June 15, 2020
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
ne inevitably feels hopelessly alone when watching the parlor-room drama Separate Tables (1958). It's a movie about lonely people and is confined to a single, lonely setting: a hotel, called the Beauregard, on the nippy (and lonely) South England shores. The film is based on two one-act plays by Terrence Rattigan. With its expensive, amply talented cast, it’s conspicuously been made as a “respectable” drama with as
much of an interest in providing emotionally intense drama as collecting critical acclaim and awards-season trophies. (It saw through all of these things, most notably garnering two acting Oscars, for David Niven and Wendy Hiller, and getting nominated for five others.) Separate Tables is pretty stagey — not very imaginatively photographed by Charles Lang, too. But it does an adequate job of giving the improbably complicated personal lives of its characters a deep-cutting melancholy. And as it goes for any star-studded movie that is at minimum good (which I think Separate Tables is), watching great actors sink their teeth into interesting, actorly material fosters at least some engagement.
The movie hurtles back and forth between the hotel’s residents (most of them are staying there in the long-term), their neuroses, and their relationships. They all have pasts from which they’re trying to run away, though at the hotel the demons sooner or later catch up. In Separate Tables, carefully tucked-away secrets come to the fore — a nightmare for the people harboring them, a treat for the nosy viewer. Beloved tenant Maj. David Angus Pollock (Niven) is actually a sexual predator (he was charged recently with sexually harassing multiple women at a nearby theater) and not a major at all. It’s a guise. Cynical John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster) has just been released from prison for assaulting his ex-wife, sultry Anne (Rita Hayworth). (Inexorably, Anne appears out of nowhere; she announces that she’s engaged, and is checking in with John before she meets up with her new fiancé, who apparently lives nearby.) Other leads in the movie are played by Gladys Cooper (the haughty hotel proprietress), Deborah Kerr (a frigid spinster who became that way because her mother is Cooper), and Wendy Hiller (the sensible manager who is engaged to John).
We know little of the inner lives of these people; they’re sort of like sketches that have shading where it counts. This is especially true for the Kerr and Cooper characters. They’re total types — one the nervous and shrill adult virgin, the other the unnecessarily mean, selectively moralistic old woman — and the actresses bringing them to life do such caricatured work that they cannot avoid living solely on the page. These are performances with all the kinks smoothed
out. Nothing feels spontaneous.
Other actors fare better. Lancaster is convincingly tempestuous as a not easily sympathetic person who realizes that his ex-wife isn't actually the very being who brings out his worst. He's just projected that distinction onto her because he doesn't want to admit that his killer instincts are his. Hiller is subtly moving as a profoundly lonely woman who has managed to make her loneliness undetectable beneath a prim and organized exterior. And Niven, playing the trickiest character (we worry that the movie is trying to nearsightedly make us commiserate with a sexual predator), is riveting in part because of the brokenness he conveys. I don’t think the movie is trying to say that we should ultimately acknowledge and then move on from what he’s done, even though he isn’t condemned at the end of the movie. Instead it seems like we’re meant to be compulsively fascinated with how his inner pain (fundamentally he’s overanxious about his masculinity) has manifested, and harmed others. He’s a shell of a person. And when Niven delivers the film’s best, most crushing line — “I don't like the way I am; I suppose I had to invent somebody else” — we’re taken aback by the actor’s conviction in the delivery. It’s like you could poke him and he’d shatter.
The end of Separate Tables is, I guess, happy. With a subliminal all-is-forgiven understanding at the hotel, there’s a suggestion that in this building, these lonely live-in patrons have found solace in one another; they may not see it the same way anywhere else, so it’s lucky they found it here. Doesn’t matter what horrible things they’ve done. But there is a blackness to it that sticks with me — a sense that everyone has resigned themselves to an unfulfilling and sad fate because a different unfulfilling and sad one didn’t work out. It isn’t understood that anyone is going to unequivocally “be better” from now on. They’ve just tipped a hat to their hang-ups. Then what? B