Tricolore To Technicolor: Marc Allégret's Blanche Fury (1948)

in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Neil Young

Blanche Fury“Glorious Technicolor” was the title of Berlinale 2015’s Retrospektive section, providing cinemagoers with several chances – each day – to escape the shock of the new and wallow in the sensory delights of a hundred-year-young process.

Many of the sidebar’s title were long-established, familiar classics – “The Wizard of Oz”, “The African Queen”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, and so on. Others were lesser-known titles prized mainly by knowledgeable cinephiles – Anthony Mann’s psychological western “The Naked Spur” (1952) now has a stack of new admirers. But the sidebar also included a welcome slew of relatively obscure offerings, perhaps wildly popular in their time but nowadays seldom discussed or screened – such as Marc Allégret’s luridly full-blooded “bodice-ripper” from 1948, the British production “Blanche Fury”.

Allégret’s filmography is Gallic through and through, with the exception of two consecutive cross-channel enterprises from the immediate post-WWII period: “Blanche Fury”, and 1950’s “Blackmailed”. Dashingly handsome, the Swiss-born Frenchman Allégret (brother of the more famous Yves) was once the lover of no less an eminence than André Gide – that relationship beginning when Allegret was 15 and Gide 47.

A trip to the Congo with the great novelist in 1927 proved pivotal for Allégret: he reportedly realised that he preferred the intimate company of women to that of men, and also that he wanted to pursue a career in the film industry. He went on to direct more than fifty films before his death in 1973, and showed a keen eye for nurturing new talent on both sides of the camera: Jean-Paul Belmondo and Roger Vadim, to name but two.
Allégret’s choice of collaborators is crucial to the success of “Blanche Fury”, a torrid tale of ambition, jealousy and murder set in rural England in the middle of the 19th century – a CineGuild production which now looks like a missing link between Gainsborough Studios (synonymous with opulent costume dramas) and The Archers (Powell & Pressburger). The screenplay, by Audrey Lindop and Cecil McGivern (with dialogue by Hugh Mills), is based on the novel of the same title by Joseph Shearing, a runaway best-seller on its publication in 1939.

It wasn’t until after “Blanche Fury” had been adapted for the screen that the true identity of “Shearing” became public knowledge. “He” was in fact a certain Mrs Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long, also known as Marjorie Bowen, who wrote over 150 books under various noms de plume and specialised in historical fictions drawn from real-life events. Her novels were adapted for the screen on half a dozen occasions (most notably Gregory Ratoff’s “Moss Rose” [1947], and they struck a chord not only with the public but also with fellow writers: Graham Greene and Fritz Leiber were vocal fans.

For “Blanche Fury”, Shearing/Bowen/Long turned to a double homicide in the eastern county of Norfolk which scandalised Victorian society in the years just before the Great Exhibition of 1851 – hinging as it did on the testy issue of property-rights. Taking considerable liberty with the facts, and relocating the action to the much hillier and wilder terrain of Staffordshire (north of Birmingham, south of Manchester), Shearing adopted a ‘cherchez la femme’ approach, dramatically magnifying the importance of the principal woman in the case.

Under Allégret’s direction, “Blanche Fury” is played with a winning combination of nobility, steeliness and sensuality by Valerie Hobson – who aged just 17 was the “Bride of Frankenstein” in James Whale’s 1935 horror classic (Elsa Lanchester is technically the bride of the ‘monster’). Hobson, at the time of “Blanche Fury” married to the film’s producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, would go on to even greater off-screen fame as the long-suffering wife of disgraced British politician John Profumo.

A near-penniless descendant of a wealthy family, thirtyish Blanche gladly takes a well-paid position as governess at Clare Hall – a secluded mansion owned by kin she has never met – looking after Lavinia (Suzanne Gibbs), a sweet, motherless little girl. Blanche quickly learns that that the estate’s gruff steward Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger) is actually a half-Italian relative – unable to inherit because his parents never married – who regards himself as having been deprived of his birthright. A tempestuous attraction haltingly buds between the pair, and they become conspirators in an elaborate plot to bump off all of those standing between Thorn and what he sees as his just deserts.

Not everything works out as Thorn and Blanche intend, needless to say – and our heroine learns to her cost that her paramour isn’t exactly on an even keel, mentally. But by the time the credits roll just about every character with a significant speaking part has gone to meet his or her maker – innocence here no bar to premature demise. The final image is, fittingly, a bold and fancifully subjective rendering of the flickering-out of consciousness (and with it life) which owes no small debt to Allégret’s formative experiences among Duchamp, Cocteau and assorted Surrealists and Dadaists in Paris during the 1920s.

This flourish – a danse-macabre spiral of blood-red and funeral-black – is typical of a picture which revels in the visual potential of full-colour film. Boldly-hued costumes and decor are the norm here, with the wallpaper of one particular room so viridly eyecatching it upstages the valiantly emoting thespians on more than one occasion.

