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Man in Grey, The (1943)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Man in Grey, The (1943)
35mm. black and white, 116 mins
DirectorLeslie Arliss
ProducerEdward Black
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ScreenplayMargaret Kennedy, Leslie Arliss
PhotographyArthur Crabtree

Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Hesther Shaw/Barbary); Phyllis Calvert (Clarissa Richmond/Lady Rohan); James Mason (Lord Rohan); Stewart Granger (Peter/Swindon Rokeby); Harry Scott (Toby)

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A gypsy fortune teller warns Regency beauty Clarissa that her friendship with downtrodden actress Hesther will spell disaster, and is proved right as the two women meet up years later and get involved with the cold, heartless Lord Rohan and the gentleman-turned-highwayman Rokeby, with inevitably tragic results.

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The first "official" Gainsborough costume melodrama emerged to a generally poor critical reception, but it was hard to argue with the box office - it was one of the ten most successful British films of 1943. Indeed, so successful was it that after its regional release it was given a second West End premiere to cancel out memories of the first.

And it's easy to see why, as it caught the national mood quite brilliantly, by fusing elements of previously successful "women's pictures" such as Rebecca (US, d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1940), Gaslight (d. Thorold Dickinson, 1940) and of course Gone With The Wind (US, d. Victor Fleming, 1939) with a surprisingly distinctive formula of its own, blending authentic star appeal (James Mason, Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, the then newcomer Stewart Granger) with a plot whose novelettish surface concealed an intricate labyrinth of contrasts and doublings: good against evil, obedience against rebellion, male against female and class against class. The ingredients of virtually all the subsequent Gainsborough melodramas can be clearly seen taking root here.

Clearly, the "good" Clarissa (Calvert) is separated from the "bad" Hesther (Lockwood) by virtue of her more privileged background - but this advantage becomes a curse as she finds that playing by the rules means that she is powerless to do anything once the ground starts shifting beneath her feet as the more cunning characters (Hesther, Rohan, even Rokeby) take ruthless advantage of her lack of guile. Even when Hesther appears to be looking out for Clarissa's best interests by engineering a romance between her and Rokeby, she has a selfish ulterior motive.

Although the two men, Rohan (Mason) and Rokeby (Granger), both emerged from the landed gentry, their fortunes and personalities are quite different. Rohan is very much part of the establishment, carefully moderating his appalling behaviour so that it never threatens his expulsion from polite society. Rokeby, by contrast, has been forced out due to the loss of his family estates and responds by taking on any job going - actor, carnival barker, even highwayman - which means that neither we nor Clarissa really know what to make of him.

Although Leslie Arliss's direction is workmanlike at best, he was well served by his collaborators, working visual miracles out of limited resources. Cinematographer Arthur Crabtree, who primarily created the 'look' of the Gainsborough melodramas (alongside art director John Bryan and costume designer Elizabeth Haffenden), would later assume the director's chair for three of them.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Clarissa and Hesther (3:31)
2. Lord Rohan (1:35)
3. Rokeby as Othello (4:10)
4. In the library (2:26)
Production stills
Publicity materials
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Fanny By Gaslight (1944)
Jassy (1947)
Wicked Lady, The (1945)
Arliss, Leslie (1901-1987)
Calvert, Phyllis (1915-2002)
Crabtree, Arthur (1900-75)
Granger, Stewart (1913-1993)
Lockwood, Margaret (1916-1990)
Mason, James (1909-1984)
Ostrer, Maurice (1896-1975)
Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)
Gainsborough Melodrama