Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Singer not the Song.

By 1961 Dirk Bogarde had been under exclusive contract to the J Arthur Rank Organisation for fourteen years, double the length he had planned. The actor who is now seen to be one of Britain’s best was at that time fed up with playing what he deemed to be unrewarding roles and was deeply dissatisfied with the screenplays on offer. He decided that the time had come for a change of direction.  Despairingly I asked for release from my contract, not out of pique, but from a steadily mounting sense of hopelessness. I was determined to break into a new kind of cinema, they were equally determined not to... My release was refused, but I heard growing rumours that plans were afoot to sell the remainder of my contract elsewhere... I was in a state bordering panic, and bitterly resented the idea that after so many years loyal work I should be offered up like a packet of the Miller’s own flour.’ [1] He began formal negotiations to bring his contract to an end and it was with grudging reluctance that Rank agreed to let him go but not before one final film; the rather notorious The Singer not the Song (1961).

A love triangle? 
In this rare British ‘western’, set in Mexico, filmed at Pinewood Studios with location shooting taking place in Spain, Bogarde plays the 29 year old Anacleto the atheist leader of a vicious outlaw gang that runs the remote Mexican town of Quantana. When Rome sends a Catholic priest Father Michael Keogh (John Mills) to replace the existing one who the outlaw gang have ridiculed and bullied. The resolute Father Keogh is determined to break the outlaws power and reopen the church, which has fallen into disrepair, but Anacleto is equally determined to drive the priest away at all costs. Based on a novel by the English authoresses Audrey Erskine Lindop the basic story involves the struggle between good and evil with Gods representative in the form of the priest arriving in the town to save the villagers from Anacleto, the devil incarnate, owning their souls. 
The lovely Mylene Demongeot with Bogarde.
On the surface temptation for Father Keogh comes in the form of local beauty Locha de Cortinez (French actress Mylene Demongeot) who falls in love with the priest and him with her. But below this is the perceived homosexually of the film, if you read some of the criticism of the film its the sexual side of the movie that upset the more staid critics.  It was Bogarde’s camping up of the role of Anacleto, dressed from head to foot in black and resplendent in the tight leather trousers, swishing his black leather crop atop a white stallion and the ‘hand holding’ that takes place at the end of the film, although this can be read a number of ways, is said to put a gay prospective on the story. Bogarde was unhappy with the production, believing he should have worn jeans and driven an old pickup. Nor was he happy with the choice of John Mills as the priest, having envisaged a younger actor more innocent and virile looking rather than Mills, who incidentally had played his elder brother in The Gentle Gunman (1952).
"say one for me father"
Criticism of the casting was also raised but not because of the three main protagonists acting talents; Bogarde in particular was splendid with his eyes saying more than words, but because of the accents. Mills Irish accent kept disappearing, Mylene Demongeot’s Locha was supposed to be the daughter of a Mexican Baron but spoke with a French accent and Bogarde who you will remember was a Mexican bandit spoke with his normal British accent!
Those leather trousers!
Three main questions arise, could a man love another man, certainly not in 1961 as demonstrated by Bogarde’s first film away from Rank, Basil Dearden and Michael Relph’s Victim (1961)[2] but thankfully things have know changed but you can imagine the fuss when The Singer not the Song first came out (no pun intended!). The second question that the film broaches, which has still to be answered, is why a Catholic priest cannot marry?  And the final question is - is the church capable of forgiving sinners or only sinners that are members of its congregation - something I am not sure of? So you can see why this fascinating cult film is still worth seeing today, and not just because of the sprayed on black lustrous leather trousers!  It’s a film demented by lust and repression, one blissfully unrestrained by the straightjackets of conventional good taste[3].

[1] Snakes and Ladders 1978. The second of Dirk Bogarde’s memoirs.
[2] Which shattered Dirk Bogarde’s matinee idol image forever.
[3] James Oliver. Offbeat.

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