Trevor Howard was one of Britain’s finest screen actors. He was in many fine films, but it was the ones made during the first decade of his career that are best known. Now the cream of this particular crop have been gathered into a box-set.
David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Carol Reed’s The Third Man are both frequently cited as two of the best British films ever made, but there were more. The Outcast of the Islands saw him collaborate with Reed again, this time on a Joseph Conrad story. Howard also revisited Greene, who wrote the screenplay for The Third Man, in the adaptation of his novel, The Heart of the Matter. Lovers of British war films will love Odette, which focuses on the life of Anglo-French spy Odette Sansom.
By the early 1950s, Lee Strasberg’s ‘Method’ acting was tearing up Hollywood. Marlon Brando led the charge with his fabulously powerful performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, but soon everyone was at it. Howard on the other hand is rumoured to have said “we don’t have the Method School of acting in England. We simply read the script, let it seep in, then go put on whiskers – and do it”
Despite this apparent insouciance, Howard gave captivating, often burningly intense performances. Especially later in his career, he could certainly play generals and other stodgy old buffers, but he also played outsiders and men consumed by doubt and inner conflict. Howard may never have been cool like James Dean or Brando, but his performances could be equally forceful. Here’s the the five films in the new box set.
Brief Encounter (1945)
Success came quickly to Howard. His second film – and first starring role – is generally a bona fide classic. Howard is Dr Alec Harvey (Howard) who meets and falls in love with Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson). So far so good, except that both of them are already married (to other people).
This being the 1940s, both of them do not want to leave their spouses. This might seem a little old fashioned, but it provides for some moving drama. Celia Johnson was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the film, but Trevor Howard could equally have been the nominee. Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean, this is essential viewing.
The Third Man (1949)
The world was weary after the Second World War and British movies tended to rouse the morale of those who had just emerged from six years of tough fighting. The Third Man takes something of the atmosphere of Film Noir being produced in Hollywood, and gives it an even more creepy, deflated, European feel.
Trevor Howard plays the film’s moral lynch pin, Major Calloway, a British officer who stands up for the anti-hero Harry Lime’s victims. “Death’s at the bottom of everything,” Major Calloway tells Joseph Cotten’s pulp fiction writer, Holly Martins. A doom-laden prognostication like that immediately sets him apart from your average moustachioed British officer seen on film at the time.
A classic tale of British espionage and pluck, whose heroine happens to be a French woman. This true story follows Odette Brailly who, though born in France marries Englishman Roy Sansom, and moves to England. Speaking flawless French, Odette Sansom (Anna Neagle) was chosen to be dropped in occupied France, where she worked alongside British officer Peter Churchill (Trevor Howard), before she was eventually captured and taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp – but somehow managed to survive.
The real heroine here is Odette of course, so Trevor Howard does very well to communicate the strength of his character while not overshadowing that of his spy partner and eventual lover. In many ways the story is perfect for Howard: love in difficult circumstances and the moral compromises of espionage. A good tale well told, with added Trevor Howard. Marvellous.
Outcast of the Islands (1951)
Like Apocalypse Now, Outcast of the Islands is based on a Joseph Conrad story. Both films feature men who travel up a river and end up losing their minds. In Outcast, it is Trevor Howard who escapes from the South East Asian port where he is frittering his life away and heads off to a small trading post run by Robert Morley. There he meets local beauty Aissa, played by Algerian actress Kerima, and proceeds to shack up with her and drive everyone else to despair.
Also directed by Carol Reed, Outcast of the Islands is beautiful to look at and was partially shot on location in Sri Lanka. It is Howard’s intelligence and and interiority, that makes his performance so strong. The ‘outcast’ is perfect for him: even when playing a British officer or a respectable member of the middle classes, he is always slightly at odds with his life. Here he can really let rip.
The Heart of the Matter (1953)
Howard takes another trip to Greene-land, this time in war time Sierra Leone. He plays Scobie, a Roman Catholic British colonial policeman whose marriage has gone bad and has just been passed over for promotion. In short, he’s stuck in a backwater and his life is going nowhere. When his wife is away for a few months he has an affair with a younger woman.
The film makes the most of its setting – much of the filming took part in Sierra Leone and it exclusively uses local indigenous music for the score. Howard brings a weary fatalism to his role as a man torn between two women and his faith. This must be one of the intense realisations of Catholic guilt on film, brought vividly to life by this marvellous actor.
The Trevor Howard Box Set is out on DVD on 23rd September, 2013.