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aka The Promoter

D: Ronald Neame / 91m

Cast: Alec Guinness, Glynis Johns, Valerie Hobson, Petula Clark, Edward Chapman, Veronica Turleigh, George Devine

How many times does it happen? Just when you think you’ve seen all but the most obscure entries in an actor or actress’s filmography, then up pops a movie that elicits a blank-faced response and mutterings along the line of, “No, I’ve seen it… I must have seen it”. The Card is such a movie, an outing for Alec Guinness that somehow slipped through the cracks of the last forty years. Oh, the shame! The horror! The – okay, that’s enough hysterical melodrama. There’s an upside to this kind of situation, though, a silver lining in the dark cloud of feature blindness, and that’s the joy at discovering there’s still a movie starring a favourite actor or actress that you haven’t seen, a movie to savour at a point when you thought there wouldn’t be any more movies to catch up on. Of all the movies in this month’s strand, this has provided the most pleasure in terms of its being “discovered”.

It’s an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Arnold Bennett, and tells the tale of an ambitious young man called Edward Henry Machin (Guinness), but known as Denry by his friends, family and work colleagues. Denry wants to get ahead in Life, and isn’t above a little cheating in order to further his ambitions. He forges his exam results to get into a better school, and when he’s a young man he uses a lost wallet to get his foot in the door at the office of Herbert Duncalf (Chapman), town clerk and solicitor. One day, Denry meets the Countess of Chell (Hobson), one of Duncalf’s clients. Denry is smitten by her, and determines to win her patronage however he can. Charged by Duncalf with sending out invitations to a grand municipal ball the Countess is hosting, Denry ensures he has an invitation himself. Needing a dress suit he provides an invitation to the tailor, and needing dance lessons, he provides an invitation to his instructor, Miss Ruth Earp (Johns). At the ball, Denry accepts a challenge to dance with the Countess. He does so, and this earns him a reputation as a “card” (in other words, a “character”).

His attendance at the ball enrages Duncalf who fires him, but not before Denry spots an opportunity to work for himself. He offers his services as a rent collector to one of Duncalf’s dissatisfied clients, and quickly realises he can make money for himself by advancing loans to tenants and reaping the benefits of a profitable interest rate. His success secures him another landlord’s list of tenants, one of whom turns out to be Miss Earp. Despite her efforts to avoid paying her rent arrears, and despite Denry’s every effort to get her to do so, they find themselves engaged. On a trip to Llandudno in Wales – accompanied by Nellie Cotterill (Clark), Miss Earp’s friend and chaperone – Denry becomes aware of just how avaricious his fiancée really is (he’s had enough clues by now) and they part company. Denry returns to his home town of Bursley and starts up the Five Towns Universal Thrift Club, which allows members to buy on credit from certain shops. Using this as a platform to enhance his social standing, Denry becomes a councillor, persuades the Countess to act as patroness of the Thrift Club, gets involved with Bursley’s ailing football club, and looks ahead to running for Mayor. But who will he choose as the woman to share it all with – Miss Earp, the Countess, or young Nellie?

This was Guinness’s first outing as a romantic lead, but Guinness being Guinness he’s not the most romantic lead you’ve ever seen. Adopting a dreamy, wistful, semi-surprised look for most of the movie, Guinness does his best to look beatific even when things aren’t going entirely Denry’s way. It’s a performance full of light touches and broad brush strokes, charm and unassuming wit, with Guinness looking eternally cheerful and eternally optimistic. It’s often a carefree, overly relaxed portrayal, with Guinness opting for nonchalance instead of keen involvement, and it matches the light, frivolous nature of the material. This is a comedy, through and through, and one that’s played at just the right level – bordering on farce – by all concerned. You can reckon on the cast imbuing the characters with exactly the right mannerisms and exactly the right motivations, whether it’s Johns’ mercenary dance teacher, Chapman’s unctuous public official, or Hobson’s stately yet approachable Countess. They offer the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, and he experience of watching the movie is all the better for it.

But even though it’s an outright comedy, there are still dramatic elements that add depth to the material, such as an underlying critique of social conventions that’s dropped onto centre stage at times just to remind the audience that there’s more to the movie than laughs aplenty (even if most of those elements are steamrollered into submission by the end). Also there are moments where Denry’s plans look as if they might all tumble around him, and the movie adopts a plaintive, melancholy tone before Denry extricates himself in such a way that he comes out ahead (and make no mistake, Eric Ambler’s screenplay is firmly behind Denry all the way). And then there are the romantic antics of Denry and Miss Earp, an adversarial relationship that somehow seems fortuitous and yet ineluctably doomed at the same time. Guinness and Johns spar with each other delightfully, and the conclusion to their Llandudno trip – “I only said Rockefeller” – is beautifully judged and executed.

What drama there is, though, is completely overwhelmed by the movie’s earnest desire to entertain its audience purely and thoroughly. This isn’t a movie that will have you mulling over its finer points for weeks afterwards, nor is it a movie where its parochial backdrop serves as anything more than just that, a backdrop for the rags to riches tale of Denry’s success as a social climber. It’s directed nimbly and with a keen eye by Neame for the absurdity of having a whey-faced cheat as its “hero”, and he and Guinness have created a loveable seducer to hang their story on. Buoyed by crisp cinematography by the ever-reliable Oswald Morris, and with a singsong, happy-go-lucky score by William Alwyn, this is marvellous entertainment that doesn’t need to be anything more than it is: a silly, giddy, unpretentious piece of fun.

Rating: 8/10 – Guinness is on fine form (as always), and though he’ll never convince as a romantic lead, he does convince as a conniver and an opportunist, and retains a likeability that’s hard to ignore; easy-going and happy to be nothing more than a bit of fluff to be enjoyed for what it is, The Card is a genuinely cheerful experience, and proof yet again that they don’t make ’em like that anymore. (22/31)

NOTE: Sadly, there isn’t a trailer available for The Card.