Let’s start as we mean to go on; by digression. When I was a kid, I learned a great deal about movies and criticism from ye old Halliwell’s Film Guide, updated annually, a publication listing all known films with pithy, out-dated opinions to boot. Pretty much no films got a four star rating after 1966, modernity was not something that appealed to Leslie Halliwell, and so, by his own reckoning, the only great film made between 1966 and 1987 was…Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment.
I saw this film on a weekday morning on STV, absent from school after a minor car accident. It’s out-of-time black and whiteness hadn’t helped secure a reputation. David Warner starred as Morgan, an artist with atavistic tendencies; David Mercer’s first draft has been a tv play in which the protagonist was a writer, but perhaps that was too close for comfort. In this more cartoonish, chunkier version, Morgan starts out by trying to take the proverbial out of his posho wife Leonie, played with real verve by Vanessa Redgrave. He hides a skeleton in her bed, and sets up other pranks to annoy her. His wife wants a divorce so she can marry an art gallery-owner (a perfectly cast Robert Stephens), so Morgan’s hostility is understandable, even if his methods aren’t. He ends up escaping from hospital to disrupt her wedding in a gorilla costume.
Karel Reisz’s film is a curiosity to be sure; with a cool jazz score by Johnny Dankworth, plus support from Arthur Mullard and Irene Handl as Morgan’s communist mother and her beau, there’s always something going on here, and the politics are often confounding. Yet Morgan’s disaffection caught a certain mood in 1966 from all accounts, this film garnered Oscar nominations, and yet it’s quite forgotten now. One reason is that there’s an unpleasant edge to the way that Morgan torments his wife; his ‘jokes’ about legal ways for a man to ‘control’ his wife don’t just fall flat, but seem quite appalling now.
For a film once deemed so vital, Morgan’s reputation seems as diminished as the anti-hero’s art itself; this film has been forgotten, although Ben Wheatley paid tribute to it in his recent High Rise, so maybe a BFI re-issue could be on the cards. It’s a revolutionary work, but not in a good way; it exists on the cusp of infantile regression, predating the swinging-sixties and the rise of the idiot youth as a cultural guide. It’s a comedy which now seems to have less to offer in terms of laughs than in serious intent; seen in 2020, Morgan is a suitable case for treatment, and deservedly so.
Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this film.