‘Idol of the Odeons’

Idol of the Odeons

For any filmgoer not part of 1950s British Cinema, the magnitude of Dirk Bogarde’s presence as a major star comes as a revelation. It is difficult to imagine anyone at the height of Bogarde’s fame in Britain who did not instantly recognize his name and face. Crowned the ‘Idol of the Odeons’, he dominated British screens as Rank’s biggest star and the nation’s most popular actor. His runaway hit Doctor in the House was the top moneymaker of 1954, taking £500,000 in Britain alone, almost five times its budget. (Falk, 98) Seventeen million tickets were sold, or roughly one for every two cinemagoers. (Coldstream, 205) During the lean years for UK cinemas, ticket sales from his films helped keep theatres open. More than 4000 cinema managers chose him as ‘the World’s Greatest Money-Drawing Star’. (Coldstream, 207) For five years, from 1955 to 1960, Bogarde’s enthusiastic fans voted for him over major Hollywood stars Rock Hudson and Doris Day in the Motion Picture Academy poll in Europe. (Tanitch, 9) On the home front, Picturegoer magazine presented him with its Annual Award for ‘best actor’ three years in a row. (Hinxman and d’Arcy, 14) But, from 1960, Bogarde would change his matinée-idol image by taking on complex, mature roles, and by the 1970s he would have extended his artistic reach abroad to become one of the premier actors in international art house cinema.

The Bogarde Magic

with Jean Simmons, So Long at The Fair (1950)

Dirk Bogarde came on the scene at a time when his startlingly handsome dark looks and edgy screen persona were just different, just foreign looking enough, to make him stand out from the crowd of often predictable looking, bland by contrast, British leading men. Bogarde projected a dangerous magnetism, a simmering sexual intensity, and fierce intelligence on screen. His finely defined, sensitive features and dark velvet eyes caught and held spellbound the viewer, especially the female viewer. No matter that his character Tom Riley shot the beloved PC Dixon in The Blue Lamp. No matter if he played a scheming lowlife or a neurotic criminal on the run. Females were attracted to his screen image like moths to a flame, ranking his sexually sadistic Riley seventh in a Picturegoer poll. (Spicer, 95) Bogarde brought a sense of danger and volatility to his characters, combined with a vulnerability and humanity, which riveted filmgoers’ attention and at the same time drew their sympathy. When the scene changed to romantic war hero or handsome young doctor, he captured hearts and ratings and led the popularity polls for the rest of the decade.

Eroticism in Film

The Angel Wore Red

At play in Bogarde’s magnetism was his ability to ‘get to the gut and mind’ of his viewers and to tap into their emotions. (For the Time Being, 82-83) He understood the inherent sensuality in cinema, explaining to one interviewer: ‘This is a fantasy land … The basic thing about the cinema is sensuality… eroticism… All great art is a stimulation of the senses, and if they are not the sexual senses, they are the senses that stimulate and excite and liberate.’ (Wiedenman, 56) He knew well the power of an actor to tap the ‘emotional receptivity and craving’ in audiences. Early on, he realized that he had sex appeal on screen and how audiences reacted to him: ‘People were turned on by me… there was an alchemy at work and so I used it… I was going to make every wing commander I played as mischievous, as flirty, as physically attractive as I could… You’ve got to work at your charm… your sex appeal.’ (Dirk Bogarde: By Myself) But he also knew that sex appeal alone would not hold an audience for long.

An Actor’s Energy

with Visconti

For Bogarde, a potent force in holding an audience’s attention was the magic that derived from the focused use of an actor’s ‘energy’, which was ‘both mental and physical’ and sprang ‘directly from the gut’. If an actor can tap it to transform himself ‘not through tricks of make-up or lighting’ but through a sudden release of that energy in a scene, it becomes ‘the life force behind a performance; without it a performance can be adequate, acceptable: but lacking in lustre.’ When an actor creates that magic on screen, ‘an audience will react instantly: the experience disturbs, excites, and involves them completely.’ (Backcloth, 209-210) No longer mere observers, the audience shares the experience. Bogarde had the rare ability to do this and to take his audiences to what he called a ‘higher plane of experience.’ It was, for him, ‘exactly what acting is about, and always has been.’ And when it works in a scene, as it did between such highly skilled actors like Bogarde and Glenda Jackson, ‘joined together seamlessly’, it becomes an ‘exhilarating’ experience for players and audience alike. (208-210)

Intense concentration was vital to channel that energy: ‘Concentration… that is the main key to cinema playing; without it you are lost, and the retaining of it, through thick and through thin, is essential, exhausting and sometimes so hard to contain that one is brought to the edge of madness.

with Julie Christie

‘It is a lesson that many actors never learn. But you have got to have it, and the strength to hold it.’ (An Orderly Man, 239) Between takes, he would often distance himself to control the energy and stay in role until it was time to release it on screen. During the filming of The Damned Bogarde spent hours talking about acting to a young Charlotte Rampling, who recalls his counsel ‘to have “self discipline” while waiting for “those few moments when you have to be supremely on form…You also have to know how to let go of that self-control for those moments.” Dirk taught me about that.’ Letting go after disciplined rehearsal was a plus in Darling, he remembered:

‘In Darling, we learned all the lines, rehearsed all our movements and directions, and then just before the take the director said: “Forget all about the lines. You know what you’ve got to say. You know what your moves are and where the lighting is.” So we did. I think it worked wonderfully well. Films are a very disciplined thing, really, and there isn’t much chance for this sort of thing. Darling worked well because a lot of it was improvisation. And a lot of the charm and magic of Julie was her improvisation.’

