The Loved One (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue

Produced by John Calley and Haskell Wexler; directed by Tony Richardson; screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh; photographed by Haskell Wexler; edited by Hal Ashby and Brian Smedley-Aston; production and costume design by Rouben Ter-Arutunian; music by John Addison; starring Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Anjanette Comer, Rod Steiger, and John Gielgud. Blu-ray, B&W, 121 min., 1965. A Warner Archive release.

Evelyn Waugh liked to take things out. He reduced The Loved One (1948) to an economic 120 generously spaced pages in large type. Its hectic plot is severely abbreviated, with much of narrative content displaced onto ellipses, inferences, and off-screen action. “Character” is left on the surface, and expressed through action, reaction, dialogue, and silence, rather than by access to thought and perception. In The Loved One and elsewhere, Waugh has been accused of dealing in mean-spirited caricature, in taking on easy targets, in attending to the mere surface of things. This is true if the reader attends only to that surface. But if she engages with the dialectics between style and content, between comedy and tragedy, between the too-cynical English poet and pet cemetery worker Dennis Barlow and the too-credulous American cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos, she will find The Loved One a richer reading experience then its reputation as a slight jeu d’esprit implies.

It is often assumed that The Loved One is a prolonged British sneer at that peculiarly American combination of entrepreneurial guile and aggressive naiveté, at an entire nation’s emotional immaturity and its blustering refusal to face the hard facts of life (and death). It has also been claimed that the repellent Barlow is an alter ego of Waugh himself, returning to England at the end of the novella to write what will become The Loved One. This is to forget that Waugh was a Catholic convert with a vested interest in ardent belief, and that the narrative center crucially shifts about half-way through the book to Aimée. Her need for faith may take absurd forms, but it is sincere and Waugh treats it seriously and sympathetically. Aimée is cruelly toyed with and essentially killed by Barlow, who, after wreaking selfish havoc, flees America with more ruthless opportunism than Uncle Sam ever managed.

Sir Ambrose Ambercrombie (Robert Morley, left) and Denis Barlow (Robert Morse) at the funeral of former screenwriter Sir Francis Hinsley.

It is Uncle Sam’s opportunism, however, in which the team behind the 1965 film adaption is interested. If Waugh liked to take things out, these filmmakers liked to put them back in, and then cram in some more. The film follows the novel with fair fidelity, retaining its broken-backed structure set first in Hollywood, then Whispering Glades, the gigantic LA necropolis based on the Forest Lawn “memorial parks,” about which Waugh wrote an article before starting The Loved One. Both parts are connected by Barlow (a funny if wobbly accented and poorly post-synced Robert Morse) and Sir Francis Hinsley—the antihero’s friend, housemate, and possible lover in the book; his uncle in the film. Sir Francis is a once-honored writer/artist who sold his soul to Hollywood, which in turn dropped him when it could no longer make use of him. This is by far the most satisfying part of the film, not for the rather labored “satire,” but because John Gielgud sails through the hypocrisy and desperation, the backslapping and backstabbing, with his usual heartbreaking and distracted dignity.

Denis (Robert Morse) becomes enamored of mortuary cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer).

Gielgud alone captures the authentic Waugh note, which has rarely been rendered on screen, big or small: the outer savoir faire that masks searing inner pain. His suicide is a shock, and generates some authentic black comedy. There is Dennis’s irreverent elegy delivered by the sanctimonious Sir Ambrose Abercrombie (hilarious Robert Morley), self-appointed leader and moral guardian of the British colony in Hollywood; these sequences remind us that director Tony Richardson specialized in somewhat literal state-of-the-British-Empire pronouncements like Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and multiple Oscar-winner Tom Jones, the recent success of which gave him carte blanche to make The Loved One. And there is the wonderful visual “dance” between Sir Francis’s corpse and the mortician charged with making his death-distorted face presentable for public display, Mr Joyboy (an initially inspired Rod Steiger).

Mortunary cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer).

It is in the cultlike atmosphere of Whispering Glades that Dennis meets Aimée (played by newcomer Anjanette Comer with unnerving intensity). Aimée’s Franco-Greek name translates as “the loved one born of death”— “Loved One” is the capitalized and sanitized cant term used at Whispering Glades to describe its dead customers. It is also here that the film falls apart, and its makers ignore any of Waugh’s comic lessons. Richardson, producer/cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and screenwriters Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood fill Waugh’s pregnant pauses with bombast—noisy talk, noisy laughter, noisy misogyny, noisy music, and noisy visuals, with Wexler cribbing all the latest New Wave tricks from Last Year at Marienbad to Le mépris. In a fatal, physiological error repeated from Laurel and Hardy to Dr. Strangelove (then recently co-scripted by Southern), comic plotting and dialogue are replaced by cavernous set design and bloated set pieces. The parts of the mind and body that are intellectually stimulated by visual grandeur and physically stimulated by comical behavior cannot operate in sync—when the surroundings get fatter, the jokes usually get thinner.

Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger) and his assistant Aimée (Anjanette Comer).

Worse, Waugh’s elegant narrative—an echo chamber of irony and poetic injustice that still managed to take angry aim at a then-emerging Cold War imperialism that promoted American “values” rooted in venality and prejudice—has grafted onto it an elaborate and unfunny subplot involving rockets (this is the era of both the space race and Vietnam), schoolboy inventors, crooked businessmen, and coffined whores. It centers on the pet cemetery where Dennis works and that serves as a travesty of Whispering Glades, itself a commercially rapacious and culturally impoverished travesty of true human and spiritual interaction, a place where lip service to the dead serves to aggrandize the living who can afford it. The whole point of the pet cemetery is rather lost once the scriptwriters remove Waugh’s savage governing metaphor—the decapitated dog kept alive by the Soviets to test “crude” physical reactions to desire. At least this wretched subplot provides a showcase for Jonathan Winters—a marvelous comedian poorly served by the cinema. Cameos by the likes of James Coburn, Milton Berle, and Liberace are also good value, while no film featuring Dana Andrews can be considered a complete waste of time. But The Loved One is one of those films where the general quality of acting is in inverse proportion to everything else.

This Blu-ray adequately showcases Wexler’s stunning but ponderous black and white images. The accompanying featurette is standard Warner Archive fare, and makes an unconvincing case for the film’s importance.

Darragh O’Donoghue, a Cineaste contributing writer, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4