Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment
Director Karel Reisz Stars David Warner, Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Handl, Robert Stephens UK 1966 Language English 1hr 37 Black & white
You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals
Here’s Morgan. His wife has chucked him out, so what does he do? Breaks into her house, vandalises it, wires it up so that he can eavesdrop on her and her new boyfriend and blast them with animal noises, and then he escalates sharply it from there… Funny or just sinister?
From a 2014, it’s hard not to see this as a film that’s essentially about a man terrorising a woman just because she’s rejected him, and wonder why it’s played for (gloomy) laughs and is apparently on his side. That was probably how quite a few people saw it in 1966, too.
What it was meant to be about seems to have been the then-intellectually fashionable issues of psychiatrist RD Laing’s radical approach to mental illness (often caricatured as ‘is it the patients who are mad or is it society?’) and the future of the revolutionary left in the face of the (very slow in some quarters) realisation that Joe Stalin had been a monster and psychopath. Also in the mix is a reminder that we are, for all our fancy trappings, just apes, an idea that – with the rise of genetics and evolutionary psychology – is probably more current now than it was in the ’60s.
All this is carried by a rather goofy little film, full of the tricks that were modish at the time (eg speeded-up scenes, proto-Reggie Perrin juxtapositions of human and animal faces, chunks of a Tarzan film dropped in) without going for all-out weird – it’s never actually properly disorientating.
Morgan (David Warner, who does look quite ape-like) is an artist from a working-class, staunchly Communist family who is the process of being divorced by posh Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave). He refuses to accept this, and keeps invading her Kensington house. Leonie is annoyed, obviously, but she still has a soft spot for Morgan – I’m guessing point one on any list of tips for losing a stalker is ‘For god’s sake, don’t sleep with him.’
Morgan doesn’t seem to have any friends beyond his Party loyalist mum (Irene Handl) and her wrestler chum Wally (Arthur Mullard), and even Mum is despairing of how wrong he’s gone personally and ideologically (she accuses him of being a liberal).
Morgan’s guerrilla/gorilla warfare against Leonie and her snooty art dealer lover Charles (Robert Stephens) is played as comedy, but there’s a strong undertow of melancholy – he’s delusional and grows more so over the course of the film, sliding from gently anarchic to a danger to himself and others.
The film was made at the tail end of what’s sometimes called the British New Wave – which started off with gritty stories set in the Midlands and the North (A Taste Of Honey), and then moved on to Swinging London and its discontents (Darling), with Billy Liar as the neat link between the two. Czech-born director Karel Reisz had been a big part of all that, making one of the era’s most memorable films, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. Morgan isn’t his best work, but he keeps it moving, and there are other mid-’60s films that feel overwhelmed by the cinematic fads of the time while this one is in control of them. It’s shot in crisp late black & white, which I think was the correct choice – a lot of colour British films of the era look rather sludgy. It had been written as a TV play four years earlier by David Mercer – I’ve never seen that version, but it’s apparently much more conventional in style. I’m guessing this is much better match of style and content.
The casting of the leads looks strange, but only in retrospect. Warner would go on to specialise in sinister, powerful* figures, Redgrave soon became severe and forbidding. It’s funny to see him as young and awkward, her as pretty and vulnerable. It’s also surprising to see these rising RSC-types sharing the screen with British comedy stalwarts Arthur Mullard and Bernard Breslaw.
There’s a line between dated and appealing retro, and Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment still feels like it’s on the wrong side of that divide. There is probably only a handful of people under 65** interested in the politics of the New Left, although I guess Trotskyism is stubbornly still with us. RD Laing was the subject of a fascinating Turner Prize show work a few years ago. But the real problem is the film’s attitude towards how Morgan treats Leonie – Reisz and Mercer are so caught up in sympathy for his plight that they often (thought not always) forget about how hard this must be for her. I don’t feel I can set that aside so easily.
*His voice hadn’t yet fully developed into the formidable instrument that has made him a great radio actor and a favourite with animators.
**I am one of them, I guess.