‘The Camera Photographs Thought’

with Mary Ure The Blue Lamp (1950)

The role of Tom Riley in The Blue Lamp (1950) was Bogarde’s ‘first experience’ at portraying a character with depth, unlike the cardboard ones he had been cast as up to that point. During the filming, he made an amazing discovery ‘that the camera actually photographed the mind process.’ That realization was an epiphany. It changed his approach to acting: ‘I became completely absorbed in trying to find those minds and offer them up to the camera.’ (Snakes and Ladders, 130) He now had his direction: ‘It’s what the cinema is all about … you depend on the thought for the lens … that is the thing that takes the back of your head right off; and if you’ve got nothing in there, sweetie, it’s going to show that you’ve got nothing in there. You can do anything you like with your face – turn it left, right, twitch, lift your eyebrow, but it’s not going to work because nothing’s really pulled it up. It’s not a question of technical tricks; something has to be happening inside.’ (Guerin, 57)

with Maureen Swanson, The Spanish Gardener (1956)

Under Philip Leacock’s direction (Appointment in London and The Spanish Gardener) he learned again, as he had with Basil Dearden, that ‘screen acting was more to do with the head… that it was the thought which counted more than the looks’ (Snakes and Ladders, 135), and that he had to focus on thinking the role and then revealing that thought to the camera lens.

His love affair with the camera was, he explained, ‘a complete, magical thing.’ It was an instinctive response that an actor either has or not. ‘You can’t explain how to relax before the camera and you can’t teach someone that that box is… your life – to hell with the director. I mean, do what he tells you, but remember that box is what you channel it through.’ It takes great ‘concentration’ and energy for ‘something very simple, like a look… I know what a great look means, Visconti does, Joe Losey does, Resnais does… Alan Ladd bloody well knew about a look.’ (Guerin, 57)

Stillness in an Actor

Through controlled use of his energy, and a quality Bogarde called ‘stillness’, an actor could dominate the screen. ‘Stillness’ allowed the camera to focus on what was going on inside, rather than outside. Bogarde knew that revealing thoughts and emotions was at the heart of creating a character. In an interview with Andrew Peters, he discussed the quality of ‘stillness’: ‘Stillness. It’s rather difficult to explain but Richard Burton has it. Glynis Johns has it. They seem to give dominating performances with the minimum dialogue or physical exertion. Burton for instance almost literally doesn’t move, but gets right under the skin of his character and thinks like mad… If you think hard enough the camera will record it surely as it records movement.’ (Peters, 26) One plus in portraying José in The Spanish Gardener (1957) would be an opportunity to ‘experiment with stillness’: ‘Certainly the gardener is only a small part, but he is, after all, the revolving character. If I’m going to make a success of the part it will have to be a dominating performance. I regard it as one of the finest acting opportunities of my career. It’s a part which will enable me to experiment with stillness.’ (Peters, 26)

Beneath the Stillness…Swirling Emotions

Liliana Cavani put her finger on a unique quality in Bogarde’s skill as an actor: ‘his façon pâle – a quality that enabled him so effectively to convey hidden depths of extreme anxiety.’ (Coldstream, 375-376)

Bogarde never thought of himself as ‘an extrovert actor’. He was instead ‘an introvert; instinctive rather than histrionic.’ (Snakes and Ladders, 129). When he discussed the essence of Garbo’s talent, he might have been describing his own skill in ‘behaving’ and ‘thinking’ for the camera versus surface acting and histrionics:

‘Garbo was not an actress, as she so inaccurately is called; she was an “instinctive” and a “behaviourist” – very different things altogether. Acting, as such, is surface; “behaving” is interior and only surfaces in thought. The camera photographs thought as readily as it photographs acting, but it sets both on the screen, and the result, which most often touches the audience, is the “thought” rather than the histrionics. Garbo had thought in abundance. It is not an intellectual thing, it is simply a “gut” thing.’ (For The Time Being, 183-184).

Bogarde was a master at revealing the swirling interior of characters, where thoughts and emotions spill out in a blast of temper, sorrow, or frustration. His characters came close to breakdown or shattering, yet he brought a fierce determination to them, so that they teetered but rarely plunged into the abyss. He understood the tension created in a scene from contained emotion and the impact it would have on his audience. In prepping for a role, he gave a good deal of thought as to how he would portray a character emotionally, to the point of carefully charting out the character’s ‘emotional highs and lows’ during the course of the film. (Victim script, Bogarde annotations; British Film Library)

Continually honing his ability to slip into the skin of his characters, he became a master of nuance and subtlety, manipulating his face and voice to reflect the personality and psyche of his character, from sneer to stutter to open grin, all of it recorded by the camera. With the right director planning the shots and a good cameraman, Bogarde’s face became subtle magic on screen. In The Servant, Losey and cameraman Douglas Slocombe recorded Barrett’s covert eye and mouth movements, which revealed his disdain for the young master, Tony. Bogarde’s portrayal of von Aschenbach was a brilliant example of his genius in reacting and unfolding for the camera lens the inner turmoil and yearning of the dying man for the boy. It was a role that had few spoken lines in proportion to the length of time he was on camera and the close-ups of his face reacting. Yet as viewers, we feel that we have heard him speak eloquent volumes on his anguish because of those close-ups.

