Morgan!: A Suitable Case for Treatment

Dir. Karel Reisz, 1966. Starring: David Warner, Vanessa Redgrave. English. Classics.
Morgan!: A Suitable Case for Treatment

I volunteer, in an unofficial capacity, that David Warner could play with intelligence and wit any part offered to him. Misogynistic art film buffs will fondly remember his uncredited role in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, 80s comedy fans know him best as vampire hunting Professor McCarthy in My Best Friend is a Vampire, and a certain blog writer can’t choose between his best performances, as Evil Genius in Time Bandits and Jack the Ripper in Time after Time. Warner’s rugged, sculpted features and his Royal Shakespeare Company training have made him one of the most versatile and charismatic film actors, on par with other distinctive, powerful talents like Stephen Rea and Harvey Keitel. Warner gives his leading man performance in Morgan! with such ease and virtuosity, it’s incredible that he’s so often been relegated to smaller roles. His is a rather unlikeable character:  a juvenile underproductive artist with a complex involving gorillas and Communism, financially supported by his soon to be ex-wife. Vanessa Redgrave does a lot with a thin role as his rich, unappreciated spouse who has transferred her affections to Morgan’s oleaginous art dealer. Already suffering from (or in Morgan’s case thoroughly enjoying) delusions and fantasies, his wife’s ambivalent reaction to his attempts to win her back makes him lose his grasp of reality.

Morgan! is a seminal film in the Mod movement that flourished in England during a short period from the early to mid-1960s. Mod filmmakers like John Schlesinger, Richard Lester, and Karel Reisz transitioned from “kitchen sink” documentaries funded by the British government to Mod’s more vibrant, stylized aesthetic, some of them then continuing on to more commercial careers. While there has been controversy amongst sociologists as to whether the Mod movement was a working- class rebellion against mass-produced culture or an embracement of consumerism across class barriers, Mod filmmakers firmly posited Mod style as a youth-oriented rebellion against the previous generations mores, characterized in film by a stylized aesthetic and structure, portrayals of sexual liberty, and a quirky, if hit-or-miss sense of humor.

Morgan!, directed by Czech refugee Karel Reisz, comes across as a blend between Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (given an unwarrantedly lavish release by Criterion) and Lester’s The Knack… And How to Get It. Immediately one can see the titular resemblance to Lester’s film, and the films also both share a love triangle as the central characters, the use of undercranking (fast motion) to highlight the silliness of slapstick moments, an irreverent approach to plot structure and pacing, as well as an open-minded approach to sex. Both films employ jump-cut editing techniques, and Morgan! includes a brilliant sequence where shots from Tarzan and His Mate are edited seamlessly into the narrative. Morgan! and Billy Liar both frequently use dream sequences and fantasies to illuminate the inner life of the main character. What unites all of these films, and I’ll admit this is subjective, is a ridiculously lame sense of humor. Morgan! comes out the best though, the actors carrying off the juvenile and disagreeable characters with an aplomb that cannot help but elicit some surprised guffaws.

Morgan!’s utilization of Communism as a theme evoking the perversion of idealism is employed with fluency and nuance. The boldness of having a (somewhat) sympathetic protagonist raised by Communist parents and upholding Communist symbols and ideals throughout the film is unprecedented in a British film made at the height of the Cold War. (It was a long height. Long.) In one scene Morgan positions himself as Trotsky and his wife’s new lover as Stalin, consequently making Morgan’s wife a fascinating symbol open to question. Is she the love of the working masses or the control of the proletariat? More importantly, the film highlights the dissatisfaction of the British working class with the Establishment during the Cold War, even as the world was ablaze with Red fever. The undeniable attraction of Communist ideology and its inability to exist in a corrupt world is a parallel to Morgan’s desire to convince his wife of his love and his failure to rise above his selfish, asocial behavior. Unfortunately the other main theme of the film, Morgan’s self-identification with gorillas, is not evoked as confidently, and even points to the main weakness of the film. Morgan sees gorillas as confident, powerful, innocent, and loveable and he uses those qualities to try to convince his wife not to divorce him. The common trope of rebellious-social-outsider-attempts-to-dissuade-vacillating-wife-to-give-up-stuffed-shirt-fiancée is one viewers have seen from The Philadelphia Story to The Palm Beach Story. Regardless of the fact that it seems to show little respect for a woman’s ability to make decisions for herself, the protagonists also always engage in violent behavior and unwanted physical affection. The cutesy effacement of this misogynistic behavior under the pretense of gorilla play-acting comes off as humorless and naïve. Morgan! is ultimately an interesting and complex film, with a lot to say even if at times it mumbles or accidentally bites the inside of its cheek.

__________________

Morgan!: A Suitable Case for Treatment was nominated for 2 Oscars:  Best Actress (Vanessa Redgrave) and Best Black and White Costume Design.

Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Dec 6, 2008 2:48pm
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