Dir: Anthony Kimmins | Writer: Nigel Balchin | Psychological Drama | UK | Burgess Meredith, Barbara White, Kieron Moore, Dulcie Gray
In the 1940s there was a cinematic fascination with psychoanalysis, madness and psychology in general. Three well known films, Spellbound, The Snake Pit and The Seventh Veil are watchable, if highly flawed, productions. In spite of Hitchcock, Salvador Dali and George Barnes’s photography (Spellbound), James Mason’s suave authority (The Seventh Veil) and Olivia De Havilland’s commanding presence (The Snake Pit) all are romanticised, over-wrought and heavily Freudian. None presents an authentic picture of the very hard practical struggle to be an effective therapist or a willing patient. And to be honest none was probably meant to.
In 1947 Anthony Kimmins’s Mine Own Executioner (scripted by Nigel Balchin from his own novel) was released to public and critical approval and was that year’s entry for the Cannes Film Festival. Until very recently it was an almost forgotten film. Now issued on Blu-Ray, Mine Own Executioner stands up as probably the best film on psychology from the latter half of that uneasy decade – a time not only of the post-war reconstruction of cities but the building up of confidence again in war-traumatised minds.
Felix Milne (Burgess Meredith) is a lay psychiatrist. He is overworked and under-challenged by his rich and complacent clients. One day Molly Lucian (Barbara White) calls on him to ask if he will consider taking her husband as a patient. Adam Lucian (Kieron Moore) has been severely disturbed by his time in a Japanese POW camp and his killing of a Japanese soldier. An accumulation of anxiety and guilt have made him schizoid – resulting in his attempt to strangle his wife. Initially Milne is reluctant to take on Adam but eventually does. What then follows is ‘a race against time’ plot with Milne trying to therapeutically guide Adam and stop him from attempting to murder his wife again. Added to this conflict are sub-plots about marital difficulties with Patricia Milne (Dulcie Gray) and the psychiatrist’s obsessive sexual interest in Barbara Edge (Christine Norden, as a blonde femme fatale) the wife of a close friend.
Anthony Kimmins (an good all round craftsman) directs Mine Own Executioner with great assurance: assisted by Wilkie Cooper’s photography he gives the film a noirish edge. The scenes with Adam in the jungles of Burma and then the family bedroom are remarkable for their nightmare menace. And in the intimate scenes between Felix and Patricia, Kimmins shows considerable sensitivity with his actors (her patience / clumsiness and his loyalty / irritation are counterpointed with skill and finesse.)
Yet what solidly grounds the film’s mental health practice with mental torment is the subtle scripting of Nigel Balchin (whereas Ben Hecht’s script for Spellbound points up far too much.) Admittedly Balchin had to simplify his novel but he didn’t compromise on its moral alertness. After the war Balchin became an industrial psychologist and, according to his daughter, had always wanted to be a therapist. Balchin’s experience and knowledge certainly shows through. Take the deft manner in which Balchin’s writing plays with the subliminal effect of Freudian symbolism: the cigarette lighter that doesn’t always work, Milne’s fingering of his pipes, the stealing of a walking stick by Adam and his compulsive kicking of a stone on the road plus the breaking of objects by Patricia. Such signage is never made self-conscious. Each small detail beautifully enhances character motivation.
As in Balchin’s novel The Small Back Room (brilliantly filmed by Michael Powell in 1949) there’s a concern with the power of authority, deference and professionalism. The coroner’s inquest scene has him obsequiously lapping up the evidence of Milne’s colleague Dr. Garstein (John Laurie) as more medically credible than Milne’s statement. Whilst in the opening scenes in the clinic, where Milne does voluntary work, the chief administrator declares to a visiting dignitary that “The world is full of neurotics. But we haven’t the money to treat them all.” These niggardly things, related to Milne’s experience and competence, accompany an undermining feeling that Adam was the wrong patient for him.
Performances in Mine Own Executioner are very strong and focussed; here are fallible people placed in destructive and dangerous situations where they genuinely try to do their best. No spectacular breakthroughs but doggedly hard perseverance. To this add sly Freudian references, a desperate man on the roof scene, influenced by Hitchcock, and a prescient war veteran guilt (The Manchurian Candidate and the Vietnam War wasn’t even round the corner) all making for an excellent compelling thriller.
In the credits for Mine own Executioner the words of the poet John Donne appear.
“There are many Examples of men, that have been their own executioners, and that have made hard shrift to bee so;…some have beat out their braines at the wal of their prison, and some have eate the fire out of their chimneys: but I do nothing upon my selfe, and yet am mine owne Executioner.”
Donne, Devotions 1624
The Val Lewton production The Seventh Victim (1942) and Sam Wood’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) also quote John Donne. No coincidence then that in the forties, there is a renewed academic interest in metaphysical poets and the workings of the mind.
Perhaps the film’s climax could have been more open-ended and downbeat, but this is still 1947 British cinema, and Kieran Moore might have sometimes toned down his acting: however light and dark are carefully balanced both to entertain and instruct. That’s not meant as a dull sounding commendation, nor intended to signify a ‘worthy’ effort but direct you to a tremendously gripping antidote to Hollywood psychiatry. Mine Own Executioner is a really serious film about the psychological damage inflicted by both the helper and the helped. ALAN PRICE© 2018
NOW AVAILABLE ON BLURAY COURTESY OF NETWORK amazon.co.uk