First off, please don’t tell me I’ve misspelled “grey”—as this is a British film, so the title will be spelled in proper English. Second, I am not surprised that you haven’t seen this—it’s rarely (if ever) shown on TCM and is unavailable on DVD in the USA. A friend hooked me up with an illegal viewing (names and places will be omitted in case the piracy police are on the prowl), so that’s how I came recently to see it. Lastly, you should find a way to see this, as it is so outrageously different from anything in early-1940s English-speaking cinema.
The Man in Grey (1943) is a Gainsborough Pictures melodrama starring James Mason as Lord Rohan (literally the man in grey) and Phyllis Calvert as Clarissa (AKA Lady Rohan). Ah, but they weren’t the real stars of the film, as Margaret Lockwood got top billing playing one of the most deplorable characters of her career—Hesther Barbary! Based on Lady Eleanor Smith’s 1942 novel of the same name, the film is set during Regency England (1811-1820) and tells the story of how a beautiful, ebullient woman has her life ruined by a callous husband and a calculating “best” friend. Quite simply, if I didn’t know the story was written by an Englishwoman, I would have thought it was French!
How can I describe this without telling you everything—thus ruining it (sort of) if you ever see it for yourself? Little known British director Leslie Arliss must have been given free reign to do whatever he liked with Margaret Kennedy and Doreen Montgomery’s adapted screenplay—that should tell you all you need to know: woman author + 2 woman screenwriters = wickedness gone wild (especially for 1943). In addition, it’s a costume melodrama, so the wardrobe and sets are somewhat gothic, which gives the film an almost otherworldly feel.
Calvert’s blonde Clarissa represents innocence and goodness; Lockwood’s brunette Hesther represents evil and sinfulness. They meet at Miss Patchett's school for young ladies, where Clarissa is beloved by all and Hesther is shunned by everyone but Clarissa. When they meet a gypsy fortune teller (Beatrice Varley) she sees bad things to come for the two girls. Obviously foreshadowing and foreboding are necessary elements of any good melodrama, so this is no surprise. What is a surprise is how these bad things happen and by whom.
Eventually, Hesther runs off and elopes with a local soldier and Clarissa meets and marries the man in grey, Lord Rohan. To say that he his less than doting would be an understatement. When asked why he married her, Rohan says Clarissa was pretty, healthy and able to produce an heir. James Mason is beyond brooding as Rohan, and, I must say, every bit the S.O.B. He lives by his family crest, which reads “He who dishonors us dies.” Hence, he enjoys duels. He also enjoys bad women, so when Clarissa brings the recently widowed Hesther into their home he finds her to his liking. Hesther’s been through some hard times and has turned into quite the opportunist since her school days. She wants everything that Clarissa has and she has no qualms about getting what she wants. I can’t recall Lockwood ever playing such an out-and-out bitch. She makes you hate Hesther—there is nothing, and I mean nothing, redeeming whatsoever about her.
Yet, don’t feel too sorry for Clarissa. Once she produces a son (which she and we never see) Rohan lets her do whatever she likes as long as it doesn’t dishonor his name. Also, for some reason, she is completely oblivious to the fact that her husband and best friend are carrying on a torrid affair—though I doubt she would have cared anyway, but it would have made her less likely to trust Hesther’s advice in her own illicit affair. Yes, Clarissa must have been attracted to no-good men, because she falls for another rogue in Rokeby (Stewart Granger). And, this sets up two very shocking events, both of which Hesther plays a crucial role. I won’t say what happens, but you will be both repulsed and outraged.
There are a few things that make this film standout (some good, some just bizarre). The affair between Rohan and Hesther is brazenly presented for our eyes. One scene has her leaving Rohan’s bedroom in the middle of the night and creeping back to her own. Just so many amoral characters running about in 1943 England when the Brits are trying to win WWII just seems wrong, but this is the only good thing about the film.
Another thing that stood out for me was Clarissa’s slave boy Toby, played by Harry Scott. Okay, please don’t get upset about what I’m about to say, but what the hell! If you have seen this, please explain to me whether Harry Scott was black or if he was a white child in blackface. When I checked on IMBD he only had one film credit and there is no information listed about him. I know it sounds strange, but every scene he was in I couldn’t take my eyes off him (and not because his performance was great because it surely was not), because I was so shocked. They couldn’t find a black child somewhere in England to play this part? The things I find fascinating!
Okay, so what’s the final assessment? The Man in Grey is an average movie with an above-average cast. The final ten minutes of the film are what makes it memorable. Once you see how far Hesther will go to get what she wants you will never forget it—nor what she gets in return for her loathsome behavior. If you are interested, email me and I will inform you where you can procure a viewing.