After this rare foray into comedy, Forbes wrote and directed the excellent The Whisperers (1967). Again, he has helped his lead actress, this time Edith Evans (1888-1976), deliver a performance which was nominated for an Oscar. She lost to Katherine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) in the usual sympathy vote.
Forbes got no major recognition for his work but the film, which is based on a 1961 novel by Robert Nicolson (no info), is definitely back to the kitchen sink dramas of the early to mid 1960s that had been greeted with much critical fanfare. It is also an early exploration of disability – in this case mental illness.
Gerry Turpin’s black and white photography focuses on the face of an elderly woman after the credits as she listens in the silence of her council flat for voices, existing on bread and honey and cups of tea.
“I know you’re there… leave me alone… leave me alone,” and she turns on the radio, disturbing the neighbours.
She also exists on welfare and seems to think she has a small fortune coming to her from her father’s estate as she writes letters to the authorities which show she was at least well educated and has some intelligence.
“They’ve had a key cut and they get in while I’m out visiting friends and go through my private papers,” she tells the constable at the local police station where she seems to be a regular.
We get a real feeling of the lonely life this woman must lead and it is one of drudgery and poverty. Oh, that she did have friends to visit! She instead spends her time at the library to keep warm and gets a meal at the local evangelist’s soup kitchen where she is ridiculed. All despite a sign which reads God is Love.
The Whisperers is possibly Forbes’ best movie and Evans is magnificent. But it’s not for all tastes as it is rather depressing. A total turnaround from The Wrong Box.
Later in the movie, thanks to the welfare office, her deadbeat husband is returned home to live with her again and we know he will never mend his ways.
“I married beneath me,” Evans has told the welfare officer with some airs about her.
And her son is a loser too and if anyone has the key it is him.
That loneliness and isolation leads to dementia, whether it be schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s, or if dementia leads to loneliness is probably a conundrum which helps make these diseases incurable to speak broadly. The old woman’s voices may be the neighbours, they may be paranormal or they may just be in her head.
When she comes across some money stashed in her flat by her no-good son, she takes it with her on her outing to the welfare office only to fall prey to the local con-woman. That Evans is a mentally ill hoarder who is taken advantage of only makes it all the more tragic and, ultimately, moving. All this despite her intolerance of others.
Forbes’ wife Newman gives another of her slightly unnatural but believable performances as an unsympathetic neighbour: “They’ll cart you off to the bleeding nuthouse!”
So, what will become of this woman? Watch Forbes’ masterpiece if you care… sadly, nobody else does, which is part of the genius of this film.
After The Whisperers, Forbes stumbled and fell with his next feature Deadfall (1968). What was apparently meant to be a first-rate thriller and in some ways a character study starring Michael Caine as a cat burglar turned out to be for many an overdirected contrivance and a dud.
In the film, Caine is manipulated by a former Nazi and current homosexual played by Eric Portman (1901-69 heart disease) who is married to his own daughter.
With an opening song by Shirley Bassey called My Love Has Two Faces, which I guess goes with the married Nazi’s crush on Caine… In fact, the music is by composer John Barry (1933-2011 heart attack), who worked closely with Forbes on The Whisperers, creating the score while the film was being shot and before it was edited. Forbes used the music to inspire him. It is probably the ‘bro-mance’ from making that film which had Forbes cast Barry in a key non-speaking role as the conductor in the Romance for Guitar and Orchestra performance which occurs at the same time as the main robbery happens in the film. The two scenes are intercut. Forbes and Barry would never work together again.
This is the scene which is criticised as over-directed but as a piece of cinema it is rather good and also lengthy at over twenty minutes.
It’s a colour movie and this time Forbes was working for 20th Century Fox. The deal to make the film had been struck years earlier and apparently any real enthusiasm Forbes had for the project had evaporated with the exception of the robbery and guitar performance.
At least we have the seductive Giovanna Ralli (1935-) to look at. The Italian actress of great beauty had worked in Italy since the mid-1950s. Portman, as the husband, whose penultimate film Deadfall was, played the no-good hubby in The Whisperers.
There’s just not two hours of content in Deadfall… and the film ends with Caine and Portman being buried atop of one another in coffins somewhere in Europe which has to be one of the greatest symbolic scenes of latent homosexuality ever committed to film.
It seemed that Forbes was on the downhill slope when he replaced John Huston (1906-87 emphysema and pneumonia) as director on The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969) which starred Katherine Hepburn (1907-2003 cardiac arrest). No Oscar nod for his actress this time for what must have been a starstruck Forbes. From memory, it is forgettable, which is saying something.
It was around this time that Forbes was offered the role of head of production at EMI at Elstree studios. A chance to be head of the local asylum that is moviemaking!
However, the Americans weren’t producing many films in Britain anymore so much of the money was gone to invest in the studio’s future. Forbes was flooded with unproduced scripts as a result of the American departure from the scene. A lot of them were crap, but he chose fourteen and announced their slated production. This was seen as foolish to set in stone certain films in a world of changing tastes.
Forbes had originally taken the role at EMI during a period of heavy union pressures within the studio. He ripped out the time clocks to let the studios know, at least symbolically, that it was a studio and not a factory. He also said there would be no redundancies which was seen as a costly error of judgment, especially when EMI didn’t produce a hit movie every time.
He kicked off his tenure with the thriller And Soon the Darkness (1970), Peter Sellers in Hoffman (1970) and Roger Moore in The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970). They are all basically okay movies but they weren’t big hits as their release coincided with the World Cup play-offs, a heatwave and a general election. They just weren’t good enough!
