Charles Barr
University of East Anglia

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Lance Pettitt

New York: Syracuse University Press, 2023, 360 pages.

ISBN: 9780815637295

Who was Hurst, and why do we need a book about him? In The Last Bohemian Lance Pettitt offers comprehensive and challenging answers.

Active as a director in British commercial cinema from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s, Hurst worked efficiently enough to make himself consistently bankable; but compared with such contemporaries as, say, David Lean or Terence Fisher, or the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, or the group centred on Ealing Studios, he is remembered neither for any canonical titles nor for any easily identifiable authorial signature. The film of his that made most impact in its time was Dangerous Moonlight (1941), an early-war pilot-centred romantic melodrama now known mainly for its soundtrack, dominated by Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto; it seldom features among the many films from this intensely creative period for the national cinema that now get re-shown and re-studied. His equally assured Christmas Carol adaptation of a decade later, Scrooge (1951), does get wheeled out regularly for seasonal TV screening, but is tied more to the names of Dickens and of its star Alastair Sim than to that of its director.

So far, not especially promising, and it’s easy to understand why Hurst has commonly been, in the words of Pettitt in his introduction, “characterized dismissively in standard cinema reference works as a ‘jobbing’ director across different genres” (2023: 16). I for one, as a student of British film history, have in the past gone along unthinkingly with that assessment, not even discussing him but simply neglecting him and his work. Mea culpa, indeed. Pettitt’s dedicated research, deep and wide, into his life and films makes such indifference unsustainable.

For a start, and this is no exaggeration: surely no regular film-maker has ever had a life as varied and as turbulent and altogether as interesting as Hurst’s? Many others, like the British directors referred to above, have worked their passage into the industry, and advanced within it, in a variety of enterprising ways, but they started younger than Hurst and ranged less widely. Born in Belfast in, portentously, the same year, 1895, in which cinema was launched as a public medium, Hurst did not become an industry director until the age of 40. His apprenticeship had not been – like, say, that of Lean and Fisher, and of Ealing’s Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer and Charles Frend, all a decade younger than Hurst – through years of diligent studio work as film editor, but as maker of independent short early-sound features characterised by Pettitt as – in quotes – “artistic”: The Tell-Tale Heart, based on Edgar Allen Poe, and Riders to the Sea, a version of John M Synge’s play shot on location in the West of Ireland. Before that, Hurst had worked with, and learned from, no less a man than John Ford in California, an association that would endure on and off up to Ford’s death in 1973. Before that, he had spent time deeply involved in the artistic milieux both of Toronto and of Paris. And before that, he had enlisted in 1914 in the Royal Ulster Rifles and survived the horrors of Gallipoli.

That is quite a backstory for a film-maker, even before we consider the two big subjects of his sexuality and his Irishness, both woven closely into his life and into Pettitt’s account of it: he characterises Hurst as essentially an exilic figure, the book’s key metaphor.

Hurst’s promiscuous homosexuality made him an outsider at one level, living through decades when any such activity was still illegal. Born and raised in the acutely homophobic Presbyterian Ulster capital, long before the political division of the island between North and South, he came to identify variously as Ulster Irish, as Irish, and – pragmatically – as British or even English, working as he did in British cinema long before his own native cinema achieved any significant status and output. It is fascinating to find him, as quoted by Pettitt, speaking out publicly for “our” English values and English cinema, while working intermittently along with John Ford, Michael Morris (aka Lord Killanin) and others to promote an indigenous production sector for the Irish Republic. Exilic seems just the right word, as signalled indirectly in the book’s subtitle.

The book ultimately stands or falls – though it is valuable enough already through its tracing of the life – by the way it links the exilic life to the films as we have them. And here too, it stands. Most clearly so on the Irish issue. Hurst’s career is bookended by the two Synge adaptations, shot on Irish West-coast locations, respectively Galway and Kerry: his “calling card” film, the mid-length Riders to the Sea (1934), and his final film, the full-length Playboy of the Western World (1962). In between, made for British International Pictures, the same company that had financed a recent run of ten films by Hitchcock, came his first feature of any prominence, Ourselves Alone (1936), looking back to the Anglo/Irish War of Independence, and provocative enough – the title translates as Sinn Féin – to be banned initially in Hurst’s own Belfast.

