June 12, 2012

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)
Grade: 52/100

Director: Bryan Forbes
Stars: Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough, Nanette Newman

What it's about. This overrated but moderately interesting drama stars American stage legend Kim Stanley as a British woman with purported clairvoyant powers. She wants her supernatural abilities to become celebrated, so, instead of divining winning lottery numbers or something equally useful, she stages a kidnapping with plans to become famous by revealing the location of the unharmed child.

Stanley convinces milquetoast hubbie Richard Attenborough to do all the dirty work. He abducts Judith Donner, the post-toddler daughter of wealthy businessman Mark Eden and his hottie wife Nanette Newman. This is surprisingly easy, since Donner chauffeur Godfrey James leaves both the child and the keys behind while checking out Attenborough's lame story about a desk message.

Poor Attenborough has apparently patronized his wife's affected prattle since George was King, including her belief that she can communicate with her stillborn child of many years ago. Attenborough goes along with her scheme to mail a ransom note and secure a lucrative ransom from Eden. Eden is wise enough to bring in Scotland Yard, but it's to no avail since amateur criminal and namby-pamby Attenborough outsmarts everyone concerned.

Meanwhile, Donner has finally figured out her new bedroom is not a hospital, yet never asks where her mother is and seems content to spend the day in bed with no complaints. Stanley visits Eden and Newman to offer her services, revealing information that makes her a suspect. Yet the police only knock politely on each and every door of the Stanley house, apparently under the belief that she obtained her inside info as a genuine medium.

Attenborough, who is willing to kidnap, drug, and conceal the child, draws the line at actually murdering her, an act the audience could not forgive. He leaves the drugged but ultimately unharmed child near a group of Scouts, who can always be found camping out somewhere when you need them to discover a child in peril. Unluckily for Attenborough, he can be identified by Donner, though Godfrey James got an equally good look, a fact director and screenwriter Bryan Forbes ignores.

This leads to the final scene, where the previously eternally cagey Stanley tells the police everything they want to know via a seance, except where the money is, which Attenborough obligingly reveals.

How others will see it. Though not a box office champion, the film was unquestionably successful. Attenborough won Best British Actor at BAFTA, while Stanley was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. Today at imdb.com, the user vote total is relatively low at 3K, but the user ratings are very high. Women over 45 give it a remarkable grade of 9.1 out of 10, though women between 30 and 44 award it a significantly lower (yet still high) 7.5. One has to wonder how highly women would still regard it if Attenborough had strangled and buried the child as Stanley had commanded.

How I felt about it. The key to measuring the quality of the film is Stanley's performance. Is it mesmerizing and credible, or ponderous and overwrought? Is she aided in her effort by Forbes' direction and dialogue? Is her relationship with Attenborough credible or dubious?

I often had to constantly rewind the movie and increase the volume in order to make out what Stanley was saying. Generally, it wasn't worth the effort. Stanley assumes she is an important medium whose talents simply haven't been discovered yet. She believes her husband has doglike devotion to her and will always bark upon her suggestion. Worse yet, she believes that's the way it should be. It turns out that she's wrong on all counts.