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Singer Not The Song, The (1961)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Singer Not The Song, The (1961)
DirectorRoy Ward Baker
Production CompanyRank Film Productions
ProducerRoy Ward Baker
ScreenplayNigel Balchin
From the novel byAudrey Erskine Lindop
CinematographyOtto Heller
MusicPhilip Green

John Mills (Father Michael Keogh); Dirk Bogarde (Anacleto Comachi); Mylene Demongeot (Locha de Cortinez); John Bentley (police captain); Laurence Naismith (Old Uncle)

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A priest and a bandit battle to control the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of a small Mexican town.

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In the same parallel universe containing the Ronald Reagan version of Casablanca and films featuring Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones (original casting choices in both cases), The Singer Not The Song (1961) starred John Mills and Marlon Brando and was directed by the great Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. At the very least, this would have been rather more intriguing than the film that was eventually made.

Director Roy Ward Baker and co-star Dirk Bogarde both hated it. Baker didn't want the job in the first place (it was he who recommended Buñuel), while Bogarde decided that the most effective salvage method would be to camp things up outrageously - his supposedly terrifying bandit Anacleto wears skintight leather trousers and is constantly throwing suggestive glances at earnest Catholic missionary Father Keogh (John Mills) while the latter tries to save his soul.

Bogarde claimed that no-one realised what he was doing at the time, but it's hard to believe this from what ended up on screen - though the fact that his next film was the groundbreaking Victim (d. Basil Dearden, 1961) throws this gay subtext into sharp relief. Although never stated in the film, it's an entirely plausible assumption that the reason Keogh fails to respond to the advances of the alluring Locha (Mylène Demongeot) has rather more to do with repressed feelings for Anacleto than faith-imposed celibacy.

This is further underlined by the decidedly homoerotic conclusion, with Anacleto and Keogh locked in each other's arms as they die from their wounds, and by Anacleto's repeated reference to the film's title, in each case making it clear that he's much more interested in 'the singer' (i.e. Keogh) than 'the song' (the religion he preaches). Though Bogarde was deliberately subverting the film, it is this additional tension that lifts it above routine melodrama and has given the film at least a minor cult following.

Shot in CinemaScope by Otto Heller, the film makes effective use of its Spanish locations (standing in for Mexico), while the sparse, motif-driven score by Philip Green has a distinctly Ennio Morricone flavour, some three years before Morricone's own breakthrough with A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, Italy, d. Sergio Leone, 1964). But the central struggle between godly and godless lacks passion - Baker said a Catholic director would have been preferable, and on this evidence it's hard to disagree.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Priest meets bandit (2:12)
2. Alfresco preaching (3:23)
3. Singer or song? (2:41)
4. Anacleto's test (2:58)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Baker, Roy Ward (1916-2010)
Bogarde, Dirk (1921-1999)
Delgado, Roger (1918-1973)
Heller, Otto (1896-1970)
Mills, John (1908-2005)