Remembering Trevor Howard

An acting great British of the post-war era, Trevor Howard's the subject of a new movie box set. Aliya looks at its five classic films...

It’s difficult to describe Trevor Howard. I could start by saying he was a great leading man of British post-war cinema, but that leaves out his supporting turns in films like The Third Man, and his character performances, such as Captain Bligh in Mutiny On The Bounty (1962), or Sir Henry At Rawlinson End (1980). He could be called an upper-class gentleman, but in Sons And Lovers (1960) he played a Nottinghamshire miner perfectly.

I could talk about how he wasn’t traditionally handsome, but the look in his eyes when he falls passionately for Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter) contains a male beauty that continues to define cinematic love today. Or maybe I could mention how perfectly he inhabited the role of the fundamentally decent man – except that he could be weak to his core in films such as Outcast Of The Islands (1952), and make you believe it totally.

So few actors are immediately recognisable and yet utterly different in every film; I think it’s fair to say that he was one of the most talented actors Britain has ever produced. He was never predictable, but he was always dependable in the skill and intensity he brought to his performances.

A Brief Biography

Trevor Howard was born on 29 September 1913 in Kent. He attended RADA and acted on the stage before World War Two, turning down film roles in favour of the theatre. During the war he worked in the Royal Corps of Signals; the publicity machines later made up claims of exceptional conduct during the war, but his war record suggests he was, in fact, discharged in 1943 for having a ‘psychopathic personality’. After the war, 1945 David Lean was looking for a fresh face to play the lead in his new film, Brief Encounter, and he chose Howard, launching his film career. From there Howard’s talent kept him constantly in work until his death in 1988, aged 74. But no matter what film he was appearing in, all of his contracts contained a clause that guaranteed him time off to indulge his love of cricket by watching test matches.

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In celebration of the centenary of his birth, Studiocanal has released a DVD box set of five of his greatest roles, and although these films don’t do justice to the scope of his skill, they’re a brilliant place to start if you’re new to post-war British cinema. The key figures of David Lean, Carol Reed, and Graham Greene are all represented, as are some of the best actors of the period. So here’s a look at those five films, some of them famous, some of them less well-known today but deserving to be watched by a new audience:

Brief Encounter (1945)

Laura is a happily married woman. Every Thursday she takes the train into town, does her shopping, eats a light lunch, and catches the afternoon matinee. But then she gets a bit of grit in her eye at the train station, and Doctor Alec Harvey happens to be there, waiting to fish out that grit with his handkerchief. It turns out he takes the train into town every Thursday too.

Brief Encounter gets a bad press nowadays. It’s become known for putting moral duty before love, and seen in that light it all seems a bit silly in the modern age, and people laugh at it. But it’s not moral duty that gets put first at all – Laura and Alec love their respective families so dearly, and they can’t bear to hurt them. There’s a wonderful scene at the beginning of the film, where they spend a few hours together as friends and are just beginning to realise that they have feelings for each other. They sit in the station cafe, and Alec talks about his work, a dry conversation; suddenly he takes her hand, and asks her to meet him again. He begs her, humbly, and she hesitates. You see the foreshadowing of desire and despair in their eyes. It’s a perfect cinematic moment.

The Third Man (1949)

There are two Carol Reed films in this box set – this is the most well-known one, and the one in which Howard seems to be in the background. But he’s absolutely necessary as Major Calloway, the antithesis of Harry Lime, standing wearily for goodness in the face of slippery morals and profiteering. Welles’ performance is often put on a pedestal, but all the support he’s getting comes from Trevor Howard, who is not a glamorous figure, but a cynical one. He cuts through the charm to expose the horror underneath.

It’s a stunning film of post-war corruption and mystery, leading you through the streets and secrets of Vienna. It often gets called one of the greatest of all British films, and because of the way the script, the direction, the performances and the music all come together that’s hard to argue with. The only challenge is in seeing the film with fresh eyes, because so much about it has become iconic. Not exactly a terrible challenge to be faced with…

Odette (1950)

Another supporting role for Howard, this time as Captain Peter Churchill, working in espionage in World War Two along with the incredibly brave war hero Odette Hallowes. This is a true story of her time as a spy in France, her subsequent capture, and incarceration. It’s incredible how she managed to persuade the Nazis to keep her alive, and I won’t ruin it for you. She was really quick-thinking as well as brave.

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To be honest, it’s not the best role for Howard, who definitely plays second-fiddle to Anna Neagle as Odette, but that’s how it should be given the subject matter, and Howard does a great job of providing the support she needs to give a star turn. Peter Ustinov plays Rabinovich, the radio operator, and he brings some light relief, which is hard going considering the subject matter. And Marius Goring gives a good turn as a not entirely one-dimensional Nazi. It gets very grim towards the end, but since this is a true story, the happy ending is not a surprise. You can go on to the British Pathe website and see news footage of the real Odette marrying Peter Churchill in 1947, which is the perfect way to end watching this film.

Outcast Of The Islands (1951)

This is the second Carol Reed film in the set, the next film he made after The Third Man, and it really struggled in the comparison with that, so not a lot of people have seen it. But it is definitely worth the effort.

Based on a Joseph Conrad novel, it has a unique, bombastic feel to it. It opens with a panning shot across the harbor at Makassar, Indonesia, taking in the sprawling mess of the ships and cargo, the working locals, the elephants. And then we listen to a conversation between a trader and one of his toadying employees (played really slimily by Wilfrid Hyde-White) – Willems (Howard) has been caught embezzling funds, and they are going to punish him. Willems is not exactly the hero of this film, but he is the lead character, and so we follow his flight from the police. He gets taken in by Captain Lingard (Ralph Richardson), who trades with the far islands; he leaves Willems on one of those remote islands, where his weaknesses lead him to a tragedy entirely of his own making.

It’s so great to watch Howard play this dissolute character, and match some huge performances that verge on manic. Richardson as Lingard is very strange – you’ll either love him or hate him but you can’t stop watching him. Wendy Hillier plays his daughter. She gets only a few lines, but she gives out such a lot of information about her life and her marriage, purely by the way she reacts to the other actors. And Robert Morley gets to give some depth to his performance as Lingard’s son-in-law. His hatred for Willems reaches such depths – you feel it crackling between them in their scenes together.

Heart Of The Matter (1953)

Now I have to admit that I’m a huge Graham Greene fan; I think he’s a writer that captures the period of post-war Britain like no other, but also shows us something fundamental about our relationships with each other and with our consciences. Heart Of The Matter is the story of Scobie, a police officer working in colonial Africa at the outbreak of World War Two and trying to stay true to his Catholic principles. But unhappiness pervades his life. He is passed over for promotion, and his wife sees it as a personal insult. She takes out her frustrations on him, and slowly pushes him into a situation where he can no longer live according to his conscience.

There’s also a really good turn from a young Denholm Elliott, as the clerk who takes a fancy to Scobie’s wife. He’s so handsome and self-obsessed that he makes for a malicious presence in the film that gives it an edge it might otherwise lack.

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Howard is perfect in Graham Greene-related roles, getting that tired, banal despair that infuses the novels so right (Greene also wrote the screenplay for The Third Man). I only wish Howard had got a chance to play more Greene characters, particularly Bendrix in The End Of The Affair. But enough about what might have been – Howard leaves behind an amazing body of work. Not just in the five films represented here, but in so many other roles, from romances to thrillers, from literary adaptations to real-life stories, he made every disparate character his own.

Studiocanal’s Trevor Howard Box Set released on 23rd September 2013.

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