Farewell to Bryan Forbes

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.

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47 Responses to Farewell to Bryan Forbes

  1. Colin says:

    A very significant figure in British cinema, his passing is a real loss. He was involved in such a variety of movies in so many capacities.
    I’m really curious to find out more about The Naked Face – I don’t think I’ve even heard off this so I’m pleased that you’re planning to feature it at some point.

    • Cheers Colin. Always been a fan of Forbes (and everyone loves Whistle Down the Wind, right?) – I’m going to post a review of Sheldon’s book and Forbes’ film of it next month (fingers crossed …) – it is certainly one of Roger Moore’s more serious performances (Forbes did an uncredited rewrite of The Man Who Haunted Himself, probably Moore’s most ambitious actoing job ever – new Blu-ray of that one out shortly from Network, hopefully with the Moore/Forbes audio commentary intact)

      • Colin says:

        Well book and film are new to me so I’m very much looking forward to reading your thoughts on both.

        I really like Seance on a Wet Afternoon and I’m quite fond of King Rat too. as an actor, I think the last film I saw him in was one of his early roles – An Inspector Calls. He really was such a versatile figure.

        • Well, he co-starred in League of Gentlemen of course and you probably saw him in his cameo for The Guns of Navarone (the opening scene with Richard Harris and James Robertson Justice) – he also appeared under the pseudonym ‘Turk Thrust’ in A Shot in the Dark in the nudist camp sequence …
          A SHOT IN THE DARK

          • Colin says:

            Yeah, I’m familiar with all those.
            He also had a supporting part opposite Stanley Baker in Val Guest’s very good but grim war movie Yesterday’s Enemy for Hammer.

          • I figured you might! I have the Enemy on DVD but have yet to watch it – Speaking of Hammer and Guest, he was also in Quatermass II too … another one to get my hands on once I’m out of storage!

          • Colin says:

            If you have the DVD of Yesterday’s Enemy then I strongly recommend you give it a spin when things calm down and you have some time. I bought it on the blind and was very impressed – I also wrote a piece on it a few years ago.

          • So you did (here it is) – really looking forward to it – not before next month probably (darn it) – cheers mate.

          • Colin says:

            Well thank you. I wasn’t just fishing for business there – honest – but it’s good of you to link to it all the same.

          • Definitely my pleasure mate – and when I darn well get my DVDs back I’ll be heading straight for it and then over to see what Livius has to say! My recollection from the short inspection I gave it upon prchase was that the picture quality was very good.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I found it a nice clean transfer – no complaints on that score.

          • Brill – thanks chum, really looking forward to it. I’ve not been keeping up with my regimen of black and white Hammer films this year and am definitely starting to get withdrawal symptoms!

  2. Hi Sergio! I had no idea Forbes had made THE STEPFORD WIVES in 1975 being familiar only with the latter-day version, starring Kidman and Close. I have read Sheldon’s THE NAKED FACE and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the film as well, largely on account of Roger Moore than Bryan Forbes’ direction. Sadly, I haven’t seen any of the other thrillers you mentioned.

    • Thanks for the kind words Prashant – hope you enjoy the NAKED FACE review when it gets posted next month. SEANCE and WHISTLE in particular are classic and I think both on YouTube (illegally of course, sigh …)

      • I’ll be waiting for your review of THE NAKED FACE, Sergio. I thought I’d seen most of Michael Caine’s significant films and then I get a googly in the form of DEADFALL. Where do you think it stands in his repertoire of films?

        • I actually plan to review this one too in fact (but I do keep saying this sort of thing … :)) – it is quite a slow moving thriller in which he plays a thief he gets involved in a complex triangle with the man and wife he is planning a robbery with. The highlight is the robbery with the Barry music, no question, and many don’t like the generally downbeat tone. But it was beautifulyl shot in Spain and I think that Caine in particular, cast against type in a fairly humourless role, is excellent. The US DVD is well worth getting but as I say, I hope to run a review of the book and film quite soon as a further tribute to Forbes. If you are interested, you can read my review of Seance here.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    I am a great fan of Seance and The L-Shaped Room. Love the book too. And Chaplin was just terrific. Was Downey not quite well known enough then to get the attention he should have?

    • John says:

      He got quite a bit of attention, Patti. He was nominated for his only Oscar for that role. I think he was very popular prior to his “bad boy” days. I used to see ANYTHING he did. Even all those fluffy romantic comedies which for the most part I can barely recall now.

    • At the time lots of people seemed more concerned with Downery Jr’s bad boy image and the fact that he was an American playing a Brit but it is an astounding performance in my view – not a great film but a very decent one. Love the scenes with Kevin Kline as Fairbanks and Diane Lane makes for a lovely Paulette Goddard too. It deserved to do better!

  4. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Sad news indeed! I liked The Stepford Wives and The L-Shaped Room. Forbes had so much talent and he was versatile. He will indeed be missed. Excellent post!