Beyond this there are suggestive arguments as to the way Hurst’s Irish perspective inflects his films of the intervening years such as the colonial drama Simba (1955), centred on Kenya’s struggle for independence:

Hurst’s casting of the Irish actor Joseph Tomelty in a minor but significant role as the film’s moderate figure, Dr Hughes [a settler who protests publicly against over-repressive policies] does allow us to see an Ulster exilic Irishness imbued in this film […] A former Irish soldier in the British army, with colonial experience in the Middle East and Africa (1914-19), who left Belfast at the height of the Troubles, Hurst understood precisely the unsettling ambivalence of being Ulster exilic and being implicated in an empire’s counterinsurgency measures. (190-191)

There is scope to build on Pettitt’s work, accepting this and others among the postwar films as deceptively complex documents of their time. In terms of casting, I would just add the significant role of the Irish actor Niall McGinnis in the hospital drama Behind the Mask (1958), “unjustly neglected” indeed, Hurst’s last film of any weight. McGinnis has key roles both in Ourselves Alone and Playboy; cued by reading Pettitt, I now see his Irishness as a telling factor in his role as a quietly subversive presence in the hospital team run by the impeccably correct English authority of Michael Redgrave. Such things seep suggestively from Hurst’s exilic Irishness into the mainstream British output.

Any homosexual current is necessarily, across these years, less open, but Pettitt does make a convincing reading of various “homosocial” situations, starting with the pilot relationships of Dangerous Moonlight in 1941. Again, there is scope to build on this. Had Hurst’s career lasted longer, it could have changed, helped by the drive towards decriminalisation and the simultaneous loosening of film censorship. Victim, directed in 1961 by Basil Dearden, fresh from a long career at Ealing, was a landmark, with Dirk Bogarde (star of Simba) boldly taking the role of a married man, a barrister, who finds he can no longer deny his gay identity. But Hurst made no British film after the lightweight marital comedy His and Hers of that same year.

There were other roads he could have taken, for instance into horror cinema, like Fisher and many others – why not, in the wake of his powerful early Poe film? – or into TV series production, like several from Ealing, but he never did engage with that medium (even though Behind the Mask contains an impressive long sequence of a surgical operation being shared with a student audience via closed-circuit TV). Of course, he was a decade older than any of them, thus less vigorous and probably less attractive to producers. Nor did he have any incipient celebrity status to enjoy and exploit, as supremely did Powell and Pressburger after their own careers wound down in the 1960s, and as would others like the still-active Lean and Terence Fisher, whose second career as a horror specialist was just taking off.

Soon, the ambitious plan for a particular kind of Irish production base tailed off, doomed by the successive failures of Ford’s three-part story The Rising of the Moon (1958) and of Hurst’s Playboy four years later. Pettitt quotes Adrian Frazier’s verdict in Hollywood Irish (2011) that this was “very bad as a film, and as a version of Playboy”, and quietly agrees, as I do.

Various other half-hearted projects came to nothing over the long years that followed as Hurst survived, now in permanent English exile, till his death in 1986 at the age of 91. By this time, things were changing not only for Irish film production but, more slowly, for Hurst himself. His 90th birthday was celebrated by a party at the British Academy for Film and Television Arts, BAFTA, in central London: the book reproduces the full-page photographic record of this from Screen International. It is one of more than 70 well-chosen illustrations, on-page rather than plates: the quality varies, and this BAFTA image is almost indecipherable in its details, but the important thing is that the party happened. And there is no problem with the final images, showing the posthumous honours: the commemorative plaques for Hurst mounted in 2011 at a Belfast cinema, and in 2012 at the Hurst Stage at the city’s imposing new Titanic Studios.

The Last Bohemian had a long gestation, delayed not only by the thoroughness of its research but by the existence of other, less scholarly, commemorative work by friends and family members. For Pettitt, who refers briefly and tactfully to it, this was evidently a source both of information and of frustration; to compare texts and unravel all the complexities would require a separate article. It’s enough that we now have his book, a masterly summation and a measured tribute.