By any standard, The Horse’s Mouth shines as an outstandingly personal work from a decade that often seems the most arid in British cinema. Amid tepid comedies and timid thrillers, it sparkles with conviction and eccentricity—at least that’s how it struck this avid young provincial filmgoer, who had never been inside a pub, let alone heard any of Prokofieff’s music, in 1959. It stayed in my memory, but only later did I come to realize why the qualities that distinguish it are the very reasons that the film remains neglected by British film historians.
The fact is that films about art have always met with suspicion in England. Michael Powell discovered this to his cost with The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann, and even more so with Peeping Tom (which is, after all, another film about an “outsider” artist), made only a year after The Horse’s Mouth. Oddly enough, the contemporary attack on how Neame and Guinness portrayed their artist came from a Marxist critic committed to defending figurative painting. John Berger was a rising young writer and painter who denounced the film as “harmful and demoralizing” because it showed the painter of genius as “abnormal.” Vincente Minnelli’s somewhat lurid account of Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956) was probably also fresh in his memory, but I think The Horse’s Mouth is fundamentally different and, with distance, can be seen as part of an English tradition of revolt against cozy middle-class philistinism that runs right up to Derek Jarman.
Here, unusually, the paintings really do matter. They’re not copies of well-known classics, as in most artist biopics—they were executed by John Bratby, a leading member of the group of English provincial realists who came to be known, rather unfortunately, as the “Kitchen Sink” school. In truth, Bratby would be better described as an expressionist, in view of his vigorous sculpting of paint, even if his preferred subject matter was often domestic. But in The Horse’s Mouth he lends his talent to the tradition of English artists, from William Blake to Stanley Spencer, who wanted to connect the visionary with the vulgar; this is surely what Bratby, Neame, and Guinness do magnificently in the film’s moments of epiphany. Gulley contemplating his sinewy impasto foot by candlelight, or first seeing the wall that will bear his mural masterpiece—these are rare moments when we actually feel something of the artist’s imagination. And in terms of the film’s prescience it is worth noting that Bratby temporarily gave up painting and wrote a novel called Breakdown in 1960, because his work had become unfashionable as American Abstract Expressionism swept the world. It’s tempting to feel that life here was imitating art.
Alec Guinness is central to the film in quite a different way from his many other celebrated roles. Famously, the project became a highly personal one after he was persuaded to read Joyce Cary’s novel, and The Horse’s Mouth remains the only script he wrote. Guinness, of course, was as renowned for his chameleon-like impersonations as for his reserve; and there was surely something about Gulley Jimson’s deviousness in pursuit of his dream that struck a deep chord. If the multiple impersonations of Hamer’s black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets are Guinness showing his technical skills, then the shifty, sometimes charming, often ruthless Gulley is surely a more personal and more disturbing creation than is generally recognized. Chaplin’s calculated clowning and faux-naïve sexuality may be one source; Laurence Olivier’s shockingly squalid comedian in The Entertainer is a successor. It is hard to think of any other film in which Guinness takes such risks.
As a study in social unease, The Horse’s Mouth may have more in common with the New Wave realism of Room at the Tom and Look Back in Anger than has been acknowledged. Like these key works of the “Angry Young Men” movement, it also focuses on class, but more subtly. Gulley is the son of a “proper” painter who has dropped out, into the proletarian-bohemian world. His companion in misfortune, Kay Walsh’s acerbic proletarian barmaid Coker, is certainly a “character,” but one superbly realized and with a dignity as rare in British cinema as the conviction of Guinness’ obsessed artist. Her visit with him to confront his ex-wife Sarah (Renée Houston), now a prim middle-class housewife trying to live down her wild youth, is rich with precise social gesture in a way that even Ealing often missed. Nor are the art-buying classes spared. From Ernest Thesiger, trailing clouds of epicene glory from Bride of Frankenstein, as Gulley’s reluctant patron, to his latest victim, Robert Coote, best known as David Niven’s stolid sidekick, these are unusually sharp vignettes of the very class that Gulley needs, yet despises.
But is it faithful to the novelist Joyce Cary’s portrait of an artist as anarchist? The question is only worth raising because there is a reflex verdict in Britain that the film sells the novel short, making Gulley more of an eccentric than a figure inevitably condemned to rejection. Indeed these matters weighed heavily with Cary, whose essay “Art and Reality” was published shortly after his death in the year the film appeared. But why should the film not be an interpretation? Guinness’ Gulley may be more mercurial than Cary’s—more of a trickster than a genuine subversive—but he is still one of the few authentic artist characters in British, or any other, cinema (apart from Ken Russell’s fine drama-doc gallery of artists) and surely none the worse for being comic. Cary’s novel appeared in 1944, drawing on prewar bohemian life, and is notably sharp on the mundane realities of survival on the breadline, in the vein of Orwell’s social reportage, while vague in plotting. The film is lighter and later, but even if it seems to be set in a rather timeless London of bright red post-boxes and phone kiosks, it is in fact quite precise about social geography, on the eve of London being transformed by Beatlemania, Carnaby Street, and Pop Art. A small rebellious voice whispers to me that it might even be an improvement on Cary’s novel, in the way that Russell’s Women in Love could be seen as bettering Lawrence.
Perhaps the ultimate problem with the film’s reputation lies in Ronald Neame’s lack of recognition as a director. Even if he was a great cinematographer, and a key figure in David Lean’s early career, he has never quite been accepted into the doubtful category of British auteurs. I suggest this is doubtful because it misses the point: British filmmaking has rarely offered the consistent opportunities that produced Hollywood auteurs, so that all English directors’ work is inevitably inconsistent, reflecting the options available. So, with a longer record than most, it is surely time to praise Neame’s varied achievements, from his work on Dickens with Lean, through his three major collaborations with Guinness, The Card (1953), The Horse’s Mouth, and Tunes of Glory (1960), to the later triumph of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1968). Along the way there are highly efficient thrillers such as Gambit and The Odessa File, but it is hard not to conclude that the 1950s saw Neame at his zenith. And The Horse’s Mouth deserves to be celebrated as a rare meeting of passions between Guinness, Neame, and the producer John Bryan, a former art director, whom John Bratby recalled simply as “one of us.”
Ian Christie has written on Eisenstein, Scorsese, Powell and Pressburger, and Gilliam, and contributed commentaries to several Criterion Collection releases. He is Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck College, University of London.