Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)
There’s something about mid-century British films that make them distinctively British. While it’s hard to describe, you can recognize them in nearly every aspect of filmmaking: the angles, lighting, camera movements, close-ups, transitions, edits, and so on. It’s more than just the actors speaking with a funny accent and driving on the wrong side of the road.
It’s even more apparent in black-and-white films. These films are just a little… off. You see it in science fiction films like Quatermass II (1957) and The Damned (1962) or in thrillers like Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1960) and Cash on Demand (1961.) Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) is a distinctively British film. It’s also brilliant.
The synopsis on IMDb states in one sentence something you may infer from the film but may not interpret in quite the same way. When Myra (Kim Stanley) and Bill Savage (Richard Attenborough) plot to kidnap the daughter from a wealthy family, no explanation is needed except that they just need the money, but there seems to be something else.
Myra is a “professional” medium and can provide manufactured clues from the beyond for the parents because she’s privy to what’s happened to the little girl and where she is. IMDb tells us their purpose is to achieve fame for solving the crime. However, it’s never clear how exactly they plan to monetize it. They even mention giving back the ransom money they’ve collected.
It’s irrelevant, though, because things will go wrong, and they’ll never see their plan fully realized. The complications that arise make events in movies like this so unexpected, and the movies themselves so fun. This is just the plot, though. It’s what lies beneath the surface that makes Séance on a Wet Afternoon more than just a very good thriller.
Through the course of the film, we learn bits and pieces about the Savage’s past. There are psychological reasons that make the kidnapping plan especially meaningful for Myra. She’s a haunted woman who has obviously not come to terms with what’s happened to her. In fact, she may very well be insane.
Her husband is the wild card, not any external force. He’s rapidly regretting his decision to help enact the plan. We never see how they came to their decision, by the way. The movie opens with a commonplace discussion between the two of them that eventually introduces the topic. He’s severely henpecked by her and it seems unlikely he’ll go against her wishes.
Their relationship is fascinating. He’s clearly under her thumb and we don’t know exactly how that came to be. Our biggest clue is when she tells him, “You can’t live without me. You tried once and you came back.” What is that all about? While we desperately want to know the details, the mere mention of them tells us all we need to know.
Director Bryan Forbes was an actor in twice as many films as he directed. This was his third time behind the camera out of a 20-film list that includes one of my all-time favorites, The Stepford Wives (1975.) He also wrote the screenplay for Séance on a Wet Afternoon, turning an entertaining kidnapping caper into a fascinating psychological character study.
Written by Bryan Forbes
From the novel by Mark McShane
Directed by Bryan Forbes
Starring Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough, Judith Donner, Mark Eden, Nanette Newman
RT 121 min.
Released June 4, 1964 (UK), Nov. 5, 1964 (US)
Home Video Criterion Channel
Rating 8 knife-wielding psychos (out of 10)