"Switch your gorgeous minds to overdrive: this is really quite important."
Some filmmakers, alas, are forgotten when they die, but some are forgotten even before. Michael Powell spent most of the 60s and 70s as a wandering ghost, invisible to film financiers, but a few traces can be uncovered from this phantasmal period of his career.
All I knew about Sebastian, before watching it, was that it was co-produced by Powell, which was certainly enough to make me watch it avidly. It turned out to be about a senior code-breaker on the verge of breakdown in the British secret service in 1968.
"You used to complain this was a dirty business. Now's the time to bear that in mind."
The story is told in Million Dollar Movie, volume two of Powell's autobiography. Powell could be guilty of both selective memory and exuberant confabulation, but he's surely sincere when he says the film was conceived for him to direct, and he somehow got sidelined into acting only as producer.
This was part of the unfolding tragedy of Powell's career in the 60s. Powell blamed the critical fury unleashed upon Peeping Tom, his seedy but romantic tale of scoptophilia, serial murder and cinema, and that film's satirical assault on the British film industry probably didn't help his case either (despised fictional studio boss mogul Don Jarvis is a blatant caricature of despised real studio boss John Davis). The commercial and artistic disaster of Honeymoon and The Queen's Guards played a huge role also.
A NIB ASSET
It's vexing that Sebastian was yanked from Powell's grip, because it would have been his second big collaboration with Leo Marks, who wrote Peeping Tom. In the event, Powell had Marks's sprawling script rewritten by Richard Vaughan Hughes, before his own ejection from the director's chair. Although producing was not really Powell's forte, he did get the script developed to near-perfection. One of Sebastian's great pleasures is the acreage of skewed dialogue:
Dirk: "I see you in a punt. With some nice young man in a punt, trailing your hand in the whatsitsname – the water."
Susannah: "I don't know people who go about in punts."
Dirk: "You should. Because girls who go to the cinema in the afternoon get fat and pasty. And sinister gentlemen with spectacles sit beside them and rub knees. If I were you I'd go and find a punt as soon as possible, before it's too late."
Sebastian draws from Marks's own life: a code-breaker in WWII, he was intimate with the espionage, though his experience was twenty years out of date by the time of Sebastian. The feverish urgency, the low-tech approach, and the decoding crew composed entirely of women, working under Mr. Sebastian in the movie, reflect the reality of decryption work at Bletchley Park in Marks's day, rather than late the cold war. That's not a problem, by the way – the film's time-warped fantasy is part of its charm.
A SIN BEAST
"Go on, make a beast of yourself."
Attempting to fill Powell's shoes was David Greene, a Brit who had found success in American TV, and would continue mainly in that medium, ensuring a place in the history of that medium with his work on Roots. For our purposes, his other key credit is Madame Sin, intended as a pilot for a TV series with Bette Davis as a sort of female master criminal, but released as a theatrical feature. It shares with Sebastian a strong sense of high sixties style, in both design and photography, and a quirky and surreal slant on the espionage thriller.
While Greene is a modernist, with a very different approach from the classically trained Powell (who worked for Rex Ingram and Hitchcock), he's a very smart one. His zooms, focus-pulls and other televisual tics are used with clarity and good sense, and strike a shrewd balance between kaleidoscopic dazzle and narrative cohesion. Jerry Goldsmith's jazzy, playful score is his best ally, and Richard Williams provides an animated credit sequence where a tiny version of Susannah York's landrover (Powell was a great fan of the vehicle) erases the text like a computer cursor, while odd lines of dialogue are cut and spliced into the score – an early case of what I believe our modern youth call "sampling".
The script moves in a series of paroxysms, mood-shifts and bursts of bravura, with the most impressive set-piece coming when Sebastian's drink is spiked with L.S.D. by a Russian agent (Ronald Fraser, an actor whose face resembles a newly-invented sex organ). The psychedelic freak-out that follows, complete with a bought-in cast of hippy grotesques is genuinely nightmarish, while still melting into solarised colour nostalgia. Greene handles it expertly, but what would Powell have done with an acid trip? The altered states of The Red Shoes, Oh Rosalinda! and The Small Back Room suggest we've been robbed of something really astonishing.
