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October 21, 2007
Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment: (1966). Director Karel Reisz
Morgan isn't one of the best known films from the 'Swinging Sixties' period nevertheless it is a film by one of Britain's best directors of the time and somebody who had been central to the quiet revolution going on in British cinema during the late 1950s. He worked with Lindsay Anderson on Sequence and wrote a book 'The Technique of Film Editing' which has become a classic within the field. He was programme planner at the National Film Theatre which helped to bring into being the 'Free Cinema Movement.' He also directed one of the classics of the British Social Realist movement Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Reisz's work always had a socio-political edge to it and Morgan was no exception. Morgan does capture the infectious mood of the times which would have been appreciated by many of its target audience whilst raising in a humourous way the issues of what the outcomes in society of having a better educated group of people of working class origin were.
Karel Reisz: Director of Morgan a Suitable Case for Treatment
The screenplay was by playwright David Mercer one of several dramatists such as Harold Pinter who were to make major contributions to British television drama, as well as theatre and film scripts in the 1960s. Mercer was probably the first major English dramatist to emerge directly from television rather than through the theatre system. Many of these playrights were from the social background of the 'Angry Young Men' and were throwing up challenges to the status quo.
The screenplay for Morgan was adapted by David Mercer from his original TV play, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1962), transmitted by the BBC as a 'Sunday Night Play'. In the film adaptation of the play, Morgan wears a gorilla suit to gatecrash his ex-wife's wedding and becomes incarcerated / committed (depending on your point of view) to a psychiatric hospital. Neither of these elements were present in the play. Other changes are that Morgan is an artist rather than a writer, and correspondingly Napier is an art dealer instead of a publisher. The world of visual communications does make for better viewing and art is a more class based thing in terms of who can afford it. Arguably the use of art heightens the sense of class division. It certainly reflects the zeitgeist or spirit of the times for many art students were providing the dynamic for the burgeoning pop / rock industry which was expanding dramatically as the disposable incomes of the young went up. Those art students were less likely to be going to Hamlet than Beatles concerts or jazz clubs.
Historically we can look back and see this time in London as part of the transition towards the ‘postmodern’ when art becomes popularised through artists like Warhol in the States and Peter Blake in Britain. In retrospect we could offer a reading which is reflecting upon the changes in the world of art at the time. The use of the writer / publisher binary from 1962 would seem to reflect upon the ‘Angry Young Man’ of the 1950s which relates to the British New Wave social realism so in this sense the screenplay has been updated to reflect a decade of rapid social change. Morgan as an artist who has gained his art education as part of the growing affluence of the country is still socially excluded from the upper middle classes and the stuffy world of art as a space of collectors versus those who wish to produce for others is a core social tension explored throughout the film. As such Morgan is a metaphor for the Lambeth boy of Reisz's earlier documentary film who has made good intellectually but is still excluded socially. The manic images of Morgan in the car provide a direct visual link to the Lambeth lads as they return from being patronised playing the cricket team of a public school. There is the same joie de vivre and refusal to obey outdated social strictures without resistance.
Jane Moat on the Screen Online site describes the film a little disparagingly as ‘simplified’ with ‘the modishness of much 1960s British cinema in its setting, art direction, costumes, cinematography and music soundtrack.’ Viewed now it can be read as a useful document of the 1960s offering insights into the tensions surrounding the London cultural scene as artist album covers were becoming recognised pieces of art in their own right. Moat appears to miss the depth of the Zeitgeist. Just as films such as A bout de souffle and Paris nous appartient are importsant in their representations of contemporary Paris so Morgan moves through different social spaces and urban places providing us with an interesting representation of London and its institutions formal and informal of the time.
The film contains an iconoclastic spirit which is repeated the following year in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade which also celebrates the shifts in the art world through its inventive use of cartoon work which seemingly helped inspire Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There is a sort of quirky British style surrealism which also inhabited Lindsay Anderson’s Oh Dreamland. One must remember that surrealism itself had a strong radical political edge and has been present in British cinema since the time of Humphrey Jennings a mentor of British Free Cinema. Moat's analysis seems over-academicised and London-centric.
Moat also notes that the original play explored a ‘familiar Mercer theme’ examining the relationship between social alienation and madness. This is an important point and can be seen as a representation which is playing on tensions within the British cultural establishment between those who were representative of ‘high culture’ and the wider desire to break down some of the class barriers.
Warner had been used by the British 'new wavers' before playing Blifil in Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963). He then became prominent on theatre world playing Hamlet with the RSC in 1965.
MacFarlane in the Encyclopedia of British Film sees him as "...a key figure of the new British cinema of the decade."
For British audiences the leading actors were part of a rising generation who were also challenging the status quo. For Moat they were as ‘fashionable as the décor’. David Warner had recently played Hamlet at Stratford which Moat suggests with which the politically-conscious university students of the mid-1960s could identify although how many would be going to Hamlet rather than CND marches or rock concerts is debateable. Whilst the Stratford theatre was a core place for the professionals and drama students a run of Hamlet wasn't what was making the country tick. The long boom, Labour governments and a rise of educated people gravitating towards media and cultural industries, concern with the Vietnam and the rise of Apartheid generally were.
