Director Bryan Forbes’ “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” (1964) was a remarkably strange thriller; it is a film that I’m sure most younger filmgoers have never heard of. This British gem starred the American stage actress Kim Stanley, as Myra Savage, a disturbed British working-class housewife. She takes up the practice of becoming a psychic medium and convinces her obedient husband, Bill (Richard Attenborough), to kidnap a wealthy industrialist’s seven-year-old child.
Forbes wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Mark McShane, and quickly establishes the obsessive motivation for Myra’s mentally disturbed-like behaviors and the reason for the kidnapping. Myra lost a son in childbirth years before and says that the unborn “Arthur” frequently talks to her.
From the film’s stark and quiet opening scene, a single candle burns as we witness a séance of the clasped hands of several middle-aged people who are seated around a table, nearly no words are spoken. Then we transition into a cool, rainy afternoon, and a single score of the combined sounds of piano, flute and a harp gently set the film’s tone, almost mimicking the sound of raindrops. Composer John Barry, whose distinct sound defined the early James Bond films of the 1960s, creates an effectively eerie film score which is effectively employed throughout the film.
After Bill takes the young Amanda from her exclusive private school, Myra and Bill compose a ransom note demanding 25,000 pounds for the child’s safe return. They hold the girl in a spare room in their large house and make her believe that she’s in a hospital with German measles. Myra tells her husband they will not keep the money or harm the child, “what we are doing is a means to an end.” Then, once the distraught Clayton family receives their horrifying news, we too realize what that end is. In a bizarre ploy to seek fame, Myra offers to use her so-called professional psychic skills to help the Claytons find their daughter.
With moody black and white cinematography by Gerry Turpin, combined with Barry’s music, Forbes establishes a very gloomy mood for the film. Also, he frequently defines Stanley and Attenborough in intense close-up shots, often from low angles, composed from a smooth moving tracking shot, capturing ever so subtle emotional states.
Forbes racks up the tension further in a compelling sequence where days later, a policeman questions Myra and investigates the Savages’ household. At the same time, Bill travels on the streets and subways of London to rendezvous with the man who will deliver the ransom money.
Then one afternoon, during one of Myra’s regular seances, Mrs. Clayton (Nanette Newman) appears seeking answers and wishing to participate, while her daughter quietly moans in an upstairs room. Myra becomes intensely emotional with vivid descriptions of the girl and suddenly faints. Tensions build further when Bill becomes very upset when Amanda develops a fever; he demands this whole scheme should end. The suspense peaks when Inspector Walsh (Patrick Magee) and a few other police arrive one day and Walsh claims his self-interest in the value of psychic phenomena insisting that they all take part in a séance to discover Amanda’s whereabouts.
Attenborough and Stanley were outstanding and intensely believable in a most bizarre manner. Stanley, who was unofficially known as “the female Brando” (which was the title of her 2006 biography), was praised by Forbes, who called her “one of the most naturally gifted actresses of her generation, instinctive and inventive…”. Stanley received a much-deserved Oscar nomination as best actress.
Noted film author Jerry Vermilye further comments, “Hers is a performance of great scope and nuance, wholly believable in refinement of her English accent and superb in the economy of her hints of madness, signaled by a depreciating little laugh when her own actions give her pause.”
In Vermilye’s 1978 book, “The Great British Films,” he notes that while “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” was a box office failure in the United Kingdom, in the U.S.” it attained sleeper status on the art-house circuit.” In addition, The New York Film Critics chose Stanley 1964’s best actress even over Julie Andrews’ Oscar-winning Mary Poppins. “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” is a chilling, quietly paced, well-acted film that everyone should experience.