An Actor’s Gift of Observation

To create characters who resonated with audiences, Bogarde drew on a skill his father had taught him as a child, that of closely observing and filing away details from his environment and how people acted and reacted. These details became fodder for future characters he would portray. Not an advocate of Method acting, he pointed out that an actor did not have to experience something in order to portray it in a way that resonates with an audience:

‘Acting is all observation and storing away things. What it’s like to be cold, what it’s like to not have quite enough money for the rent – all the ordinary, human sort of things. It’s very difficult to imagine unless you’ve experienced it… You don’t have to commit a murder to play a murderer… But I think nearly all of us have at one time come to the point of almost committing murder in a rage – which is close enough to a reaction I might use later on. And more important, it’s something almost everyone in an audience has experienced… (Wiedenman, 55)

He constantly searched for the unique gesture that would bring life to a character, ‘an imperfection of speech… a slight laugh, a sigh, a caught word’, which would draw in and involve an audience, whether one was doing a reading or giving a performance. (For the Time Being, 82-83) In Libel and again in Accident, he ‘used a stutter, only twice, when I was telling a deliberate lie. It happens every day. How many times have you heard someone stutter over something, and immediately known it’s a lie? So I borrow all these experiences, store them up, and use them when the occasion comes along. It’s all part of being an actor.’ (Wiedenman, 55)

The Extent of Bogarde’s Talent

Bogarde’s range and versatility as an actor were remarkable. He shifted with ease from spiv to hero, soulful Spanish gardener to anguished homosexual barrister, dying old composer to conflicted ex-concentration camp Nazi, sadistic Spanish bandit in erotic black leather to schizophrenic Russian owner of a chocolate factory.

His quick eye for mannerisms and his instinctive ease in using them, as well as a facile gift in accents, also made portraying multiple characters in a movie look deceptively easy on screen. During Esther Waters, Ian Dalrymple made him play a scene six or seven ways, a difficult lesson in acting, but one which gave him valuable flexibility in future roles. Years later, when Visconti asked him to do several versions of a scene in The Damned, he amazed the director with the ease at which he did them. (Snakes and Ladders, 263) He shifted characters in the blink of an eye in The Woman in Question, (1950); played three different characters in Libel (1959); two in The Mind Benders, (1963); went from officer Leigh Fermor to the dashing Philidem, Fermor’s other identity on Crete, resplendent in authentic Cretan dress in Ill Met By Moonlight; became with uncanny ease each hallucinated version of the son in Providence (1977); and slowly disintegrated into madness as the tortured split personality of Hermann in Despair (1978).

Throughout his film career, Bogarde repeatedly revealed his ease with accents and the ability to slide easily from his native British English into whatever accent a role required. Starting out he worked hard to bring his voice down which sounded ‘light’ due to the poor recording of the time (By Myself, 56). In his early roles he rarely spoke in his own voice, adopting instead a Cockney or low-class accent. To prepare himself to play the Russian émigré in Despair, he worked with a voice coach for weeks to perfect Hermann’s Prussian accent and then used the accent around the clock. (An Orderly Man, 261) His linguistic skill was so developed that in his last 16 films, he played an Englishman only seven times.

An Actor Needs Good Dialogue

with Michael Medwin, Boys in Brown (1949)

The quality of dialogue, or lack of it, in a script was a constant thread running through Bogarde’s assessments of films over the years. Crucial to creating believable characters was “good dialogue”. He insisted on dialogue he could speak, and if writers couldn’t provide it, he rewrote, or as he called it, “mended” his lines until they had the ring of truth when spoken. Asked by Films and Filming to comment on film writers, he emphatically noted the scarcity of writers who could write dialogue. While script writers might be excellent “constructionists”, they were rarely “good dialogue writers”. (Jan 1957, 27) Throughout his roles, he was constantly “mending terrible scripts…causing great hostility among the writers, naturally, and often directors” to get them to the point where he could speak the lines. (For The Time Being 114)

with James Fox, The Servant (1963)
When exposed to the calibre and ‘textual precision’ of Harold Pinter’s dialogue in the adaptation of Robin Maugham’s The Servant, Bogarde tweaked a few lines but very carefully and reverently: ‘I remember Harold came on the set one day and I extended a speech because I had to go up a staircase rather quickly and it left me with three stairs to go at the top without any dialogue. So I had to invent a litany of “Who looks after you? Who does the cooking? Who washes your pants?” It got me to the top of the stairs, but obviously the lines weren’t Harold’s. Anyway, he heard what I’d said, considered it, chewed it over like a cow with cud and then said, “All right, you can use it.” But that kind of addition was a very rare event because you just don’t find writers of his calibre in cinema. You just don’t find people who write that kind of dialogue.’ (Billington, 153)

Technique Frees an Actor

on set, The Servant (1963)

Bogarde’s knowledge of the technical side of the camera and of acting for that lens was a great help to him in acquiring more control and power as an actor. Early in his career, the cameraman Bob Thomson commented on the actor’s lack of technical knowledge in film acting. Instead of getting angry, Bogarde was savvy enough to recognize how important the technical side was and set out to learn it. In an interview, he explained how crucial the knowledge was: ‘He told me how many frames went through the camera per second, per minute, per hour. It affects my acting in every possible detail. For instance, now I know I cannot move in a certain way because it’s too fast for the camera or too slow for the camera. How I lift a glass, how I move my head – it all depends on the lens. A 9 distorts you, a 50 is reasonable, a 75 is something else. I know them all now, but I didn’t know any of them then. I was doing wonderfully descriptive things with my hands and feet when the camera was cutting at my chin and hairline. I think you’ve got to be a technician. That’s what the man on the camera told me. I mean it’s no good going through a picture just looking pretty. You can do that for a while – with your tight pants and your riding boots and your good profile and all that, but something is going to go somewhere. Your face is going to slip and they’re going to get bored with you…’ (Wiedenman, 54)

with Joseph Losey, The Servant (1963)

