10 December 2017 | joe-pearce-1
Another Age of Acting Styles
What memories this film brings back. In the early to mid-1950s, due to the enmity still engaged in between TV and the major Hollywood studios, the only films American television could get permission to show were either Poverty Row products from the preceding 20 or so years, or British films. The latter seemed to arrive by the dozens, then the hundreds, but unlike their American counterparts, the English ones were often top-rated and very fine films. It was through them that many of us first got to know actors like Eric Portman, Jack Hawkins, Cyril Cusack, Clifford Evans, Derek Farr and so many others, and first saw the English films of Charles Laughton. Most were shown only at night (this before the advent of the Steve Allen TONIGHT Show), and I particularly recall one night sitting up with my mom (I was about 14 at the time) and watching this particular film, both of us coming away with a mighty impression of its star, Matheson Lang. There were no film books to speak of in those days, no film studies, no internet, and certainly no IMDb, so we could never find out anything much about him. Well, here, some 64 years later, I've finally seen "The Cardinal" again, and while it doesn't impress my late-in-life self the way it did my adolescent sensibilities, it is still very much a joy to watch, if only for the acting. Of course, now I know that Matheson Lang was one of the great British Theater matinée idols of the first half of the last century (he was actually Canadian), and that he was the only one of them who had any real success in transferring his most effective stage vehicles (several, like "Mr. Wu", were legendary) to film. (George Arliss managed to do just that, but only on this side of the Atlantic.) Unfortunately, most of these were silent, but he made at least 7 or 8 talking films, of which this was the last and the only one I have seen to this day. He was tall, handsome and dignified, but what amazes me now (it wouldn't have in 1953) was his voice, which is the nearest I have ever heard to that of John Gielgud's. Close your eyes while he's speaking, and you seem to be listening to Gielgud. And since Lang was acting for a good quarter-century before Gielgud trod the boards, if there was any imitating done, it was definitely on Sir John's part. Anyway, he is quite natural in his spoken delivery and physical acting, even though a good portion of the film is devoted to his character feigning a kind of creeping dementia in order to save his brother, who is shortly to be beheaded for a murder he did not commit, by revealing the real murderer. The brother is a very young Eric Portman in just about the only totally romantic role I have ever seen him in, but he keeps his stentorian delivery even when practically whispering in his true love's ear. (Within a few years, he would himself be Britain's most popular exponent of murderous villainy.) The real murderer (no spoilers here, since we see him do it and then frame Portman for the crime) is acted superbly (maybe the most natural performance in the film) by an actor I had never heard of, Robert Atkins. Well, surprise, surprise - it turns out that he was SIR Robert Atkins, and was a tremendously famous and important stage actor, reputed to have acted and produced almost every one of Shakespeare's plays at the Old Vic and elsewhere. He doesn't look like his reputation might lead you to expect - if you recall Richard Alexander, the big, bald and usually villainous henchman of all kinds of American adventure films (the one, and quite famous, exception to his villainy being as Prince Barin in the Flash Gordon serials), that is exactly who Sir Robert looks like, meaning he must have been one hell of an actor to overcome that not insignificant impediment. The rest of the cast is filled with old English actors, some of whom hardly ever appeared on film, of which F.B.J. Sharp and Raynor Barton stand out as, respectively, Pope Julius II and Cardinal Orelli (Sharp was in 7 films, Barton in this one only). It's a wonderful chance to see actors who peopled the stage for many decades but are totally forgotten today. And if all that doesn't do it for you, you can just watch June Duprez, at 18 and in her first year in films, as a lovely and gentle damsel in distress (and she really is pursued, at one point kidnapped, by the dastardly villain so nicely played by Sir Robert). It's a very old-fashioned film, but not embarrassingly so, and my '8' rating is based mainly on the actors to be seen in it.