Box Set Review: Trevor Howard Collection

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Trevor Howard headshot
The endearing Trevor Howard graced our screens for the better part of thirty five years, blooming from the aftermath of World War II and playing a vast and diverse list of middle-class professionals with utmost aplomb. This Trevor Howard Box-Set, pieced together by Studio Canal, focusses on five of his most varied works, meandering through the worlds of Brief Encounter, The Third Man, Odette, Outcast of the Islands, and ending with The Heart of the Matter. Obviously the specificness of picking and highlighting just five of Howard’s filmography lends itself to divisive qualities; it’s true that many would take issue with The Gift Horse being discounted, but the five here actually collate in an understandably fluid manner; the progression from film to film is purposeful and has elements of connection, from the direction of Carol Reed to the source material of Graham Greene.

Brief Encounter (1945) – Dir: David Lean

Brief Encounter train scene
Brief Encounter brings together a selection of the most talented people known to the cultural world as we know it: Noel Coward, David Lean and Sergei Rachmaninov. This is excluding the talents of Trevor Howard himself, as well as fellow actors Celia Johnson and Cyril Raymond. Howard plays Alec Harvey, a doctor, who enters into a casual relationship with Johnson’s Laura Jesson that quickly develops into one borne of love. Coward’s screenplay soon depicts this initially understandable scenario plunge into utter misery with both accepting that, despite their inherent wants, they just cannot go through with such intimacy. Regardless of the detriment that it causes to their individual happinesses, our central couple realise that their families possess an equal importance that must be upheld. In typically Coward-esque fashion, the ending focusses on the destructive element of love and all that accompanies it.

The Third Man (1949) – Dir: Carol Reed

The Third Man trevor howard sewers
There can be no doubting The Third Man’s relevance in cinematic history. Whether it’s the musical score running throughout the initial credits, the scenes of Harry Lime in the sewers, or the infamous cuckoo-clock speech between Lime and Martins, there’s almost a mutual understanding by every critic that this was a film that was virtually flawless. For Howard’s part, he portrays the stoic Major Calloway who remains strangely level-headed despite being surrounded by a host of slightly outwardly, over-the-top performances from a host of eerie Austrian characters around him. With its almost expressionistic oneiric mood, this is most certainly one of film-noir’s most celebrated works. With its allegorical implications about Austrian history, lambasting of the aftermaths of World War II, all the while juxtaposing the two to the damaged personalities of the characters habituating the piece, its social commentary was harrowing to Austria, Europe and the world thereafter.

Odette (1950) – Dir: Herbert Wilcox
In familiar territory, Trevor Howard plays Captain Peter Churchill, the British agent who acts as go-between for Odette Sansom (Anna Neagle), who is trying desperately to escape after being sentenced to execution in Nazi Germany. Based on real events, Howard and Neagle utterly immerse themselves in the ultimate act of romantic heroism. Trevor Howard’s strengths are generally defined by his willingness to ever so slightly underplay his performances when necessary and allow his often woman co-star to shine brightly. Odette is no exception and both actors give one of the most convincing relationships witnessed on screen, the strength of which comes to fruition during the desperately intense second half. If the focus on the first part of the film seems a bit barren, Wilcox choosing not to channel in on the dangers of the female agent during the 1940s, what follows is a virtually perfect portrayal of sub-human conditions of the POW during a most tumultuous time for the vast majority of Europeans in general. Odette is subject to atrocities belonging of nightmares and subjugated to the point of breaking apart by the seams; Neagle boasts an incredible ability to look haggard and broken. Nevertheless, it’s the toughness of these types of people that the film demonstrates and points out as most important: through the desperate negativity of torture comes a blossoming relationship between Peter and Odette that perhaps even usurps the very work they were tasked with providing the British Army.

Outcast Of The Islands (1951) – Dir: Carol Reed

Outcast of the island trevor howard
As seems somewhat thematically apt, Outcast of the Islands is a film based upon literature; Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands being the basis and inspiration for filmic adaptation this time around. Directed by Carol Reed, this work came, perhaps unfortunately, after three progressive titles in Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. Not to suggest that Reed created a poor film, but critically it was perhaps the victim of unfortunate timing and circumstance, many film reviewers deciding to focus on its relevance to previous Reed titles instead of judging it on its inherent merits, of which there were many. However, for Trevor Howard, this was almost the opposite in terms of critical reaction, because it demonstrated his incredible and often insatiable need to diversify in terms of acting; the breadth of range that his performances elicit highlight and accentuate his ability to take a role and define what it was that made that particular character so intrinsically interesting. Whilst the film is retrospectively considered insightful and deep, the concurrent forward dive into darkness during the film was probably initially concerning for the film boards and, potentially, studios. Thankfully, unlike other similarly dark films, Outcast of the Islands was able to swim, and using the often temperamentally schizophrenic nature of humanity that many of Conrad’s novels exuded, actors like Howard were able to utterly ingratiate themselves in the role and make it their own.

The Heart Of The Matter (1953) – Dir: George More O’Ferrall
The final film in the box-set is potentially the least well-known, but shares another seemingly ongoing characteristic in that it is once again an adaptation of a novel. Graham Greene is once more an influential figure, his book giving O’Ferrall the source material. Trevor Howard plays Detective Harry Scobie, unhappily married and living in Sierra Leone. As seems familiar to this box set, his marriage is upstaged by the romantic interest of another woman, played by Maria Schell. Greene’s almost trademark staple of marking religion, and Catholicism in particular, out as a component for unhappiness means Howard has to remain almost stoic in his personal wants, having to return to his wife (Elizabeth Allan); the traditionalism of religion isn’t as closely examined as the book, but there are certainly undertones belonging to various characteristics that Greene attributed to the Catholic Church, primarily. To suggest that this is Howard’s most established role is false, but there’s definitely grounds to suggest that it’s his most tormented in relation to the portrayal of the character he plays. Trevor Howard using all his experience conjures up quite possibly the most believable performance of his career, damning religion as an avenue to the deep recesses of guilt-infested negativity, using his craft to show Det. Scobie fighting his demons and amply show how one man can be pulled and stretched to horrifically unbearable lengths.

The Trevor Howard Collection is out on DVD now.

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