But there were some good ones among Forbes’ EMI movies which made money and they included The Railway Children (1970), which any child who saw it over the years will probably never forget, the ballet opus The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971) which as a bored child probably broke my grandfather’s heart for asking to leave the theatre within the first half hour, and another period piece The Go-Between (1971).
While these films made money, they just didn’t make enough money and Forbes’ failure came down to not producing bread and butter films for the studio which they could churn out whether they be horror like the Hammer films or comedy like the Carry On… movies.
One of the crippling blows for the studio was the release and failure of the long-gestating Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971) which was set in Antarctica and starred John Hurt (1940-2017 pancreatic cancer) and Hayley Mills who didn’t quite achieve adult stardom. It lost major money for EMI.
There was also criticism of Forbes about his film The Raging Moon (1971) aka Long Ago, Tomorrow which he wrote and directed. It was known within the studio as The Boss’s Film and questions were raised as to how the head of the studio could take time out to direct a movie?
No one had faith in The Raging Moon, but it was, like The Whisperers, close to Forbes’ heart as it concerned someone with a disability or a cast with disabilities. Whereas Edith Evans’ had been mental, in The Raging Moon the characters are wheelchair bound.
It turns out to be a love story between paraplegics, one is played by Malcolm McDowell (1943-) before along came A Clockwork Orange (1971) which made him a star and the other by Nanette Newman.
McDowell is the soccer mad lad who inexplicably ends up in hospital unable to walk and is then sent to an institution in a wheelchair. It’s a film well ahead of its time and it shows the, sometimes, natural progression of how a person with a disability may eventually adjust to their situation. They move on and accept it, if they’re lucky.
The institution in The Raging Moon is bleak and the film is cut back to basics by the director compared to his other extravaganzas such as The Wrong Box and Deadfall. The drama and love in The Raging Moon is natural and while it is not quite the masterpieces of old in terms of Forbes… he did EMI proud with this one. Pity the film was more or less dumped even after McDowell’s success with A Clockwork Orange.
Forbes resigned from EMI in March of 1971. Having ascended in April 1969, the dream had lasted for less than two years. Or the nightmare!
Free of the constraints of EMI, Forbes wrote, did theatre and television and made the documentary Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye Norma Jean and Other Things (1973).
Then he went back to Hollywood with a renewed sense of purpose and directed The Stepford Wives (1975) which is probably the film most people know. He didn’t write the screenplay. A few more films followed including the English Cinderella musical The Slipper and the Rose (1976) which certainly has a cult following among a few music and romantic fantasy lovers – but not me. He also made International Velvet (1978) starring a young Tatum O’Neal which I haven’t seen. Forbes wrote both scripts but they seemed to belong to an era gone by according to some critics.
He also wrote the Walter Matthau (1920-2000 heart disease and renal failure) and Glenda Jackson (1936-) spy comedy Hopscotch (1980) but didn’t direct and in a late nod the screenplay he wrote with the book’s writer and Deathwish author Brian Garfield (1939-2018) was nominated by the Writers’ Guild of America for an award.
He wrote and directed what is considered to be the lamentable Better Late, Than Never (1983). It had been shot in 1981 but sat on the shelf despite a cast that included David Niven (1910-83 motor neuron disease) and Maggie Smith (1934-).
The glory days were definitely over but he had one last roll of the dice when Golan and Globus’ Cannon Pictures bankrolled his last directorial effort The Naked Face (1984). Forbes got the job thanks to friend and star Roger Moore (1927-2017 liver cancer) who was on his last legs as James Bond. His final Bond A View to a Kill (1985) came out the following year. Cannon was looking to use some older talent even if they were past their use by date and John Cassavetes (1929-89 cirrhosis) was one who was bankrolled as well for Love Streams (1984). But that was more in the name of art whereas The Naked Face is a trashy thriller based on a novel by Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007 pneumonia).
I have a fondness for the Cannon films, at least the ones which are enjoyably bad without being just plain awful. The Naked Face which features Rod Steiger (1925-2002 pneumonia) in a venal turn as a vengeful police officer is a bit of fun if not terribly thrilling.
Forbes brought the film in on schedule and underbudget, something which saw the Cannon Group not reward him but instead they took away funds and several weeks of shooting time!
Moore plays a psychiatrist whose patient is murdered and he is the prime suspect of the police or at least by one of them played by Steiger. No great shakes but at least it got some sort of MGM release as opposed to his previous film. As far as I’m concerned, he ended while still near the top of his game as he wrote the screenplay too.
Forbes apparently contributed to the screenplay for Chaplin (1992) but there would be no late Oscar nomination.
With a new career beyond acting that flourished in the 1960s as an artist in control of his work, Forbes was not really an auteur as his works are mostly adaptations of someone else’s work and there’re no real poetic depths to the language, except in terms of the kitchen sink. But each film has its own feeling and tone. Perhaps I underrate him. The screenplays are solid and they don’t lose the interest of the viewer. The visuals were the product of Forbes working closely with quality cinematographers. But it was his gift as an actor to bring out the best in his cast, particularly actresses, for which he will be most fondly remembered along with his screenplays.
Forbes may be forgotten by many viewers today but he made a few British classics and some runners-up. He also got to head a studio.
Fortunately, in 2007, BAFTA tributed him, celebrating his “outstanding achievement in filmmaking”. The previous year he had received a similar award from the London Film Critics Circle. The Queens awards awarded him a CBE in 2004. Her Majesty did watch The Angry Silence with him after all! She also had to sit through the Slipper and the Rose in 1976 which might have delayed the honour!!
Forbes died after a lengthy illness of emphysema and heart problems aged 86 in 2013.