We spend a lot of time these days bemoaning the lack of originality in cinema, citing the number of remakes and the fondness for rehashing plots and concepts. However, the truth is that this isn’t an especially new phenomenon; it’s been going on for almost as long as people have been going to the movies. So Long at the Fair (1950) is an example of a film that’s based on a hoary old tale, an urban myth if you like, which has been used in a number of productions – The Lady Vanishes (1938), Dangerous Crossing (1953), and an early episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to name a few, have all borrowed to a greater or lesser extent from the same basic idea. The point I’m trying to make here is that a perceived lack of innovation in the central plot theme is not necessarily always a bad thing – the real test is in the execution of the script. Even the most familiar of stories can still grip the viewer as long as they are presented in an interesting way.
Events in the film revolve around the Paris Exhibition of 1889, and a young brother and sister, Johnny and Vicky Barton (David Tomlinson and Jean Simmons), who happen to be visiting the capital. Thinking themselves lucky to have secured accommodation when all the city is awash with tourists, they proceed to enjoy their first night out on the town. The bustling, thronged atmosphere is nicely conveyed through scenes of cafe life on the pavements of Montmartre, and later at the Moulin Rouge. These two young people, having sampled the cosmopolitan night life, return exhausted to their hotel to get some rest and prepare for further excitement the next day. However, that’s not to be. When Vicky awakes she finds herself confronted with a situation that at first arouses puzzlement, but soon descends into despair and fear. What has happened is that Johnny has disappeared, but that’s only the half of it. As soon as Vicky starts to ask questions she’s presented with the even more perplexing problem that not only does nobody seem to remember seeing her brother but they insist, to a man, that he was never there in the first place. As if that’s not bad enough, there’s the downright chilling discovery that the room Vicky remembers her brother occupying doesn’t even exist, despite her having visited him in it. The unfolding of this nightmare scenario is nicely handled, with each new shock being added incrementally and the girl’s panic growing accordingly. Finding no solace at the hotel, Vicky turns to the authorities, the consulate and the police, who both display sympathy but also a healthy, and understandable, dose of scepticism. While the distraught girl witnesses one possible avenue of inquiry after another relentlessly closed to her, and her belief in her own sanity being stretched to the limit, the viewer is made subtly aware that something dark and inexplicable is taking place behind the scenes. Enter George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde), an artist struggling to make a go of his new-fangled impressionist works and an unlikely but welcome ally for the increasingly desperate Vicky. With the backing of someone who’s willing to take her story at face value our heroine now has the opportunity to get to the heart of the mystery. The solution, when it comes, may seem a little contrived but it is logical and ties up all the loose ends in a very satisfactory manner. Added to that, and perhaps most importantly, the whole thing is achieved both stylishly and without any relaxation of the tension.
Terence Fisher shared the directing credits with Antony Darnborough, and the sumptuous and stylised sets bring to mind the look of the Hammer films that the former would go on to make his name in. Despite a number of outdoor scenes, there’s a real sense of claustrophobia to the whole production that emphasises the shortage of options open to Vicky. When the action returns to the ornate, overdecorated interior of the hotel this stifling feeling is heightened even further – the intricacy of the decor being highly suggestive of unpalatable secrets that need to be disguised by an opulent exterior. There are also two fine set pieces that grab the attention, the first being a horrific accident that befalls a hot air balloon carrying the one person who may be capable of corroborating Vicky’s unlikely story. The other is an extended sequence that sees Hathaway stealing through the hotel by night in an effort to secure evidence that will convince the authorities to act. Fisher really piles on the suspense as the young artist slips in and out of shadow along corridors and staircases, narrowly avoiding the staff as they go about their regular nightly rituals, to get his hands on the tell-tale receipt books. Jean Simmons was asked to carry the picture for long stretches, and she brought it off very well. She had that doe-eyed innocence that almost guarantees sympathy and used it to maximum effect. However, there’s more to her performance than mere pouting for the camera; her mounting feeling of hopelessness as one door after another slams shut in her face is always believable. Dirk Bogarde’s role was a good deal more straightforward, but he too played it to perfection. There’s a nice mix of the gauche and the determined in his portrayal of an unexpected knight in shining armour. As for the supporting cast, there are welcome turns from familiar faces such as Felix Aylmer, Andre Morell and a young Honor Blackman. The strongest work though is done by Cathleen Nesbitt as the forbidding hotel manageress, whose sour features are perfect for conveying a very subtle menace.
So Long at the Fair has just recently been released on DVD in the UK by new label Spirit, although they are an affiliate of ITV/Granada. The transfer is a reasonable one without being especially remarkable. The film doesn’t appear to have undergone any restoration and there are the usual age related artifacts to be seen, but they’re never particularly distracting. If anything, the image is a little too soft but I wouldn’t call it a fatal flaw either. The disc itself is completely barebones, no trailer, no subtitles, just the movie. Despite that, I think the film is very entertaining; even if the plot is one that you’re largely familiar with it still holds the attention throughout. For those who have no acquaintance whatsoever with the story it ought to prove even more gripping. In brief, there’s a genuine puzzle plot, fine performances, and tight, smooth direction. I give it my recommendation.