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The Bootleg Files: An Inspector Calls

BOOTLEG FILES 630: “An Inspector Calls” (1954 British drama starring Alastair Sim).

LAST SEEN: On the Internet Archive.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It has been commercially unavailable for years in the United States.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There is a U.K. DVD version, but no U.S. version yet.

In the aftermath of World War II, British writer J.B. Priestley put forth the play “An Inspector Calls,” which offered an interesting mix of drawing room mystery and socialist agitation against his nation’s suffocating class system. The play was first performed in the Soviet Union in 1945 and later had its London premiere in 1946 starring Ralph Richardson as the eponymous investigator. The Broadway premiere occurred in 1947 with Thomas Mitchell as the inspector. “An Inspector Calls” also turned up on British television in 1948 and in radio adaptations in 1950 and 1953.

However, a film version did not occur until 1954. One reason for the delay might have been the challenges of adapting the heavily theatrical piece for the screen. “An Inspector Calls” takes place in a single setting, with the plot focusing on a mysterious police inspector interrogating the members of a wealthy family on their respective roles in destroying the life of a young working-class woman who committed suicide. Desmond Davis, a television writer and producer, created a screenplay that telescoped the three-act drama into a compact 80-minute film while opening the story to dramatize the misfortunes that befell the suicidal woman, who was never seen in the stage version. A few unpleasant aspects of the plot were also bowdlerized for the screen, owing to the restrictions placed by film censors of the era. Even more curious, the inspector’s name was changed for the film from Goole to Poole.

The story is set in 1912 in the home of Arthur Birling, a wealth mill owner and political figure. Arthur and his wife Sybil are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila to George Croft, the son of Arthur’s main business competitor. Joining the celebrants is Eric Birling, the adult son in the family. The Birlings and George are finishing their dinner – all are dressed in expensive evening clothes, and Arthur is holding court with predictions that there will not be a war with Germany and self-satisfied comments about a pending knighthood.

Suddenly, a strange figure appears in their home: Inspector Poole, who informs the celebrants that he wants to ask them questions regarding Eva Smith, who killed herself earlier in the day by drinking disinfectant. Poole produces Eva’s diary that details the Birling family’s involvement in her demise.

Going person by person, Poole identifies Eva’s connection with everyone in this circle. Eva had worked in Arthur’s factory, but he had her fired for her role in a failed effort by workers to secure a pay raise. Eva would later gain work as a salesgirl in a hat store, but Sheila had her fired after complaining over what she mistakenly believed was rude behavior on Eva’s behalf during a sales transaction. The difference between father and daughter in reacting to this news is startling: Arthur offers no remorse, while Sheila is sorry for her actions.

Poole then links George to Eva, who had to change her name to Daisy Renton in the hope of finding employment without being tied to her previous work experience. George admits saving Eva from an unpleasant situation in a bar and then putting her up in his apartment when he discovers she is homeless. Eva became his mistress, but she voluntarily departs when George decides to marry Sheila, who is his equal in class status.

Poole questions Sybil over her encounter with Eva. She came upon the young woman when she made a financial request of assistance at a charity run by Sybil. But Sybil rejected the application due to Eva being pregnant and unmarried. Sybil stubborn denies that she acted cruelly in this matter. The final interrogation is aimed at Eric, who turns out to be the man that got Eva pregnant.

And where does this all lead to? Well, if you are not familiar with “An Inspector Calls,” there is an ending that you will certainly not expect. No spoilers here, folks – and don’t go peeking at Wikipedia or any other site trying to guess how this wraps up!

Sadly, director Guy Hamilton doesn’t get fully textured performances from most of his cast. Arthur Young’s Arthur and Olga Lindo’s Sybil seem like caricatures of snobbish upper crust Britain rather than real people, while Eileen Moore’s Sheila and Brian Worth’s George are one-dimensional in both their casual cruelty and their belated regret. As the doomed Eva, Jane Wenham is too posh to be mistaken for a working-class girl, and she fails to express any genuine reaction to the indignities that rain on her throughout the film.

On the other hand, Bryan Forbes captures the recklessness of Eric’s drinking problem and his careless relationship with Eva. And as Poole, the great Alastair Sim more than compensates for the other actors’ failings. His inspector is both lugubrious and menacing, patiently absorbing the condescending comments of the wealthy folks who are outraged over his line of questions before he meticulously dissects their lies and obfuscations with a stark presentation of facts. Sim’s gaze is especially mesmerizing, with an unblinking vision at the interrogating that hints at a cool enjoyment as they squirm under the weight of the truth.

Perhaps “An Inspector Calls” should have remained on the stage, because the expansion of the story diluted the sense of paranoia that permeated the theatrical presentation. It also scrubbed away much of the socialist edge to Priestley’s original text and its unsubtle presentation of how Britain’s wealthy elite rode over the aspirations and emotions of the working poor.

Americans barely saw the film – it had a brief theatrical release via the small Associated Artists Production distribution outfit. The film was available on the 16mm home movie market that came before the rise of VHS video, but that was the only time it was available for U.S. home entertainment release.

Why has the film been gone from U.S. release? There might be a rights problem with Priestley text, or perhaps there is uncertainty over who owns the U.S. rights to the property. The film has been on British DVD, and a fine-looking copy is on the Internet Archive website in an unauthorized posting – that site specializes in public domain works, and this film is not in the public domain.

For anyone looking to experience “An Inspector Calls,” a good idea would be to track down the 2015 BBC remake with David Thewlis as the inspector. That work is closer to the letter and spirit of the original text. The 1954 version, sadly, doesn’t quite cut it.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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