Delbert Mann (director)
BFI Film (studio)
20 August 2018 (released)
09 September 2018
This 1958 film, a Harold Hecht/Burt Lancaster backed project was, of course, first a very successful stage play from a few years previously, written by Terence Rattigan, a man who was arguably one of Britain's greatest 20th century playwright's.
Clearly Burt Lancaster saw potential here and the film version was not unsuccessful with its star cast and a script co-written by Rattigan. However by modern standards (if we compare, perhaps unfairly, this author's work to Osborne or Pinter who were nearer his age), Rattigan's work can appear very clichéd, rather old fashioned and often predictable. Not that that should necessarily spoil your enjoyment; Rattigan was a fine craftsman. This film actually blends two one-act plays into one and adds some new characters.
The action (not that there is much) takes place in the Beauregard Hotel on the English south coast; Bournemouth to be precise - long a resort for those seeking a quiet retirement and a whiff of decent sea air. The interest lies in the personalities of the hotel guests (quite how they can all afford it another matter) and most appear to be long term residents. We soon get a pretty good picture as to their characters e.g. you don't need to be that clever to work out that Major Pollock (David Niven at his best here) is a fraud.
Grand dame Mrs. Maude Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper) is an absolute monster (the kind of character one expects and invariably finds in one of Patrick Hamilton's dark entries) and domineering mother to timid, suppressed and mousy Sibyl (Deborah Kerr). In fact Kerr’s nervous and awkward body language automatically tells us what she is (Kerr always appeared very prim and proper in any case) though for whatever the reason she has a bit of a crush on our middle-aged bogus Major Pollock, who is pretty much the only one who has shown her any kindness and understanding. Unfortunately Pollock got himself into a bit of trouble: he was caught in a cinema groping women in the dark (in Rattigan's original he had been importuning with a male - but this WAS the early 50's) and got off with a caution. This has been reported in the local newspaper and despite the 'Major's' rather clumsy efforts to stop the other guests from reading it, it falls into the hands of the odious and snooty Mrs. Railton- Bell (old Gladys having a veritable field day). Naturally she will cause the biggest stink imaginable although her friend and fellow hotel guest Lady Gladys Matheson (Cathleen Nesbitt) seems slightly more open-minded. Or perhaps she just is as intimidated by Railton-Bell as most other guests. We must bear in mind that the Major's behavior, liar that he is, has always been exemplary at least at the hotel although he's been sussed by retired schoolmaster Mr. Fowler (Felix Aylmer). Strong and domineering character that she is, Mrs. Railton-Bell inaugurates a meeting where she will do all in her power for a vote to chuck 'the dirty old man' out of the hotel.
Fellow hotel guest and rather liberal thinker John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster) does what he can to argue against her narrow-minded attitude. He is supported by the play's/film’s most lovable character, the lone oddball Mrs. Meacham (May Hallatt). Now she is the wise counterpart, a natural spinster, and reverse side of the coin to the vile Mrs. Railton-Bell! What John really would like to see is Sybil stand up to her overbearing mother. Meanwhile John has his own little dilemma to work out: He's been having a fling with landlady Miss Cooper (Wendy Hiller) when his glamorous ex-wife Anne Shankland (Rita Hayworth), a famous woman in her own right, turns up with a motive in mind. Miss Cooper is something like near to an all-wise earth mother who genuinely has the interest of her resident guests at heart and is thus recognized by Mrs. Meacham as a kindred spirit… just as Major Pollock recognizes the hen-pecked and dowdy Sybil.
Other hotel guests include Charles (Rod Taylor) and his fiancée Jean (Audrey Dalton) though both have hardly any lines here.
Not the most thrilling of films if this is what you expect, instead SEPARATE TABLES is more an exploration of loneliness, nevertheless it succeeds well on this level. And was there not a time when all of us were lonely at least once?
Delbert Mann does a deft job - although the feeling of Bournemouth is hardly evoked in this studio production. That said it is well cast: May Hallatt had actually been in the original stage play and really is ideal in the part of Miss Meacham. Wendy Hiller is fine as Miss Cooper and Rita Hayworth also shines as Anne Shankland. The virile and vigorous action man Lancaster's abilities cannot be undermined, but he is always Burt: the winning smile, that familiar gait and that staccato delivery. It is hard to believe this man of action would be subconded in the Beauregard Hotel in quiet Bournemouth having a fling with Miss Cooper (alright it wouldn't be Sybil) playing a metaphorical chess game with the likes Mrs Railton- Bell. And yes, there even is a happy ending for some of the guests in store.
Bonus material includes a Guardian interview with Burt Lancaster from 1972.