    • Thanks Margot – he had not been well for a while apparently but astonishingly claimed to have beaten MS via non-traditional remedies back in he 70s. If you get the chance, watch Whistle Down the Wind as it is wonderful stuff (it’s all on YouTube).

  5. TracyK says:

    I am not familiar with Bryan Forbes. I was just lamenting to my husband that the reason I can’t do film reviews (well) is I just don’t know enough of the background and history of films and film makers.

    This all sounds very interesting. I still shudder when I think of seeing The Stepford Wives (the original of course) and remember it well enough that I don’t want to watch it again.

    • Forbes wrote several highly entertaining novels by the way, mostly in the espionage genre. They include the Alec Hillsden spy series The Endless Game and its sequels A Song at Twilight and Quicksand, as well as Truth Lies Sleeping, Familiar Strangers (about the Cambridge spies), the Christmas comedy Partly Cloudy, the thriller The Twisted Playground, his Hollywood novel The Memory of All That, and his postwar romances, The Choice (2007) and his last, The Soldier’s Story, which I haven’t read but seems to be a rewrite of The Choice (same story, same characters but no quite the same book based on the opening chapters anyway).

  6. John says:

    Well done piece on an underrated movie man. Once again reading a film post on this blog has led to my making a small list of movies I must track down, especially THE WHISPERERS (which I’ve known about for a while) and THE RAGING MOON. Whistle Down the Wind is a special favorite of mine, would love to see it again, but I don’t think there is a Region 1 DVD. I saw it ages ago back in VHS days when it was more easily available. And thanks again for linking to one of my scribblings. I reviewed the movie, too, here.

    • I can get you a copy of Whistle John if you don’t mind waiting until I get my stuff out of storage! Thanks for the link, I completely forgot to add it.

  7. neer says:

    With my pathetic knowledge of foreign films, it is no wonder that I’ve never heard of the man. Your post, however, is just great and makes me feel like grabbing a movie or a book of his. I am especially intrigued by Seance , and The Whisperers.

    Like Prashant, I too have read The Naked Face (Sheldon is pretty popular in India) and look forward to your review of it.

    Hope things are proceeding fine.

    • Thanks very much Neer, so glad it was of interest – Naked Face review hopefully up quite shortly as part of a small tribute to Mr Forbes to later include reviews of the book (and Forbes’ movie version of) Deadfall and, once my belongings get out of storage, The Endless Game too.

  8. Rod Croft says:

    When I checked over a list of Bryan Forbes’ film appearances in the Fifties and Sixties I was amazed at the number of his films that I had seen, without suspecting that this “bit player” would eventually become such a major figure in the British Film Industry.

    I particularly recall seeing “Seance On A Wet Afternoon” at an art cinema, (formerly a Newsreel Theatre), that used “back-projection” – the only time I have ever seen a film commercially screened in this manner.

    Appreciation of the talent of such a worthy member of the Movie Industry is kept alive because of articles such as yours. Thanks !

    • Thanks Rod, very kind of you. That’s fascinating about the back projection (especially because that would imply that you and the rest of the audience would have seen a reversed, mirror image unless they somehow compensated for it) – how amazing.

      • Rod Croft says:

        I would think that there was some arrangement that compensated for the method of projection as the opening titles were not affected, however there was a spot on the centre of the screen that indicated to me, at the time, that the projector was too close. As I recall, many of the scenes in the film were dark, and it did cause a small distraction. The venue, which perhaps I should have described as a theatrette rather than a theatre, has long gone.

  9. Todd Mason says:

    As John Norris was happy to note, the film I recommended today is indeed called VAMPS, not VAMPED (gives you some idea of how distracted I was when writing the capsule review). And condolences here…I’ve enjoyed his work (Forbes’s) as well…

    • Thanks for the clarification Todd (I really want to see it now) – on the other hand, since the odds of me completing this response without a typo are about 100 to 1, I shal not cast the first crustacian …

      • Incidentally, I’m more or less back to blogging for the next month or so (until round 2 of my move kicks in …) and thanks for keeping the faith in my absences! I will be reviewing a couple fo Forbes titles as a mini tribute, including his dour film version of Sidney Sheldon’s occasionally laughable THE NAKED FACE … watch this space …

  10. Yvette says:

    I remember Bryan Forbes from various movies once upon a time and I do regret his passing. He always seemed a very sympathetic actor. I do remember Nanette Newman very well from one of the most overlooked movies ever, THE WRONG BOX. (I can’t find anywhere to watch this film again or I’d have written about it for my Tuesday’s Overlooked (or Forgotten) films.) This is a hilarious Victorian comedy with a dream cast including: Michael Caine and Sir Ralph Richardson among many others. Just a an evil joy of film. Ha.

  11. TracyK says:

    When I pointed out this post to my husband, who knows more about older (and newer) films than I do, he also commented on The Wrong Box, which is a favorite of his. I think we will get a copy of it, so he can enjoy it again and I can see it.

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