Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
United Kingdom/USA, 1957. Darryl F. Zanuck Productions. Screenplay by Alfred Hayes, based on the novel by Alec Waugh. Cinematography by Freddie Young. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Music by Malcolm Arnold. Production Design by William C. Andrews. Costume Design by Phyllis Dalton, David Ffolkes. Film Editing by Reginald Beck.
The British empire has been crumbling slowly since the end of the second World War, most evident in the cluster of colonies in the Caribbean that are moving quickly towards independence. Revolution is in the air on the tiny, fictional island of Santa Marta, where James Mason is so distraught over his suspicion that his wife is cheating on him that he sublimates his rage into an attempt at breaking into politics.
Angry that the island’s British elite are trying to keep the vengeance of the black population at bay by entertaining a friendship with the charismatic leader of an impending uprising (Harry Belafonte), Mason gets himself and his plans for election into an ugly quagmire when his marital jealousy prompts him to commit murder. His sister (Joan Collins, who was actually twenty-five years younger than the sorely miscast Mason) has fallen in love with visiting prodigal son (Stephen Boyd) and wants to marry him, but their plantation-owning parents (Basil Sydney, Diana Wynyard in her final feature) tell their children secrets of their family’s plots that put both their ambitions on hold.
Belafonte has a good friend (Dorothy Dandridge in her first role since her Oscar-nominated turn in Carmen Jones) who served as his escort at a party but caught the eye of the British governor’s aide (John Justin); they fall in love, which the film sharply points out is more easily accepted than Belafonte’s entertaining a romance with a brilliantly witty but politically ambivalent British woman (Joan Fontaine, in a solid performance) before deciding to put his need to free his home above the desires of his heart (the Dandridge plotline was more acceptable to audiences as well, who sent Fontaine piles of hate mail that she turned over to the FBI because of their threatening content).
The plot weaves in and out of its many juicy strands effortlessly without ever losing its balance, making it a shame that it all leads up to rather a forgettable and unnoticeable climax, almost as if the filmmakers were afraid to draw too provocative a conclusion about the colonialism and racism that the story is laying so painfully bare. It never feels like a lecture, however, the message is delivered smoothly through a soapy but commanding narrative, and the magnificent performances are captured in gorgeous, vibrant colour by Freddie Young’s almost sweaty photography of the Barbados and Grenada locations.