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Tale of Two Cities, A (1958)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Tale of Two Cities, A (1958)
35mm, black and white, 117 mins
DirectorRalph Thomas
Production CompanyRank Organisation
ProducerBetty E. Box
ScreenplayT.E.B. Clarke
From the novel byCharles Dickens
PhotographyErnest Steward
MusicRichard Addinsell

Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Sydney Carton); Dorothy Tutin (Lucie Manette); Cecil Parker (Jarvis Lorry); Athene Seyler (Miss Pross); Christopher Lee (Marquis St. Evremonde)

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A wayward barrister redeems himself with a heroic act of self-sacrifice in Paris during the French Revolutionary Terror.

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Directed by Ralph Thomas and produced by Betty Box, this adaptation of a classic tale set against the French Revolution seems to suffer by comparison with earlier Dickens adaptations by David Lean. However, this does not make A Tale of Two Cities a bad film. It is certainly a faithful adaptation, following in a simple, straightforward manner (thanks to screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke) the narrative line of the book.

Dirk Bogarde, as cynical lawyer Sydney Carton, gives a performance that, initially at least, is beguilingly sardonic. The fact that the plot revolves around Carton's likeness to a young French aristocrat named Charles Darnay is problematised somewhat by the fact that Paul Guers, as the Frenchman, looks very little like Bogarde.

That aside, the leading performances are compelling enough and Bogarde does especially well, given Ronald Colman's acclaimed performance in the 1935 adaptation. Donald Pleasence is suitably sinister as the informer Barsad. Also memorable is Rosalie Crutchley as Madame Defarge, the epitome of withered, spiteful bitterness. Dorothy Tutin is disappointing as Darnay's fiancée, Lucie Manette, making it hard to care whether or not she notices Carton's silent affection for her.

The Revolution itself is rather sidelined by the moral dilemma faced by Carton. While Darnay escapes Paris, Carton doubles for him, taking his place before the executioner. The novel is no more interested in the roots of the revolution than the film, but one cannot help feeling that Thomas might have rendered the plight of the Parisian poor more vividly: the sight of starving people greedily licking wine from the streets as it flows away from a burst cask is as close as we come to seeing the misery of the masses. But the film is more concerned with private miseries, and it is Carton's famous scaffold speech ("It is a far, far better thing that I do now...") that sums up the small-scale tragedy of a love unrequited, and a life lost.

Shot in stark black and white, and with many of the supporting cast coming from a theatrical background the film ends up sometimes seeming anachronistic. Bogarde himself commented on this in a 1990 interview - "Betty and Ralph made one capital error, which was not to make it in colour. If it had been in colour people would still watch it today."

David Parker

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Video Clips
1. A pretty little doll (1:56)
2. One cask only (1:45)
3. After the verdict (3:08)
4. Wrongful arrest? (3:39)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Only Way, The (1925)
Bannen, Ian (1928-1999)
Bass, Alfie (1920-1987)
Bogarde, Dirk (1921-1999)
Box, Betty (1915-1999)
Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)
Lee, Christopher (1922-)
McKern, Leo (1920-2002)
Parker, Cecil (1897-1971)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Roome, Alfred (1908-1997)
Thomas, Ralph (1915-2001)
Dickens on Film