Once an actor had learned the technique so well that he could forget what he was doing, he was freed to ‘think’ or ‘behave‘ the part. ‘You’ve got to be a technician to forget it all, so you do the acting on top of it,’ he stressed. (Wiedenman, 54) Rehearsal was only good for going through the technicalities of a scene but not for using his ‘actor’s energy’, true for example in a technical scene for The Servant:

‘I hate rehearsals unless it’s something technically complicated, such as in The Servant, where I had something like forty-one camera changes to make while laying and unlaying a dinner table. Then I do want to know exactly where my props are so it all happens on cue. I always insist on a technical rehearsal, when no emotion is happening, just saying the line. The crew have to know what you are doing and sound has to know that you may turn your head as you say a line, but you don’t put the guns in until the red light is on.’ (McFarlane, 69)

A Summing-up: Bogarde’s Rare Quality

as Barrett, The Servant (1963)

While other actors might know the basics of film acting and the camera, what made Bogarde a potent presence on screen was his ability to put his knowledge and skills into play to such a high degree. He brought a deep understanding to the process of creating characters who could make audiences react and completely involve them in a powerful experience. His controlled surface stillness on screen was powered by an intense inner life. His dark expressive eyes had a luminosity and a gravitas, which drew a viewer into the depth of his thoughts and emotions. A master at using his ‘actor’s energy’ to inhabit a character on camera, Bogarde gave subtle, layered performances played to a level of perfection, always memorable, and many times unparalleled.

In the Beginning: the ’40s & ’50s

Early Publicity Still, Being Tailored

Dirk Bogarde began his acting career in the theatre before the Second World War. After the war, he again found theatre work but spurred by a need for extra money to live on, he also sought work outside the theatre, landing the role of a young killer in a televised version of Rope (1947), followed by a part in the play Power Without Glory. During the play’s run, Bogarde and three other ‘stars’, among them the MP Harold Wilson, were selected by the Sketch magazine as ‘Young Men of Mark’. (Snakes and Ladders, 121) One of Sydney Box’s writers who saw the play was so struck by the young actor that Box gave him a screen test, which its director applauded as ‘totally believable and moving beyond words’. (Coldstream, 166) His first cinema appearance was a blip-on-the-screen role as a police dispatcher in Dancing with Crime (1947), showing just his back to the audience. Before long, audiences would see not only his face but also his name above the title for decades to come. Rank put him on option for six months and then gave him a seven-year contract.

as William Latch, Esther Waters (1948)

Ian Dalrymple, whose company Wessex Films was making films for Rank, cast him in a small part as a priest in Esther Waters. Luck was on his side. When Stewart Granger bowed out of the lead role, Bogarde took his place as the handsome bounder. (Guerin, 59) It was 1947, and a memorable year in his career. He had a Rank contract in his pocket, was appearing onstage, and also making films. Even his agent was surprised at how quickly the positive events had happened. (Snakes and Ladders, 106) Bogarde made two more movies with Wessex: first as the sensitive pianist George Bland in the ‘Alien Corn’ segment of Quartet, an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s play and second, totally miscast as a speedway racer in Once a Jolly Swagman (1949). Hollywood was interested even then, but only if Dirk learned Spanish, entered the States ‘reborn’ as a Mexican to fill the shoes of the Latin lover. The final straw was the plan for his arranged marriage to a girl vetted by the studio. It was an offer Dirk could and hurriedly did refuse. (Dirk Bogarde: By Myself).

Invariably cast in the beginning as spivs, petty criminals and men on the run, he still chalked up strong performances, which caught the imagination of audiences and of a few early critics.

with Mai Zetterling, Desperate Moment (1953)

The critic Richard Whitehall appreciated Bogarde’s ability to inject intense emotion into a scene: ‘There is no actor on the British screen who can put more guts into a love scene given half a chance, the scenes with Mai Zetterling in Desperate Moment, for instance.’ (14) His edgy dark portrayal of Tom Riley in The Blue Lamp made critics sit up and take notice of the young actor. The film also afforded him the new and rewarding experience of filming outdoors:

‘It was the first of what we would call today cinema vérité: the first true, on-location movies we had ever made. Other than the policeman’s flat everything else was done in Paddington Green police station and the White City dog-racing track. I had never in my life before had to act outdoors but then I realized this was how to do it.’ (McFarlane, 69)

The Blue Lamp became the highest grossing film in Britain in 1950, and it also won a BAFTA for best British film. (Vermilye, 140) Hunted (1952) and his intense portrayal of a felon on the run with little Jon Whiteley was another film he considered one of his best from that period.

with Joan Rice, Blackmailed (1951)