Vanessa Redgrave was beginning to make a name in films after nearly a decade of classical stage roles and had become linked to Tony Richardson a stalwart of Woodfall films and also associated with Britsh social realism. In this sense there was a developing cultural milieu in London which was fully intertwined with the process of cultural change that was taking place.
Along with the other work of Woodfall films and those involved in it there is an ongoing political and social edge to the film which links into the wider shifts in the cultural milieu cutting across a wide range of cultural forms including music, art, theatre, TV as well as cinema. At the same time it is infused with a sixties spirit of critical humour. Along with Charge of the Light Brigade Woodfall films can be seen as playing an important role in deliberately combining aspects of ‘Swinging London’ with a political edge.
Morgan Delt (David Warner) is a working class artist from a Communist background and married to and in the process of divorce from an upper middle-class wife Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave). Thematically he is obsessed by gorillas - he visits them in the zoo, fantasises about them and identifies with them. When Leonie divorces him, Morgan returns to their house, digs out his Marxist and gorilla paraphernalia paints a hammer and sickle on the mirror, and puts a skeleton in the bed. In response Leonie takes out a court junction to bar him from the house, and he makes his home in her car outside. how one reads the Gorilla is uncertain however it seems that the ineffectiveness of this powerful animal could well be a metaphor for the caging of the working class. Also gorillas were known to be coming an endangered species by this time so the linkages between Marxism and Gorillas could have been a commentary on the nature of class itself.
Leonie is still attracted to Morgan but she but there is considerable social pressure for her to normalise. Charles Napier, an art dealer is the new man in her life. Morgan goes to 'sort him out' at his gallery, armed to the teeth, but Napier is unimpressed and throws him out. Morgan then puts a tape recorder in the house and plays a loud recording of a rocket launching when Napier next takes Leonie to bed. Morgan also manages to blow up his class obessessed mother-in-law with a bomb under the bed.
Morgan's communist mother runs a café, which he drops into from time to time. Despite being accuessed of beingf a class traitor by sleeping with the enemy he accompanies her on the annual pilgrimage to Karl Marx's tomb in Highgate Cemetery.
By now Morgan camped in a vehicle outside Leonie’s house in what would now be considered as ‘stalking’. Leonie has the car towed away, but Morgan returns. He visits a psychiatrist, who considers him "a suitable case for treatment". Leonie's ambivalence allows her to sleep with Morgan agian. He wants her to have his baby, but Leonie determined to marry Napier and proceeds with her wedding plans. Clearly the message is marriage is based upon class and property rather than desire and meritocracy.
Morgan and his mother's friend Wally, who is a professional wrestler who goes under the name of 'The Gorilla', kidnap Leonie and take her to Wales, camping by a lake. Morgan fantasises that he and Leonie are Tarzan and Jane, but Leonie is still resolved to marry Napier. Her father tracks her down and rescues her and Morgan is sent to prison.
Morgan is released from prison on the day of Leonie's wedding. He sees King Kong at the cinema, and hires a gorilla suit. Dressed in the suit, he gatecrashes the wedding, scaling the hotel walls like Kong. Chaos ensues, Morgan flees but the suit catches fire. Smouldering, Morgan steals a motorbike and drives into the river. He is washed up on a rubbish tip on the shore at Battersea. He cannot get the gorilla head off, panics and begins to hallucinate that everything and everybody emotionally meaningful to him conspire against him with his enemies . Reisz provides a fantasy sequence where Morgan dreams that he is straitjacketed and shot by firing squad. These are very different fantasies to those of power and control seen in Schlesinger's Billy Liar made on the cusp of social realism to the Swinging Sixties. Morgan wakes up and is taken to hospital and here Reisz has managed to shift class differences to a mental interior instead of the grey squalid conditions of Britain's industrial heartlands represented in the social realist movement.
The finale takes place when Leonie, who is now pregnant, is filmed walking through a garden. It transpires that it is the grounds of the asylum in which Morgan has been placed. He is engaged in making a flowerbed in the shape of the hammer and sickle. Leonie tells him that the baby is his and the ending is left open.
Overall the film very effectively catches the spirit of the early to mid sixties 1960s and the changing cultural scene and the class values which are being reshuffled as challenges to the old more conservative order are being reconfigured. In the light of what is now understood about stalking and harassment of ex-partners the film might well be read rather differently than at the time as gender politics had yet to make an appearance and the intended underlying messages were more concerned with class conflict and the emergence of what we now describe as cultural industries. In this sense the humour can be seen to have a gender bias. The strengths of the film is that the underlying social pressures upon relationships are being explored in ways which simply would not have been possible 10 years previously.
The fact that Morgan is placed in an asylum might also be an early reference to the rise of radical psychiatry which emerged in the 1960s and reached a peak of influence in the 1970s based upon the work of Laing and Cooper in the Tavistock clinic. Their work was partially concerned with socio-cultural and class issues with regard to schizophrenia.