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School for Scoundrels (1959)


Main image of School for Scoundrels (1959)
Production CompanyAssociated British Picture Corporation
DirectorRobert Hamer
Production CompanyGuardsman Films
ScreenplayPatricia Moyes
 Hal E. Chester
Director of PhotographyErwin Hillier
Based on the novels byStephen Potter

Cast: Ian Carmichael (Henry Palfrey); Terry-Thomas (Raymond Delauney); Alastair Sim (Stephen Potter); Janette Scott (April Smith); Dennis Price (Dunstan Dorchester)

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An amiable idiot cures his inferiority complex without completely discarding his conscience after graduating from the College of Lifemanship.

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School for Scoundrels (d. Robert Hamer, 1959) was adapted from a popular series of books by Stephen Potter - Gamesmanship (1947), Lifemanship (1950), Oneupmanship (1952) and Supermanship (1958) - in which he explained "how to win without actually cheating" by taking psychological advantage of your opponent at every possible opportunity.

As the books were essentially non-narrative, the film presents an original scenario whereby Alastair Sim plays a character named Stephen Potter, whose College of Lifemanship is attended by men such as the hapless Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael), plagued by cads such as Raymond Delaunay (Terry-Thomas) and slimy car salesmen Dunstan and Dudley Dorchester (Dennis Price and Peter Jones).

Although credited to Patricia Moyes and producer Hal Chester, the screenplay was co-written by Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff, an American-born screenwriter who had been exiled to Britain after being blacklisted by the McCarthy hearings. Credited director Robert Hamer would suffer a blacklist of a different kind - a recovering alcoholic, he fell off the wagon during production, was sacked on the spot (Chester and the uncredited Cyril Frankel finished the film), and would never work in the industry again.

Truth to tell, there's little sign of the elegance and wit that characterised earlier Hamer films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Spider and the Fly (both 1949) - the virtues of School For Scoundrels rest almost entirely in the script and performances. Thankfully, the latter are up to scratch - Terry-Thomas in particular is outstanding as a classic British bounder, a somewhat under-used Sim creates another memorably eccentric authority figure, and the supporting cast includes such comedy stalwarts as John Le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques (who were married at the time) and Irene Handl.

But Ian Carmichael gets the lion's share of screen time, starting off as a close relative of the innocents abroad that he played in Lucky Jim (d. John Boulting, 1957) and I'm All Right Jack (d. Boulting, 1959) - though here he eventually gets to turn the tables on each of his tormentors. That said, his essential niceness gets the better of him when he finds he can't go through with his planned seduction of April (Janette Scott) - and in turn teaches Potter (and us) a valuable lesson: psychology is all very well if you're merely playing games, but sincerity is far better if you genuinely mean it.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Ritual humiliation (4:23)
2. The first lesson (3:05)
3. The art of seduction (1:01)
4. Turning the tables (1:30)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
I'm All Right Jack (1959)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Lucky Jim (1957)
Spider and the Fly, The (1949)
Addison, John (1920-1998)
Best, Richard (1916-2004)
Carmichael, Ian (1920-2010)
Frankel, Cyril (1921-)
Hamer, Robert (1911-63)
Handl, Irene (1901-1987)
Hillier, Erwin (1911-2005)
Jacques, Hattie (1922-1980)
Jones, Peter (1920-2000)
Le Mesurier, John (1912-1983)
Price, Dennis (1915-1973)
Sim, Alastair (1900-1976)
Terry-Thomas (1911-1990)