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The Horse's Mouth Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    The Horse's Mouth Review
    “It won't stay white for long ... I'm a colourful man!”

    I must confess that I wasn't much looking forward to wading through this 1958 showpiece for Alec Guinness. The film, The Horse's Mouth, adapted by Guinness, himself from the novels by Joyce Cary and directed by Ronald Neame, has a somewhat jaded and un-loved reputation as being little more than a celluloid posing-spree by the versatile star. Playing the gruff-looking semi-vagrant artist, Gulley Jimson, Guinness brings to inordinately theatrical life a character who is considerably irritating, irascible and hyper-cynical, yet imbued with a provocative world-weary intelligence and such a motor-mouth gift of the gab that the likes of Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy, in-their-day, would have seriously envied. An old school anti-authoritarian painter who can't help but rankle all those around him with his leeching ways and devious, rock-the-boat attitude, Jimson first greets us as he is virtually slung out of a prison that can no longer put up with him. Harassed and harangued by a young fan he comes to christen Nosey (Mike Morgan) right from the first breath of freedom that he draws, Gulley seeks to reclaim whatever paintings he lost in a failed marriage in order to make some cash, bully the man who came to inherit most of them (seemingly for fun) and, perhaps most especially, find the perfect canvas upon which to realise his most magnificent work ... though not necessarily in that order.

    The plot, such as it is, serves to shepherd Guinness' vulgar maverick from one episode to another, pausing only to allow him to growl his way through some magnificent, though overly-literate verbal spillages in his endless rant against the cold-hearted, unremarkable world around him. That the film, courtesy of Guinness, becomes something much more than just a quaint English comedy caper was what surprised me most. For beneath that non-stop litany of quips and poisoned asides, Gulley's bizarrely principled letch becomes one of the most reluctant anti-heroes of all - a figure of fun and an anarchic spearhead for the combustion of taste meeting art head-on. Another amazing thing seems to be that the Americans got the joke, with Neame's film proving highly popular over the Pond, whilst British critics, barring slavish praise from some high-brow quarters, were eager to dismiss it as a vanity project for the actor. The unavoidable thing is that The Horse's Mouth most certainly is an intensive glory-boat for Alec Guinness to show the world what Alec Guinness can do. He is in every scene and he dominates everyone and everything around him with a voice so guttural that his throat must have been red-raw after every take. With almost hypnotic devotion the film sees to it that even when he is not speaking and someone else is, they are saying “Mister Jimson” with almost unbelievable regularity, brainwashing you with his identity with every second that passes. “Mister Jimson this,” and “Mister Jimson that” - honestly the only thing more annoying along such lines is the unbearable amount of times that the word “sonofabitch” is uttered in the Lethal Weapon series! Go on, you go count them. On second thoughts, don't - because it will ruin the films for you just like it did for me. But, despite this heavy-handed tactic, the Guinness/Neame opus is a subversively affectionate treatise on eccentricity. The Yanks probably adored such an uglification of English romance and culture ... whilst we feel slightly embarrassed by it all.

    Fun and games with the ex-Mrs. Jimson provide a sly backbone to the story. Sara Monday (a terrific Renee Houston), as the conniving old girl is now known, still has a nude painting that Gulley did of her, a painting that, could he only get his hands on it, could change his fortunes forever. In debt to the grave-chasing Hickson, played by Universal horror icon Ernest Thesiger (The Bride Of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House), Gulley conceives of various means of not only making ends meet but, somehow, coming out on top with wealth and glory. Yet, all the while, his restless urge to create and to transform continues to itch. Somehow inveigling his way into the palatial apartments of Sir and Lady Beeder (Robert Coote and Veronica Turleigh) and veritably taking it over whilst they are holidaying abroad, he engages himself with composing a fantastic mural right across one of their walls. With the help of the stuttering Nosey, and his long-suffering pal and confidante Coker, nothing but disaster seems to ensue. Art equals destruction in Gulley's life and with his finger on the trigger he seems hell-bent on going out in a literal blaze of glory.

    “It's a real foot. No-one ever painted a foot like that before.”

    Mike Morgan sadly died from meningitis before the film was even released, reminding us of the still-harsh and unpredictable environment of the times in which it was made. He is actually very good as the persistent Nosey, although we never really come to understand what drives him to follow Gulley Jimson so. Passionately looking after the unfinished work in Gulley's dilapidated house-boat, and fetching and carrying thanklessly for him throughout their adventures together, he struggles valiantly to become more than just a mere stooge for the main character. Kay Walsh's ousted barmaid Coker, or “Cookie” as Gulley affectionately calls her, on the other hand, is clearly infatuated with the rascally miscreant. Gulley may not be a gangster or a wide-boy, but he still represents the freedom and liberation of ignoring the rule-book and setting one's own agenda in life - and this is something that obviously appeals to Cookie, although she would die before admitting it. Their relationship is a difficult one to get a handle on. Firm friends despite both being virtually unable to show any emotion beyond impatience towards one another, their relatively few moments of tenderness prove to be quite touching. The twinkle in Gulley's eye may shine more fervently when he spies his ex-wife, but there is no doubting the warmth he has buried deep inside his heart for his precious “Cookie”.

    “Where's my picture?”

    “Facing the wall.”

    “Ahhh ... it's better that way.”

