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This past May British screenwriter and director Bryan Forbes passed away at age 86. Best known for directing the 1975 cult classic The Stepford Wives, Forbes career spanned over 30 years and included actor and novelist, in addition to director, producer, screenwriter.
Today, I wish to discuss one of his lesser known films; the darkly brilliant Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Shot in the gritty black and white, kitchen sink style of early 1960’s British cinema. Adapted from the novel by Mark McShane, Séance on a Wet Afternoon tells the story of middle-aged, childless married couple Billy and Myra Savage’s (Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley) scheme for fame and fortune. Actually it’s a bit more complex than that. The unemployed Billy has some unnamed illness or disability and Myra’s weekly sittings contribute to their meager income. Myra wishes to be recognized as a talented clairvoyant and concocts a scheme to “borrow” a child (read kidnap) who would then be returned to its parents alive and unharmed. The idea is that while the child is missing Myra will offer her clairvoyant services to the desperate parents telling them where they can find the child. The media will write about the amazing medium and she will be showered with money from desperate souls requiring her “gift”. The child is safely returned to the parents and Myra becomes rich and finally receives the recognition she is due; no harm done. Yes, Myra is clearly disturbed; and her weak willed husband can see that as well, but his misguided love for her makes him yield to her crazy plan.
The child they select to “borrow” is Amanda Clayton; the 10 year old daughter of a wealthy businessman. Billy Savage uses guile to distract the family chauffeur who picks up Amanda from school every day and chloroform to keep the child from struggling against her captor. When Amanda is delivered to the big, dark house the Savages live in she’s placed in a bedroom that’s been especially prepared to look like a hospital room. A surgical mask wearing Nurse Myra informs Amanda upon awakening that she is in the hospital due to German measles.
To my mind one of the most nerve-racking scenes is when Amanda’s mother shows up for one of Myra’s séances and Amanda is weakly crying for her mummy. Billy’s eyes dart nervously from Mrs. Clayton (Nanette Newman) to the stairs where Amanda is being held captive in one of the upper rooms.
As the film progresses, it becomes more than apparent that Myra is more than just a little unhinged; she’s going to a place beyond return. Billy sees it too and much as he adores her and is willing to do almost anything for her he finally summons the courage to do what is right even if it goes against Myra’s wishes.
Throughout the movie Myra talks of a mysterious Arthur, a spirit guide….a son who died and who communicates with her during her séances. In fact it was Arthur’s idea to “borrow” the Clayton child. It is not until the end that we discover the circumstances of Arthur’s death.
Kim Stanley was nominated for an Oscar for her chilling performance but no doubt Richard Attenborough also deserved a nomination for his powerful performance as the mild-mannered, hen pecked husband whose unconditional love and devotion cannot save his wife from her own madness and the destruction she is about to bring down on them.