Regardless of the quality of his performances, Rank executives were reluctant to change their initial opinion that he was best left in working-class parts. In his first 14 films, he was cast in only four roles which were not in that mould: Quartet, Dear Mr. Prohack, So Long at the Fair, and the lightweight romance Penny Princess (1952) opposite Yvonne Donlan, and financed by Donlan and her director-husband Val Guest. Although Penny Princess was in some ways a dress rehearsal for his lovable, befuddled, näive Dr. Simon Sparrow role, it was, for the most part, a total waste of Bogarde’s talent. No doubt Donlan saw it as a vehicle to reprise her Born Yesterday dumb blonde act from Broadway, but she was incongruous opposite Bogarde who, try as he might to fit the inane role, could never hide his intelligence. When Rank loaned him out to make Appointment in London (1952) he was finally given an opportunity to play an ‘upper-class Commander’, calling the role ‘the first time that I actually made any kind of impression for good on the screen’, with Picturegoer naming him ‘the foremost young actor on the British screen’. But the studio paid little attention to the film, which was a ‘crushing blow’ for Bogarde. (Snakes and Ladders, 135)

Within a year, Bogarde’s fortunes would change dramatically. The producer Betty Box had the strength of vision to push casting him as Dr. Sparrow in Doctor in the House, a role which revealed his unexpected talent at comedy, and one which catapulted him to fame and matinée-idol status for the rest of the decade.

Bogarde recalled this turning point in his early career: ‘Betty and Ralph had seen me in a couple of plays and realised that I could play comedy. The studio believed I could only play spivs and Cockneys, but Betty and Ralph put me in tweeds and let me speak in my own voice, and the rest was history.’ (McFarlane, 69)

with James Robertson Justice, Doctor at Sea (1955)

Betty Box described the ‘strong opposition’ she received from Earl St. John of Rank who ‘doubted Dirk’s capacity for comedy. I persuaded him to give Dirk a chance to read the script . . . I’d worked only briefly with Dirk Bogarde (So Long at the Fair), but I knew he was a more versatile screen actor than he’d yet been able to prove. I wanted him for Simon Sparrow.’ (90) The overwhelmingly positive reviews proved her judgment correct: ‘Shows he can handle comedy and romance with rare delicacy (Paul Holt)’ and ‘Especially liked Bogarde’s romantic hero – nice to see him released from playing neurotic coshboys (Sunday Chronicle)’. (Box, 97)

Now the studio had a romantic product to peddle and profit from. Realising that Bogarde’s left side was his better side, they had sets built to take advantage of it and to film only that side: ‘Every set was built for my left profile, nobody ever saw the right side of my face in something like 30 pictures. I was the Loretta Young of England.’ (Guerin, 59)

as Jose, The Spanish Gardener (1956)

A special eye bar was installed to focus on his expressive eyes, which also had the cinematic plus of using light to highlight for the camera lens the emotion and thought reflected in his eyes. It was all part of packaging the star, he noted: ‘I had to be romantic, you know, and it looked great. I was always looking for god – or some lost lady – through tear-rimmed eyes.’ (Wiedenman, 54)

For five years following his success in Doctor in the House, the studio kept him busy in romantic, often sensitive roles which appealed to female audiences: as Simon Sparrow in two more doctor films, an enthusiastic young newly wed in For Better, For Worse, the soulful José in The Spanish Gardener, a handsome but dying rich man in Campbell’s Kingdom, and as the young Flight Lieutenant in love with a dying Asian girl in The Wind Cannot Read. Also cast in a succession of hero roles, in Simba, he fought the Mau Mau, faced the guillotine as a memorable Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, and was a daring Major Leigh Fermor in Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) made by the creative team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Based on an interesting true story, the film had an excellent cast and crew, yet the end product was not a memorable Bogarde title. His sleazy fortune hunter in Cast a Dark Shadow the same year was the one role in that period which gave him a break from the sequence of matinée-idol parts the studio lined up once audiences were fed the screen image of Dr. Sparrow.

The playwright John Osborne pointed out the irony of Bogarde’s fine talent shunted into poor films: ‘Mr. Bogarde is a very good actor with immense personal charm. For years he has been Britain’s most popular screen actor during which time he has never appeared in a good film… his enormous public… have never been given the opportunity to see him in anything else…’ (The Evening Standard quoted in Morley, 75) Another critic seconded this opinion: ‘Unfortunately limited to spivs in raincoats, constantly chased, or war heroes, Dirk Bogarde is capable of so much more but is rarely given the opportunity to show it.’ (Sunday Express quoted in Hinxman and d’Arcy, 80)

The Doctor's Dilemma (1959)

By 1958, with his last performance on stage in Jezebel, Bogarde could not face returning to serious work in the theatre after experiencing bouts of stage fright brought on in part by screaming film fans who filled the theatres. Instead, he began to look to the cinema to ‘do my true work, which was serious acting, which I have now achieved in the cinema.’ (Bilbow, 221) It was a realization borne from filming The Doctor’s Dilemma and its witty, articulate script: ‘I realized that there was such a thing as a good scriptwriter by the name of George Bernard Shaw . . . It’s only in the last few years that we’ve had good scriptwriters. So I decided that the cinema was important, and that there were great directors and writers. I could then begin to approach a performance on screen that I could be proud of and that an audience would find satisfactory.’ (Wiedenman, 55)