The use of colour fulfils several functions, not least illustrating the confidence of British cinema in the immediate post-war years – beyond the gilded picture-palaces, a period of grim, ash-grey austerity when many cities lay in bombed ruins and food-rationing had become a way of life. UK cinema attendances went through the (patched-up) roof after VE Day (1944) – long-forgotten Anna Neagle vehicle “Spring In Park Lane” (1948), amazingly, still holds the record as the British production for which most British viewers have bought cinema-tickets (over 20 million). The “golden” age only seriously ebbed with the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953 – the moment when television made its crucial first breakthrough as a medium of mass domestic entertainment in the country.

As has always been the case before and since, “boffo” box-office bred burgeoning confidence among producers. Anything Hollywood could do, British cinema (with David Lean and Powell & Pressburger at the artistic vanguard) could do better… and classier! And if that meant embracing colour – and Technicolor – so much the better: the UK’s craftsmen could surely match anything turned out by Los Angeles studios. Indeed, “Blanche Fury” – even the title seems engorged with colour – showcases the skill of not one but two ace DoPs, with Guy Green responsible for the interiors and Geoffrey Unsworth the exteriors. This proves a nifty split of responsibilities in an “amphibious” picture which needs to be breathe in both environments with equal comfort.
Did the two gents perhaps spur each other one to greater heights in a spirit of (friendly?) competition? If so, Unsworth perhaps prevails by a short-head in a photo-finish, as this is picture is – like most of its main characters – happiest in the open air with the wind in its hair, ranging across Staffordshire’s undulating and seldom-filmed terrain. So much more cinematic than dreary, pan-flat Norfolk!. (“Blanche Fury” is a decidedly horsey affair through and through – the very first post-titles images are of nocturnal gallopers, and several crucial plot-points pivot on the fate of nags and/or their riders.)

Even the interior scenes incorporate little reminders of the verdant world beyond: when the botanically-remonikered Thorn (the actual miscreant was a Mr Rush) is defending himself in Stafford crown court, the dock is lightly decorated with actual foliage – an intriguing ‘rus in urbe’ detail, which has the oddball tang of verisimilitude given the ornate flummery one associates with old-timey British justice. Or perhaps this thrusting Philip (= ‘lover of horses’) is just so outdoorsy, so floridly fecund he can make even ornamental woodwork sprout greenery. (Granger here is “so handsome, and so fiercely, dangerously sexy… so attractive that he asks for a drink at the pub and you already know he’s slept with the barmaid” as Farran Nehme put it.)

Geoffrey Unsworth, perhaps fittingly, was to breathe his last in harness and in the countryside, suffering a heart attack on the Brittany set of Roman Polanski’s “Tess” (1979) – a film for which he was posthumously recognised with an Academy Award (his second). With a decade’s experience working for Technicolor under his belt at the time of “Blanche Fury”, Unsworth went on to a wonderful and eclectic career than encompassed 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Oscar-laden Cabaret.

His AMPAS triumph for the latter came 26 years after Green had become the first British cinematographer to receive the golden statuette, for Lean’s (monochrome) “Great Expectations” (1946) – in which Hobson essayed Estella. Later a director of some note in his own right, Green was a true doyen of the “lensing” profession, founding the British Society of Cinematographers with Freddie Young and the man who was arguably the greatest of all Technicolor DoPs, Jack Cardiff.

Regardless of the competition/collaboration between themselves, Green and Unsworth become – as has been noted – in a way “co-conspirators” with the scheming duo in Blanche Fury. Blanche and Thorn’s somehow “un-British” passions are pungently represented and mirrored in the cinematography’s lush coloration and lighting-design.

It’s no accident that Thorn should be the son of an Italian noblewoman, of course. One of the most vigorously virile of leading men, Granger’s teak-like complexion, sneeringly handsome features and glossy black mane – even his rumbling ‘basso profondo’ voice – make him the very image of the alarming “continental” intruder among the stuffed-shirt, white-bread Englishmen like lord-of-the-manor Simon Fury (Walter Fitzgerald) and his pipsqueak son Laurence – played, in his first screen role, by that (much) later denizen of Wayne Manor, Michael Gough. (The fact that “Fury” as a surname has a decidedly Irish ring to it – Simon and Fury changed their surname from the much more WASP-y Fuller on taking over Clare House – adds another tart dab of historical and socio-political irony to the stew.)

Fury ‘pere et fils’ find themselves assailed from both within and without: not only is the indefatigable, unsackable Thorn perpetually plotting to usurp their ownership of the mansion in the courts, but there’s also a bunch of “Gypsies” lurking over the next hill, their eyes on the family’s valuable equine stock (their nomadic, bewaggoned existence an implicit rebuke to fusty British notions of inherited four-square property!).

There were actually no Gypsies – Travellers, or Roma, as they would now be called – involved in the actual Rush case, by the way. Their involvement here is a whole-cloth invention of Shearing’s, and thus a reflection of the prejudices with which such folk have had to contend, in Britain and elsewhere, over centuries – see Berlinale competitor “Aferim!” for an epic, Romanian slant on such 19th century shenanigans. But the Gypsies in “Blanche Fury” are much more handy scapegoats than nefarious evildoers: colourful, earring-sporting enlivenments to the landscape; useful purveyors of eyecatching textiles for the adornment of local lasses – and what a way they have with the horses.

Neil Young