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The Forgotten: A Little Stranger

I love the fact that Britain's two women directors in the 1950s were called Toye and Box. I also love the fact that Britain had two women behind the camera while American could only manage one (the estimable Lupino).
Wendy Toye is a living (so far as I know) legend (she'll be ninety-two in May with a bit of luck), but she isn't hailed and idolized and worshipped as much as she should be. True, her career was short, and true, her best work consists of miniatures rather than epics, but unlike her contemporary, the successful and prolific Muriel Box (fifteen features as director or co-director, twenty-four as writer), she could be genuinely experimental, playful and eccentric in her approach.
The most high-profile Toye story is probably The Painting, her episode of Three Cases of Murder, a compendium film in which three short stories dealing not only with homicide but also the supernatural, and peppered with guest-stars (Orson Welles is the heavyweight presence here) are improbably linked by TV presenter Eammon Andrews (from the UK version of This is Your Life). Toye's episode, in which the paintings in a gallery prove to have a sinister reality, and life, of their own, is the stand-out.
The curator in Toye's film is played by Alan Badel, a marvelously theatrical, eccentric type, and it is he who stars in the film I've just fallen a little in love with, Toye's first movie, a twenty-five minute twist-ending short entitled The Stranger Left No Card.
Badel alights from a train, dressed in a theatrically exaggerated version of Victorian costume, a figure out of Dickens—or Disney's Pinocchio. He inspires amusement, astonishment and mild alarm from the citizens of this sleepy English town (Windsor, in Berkshire). An air of heavy whimsy predominates, but this is both essential to the plot and rendered enjoyable by Toye's choice of soundtrack, a series of inventive variations on an insistently jolly suite by Hugo Alsven, orchestrated by Doreen Carwithen (another "unsuitable job for a woman"—Elizabeth Lutyens was Britain's only other female film composer at the time. In the Sixties, electronic pioneer Delia Derbyshire would join this elite, creating the gurgling menace of the Dr. Who theme tune before packing it all in to become a plumber). The music dominates everything, and for the first five minutes it's the only thing we hear apart from Badel's plummy narration.
In grandiloquent yet campy tones reminiscent of the fiendish Dr. Terwilliker (The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr T), Badel injects notes of anticipation into the proceedings, suggesting that his peculiar appearance and behavior is part of some grander scheme. And so it is.
And so is the comedic tone, because when Badel pays a visit to Mr. Latham, a local businessman, things turns sinister, sadistic. And just as we start to suspect the film is heading into slightly darker territory, it surprises us by getting darker than we would have thought possible. It would be unfair to say more. The Stranger is a man with a mission, and his elaborate display of eccentricity is designed to make sure he's noticed and remembered. When he changes his appearance and departs the town, nobody will notice the ordinary little man. When they discover what has happened, they will search in vain for the foppishly-dressed loon. No one will connect the quiet little fellow who caught the 6:20pm train with the blustering village half-wit who made the town his home for a week. "Never in a million years. Never in a million years."
"Never in a million years."
Toye's first break came through the auspices of George K. Arthur, an actor/producer who performed a similar service for the great Jack Clayton a few years later, producing the Oscar-winning The Bespoke Overcoat (available on the BFI DVD of The Innocents). But decades before his work on The Stranger Left No Card, Arthur made his greatest contribution to cinema by starting Josef Von Sternberg's directing career. Arthur asked Sternberg to make a film, starring himself, and offered his life savings as a modest budget. When Sternberg scripted and cast The Salvation Hunters and prepared to shoot it, Arthur nervously admitted that his savings did not actually exist. Sternberg invested his own cash, and a great filmmaker was born.
Wendy Toye may not be in the Sternberg league (only one filmmaker is, and his given name was Johannes Sternberg), but her quirky sensibility, which couldn't quite reach full bloom in the austerity and sterility of the British film industry's vegetable garden, is still something to be cherished. It would be nice if we were ready when the next stranger comes to town.
“I also love the fact that Britain had two women behind the camera while American could only manage one (the estimable Lupino).” Being as how the marvellous Ida was in fact a Londoner (and related to Lupino Lane) that figure might need to be revised again!
Well yes, but her directing career was Hollywood-based, so we have to give credit for that.
Of course, I was being slightly mischievous… and there’s always Dorothy Arzner.
I’d love to see Muriel Box’s film in the Auteurs’ database. Dorothy Arzner’s films too.

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