Watch an American movie from the traditional film noir era (1940-1959) and you’ll frequently find themes of disillusionment, dread, and pessimism, especially during the postwar years. Visually you might encounter a chiaroscuro style of lighting, darkened back alleys, rain-slicked streets, and shadow-filled rooms. The cast may be loaded with detectives, femmes fatale, honest or not-so-honest cops, and ordinary people caught in dangerous situations beyond their control. All of this took place largely in American cities as people attempted to adjust to life after the war, sometimes discovering that normalcy, optimism, and contentment had somehow vanished.
Yet watch a British film noir and you’ll often find something quite different. Postwar Britain was a war-torn country still struggling to recover from bombings, shortages, and rationing. The presence of crime in British film noir often seemed an unpredictable and violent force intent on interrupting the progress of a country eager to recover from the war. While many British film noir movies dealt with murderers, racketeers, spivs, and the class system, others focused on psychological melodrama, as seen in Anthony Kimmins’s excellent 1947 film Mine Own Executioner.
Felix Milne (Burgess Meredith) tells you right up front that he’s not a doctor, but rather a London psychotherapist, splitting his time between a private practice and a free psychiatric clinic. His private practice patients love him, but Felix believes his primary role is that of a sounding board for lonely people who simply need a listening ear. He’s more excited about his position at the clinic, but a lack of funding, combined with the fact that he’s technically uncertified, may spell trouble for his future there. An obsession with his work could jeopardize his marriage to the pleasant but doting Patricia (Dulcie Gray), yet the greater risk may lie in his dangerous flirtations with another woman.
Felix’s friend Peter Edge (Michael Shepley) confides in Felix that his wife Barbara (Christine Norden) needs help. Peter wants Felix to talk to Barbara about her “sex problem” yet is completely unaware that Felix has been carrying on an affair with her. Although his wife Patricia goes out of her way to make life easier for Felix, she frequently tries too hard, driving him further into the arms of Barbara, who needs only to cross her legs and look Felix in the eye to drive him wild.
Amidst this already tempestuous backdrop arrives a young woman named Molly Lucian (Barbara White) who pleads with Felix to treat her husband Adam (Kieron Moore), a veteran fighter pilot and ex-POW. Not only do Adam’s memories of torture continue to haunt him, he sometimes hallucinates, mistaking his wife for one of his Japanese captors and attempting to strangle her.
With such numerous story elements, Mine Own Executioner could have executed itself, becoming entangled in too many plots points vying for importance and screen time, yet that never happens. Instead, the Nigel Balchin script (based on his novel) uses several of the aforementioned situations to enrich its characters.
Felix is a complex man, clearly driven to make a difference in the lives of his patients, yet tempted to go forward in an adulterous relationship with Barbara. He confesses at one point, “Outside of the job, I run up against this… thing… It’s kind of a deliberate, childish wantonness.” Even his attempt to do something nice for his wife backfires when he gives her a fur coat, one that he admits (under pressure) that Barbara helped him pick out. Perhaps his desire to help his patients stems from an unwillingness to address his own issues. Yet treating Alex proves to be as big a challenge as staying away from Barbara.
As one might expect, Adam is skeptical of Felix’s ability to help him, but as the treatments deliver initial success, Adam freely opens up to the therapist, revealing more and more of himself, yet awakening the potential dangers of remembering too much from his past. Kieron Moore is excellent as Adam. For a long time we wonder whether he’s a complete victim in all this or if something more sinister lurks inside him.
Although the presentation boasts strong characters and excellent performances, the work’s primary strength is in how it handles not only its subject matter of psychotherapy, but also its refusal to provide pat answers to complex questions. The events of Mine Own Executioner lead the audience down some very dark roads with sequences that have lost none of their power in over 70 years. The scenes in which Felix delves into Adam’s past are both inventive and effective, never approaching the level of cliché or simplification. Benjamin Frankel’s score adds to the tension without ever becoming overbearing. Most seasoned movie fans who have witnessed cinematic moments of psychological probing know that they can often feel manipulated and artificial, but the combination of editing, lighting, and music create scenes that feel fresh and haunting.
Mine Own Executioner is bold and confident enough to juggle several characters and story elements all the way up to its nail-biting conclusion, one that refuses to pull any punches. Balchin’s script is complex without being complicated and provides an excellent framework for the imagination of cinematographer Wilkie Cooper and cameraman Freddie Francis. Mine Own Executioner is a fine film noir that deserves discovery and rediscovery. It is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray from Network.
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