    Houston's Monday has great fun with her role. Forever looking out for her Yosemite Sam of a son and blissfully savvy towards any and all barbs heaved in her direction, she breezes through the film with the kind of superficiality that would normally encapsulate something of a smaller bit-parter - yet she keeps cropping up again and again, cajoling the narrative as much as she teases Gulley. Her strange ambition to have a plush funeral and her frequent mentioning of her new husband - whom we never see - make her almost as clever, quirky and oddly drawn as Gulley, himself. Ernest Thesiger, bringing that wonderfully curling voice into eminently camp play as Gulley's undeserving victim - threatening phone-calls in the guise of twittering ladies of the manor and dexterous antique skulduggery that would later become the style of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau - makes refinement look like an endangered species. His guarded, wearied fatigue is worn like a long-faded dinner-jacket, but Thesiger, himself, seems as sprightly as ever in the Wilfred Hyde-White phase of his life.

    Neame was the cinematographer on Blithe Spirit and In Which We Serve and this visual panache shows. Together with the great photography he gets from Arthur Ibbetson, he ensures that the film brings the streets and docklands of fifties London to life. Even simple set-ups involving just a couple of people having a tête-à-tête in the cosy living room of a two-up, two-down have a uniquely cinematic and involving feel to them, but the director of Meteor, The Odessa File and The Poseidon Adventure also imbues his film with a sense of style that, whilst anchored upon the antics of its leading man, creates a snapshot of an era that the Yanks still think is quintessential cockney England. Pawn shops, big red buses and the Thames sloshing away may be cliché, but the atmosphere of the little harbour and of Cookie's tiny tavern are pure-blood and loaded with nostalgia. The big finale, which admittedly deviates quite strongly from what has gone before, has a sense of grandeur to it, and even if it feels somewhat overblown and pompous, it still provides some ramshackle, hand-me-down cheer as the noblest of aspirations come crashing down.

    “What will you do with all the money?”

    “Buy ginger moustaches!”

    With a soundtrack that is stuffed with Prokofiev and real artwork from John Bratby, Neame's film is fondly in touch with the bonafide extravagance of unbridled creativity. The murals that Jimson can't help but smear on any appropriately large surface that offers itself up to him are royally surrealist impressions, daubed in the most gay and gaudy schemes imaginable. His peculiar fetish with feet - male, female, stately, gutter-shod - is vaguely unsettling, but Guinness' keen eye and outstretched, perspective-setting thumb still manufacture the appropriate mood of someone who is unavoidably entranced with potential whenever and wherever it comes along. When the sculptor, Abel, arch-rival and creative nemesis of our geriatric rebel, played by horror veteran Michael Gough who looks mightily hip and “with it”, arrives on the scene, the tone shifts from knockabout farce, to knockabout-farce-with-edge. While both artists revere their own standards, as though their individual skills have been blessed by both Heaven and Hell, their mutual disrespect for one another's endeavours proves to be literally ground-breaking. Abel's love of the female form leads to painfully protracted posing by poor models that have neither the time to eat nor the power to resist his mesmerising, stone-chipping presence. Gulley's desperate love of transforming a blank space into the “music of colour” is profound but over-egged by Guinness' predilection for being crotchety at the same time. Indeed, this split-persona gives the actor the chance to indulge his knack for buffoonery and his incredible depth of expression almost simultaneously. When he admires the paintings that he did a long time ago, he seems to see them with new eyes, revelling vocally in the details that once controlled his hand and brush, yet this lyricism can be swiftly elbowed with a swing-shift to roguish misbehaviour with another blink. His critical assessment of Lady Beeder's own amateur efforts soon degenerates into tom-foolery - you've got to love his little native rumba - and his predatory nature for belittling, befuddling and bewitching the fops and toffs that see worth in his works yet understand nothing of what he is trying to say with them seems to know no bounds. In fact, Gulley is most definitely his own worst enemy, with his main diet consisting of biting the very hand feeds. His ratty, sarcastic canvas-troll can easily be viewed as a caricature, and Guinness can't resist stepping over the mark a little too often with his lunatic rants, barking put-downs and comically wrathful circus act. One of his favourite characters, Gulley Jimson provides Guinness with utter free reign to steamroll over the entire film.

    Yet, for all this good stuff, the film ultimately comes adrift. Jimson's final quest and messianic ability to gather a loyal flock around him to help see the creation of one defiant work of art come to fruition seems totally at odds with the clownish, self-centred character that the film has been labouring over for so long. Jimson, when in the thrall of his art and the beauty that it evokes, is a twisted genius, the two opposite ends of his spectrum finding eloquence in their collision and this is the fuel that ignites his volatile behaviour. How is it, then, that he finds such benevolence and dreamy ideology at the end? If there was revelation along the way - and we do get a lonely tingle of poignancy during one quiet moment as some sad news comes his way - then I must have missed it. The development of Gulley is right, but I feel the mechanics of his arc are haphazardly depicted. Considering the might that Guinness wielded over this egotistical production, this short-sightedness is, perhaps, unsurprising. But, more than anything else, The Horse's Mouth has the feel of a movie pilot for a TV series that was never to be. The character certainly has legs and the roster of associates is excellently set up for more mishaps and escapades. The film, itself, ensures that Gulley Jimson's madcap odyssey will continue and, although I had reservations going in to this, I, for one, would have liked to have seen more of this raucously over-the-top nutter that Guinness makes so indelibly his own.