From the sophisticated Dubedat in The Doctor’s Dilemma he continued flexing his acting skills in the multiple characters in Libel (1959). Both films were a harbinger of more substantial roles to come in the 1960s. Yet, despite these fine performances, a few critics remained firmly biased in their unfair assessment of him as an insubstantial actor. Bogarde recalled his frustration at a rude comment during a press showing of Victim. Lifting up his glass of gin and tonic, the critic looked at Bogarde and said, ‘Don’t think this is going to buy you good notices.’ ‘It was that attitude all the time, and I was beginning to rile against it.’ (Harty)

Libel (1959)as Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities (1958)

In discussing the ‘unsuccessful effort’ of A Tale of Two Cities, Bogarde addressed the problem of having his name associated with matinée-idol roles in England which was not the case abroad: ‘I fear, because of my position in popular cinema then, it just came over as “another Dirk Bogarde piece.” OK for the fans, but not really suitable for the nobs. In the UK anyway, my name stuck to a classic was the kiss of death. Abroad it was not. After all, mine was a foreign name and abroad I had long been accepted as a serious player. I suppose because they had been mercifully spared most of the junk films I had had to make in the early years. So when it came to Thomas Mann and von Aschenbach no one curled sardonic lips. At least as far as I know.’ (For the Time Being, 116-117) On the other hand, Bogarde did not mask his lack of respect for critics, no doubt fuelling their negative reactions when he commented: ‘Far too many critics write to please themselves and a small band of chums.’ Further, he urged, critics ought to review a film not just for content but also ‘for the kind of audience at which it is aimed’ instead of damning it because it ‘doesn’t reach their personal intellectual level’ or to praise it simply because it is in a foreign language. (Films and Filming, May 1963, 13)

He also suspected that his name had kept him from being taken seriously by British producers and directors, who wrote off every new film, regardless of content or performance, as just ‘another Dirk Bogarde piece’. Bogarde wryly commented: ‘My name, I fear, held me back from being cast in classical films. Too foreign, too “pop”, too associated with lightweight stuff – funny doctors, sad-eyed subalterns, stern wing commanders, romantic “juves” – ever to be considered for the loftier realms of the classic-book department. Anyway, they weren’t making many. And when they did, the film chaps tended to use theatre people.’ (For the Time Being, 116)

The Sixties

with Julie Christie, Darling (1965)with Capucine, Song Without End (1960)

The 1960s found Bogarde at the top of his game as an actor. Physically, he had the looks of a handsome, mature man in his forties and in his prime. His face had filled out from the thin angularly of his boyish years, bringing with it a substance and authority while retaining his remarkable looks and expressive eyes.

His flirtation with Hollywood in 1960 as Franz Liszt in Song Without End turned into a short, unhappy engagement. With contemporary films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Suddenly Last Summer being made, wasting Bogarde’s talents by casting him as a hair-sprayed, bouffant-haired Liszt in tight taffeta trousers, frilly shirt and period clothes opposite Capucine, a beautiful but wooden actress, could not have been more unfortunate timing and casting. Bogarde recalled the fiasco of feeling ‘ridiculous’ dressed and made up ‘like something out of an Army drag show.’ (A Postillion Struck by Lightning, 259) From Bogarde’s having to endure a speed course in how to play 85 minutes of Liszt on screen, to its unplanned humorous but ‘ghastly’ dialogue, ‘Hi! Franz…this is my friend Schubert. We’re thinking of going to Majorca to see Chopin and George. You want to come along?’ Disgusted, Bogarde later noted: ‘It really was as dire as that. I never made any headway with the script.’ (Cleared for Take-Off, 150)

Publicity Still, 1968

Leaving Rank in Search of Complex Roles

1961 was a turning point in Bogarde’s career. He knew it was time to cut loose from Rank’s contractual confines to play complex, mature roles on adult subjects he had long wanted. It was a move long in coming. Six years earlier, a year after Doctor in the House, he had urged John Davis of Rank to give him ‘some really solid dramatic work’, (Coldstream, 211) but that plea fell on deaf ears.

Although the series of Doctor films and his romantic and war hero roles had brought him fame and money, they did not serve as stepping-stones to more challenging work. The studio, once fixed on keeping him in working-class parts, soon realized they had a cash machine if they continually slotted him into facile matinée-idol and family-values roles to keep ticket-buying female fans coming back for more.

at Home, Publicity Still

If the studio didn’t care or lacked the vision to see the long-term effects of their stereotypical casting, Bogarde knew that when his looks faded, so would the idol image. Longevity as an actor lay in mature roles: ‘Larking around as a fallen priest with Ava Gardner is all very well when you are still a young man. But when you are turning forty you do want to do slightly more serious things.’ (The Evening Standard quoted in Morley, 91)

When Films and Filming asked him to comment on significant trends in filmmaking between 1954 and 1963, his answer mirrored his own quest for the type of roles he wanted to play: ‘The general emergence, consolidation and public acceptance of a new trend in the cinema, guided by people like Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Bryan Forbes, Tony Richardson, Walter Lassally, and Joe Losey and others. I admire these films made by director-technicians, films concerned with the human elements more than the “fairy story” of British “family films”. I should be happy to see British films consolidate their position of today with new young directors and technicians, their production far removed from the influence of the film “tycoon” and “front office” interference, which is already fifteen years out of date.’ (January 1963, 36)

