It is with sadness that we learn of yesterday’s passing of Bryan Forbes, a capable actor who in the 1950s developed into a successful screenwriter and later moved into directing, making a succession of highly individual films that rarely bowed to convention. He later also proved himself as a popular novelist and biographer and was even a notable studio executive, responsible for such hits as The Railway Children (1970). Since 1955 he was married to the actress Nanette Newman, who also co-starred in a great many of his films including the original 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, which internationally remains perhaps his best-known film though his was a remarkably varied filmography, including the vivid POW drama King Rat (1965) starring George Segal, the sexually adventurous Deadfall (1968) starring Michael Caine and perhaps best of all, Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). His contributions to the crime and mystery genre are more extensive than this brief summary might suggest however. Below are a few highlights from a long and impressive career:
Born John Theobald Clarke in 1926, he made his feature debut in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s fine bomb disposal thriller The Small Back Room in 1949. Increasingly relegated to supporting roles like his friend and great collaborator Richard Attenborough, by the mid 1950s they decided to take more control of their careers. Forbes thus moved into writing and production, initially working for hire on such polished films as the spy thriller House of Secrets (1956) and the 1959 wartime whodunit Danger Within (from the novel Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert) before he and Attenborough set up shop as part of Independent Artists with their company Beaver Films. They had a great success with the wry caper movie League of Gentlemen (1960) starring Jack Hawkins, leading to Forbes’ directorial debut with the marvellous children’s classic, Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and the much more sinister Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), a tightly controlled suspense story of kidnapping and mental breakdown from the novel by Mark McShane (see John Norris’ fine review of it here).
Ever since The L-Shaped Room (1962), beautifully lit by Douglas Slocombe, Forbes has collaborated with composer John Barry who truly became one of the stars of Deadfall (1968). Indeed the climactic robbery sequence was timed and edited to a performance of a specially composed guitar concerto conducted on-screen by Barry himself (to see the sequence, click here). At the end of the decade he went on to run EMI studios for a brief and turbulent tenure that none the less generated several impressive movies. He then went back to directing a variety of films including The Naked Face (1984) starring his long-time friend Roger Moore, a mystery based on an early Sidney Sheldon novel that deserves to be better known (review coming to Fedora soon). His final excursion in the mystery genre came in 1990 with The Endless Game, a complex spy thriller adapted from his own novel starring Albert Finney and George Segal.
Forbes’ final screenwriting credit was on Chaplin (1992), the underrated biopic starring Robert Downey Jr that reunited him with Richard Attenborough and, after a fashion, screenwriter William Goldman, who had worked on The Stepford Wives until the two fell out. An expertly made film, Forbes was mainly responsible for the first half of the movie detailing Chaplin’s childhood and it was a fitting end to a career that lasted five decades and across over 75 films as actor, writer, producer, director, novelist and studio executive.
“He perpetually pursues the anti-cliché only to arrive at anticlimax” – Andrew Sarris
Sarris’ barbed comment about Forbes points to a series of films that explored often unusual avenues and were often perceived as being more praiseworthy for the brave attempt that in the actual delivery. However, much of his best work, like Seance and The Raging Moon (1970), starring Newman in a career-best performance and Malcolm McDowell as a pair of paraplegics, remains criminally undervalued.
He also wrote two volumes of autobiography, Notes For A Life (1974) and A Divided Life (1992) that are well worth seeking out as well as a biography of the actress Edith Evans, whom he directed in The Whisperers (1967), a superb tale of old age and loneliness and another unusual title in a long filmography that deserves to be rediscovered and re-evaluated.