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The Mind of Mr Soames

Monday July 13, 2009 in 70s cinema | terence stamp

After two decades I’ve finally done it. One of the most obscure movies ever made has finally dropped into my hands. In 1970 Amicus films made The Mind of Mr Soames starring Terence Stamp. Some background: Amicus are best remembered for their series of portmanteau horror films in the 60s and 70s. Stamp is best known for playing wide eyed innocence combined with a forgivable cockney charm, most movingly in Billy Budd (1962), chillingly in The Collector (1965) and, much later, with a lot of humour and gravitas in The Hit (1984). The Mind of Mr Soames brings together the very 70s contemporary look of the Amicus fantasy film with Stamp at his childlike best.

  • Terence Stamp in The Mind of Mr Soames
  • Terence Stamp in The Mind of Mr Soames
  • Terence Stamp in The Mind of Mr Soames
  • Terence Stamp and Donal Donnelly in The Mind of Mr Soames
  • Terence Stamp in The Mind of Mr Soames
  • Terence Stamp in The Mind of Mr Soames
  • Terence Stamp in The Mind of Mr Soames
  • Terence Stamp in The Mind of Mr Soames

Stamp plays John Soames, a 30 year old man waking from a lifelong coma. He rises from his marathon sleep as essentially a baby in a man’s body, and it’s the duty of a stiffly military type (played by Nigel Davenport) to apply a programme of education to bring Mr Soames up to speed. It’s not easy, and anyone having ever dealt with babies and toddlers will quickly concur that a grown man throwing a tantrum might not be one of life’s pleasures. And where a film featuring an actor faking the mannerisms of a baby could go horribly wrong, it’s a credit to Stamp that he manages to pull it off so well with great wit and a dash of menace. And incidentally, this is the last of the modest run of films that featured the youthful Stamp; when he re-emerged in 1978 as General Zod in the Superman films he really had grown up.

The ever-reliable Robert Vaughn also stars as an American surgeon, initially called in to revive Soames but who then stays on to criticise Davenport’s archaic teaching methodology. Bearded and experimenting with 70s cashmere, it could be argued that Vaughn is attempting to shrug off his Man From Uncle image. Whatever his success rate, he’s still reliably good. His character argues that Soames should be allowed to play and be given a break from the strict regime of mathematics and vocabulary (and I suppose they were still using the term the three rs in 1970; and there were no league tables at the time although Davenport would surely be in favour of them). Vaughn showers Soames with exciting toys and secretly allows him free reign of the institution gardens, infuriating Davenport and inadvertently leading to the patient’s escape. This, I suppose, is what we have been waiting for.

Stamp’s flight inevitably causes consternation for the folks he runs into on the outside. First he upsets a playground game of football and then a lunchtime drinking session in a smoky pub. People appear disturbed by Mr Soames’ peculiar garb, although this may not appear odd to the modern audience as he is wearing a now obvious hoodie. Times really do change, and the final scenes of the film begin to reveal its age. On the run, Soames boards a train full of quaint compartments, where he accidentally menaces a young girl to hysteria. Odder still, as I’ve been led to believe that Stamp was considered quite a catch in his prime and many a young lady would have jumped at the chance of some railway intimacy.

Joking aside, The Mind of Mr Soames does offer a lot of serious food for thought although many of its themes have a tendency to pop in, say hello but then not proceed to go anywhere. For example, it’s suggested that the Vaughn character has an alcohol problem, possibly related to his own family issues, but this isn’t properly followed up. Similarly, Big Brother rears its ugly head several decades too soon as a camera crew roll up to film every second of Soames’ development. Possibly seeming too far fetched for a fantasy film, the idea of filming a subject’s every waking moment must have been dismissed as spoiling an otherwise intelligent film as it isn’t fully pursued.

But so, after two decades of searching I was not disappointed by The Mind of Mr Soames. It’s an understated film that begs more than one viewing. It’s certainly deeper than the usual Amicus fare. The director is Alan Cooke, who sadly became a hack director for tv, and is based on a novel by the science fiction writer Charles Eric Maine. The guitarist John Williams supplies an odd yet effective soundtrack. Donal Donnelly is effective in a supporting role, and a keen eye might also spot Tony Caunter (Roy Evans in Eastenders) as a disgruntled teacher and Joe Gladwin (Wally in Last of the Summer Wine) as a friendly driver. Vaughn is very good, Davenport perfect for his role but Stamp, as ever when cast wisely, is outstanding. There’s a forgivable quality about his unsullied presence that is particularly effective here.