In choosing his locations, Greene has decided to stop worrying and love hideous post-war architecture, and to transmit that love to the audience like some venereal disease of the aesthetic sense. The film swoons over motorways, tower blocks and the revolving restaurant atop the Post Office Tower, lovingly presenting a London of concrete rectangles far more visionary and unified than most films of the era, which tended to throw in pointless shots of Buckingham Palace for tourist appeal. Sebastian's scheme eliminates anything built before 1950, visualising the inhuman city evoked in J.G. Ballard's writing, but perversely using it as setting for a tender love story – and there's no attempt to contrast the warm-blooded inhabitants with their ferroconcrete surroundings – the film is blind to the inhumanity of its settings, it embraces them and urges us to do the same.
"This is where we have to pick our words… very carefully."
"A" IS ABSENT
It is? Oh d*mn. Within this sterile but highly coherent scheme, Greene's mummers brim with life – movies seldom mine such energy so consistently. Every one of them seems chosen for their skill in riveting our eyes to their movements, gestures or emotions. I won't cite them here, since the letter I'm purposely not using just now is present in their monikers.
Thank Christ, I can start using the letter "A" again, which means I can tell you that Powell approved of the casting of Susannah York, who is incandescently ALIVE at all times, and manages the difficult task of cracking Bogarde's crisp shell. ("Don't fuck with a natural" was director Nicholas Ray's advice to students, and you don't know what natural is until you've seen York exploding all over like a magnesium flare.)
Susannah: "You're not a bit off-putting really, you don't really put me off a bit, you really don't."
Dirk: "I haven't got into my stride yet."
Having shed its original director, Sebastian also shed its original male star, Rex Harrison, dallied with Richard Burton, and settled on Dirk Bogarde. Powell hadn't meshed with Bogarde when shooting Ill Met By Moonlight, the last Powell-Pressburger film, and felt he was miscast here, but LOOK! – Bogarde seethes with tension, brittle and blazing, limp at ragged by turns.
More encoded autobiography: the actor hated most of his roles, playing unthreatening boy-next-door types for the teen market, but give him a neurotic, brilliant emotional cripple to play and the electricity starts to flow. In a pair of specs with thick black frames recalling Harold Pinter, Bogarde twitches and barks, a genius strangled by bureaucracy, a portrait of himself as actor, Marks as code-breaker, Powell as film-maker, and perhaps a repeat of the role David Farrar took in Powell's The Small Back Room.
Dirk: "I haven't been raped for years."
Susannah: "That's a crying shame."
Greene clearly had a good time casting Sebastian's girls, many of whom are extremely glamorous, all of whom are extremely vivacious – they've been selected with the same eye for alertness and life that a spymaster would use. The talent agent who brought many of them to see Greene ended up cast herself. The beautiful Janet Munro brings a real pathos to her role as a faded starlet.
In addition, John Gielgud embodies impersonal bureaucracy, and enjoys being indirect and Pinterish, while Nigel Davenport represents the more bloody-minded sort of desk-jockey. Lilli Palmer plays Sebastian's liberal conscience with passion and dignity. And a nubile Donald Sutherland turns up as a computer boffin, a role he'd already made his own in Ken Russell's The Billion Dollar Brain the year before. Something about his face must have irresistibly suggested those little cards punched full of square holes.
After pretending to have no plot for 95 out of its 100 minutes, the screenplay abruptly brings everything together in a charming, emotional and very well-planned fashion, like a code that suddenly reveals a deep underlying message hidden amid layers of obfuscation, and all the different plot threads come joyously together with the reappearance of Susannah York, plus child –
"Is that mine?" asks Dirk.
"No, it's mine," says Susannah, proudly.
Ambushed by parenthood and reunited with his love, Dirk breaks the block that's been preventing him cracking the latest super-code, using the baby's rattle and a handy abacus. He's clearly an irredeemable character who's going to carry on being what he must be, just like Powell. Even without codes to break or films to make.
BITE AN ASS
"You can come back on your own terms."
If only Powell could have made films consistently in the 60s and 70s, reflecting the changes in the country he loved – as an eccentric artist with a conservative side, his response to the hippy movement would have been at least interesting and different. In fact, since Powell's paymasters at Rank lost confidence with him after The Red Shoes (they were sure it would flop, and it's eventual success mainly annoyed them: nobody likes being proved wrong), he had mainly been trying to recapture the impetus of his wartime work by retreating into the past with pieces that grew progressively weaker as the war faded into history. The innovation of Sebastian is its bold, surreal transposition of wartime desperation to swinging London, an masterful, eccentric solution that successfully folds time back on itself to create a temporal ouroborous – in which 60s glitz is nourished by 40s passion.