Creator and critic
Thorold Dickinson: a World of Film
Edited by Philip Horne and Peter Swaab
Why Thorold Dickinson - who was he? I suppose the simplest answer to that question now is that Dickinson was the first person appointed as a professor of film studies at a British university. The year was 1967 and the place was University College, London (by way of the Slade School of Fine Art). Dickinson had just finished ten years - the least productive or rewarding of his career - as a bureaucrat, at the UN Office of Public Information and the International Federation of Film Societies. Not too many people remembered how active or thwarted he had been as a film-maker. Still, it was a remarkable appointment at London, and I regret that this book does not explore the event more fully. How was a great, if solemn, British university persuaded to teach film? And how was Dickinson described as both a fit candidate and yet someone who would not be too dangerous?
One tribute to Dickinson (and one that he would probably have relished) is the quality of his students. Among his earliest followers were Don Levy, Raymond Durgnat, Charles Barr, Lutz Becker and Gavin Millar. Those names may need footnotes now, even in the New Statesman, but they represent some of the liveliest teaching and writing carried out under the name of film studies. So it's a further sign of Dickinson's tradition that a professor and reader of English at UCL should be the valiant editors of this volume. I say "valiant" because the project has been a long time in the making and because it is a most ingenious collection of points of view.
This is not a life of Dickinson, but it is a gathering together of the influences he exerted, which includes this (by Durgnat), on Dickinson the amiable professor: "Many of our discussions happened with him stalking along the Slade's grey corridors, with his big silvery head and shoulders filling them, and me trotting along beside him . . . I'd try a hypothesis and he'd roll that big silver head around and scan the horizon for a usefully awkward example. His style with me was slightly majestic but conversational, but I must say his broad formulations really straightened out some of my tangles and put my tra jectory through some right-angle turns. Or prevented pseudo-problems from arising."
Born in Bristol in 1903, the "Thorold" bespeaking his Norwegian ancestry, Dickinson was the son of a clergyman. He went to Keble College, Oxford, to study theology, history and French, but was led away towards theatre, dance and design on hearing lectures by Gordon Craig and being exposed to the most recent innovations in Russian dance and film. A leading member of the London Film Society, he introduced a lecture and demonstration by Sergei Eisenstein. Thus, early on, he was both academic observer and would-be artist. In fact, when a college mate offered him a chance to get into the industry itself he left Oxford without graduating. This adventure, however, was enough to sever relations with his father.
He learned his craft as an editor and worked on a number of films through the 1930s, sometimes with David Lean (five years younger and without Dickinson's academic background). He began to direct, in 1936, with The High Command, an elaborate melodrama with adultery and murder, set in the military Establishment in West Africa. (There is a scene where the national anthem is played in a rising storm that is not just very clever, but a sign of Dickinson's scepticism towards the Establishment.) Shot two years later, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery - with members of the home football team as extras - was a murder story with Leslie Banks as the investigating policeman.
But then, in 1940, Dickinson directed Gaslight (based on the play by Patrick Hamilton). It is the story of a husband (played by Anton Walbrook) who is attempting to drive his wife (Diana Wynyard) mad in order to recover the jewels from an earlier crime. You know this story because it is the one used in the 1944 film of the same name, made at MGM, directed by George Cukor, with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in the lead roles (Bergman actually won an Oscar for it).
MGM took drastic and crude means to suppress the Dickinson film. That was normal procedure in the picture business, though it did not stop an early approach from David O Selznick in Hollywood. Having already signed up Alfred Hitchcock as a director, Selznick was seriously considering Dickinson, too. That move might have altered everything, but at the start of war Dickinson elected to stay with England. Still, he was aggrieved that his Gaslight never opened in the US and was soon removed from British screens. For years, the fate of the Dickinson Gas light was regarded as typical of Hollywood's exploitation of everyone and everything.
One of the contributors to this book, Martin Scorsese (a Hollywood Dickinson enthusiast), goes so far as to suggest that the British Gaslight may be superior to the Cukor version. He says that the beauty and decor of the American film overwhelm the drama. This is a nonsense. It is no discredit to Dickinson, who had far less in the way of resources, but the American film actually builds the drama in several very useful ways and it lets us think at first that Boyer's scoundrel really loves Bergman. In the Dickinson film, however, Walbrook's husband launches immediately into full spite and trickery. That handicaps him, and without the thrust of lost love Wynyard cannot begin to compete with a Bergman in her element as a tortured soul.
Dickinson worked on in England during the war: The Prime Minister (1941) has Gielgud as Disraeli but it was not very successful. Then in the postwar years he seemed to be dwindling until, suddenly, The Queen of Spades turned up. There are mysteries over this adaptation of Pushkin, regrettably not settled in this book. The script was co-written by Rodney Ackland and he seems to have started to direct. But something happened - it may have been an intervening request by Anton Walbrook, who played the gambler desperate to find the secret of the cards, or even Edith Evans, who played the ancient countess who knows the secret. Whatever the answer, Dickinson came on board an elaborate period film at short notice and delivered something close to a macabre masterpiece, locked down in the deeply atmospheric photography of Otto Heller and the sets by Oliver Messel (Ken Adam was a young assistant in design).
For reasons that are unclear, the film did not do well. Was it out of key with the taste for neo- realism? Was it a horror film in which the audience had no one to like? Again, Dickinson's career might have leaped forward but the moment passed. He did Secret People and Hill 24 Doesn't Answer, in Israel, both worthwhile films, but by the late 1950s his life was given over to administration and then film education.
Time and again, I fear, this book cries out for a stronger sense of the man, but Horne and Swaab have seemed reluctant to compete with the biography by Jeffrey Richards, Thorold Dickinson: the Man and His Films, first published in 1986. The scattered points of view they call on are often valuable, especially when a writer knew Dickinson or learned from him, but the larger struggle between the academic and the creative is blurred. Thorold Dickinson was a contemporary of both Lean and Hitchcock, and of Michael Powell, for that matter. And The Queen of Spades is worthy of any of them: it suggests a very sophisticated sense of melodrama and literary fatalism that understood the conventions of genre cinema. So the question lingers as to why he couldn't really lay hands on the kind of productive career he was capable of.
Among the book's most intriguing sections are the plans for unmade films. Dickinson wanted to do something from the Somerset Maugham novel Then and Now, involving Machiavelli and the Borgias. Nothing came of it. Sadder still, in the aftermath of The Queen of Spades, he longed to make a version of Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge. It proved too expensive, or was it that Dickinson was never quite the man to push his dreams through to completion? (Was he most suitable as a replacement for someone else?) The very thing that made him an important teacher and an inspired leader of the Film Society - a willingness to talk the night away - may have paled beside the wolfish resolve of Lean, Hitchcock and Powell to get things done, to exercise power. So Dickinson becomes one more forlorn piece of proof for the idea that it is very hard to do good pictures in England. But talking about them, that is English meat and drink.
David Thomson's latest book is "Have You Seen . . . ? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, Including Masterpieces, Oddities, Guilty Pleasures and Classics (With Just a Few Disasters)", published by Allen Lane
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