Friday, 31 May 2013


In 'Libel', the British film going public got not one but two Dirk Bogarde's: one shy, honourable, staidly heterosexual; one temperamental, devious, camp as a row of tents. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one better reflects Sir Dirk’s true nature.

The story concerns Sir Mark Loddon (let’s call him Dirk One), a quiet, sensitive, grey haired aristocrat who is happily married to Olivia De Havilland. Well, he’s sort of happily married, as Sir Mark has an awful lot on his monogrammed fine china, and this makes him shout a lot, particularly when he’s tired (I’m much the same). The problem is that he is still traumatised by his experiences in the War, experiences which his battered psyche has tried to suppress but still swirl around in frustratingly dark and out of focus flashbacks. His main day to day issue is that there are alarming lapses in his memory, and he demonstrates this on live television when he stumbles over a fairly basic question during an interview with Richard Dimbleby.


The interview is being watched by Paul Massey, who immediately understands why his old army chum Sir Mark can’t remember the details of his own life: he isn’t Sir Mark at all, but an imposter, a sleazy bit part actor called Frank Welney who, by an incredible coincidence, is Sir Mark’s double. The three met whilst incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp and, during an escape, one of the Dirk’s was seriously injured, presumed dead. Up until now, Massey believed it had been Welney who was left behind – now he firmly believes Welney did Sir Mark in, then swapped uniforms and took his place.


Evil Dirk.

Welney (Dirk Two) is a brilliant essay in seediness – boastful, sneaky, insincere, vain – and with ever watchful, greedy eyes that take in every detail. Welney makes no secret of his desire to be Sir Mark, and is even caught impersonating him in front of a mirror, arching his eyebrows (a very Dirk gesture) just to show what a bounder he is. Massey would put nothing past him, including murder and fraud, so goes to the papers and tells them what he thinks has happened.

Geoffrey Bayldon; Robert Shaw; Olivia de Havilland.

What follows is a big court case for, yes, libel. Robert Morley represents Sir Mark and a spectacle less Richard Wattis is the Judge, respectively, which is fun. They simply don’t make actors like that, anymore. Naturally, Mark’s amnesia is something of an issue when it comes to telling the whole truth and nothing but and, after a few days of him putting up a less than convincing argument, things look pretty bad for his chances of winning the case.

Judge Wattis.

Doubt creeps in...
The penultimate day of the trial features an unexpected guest: the man who was left behind during the escape, the man who might be Frank Welney or the real Sir Mark. He didn’t die, but was left horribly disfigured and brain damaged. He has been looked after since the War in a Dutch mental institution where he is known only as Number Fifteen. When this sad, shattered wreck of a man is brought into the court room he stares pointedly at Sir Mark, who reels back in abject horror. It looks pretty bad, and Sir Mark’s wife, previously his staunchest supporter, now begins to doubt him.

Devastated, Sir Mark goes out to throw himself in the river, only to suddenly have a massive flashback in which the truth (and the proof) of his real identity are revealed to him. Phew. He goes back and wins the case, and gets his wife back. Result. Number Fifteen shambles back to Holland, poor sod.

An effective rather than spectacular drama, ‘Libel’ is saved from tedium by good performances, particularly from Dirk, although we really don’t see enough of his arch, snidey Frank Welney. The appearance of Number Fifteen (Dirk 3, sort of) is a rather ghoulish climax, and although the make up isn’t that great, it conveys enough of the real ravages of war to quietly nag at you after the film finishes.
One (well, two / three) of a number of interesting roles in not massively interesting films which Dirk undertook in order to try and move away from his image as a matinee idol, his assured turn(s) in ‘Libel’ attracted the avaricious attention of Hollywood, who immediately flew him over to play Franz Liszt in the risible ‘Song Without End’ and a terribly noble Catholic priest opposite Ava Gardner in rotten Spanish Civil war pot-boiler ‘The Angel Wore Red’.  
Returning to England, Bogarde’s next role was in the ground-breaking and, to a certain extent for Dirk, mould-smashing ‘Victim’ (‘My God, Margaret, did someone just use the term ‘homosexual’?), a brave move that would herald an interesting and rewarding second phase of his career.  


  1. Number 15 or Number 17? - Minds need to be made up...

    Also, his acting in Libel attracted Hollywood, where he went and played Liszt and a priest, after which he returned to England to film Libel...?

    No wonder he wrote so many autobiographies, trapped in a time loop...

    1. All sorted now. That'll teach me to blog on the bus.

  2. I honestly thought this was a made up film, like those ersatz Tales of the Unexpected you do. I had forgotten how ridiculous some British films can be while remaining completely unfantastic and humorless about it.

    I went to a BFI exhibition where they showed two of Bogarde's own screenplays. The one for "Victim" had a carefully worked out schedule and emotional chart on it so Dirk could work out at what emotional state his character would be on which shooting day and monitor the progression. The one for "Song without End" had shopping lists and phone numbers scrawled on it.