Saturday, March 28, 2009

Personal Canon: 90. Separate Tables (1958)

Directed by Delbert Mann
Starring: David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Wendy Hiller, Gladys Cooper

Bournemouth hotels should be serene during the off-season; a time where the long-term residents can relish the lack of drunken tourists and screaming kids. The host of characters that inhabit the Bournemouth hotel featured in Delbert Mann's Separate Tables, however, seemingly don't want the drama of the holidays to end, and backstab, bitch, and conduct affairs with barely a second thought. This film isn't so much like Edmund Goulding's delightfully trashy 1932 Best Picture winner though, bleakly satirising its inhabitants to enlighten ever-present social divides and exercising a crisp, cut-throat humour.

Almost vehement that we consign the wild bunch to an array of archetypes (the old maid, the glamourpuss, the stubborn elite, the dirty old man) Separate Tables encourages us to evaluate these assumptions and their easily-concluded nature, and does so by distributing its characters in a thoroughly interesting political spectrum, which helps to highlight the internal struggles of these people to simply move with the times. The middle portion of the film, in which Dame Gladys Cooper's utterly immovable Mrs. Railton-Bell confronts the private life of David Niven's Major, is incredibly telling. Her desire to include everything and everyone in his business, as an act of morally-ingrained manipulation, emphasises the old-guard ethics and hypocritical etiquette of a generation in fear of its place in the world. With war long gone, and marooned in an age of consumerism, the teenager, rock n'roll, Mrs. Railton-Bell exhibits the still-prevalent desperation to live up to perceived class-driven archetypes, and typifies the confusion of Table's erratic, aging community.

A further salute to this is Burt Lancaster's reverence and hatred of the glamorous, man-eating Rita Hayworth, whom he truly loves but views as a riskier prospect than the matronly, traditional Wendy Hiller. When a man's doubting Rita Hayworth as a romantic option, you have to reckon he's got hangups, right? Deborah Kerr's Sibyl is the centre of the film, and the political spectrum, as she's been denied the freedom of thought by her restrictive mother. So too the major: the 'tentative' romance that he and Sibyl engage in culminating in a tremendous, wrenchingly half-spoken scene towards the end, which provides the most genuine and capping element of Mann's rich endeavour. As a term, 'separate tables' may appear harmless enough, but its mild-mannered etiquette is a mask for more insidious insecurities, fears, motivations; seeing yourself through other people is hard to take.


Anonymous said...

Loved your analysis of this neglected film. Deborah Kerr's Sibyl is a superb performance, heartwrenching in its downtrodden repression and achingly vulnerable neuroses. Her final moments with Sibyl defying her mother and making her first tentative steps into adulthood are sublimely subtle.
Oh - the film is set in Bournemouth, not Brighton.

Cal said...

Thanks for the heads-up on the Bournemouth thing. I always confuse those particular seaside towns.

I agree with you about Kerr's performance. She aces a role which is really quite stock and limited, in terms of making it fresh anyway. I did profile Kerr's performance in my analysis of the 1958 Actress Oscar category, if you want to check that out. It was a couple of months ago.

Thanks for sharing your passion for the film.

JayV said...

I just discovered your blog because I was trying to recall where Separate Tables took place.
And my search lead me to Ultimate Addict. Bingo! :P
Duly bookmarked to peruse when I have the chance.

Separate Tables is one of my all-time fave films. Everytime I watch it, I find something new - a phrase, a certain PO
V shot. I especially like the lighting, it captures the mood of Bournemouth in winter.

The DVD I own has a commentary by Delbert Mann. Unfortunately, he died a few years ago. I liked his approach to films.