Dee without sexual mores guilt—she really liked her first bang—and her parents Donald Wolfit and Ambrosine Phillpotts are faultless casting.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.