Publicity Still

He sent Rank the scripts of Look Back in Anger and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning urging them to acquire the rights so he could play the lead roles. But the studio turned thumbs down. (Morley, 77), not surprising considering J. Arthur’s mission to churn out entertaining films with ‘sound moral values’. (Porter, 88) An opportunity to be part of the current social conflict, kitchen-sink dramas might have moved his career in a new direction. As Jimmy Porter and in other edgy roles he hungered to do, he would have appealed to a younger audience ready for a new wave in British film. In 1956, he revealed his frustration to Andrew Peters: ‘The trouble is the studios are afraid to let me act. Nobody will let me play with my hair parted and wearing steel-rimmed spectacles like Alec Guinness. They say I would lose all my fans. Filmgoers love stars, but on a long-term basis it is the actors they go for.’ (26)

An admirer of John Osborne’s work, Bogarde had bought the rights to Osborne’s play Epitaph for George Dillon, and then paid to adapt it for film. When he asked Earl St. John of Rank to produce it, St. John ‘pronounced it downbeat and negative’ and with his characteristic ‘family values’ focus declined. (Snakes and Ladders, 204) Perhaps the final cut was Rank’s callous conduct during the pre-production of Lawrence. Three days before shooting, the studio abruptly shut down director Anthony Asquith’s long-planned production. (Picturegoer, 3 Jan. 1959, 3). It was a role Bogarde had researched and had eagerly looked forward to playing for over a year. In a 1957 interview for Picturegoer, he described his extensive preparation for the role “studying Lawrence’s habits and mannerisms, reading everything ever written about him, talking to all the people I can find who knew him….” (31 Aug. 1957, 10). Throughout his cinema career, losing the part of Lawrence remained a major disappointment he and Asquith never completely got over.

as Anacleto Comachi, The Singer Not the Song (1961)

In Snakes and Ladders, he describes his frustration at being artistically shackled by Rank: ‘Despairingly I asked for release from my contract, not out of pique, but from a steadily mounting sense of hopelessness. I was determined to break into a new kind of cinema, they were equally determined not to… My release was refused, but I heard growing rumours that plans were afoot to sell the remainder of my contract elsewhere… I was in a state bordering panic, and bitterly resented the idea that after so many years loyal work I should be offered up like a packet of the Miller’s own flour.’ (204)

In 1961, he began formal negotiations to end his contract. He had been with Rank for 14 years, double the length he had planned. With grudging reluctance, Rank agreed to let him go, and put out a press release that, at his request, they would not exercise the option on his contract. (Snakes and Ladders, 205) His last contract role would be that of Anacleto, a Spanish bandit in the The Singer Not the Song (1961), a film with homoerotic undertones. Bogarde was unhappy with the production, believing he should have worn jeans and driven an old pickup. Nor was he happy with the choice of John Mills as the priest, having envisaged a younger actor rather than Mills, who had played his elder brother in The Gentle Gunman. (McFarlane, 70) Filming did not go well. Given a situation he hated, he played the role with tongue-in-cheek camp wearing the now famous tight black leather trousers and swishing a black leather crop atop a white stallion. (Coldstream, 255) Little wonder that the film quickly achieved cult status. At the completion of Singer, Bogarde was a free agent. Within the year, he found himself reunited on another film with Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, the director-producer team with whom he had made The Blue Lamp eleven years earlier.

Victim (1961)


as Melville Farr, Victim (1961)

During Christmas 1960, Basil Dearden asked him to look at a script entitled Victim with the thought that Bogarde would play Melville Farr, a homosexual barrister threatened with blackmail. Following his instincts that this role might be the breakthrough he had been searching for, he accepted, but had one emphatic stricture: ‘I’ll do the film on condition I can actually say “I was in love with a man”. The film was pointless without it. The consternation and shock and surprise! We put that scene in after they’d agreed to make it. Victim helped to change the law because Lord Arran used it as a hammer in his campaign.’ (Shivas, 4) His subtle, layered portrayal of Farr, cool on the surface but seething inside, in a film whose topic was considered groundbreaking at the time, became a major turning point in his career. Yet, as Bogarde told an interviewer, the role had not directly come to him: ‘Let’s be honest about it. Everyone had turned it down. I’m not ashamed of it – some of my best parts have been turned down by all the others. This part was turned down because everyone said it was revolting, that it was about a homosexual, and that I would have to play a man who was middle-aged. I played it and it was a great success.’ (Wiedenman, 55)

Portrait by Roddy McDowell

The critic Dilys Powell, long an admirer of Bogarde’s work, wrote: ‘Dirk Bogarde gives the commanding performance one has long expected from him. With a fine control of gesture and tone he conveys both the suffering of the man condemned by nature and the resolve of the man bent on sacrifice.’ (177)

There would be another positive outcome from doing Victim. For more than a decade, female viewers had been drawn to his good looks and romantic presence on screen. But Victim changed that. It freed him from his ‘Idol of the Odeons’ image and was a career-changing moment. He noted:

‘It slung the whole of the Elvis Presley image. It busted the thing wonderfully wide open because the kids just fell away overnight like grass, not because I was playing a homosexual, because in English the word “queer” usually means that you’re not feeling very well, so they didn’t get it anyway, but I did have grey temples and I was broaching my own age, playing a man about 45. I wasn’t the bouncy, happy doctor with a little perm in the front lock of my hair and my caps in and my left profile . . . And so that all broke. The caps came out, the hair was never permed again, and a different audience came.’ (Guerin, 59)

This new audience realized that behind the handsome face was a serious actor. Reflecting on his work in Victim, Bogarde wrote: ‘I had achieved what I had longed to do for so long, to be in a film which disturbed, educated, and illuminated as well as merely giving entertainment. I had been fortuitously pointed in the right direction again, just in time . . . I was not to retreat ever again.’ (Snakes and Ladders, 202)


with Alec Guinness, HMS Defiant (1962)

