"I can honestly say I'm the last person in the world to harbour thoughts
of revenge, but I would like to cut off Jimson's head with a meat axe."
A.W. Alabaster, secretary to Lord and Lady Beeder
The image of the struggling artist is a popular one with authors and filmmakers. It's hardly surprising, given that many of them can at least have at one point in their career faced a similar battle for recognition. Of course once they find success in their respective fields, then this image of the artist dedicated to art over commercial interest becomes a symbol of what they imagine themselves to be rather than what they have become. It's a daydream of integrity that may be an artistic idyll, but it doesn't feed the family. It is, nonetheless, an endearing image that almost all who have even the smallest artistic ambition respond to, an intellectual equivalent of a gun-toting Travis Bickle, the figure you fantasise about being but in reality would never become.
A true artist, we are assured, believes only in their vision and cares not a fig for potential monetary rewards that their work may bring. They'll take the money if it's offered, sure, but they won't compromise themselves and suck corporate dick to do it. If this makes them temperamental and difficult then all the better, as then they not only have integrity but a streak of unbridled anarchy, another personality trait we dream of unleashing but tend to keep in check. It's an image that endures beyond the traditional arts – witness the success of House M.D., whose title character we engage with less for his unique medical smarts than his refusal to conform or censor his behaviour. His real-life equivalents are, of course, often as dark as they are brilliant, as with singer-songwriter-musician Anton Newcombe of the Brian Johnstone Massacre – see the documentary DiG! for the low-down on his deeply troubled genius.
Great artists of the past, those whose work was only fully appreciated after their deaths, have made ideal movie subjects in this respect, from Vincent van Gogh in Vincente Minelli's 1956 Lust for Life to Peter Watkins' brilliant 1974 portrait of Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Much. But you'll have to look hard to find a more entertaining or perceptively observed example of the creed than Gulley Jimson, the central character of Joyce Cary's celebrated novel The Horse's Mouth (the third of a trilogy featuring the character) and the 1958 film adaptation of the same, directed by Ronald Neame and starring a top-of-form Alec Guiness.*
It starts at a gallop, dispensing with the usual character and story preamble and introducing Gulley and establishing his persona in a few brief but dialogue-crammed minutes of screen time. We don't meet him in the studio, but emerging in temperamental mood from a short stretch in prison for making threatening phone calls to wealthy potential patrons. He is immediately and persistently dogged by young wannabe apprentice Nosey (Mike Morgan), who he is so keen to shake off that he demands re-admittance to the jail, which the staff refuse because they've had enough of him. In no time at all he is on the phone again, adopting unlikely identities and squeaky voices to hassle the wealthy Hickson (Ernest Thesiger) for funds, something the man sees through in a second. "He's out again," he calmly informs his butler. "Stand by the other phone, we may need the police."
Gulley is soon back at home base, a house boat that is being torn apart by local kids and watched over by Captain Jones (Reginald Beckwith), a reality-divorced eccentric who pipes Gulley on board and bellows songs at no-one in particular in a bar manned by the fearsome Coker (Kay Walsh). She agrees to lend Gulley some cash and accompanies him to see his ex-wife Sara (Renee Houston), who's given some of Gulley's paintings to Hickson to pay off the painter's debts and is way sharper than suggested by the chirpy front she puts on for her visitors. The pursuit of Hickson resumes, this time in person, but he's becoming fed up with the whole thing. "I'm an old man," he tells Gulley, "and I don't very much mind if you murder me. But I cannot stand all this telephoning. It upsets the servants and they give notice."
Gulley's one ray of financial hope is Sir William and Lady Beeder (Robert Coote and Veronica Turleigh), who have expressed a desire to purchase one of his paintings. He drops round to their plush apartment and finds them preparing for a six-week trip to Jamaica, but the apartment contains a large blank wall that inspires Gulley, and once the rightful owners have departed he tricks his way in and starts work on a huge mural. It's here that the cheerful anarchy that has been building throughout moves into the driving seat. Gulley's procuring of models turns the apartment into a small artistic commune and he funds his materials by having the still eager Nosey pawn the Beeder's possessions. Things really get out of hand when Gulley's artistic rival Abel (Michael Gough) forcibly moves in to work alongside him, or rather beneath him when the stone block he transports through the skylight crashes through the floor to the apartment below.
All the elements for frantic farce are in place but the film always plays it smarter, sidestepping obvious gags (that the returning Beeders will fall through the hole in their floor covered by the departing Gulley is inevitable, but the slow speed at which they do so still catches you by surprise) and layering the quick-fire dialogue and delicious delivery with a wittily barbed commentary on the opposing forces of art and commerce. Neame's direction is breezily unobtrusive and the performances are a constant joy, from Ernest Thesiger's dry weariness to Kay Walsh's agitated bullying. But it's Guinness who rightly steals the show in one of his most deliciously judged comic turns, the sort that has you shuffling round the house afterwards impersonating his voice and mannerisms at any animal or object that will sit there and listen.
As a comedy, The Horse's Mouth repeatedly scores. The first pub exchange between Coker and the Captain and the wind-from-the-door gag that follows is hilarious, and the sudden cessation of chatter when Gulley is asked to judge Lady Beeder's own childish drawings is a gem of timing. As satire it also has more bite than many, not least in Gulley's final mural – or at least the last one he attempts within the time frame of the movie – whose art-for-art's-sake existence, bohemian commune approach and defiance of (and almost revolutionary uprising against) authority feels ten years ahead of its time. And if you're looking for questions for that Christmas movie trivia quiz, consider that Alec Guinness received an Oscar nomination for this film, not for his performance, however deserving, but for the screenplay.
The Horse's Mouth has been available in the US as part of the Criterion Collection since 2002, which would usually present a challenge for anyone releasing an alternative version, but the transfer on Eureka's DVD appears to have been licensed from that very print, indicated by the Janus Films logo that precedes the movie proper. I don't have the Criterion disc to compare this one to but I've no complaints at all with the picture quality here – there's a little bit of flickering in places, but the contrast is spot on, the colours bright and the detail pleasing. To seal the deal this appears to be a true PAL transfer from Criterion's HD master rather than an NTSC to PAL conversion – there are no tell-tale double images or blurring on movement. The framing is 1.66:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.
The mono soundtrack is clear with only a slight background hiss, though there is some minor crispness on the trebles, but not enough to get even remotely concerned about.
Here the Eureka disc parts company big time with the Criterion one, whose extra features are completely absent. If you're buying this version it's for the film only.
An too rarely seen cinematic delight, this fast-moving, funny and borderline anarchic comedy is as smart as it is enjoyable – the script is sharp, the direction brisk and the performances are worth the ticket price alone. The lack of extras is a shame, but the transfer is bang on. Recommended.
* Neame and Guinness clearly worked well together – two years later Guinness gave one of his finest performances as Major Jock Sinclair in Neame's Tunes of Glory.