The Mind of Mr Soames is a sadly ignored and underrated film. Although in some ways its obscurity is a blessing, as there is the danger that the still interesting theme might be picked up by the Hollywood remake brigade. I can see Jim Carrey really going for it, and possibly Daniel Day Lewis if he got to it earlier in his career. If it happens, and whoever takes the lead, I’d like to see Terence Stamp reappear in a remake in the Nigel Davenport role. Why not? Michael Caine has been allowed to indulge in the remakes of some of his classics so why not Stamp? Although, like Amicus films and the early 1970s, the childlike charm of cinema is a thing of the past.

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Trois Histoires Extraordinaires d'Edgar Poe

Saturday September 13, 2008 in 60s cinema | terence stamp

Also known variously as Histoires Extraordinaires, Spirits of the Dead, Tales of Mystery, Tales of Mystery and Imagination and – sigh – Tre passi nel delirio, this extraordinary film is the result of what happened when they asked three leading European directors to collaborate on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini each contributed a tale to this 1968 gem. It’s difficult to decide which of the three segments is the most confusing, infuriating and visually stunning. They are all in turn weird and complex, and feature a top notch cast including Jane and Peter Fonda, Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot and Terence Stamp.

Terence Stamp in Trois Histoires Extraordinaires d'Edgar Poe

Thinking of Poe adaptations, Roger Corman’s series of films from the early 1960s featuring Vincent Price always springs to mind. This film is nothing like that, and the adaptations – especially the Fellini one – are painted with very broad brushstrokes. It’s also very much a film of its time, and its cast – especially Fonda and Stamp – icons of that era. Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda appear to be gently warming up for Barbarella and their section Metzengerstein, that opens proceedings, doesn’t really amount to much. It’s visually very impressive, with an medieval and semi-erotic theme to it (what more do you need?) but the story is too vague and open-ended. Jane Fonda plays a woman who appears rude and cruel to all who she encounters, until her cousin saves her from an animal trap in the forest. He’s later killed saving a horse from a fire, and following this both a strange tapestry and a beautiful black horse appears. There’s a jolt of a scene when we finally get to see the completed tapestry, although other than that it lets down somewhat.

Things pick up with the second section, William Wilson, which stars Alain Delon as a man haunted by his namesake, the other William Wilson who trails him throughout his life. It begins with a fantastic scene of Delon running towards a church, desperate to confess his sins. We learn of his childhood and life as a medical student, and there is an extraordinary and terrifying scene involving an attempted live dissection. Ouch! Unfortunately it then sags in the middle. Brigitte Bardot appears wearing an absurb black wig and the two become involved in a long and convoluted card game, Delon’s wooden acting not helping very much. William Wilson ends rather predictably, but Louis Malle’s direction keeps it interesting and he injects equal proportions of charm and menace.

The third section, Toby Dammit, is the best and this is where things really do take a weird turn. In Fellini’s piece, Terence Stamp plays a boozy and bored looking British actor who is lured to Italy on the promise of a Ferrari to make a Western. This is very much a perfect role for Stamp, with his unruly hair dyed blond I freely have to admit that he was a very handsome young man indeed, despite the fact that he also looks completely washed out and wasted in this movie. He also plays on a childlike charm he used very effectively in Billy Budd and again much later in The Hit. Here, dubbed into Italian, he resorts to odd movements and mannerisms. Perhaps he was unfamiliar with the language, although this would be sometimes incomprehensible in any tongue. At times he’s almost clown like, at others robotic, and if the boredom and indifference he conveys is any comment on his own – sometimes charmed – life at the time then it certainly had an affect on his future. Like his contemporary James Fox (who took his role in Performance a little too far), Stamp also baled out of acting for a few years at the end of the 60s. And seeing Toby Dammit makes me think making this film might have contributed to causing his lost years.

Toby Dammit is odd like you’d expect Fellini to be. Odder in fact, although it does get bogged down with its hero driving his Ferrari like a madman and screaming. Only when, like the preceding tales, it moves into proper Poe territory does it really grip and Stamp’s eventual nemesis in the shape of a small and seemingly innocent child really sent a chiver down my spine. But what it’s all really about – well, you really need to see this for yourself. It didn’t help that I watched the whole of this in fifteen chunks on YouTube and it’s possible I may have got a couple of the Stamp segments the wrong way round, although I’d imagine Fellini would be amused by this. All three of the tales are linked, albeit casually, and explore three not particularly likeable individuals and how they bring about their own ends. Weird, yet certainly mysterious. And definitely extraordinary.

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