Despite the excellent reviews for Victim, being a freelance artist did not bring a flood of script offers. He was still trying to convince some directors that he was an actor, not a movie star. ‘David Lean,’ he remarked wryly, ‘is reputed to have said, “I’d like to use Dirk Bogarde, but I really do want an actor, not a movie star”.’ (Guerin, 59)

His first role as a free-lance artist was to play the sadistic lieutenant in HMS Defiant (1962) opposite Alec Guinness as the patient Captain. It was a character role Bogarde could do with his eyes closed. When called upon, few could play evil incarnate or summon up the degree of vicious meanness masked by surface charm the way Bogarde could as the sadistic 1st Lieutenant Scott-Padget. The same year, he made one of his better war movies, The Password is Courage, based on the real-life story of Sgt. Major Charles Coward, who escaped from German POW camps several times. Bogarde was in his element with a witty script and playing to the humour and charm of the character mixed with the serious storyline.

Joe Losey: The King

with Sarah Miles, The Servant (1963)

From 1963 to 1967 Bogarde would make some of his best films thus far, with Joe Losey. Although American, Losey was more European in his scope and vision. Years earlier, Bogarde’s first venture with Losey had been The Sleeping Tiger (1954). Although the film did not benefit from the best of scripts, it showed Bogarde the kind of director he wished to work with. In later years, he would refer to Visconti as ‘The Emperor’ and Losey as ‘The King’. (McFarlane, 72) The two threw themselves into four films, hoping to bring a new kind of film to British cinema. The first of these would be The Servant in 1963. Bogarde played the part of Barrett, a malevolent manservant, a character he easily nailed:

‘I had a marvellous director who knew exactly what he wanted, and I knew what I was going to do with the part from the very beginning. I had a wonderful writer who had written the part very simply, very easily. There it was. We had to invent a voice for the character. I had to invent a face. I never wear make-up and I had to decide what I was going to do with my face. From that point of view, it was difficult. But the part – once I got the first two lines down – was dead easy. Strangely enough we shot the movie in sequence and my first shot was when I walked down the street in the opening and pressed the doorbell. At the end of the first take, the director said, “That‘s him.” I said I thought so too. It was very simple….’ (Wiedenman, 55)

The Servant

His consummate performance as Barrett won him his first, and well deserved, BAFTA award along with the praise of most critics. Dilys Powell wrote: ‘Pinter comedy, Losey drama… and there is something else. There is Dirk Bogarde… perhaps it is at a second visit to the film when you are no longer so much concerned with what happens next that you best recognize the absolute rightness of every gesture, every turn of the eyes in the mask of respect… A flawless performance.’ (199) Looking back, Bogarde noted: ‘I’ve done some movies that have been very good and some that have been exciting and about four that have been more than that, not because I was in them but simply because they turned out to be classic. I think The Servant is one.’ (Shivas, 4)

with Sarah Miles, The Servant (1963)The Servant (1963)

The following year, Losey and Bogarde collaborated in an equally powerful film, King and Country. Its understated but strong anti-war statement is reminiscent of the classic war films Paths of Glory and La Grande Illusion. A perfectly crafted and photographed film, it captures the filth, the stench and the horror of war with rotting corpses of horses and rats climbing over sleeping soldiers, and is a scathing comment on the military justice system. The decision to use a high number of close-ups with a short depth of field to zero in on the two tragic figures – Tom Courtenay, the condemned, uncomprehending private, and Bogarde, as Captain Hargreaves, who comprehends too well the hopelessness of the case – creates a claustrophobic tension and horror of the military trial and at the inevitability of the ruling.

with James Fox, The Servant (1963)

Bogarde is superb in portraying the subtle changes that overcome Hargreaves, initally a starchy officer, indifferent to the plight of the deserter he must defend; yet by the end, we see him so moved by the prisoner’s innocence and the unyielding military court ruling, that after the sentence he sways against a sandbag wall, steadies himself as though on the verge of vomiting but forces himself to continue through the encamped maze, only to stumble and fall into the slime and mud of the path. He doesn’t weep, but his body weeps. His perfectly chosen movements and the pain and disillusionment he conveys in his eyes and face result in a brilliant performance. Losey and critics rightly believed that it deserved a BAFTA.

Predictably, Losey and Bogarde had to fight to keep the film from being cut and to get it distributed. By accident, Bogarde found out the studio had made two versions, one without the ‘nasty things – the rats and the horses’, and they were showing both to the secretaries asking them to vote on the preferred version. The two men stopped the screening, but they would repeatedly face the same opposition for every film they made. (Guerin, 60, 82)

with Joseph Losey, The Servant (1963)

One of the many things Bogarde appreciated in working with Losey was his use of long takes, which allowed Bogarde time to gradually build up the emotional change in a character and to draw the audience into Hargreaves’ pain and growing disillusionment in the final scene. The same was true in their other films together: ‘The Servant was wonderful for a stage actor because of the long, long takes – you had a whole magazine of time to do your thing. Sometimes, working with other directors in England, you were lucky if you could say, “We got eighty seconds of film for a day’s work.” With Joe, you got ten minutes, so it was possible to make a film in five weeks.’ (McFarlane, 70)

In 1967, he was back with Joe Losey to do Pinter’s adaptation of Nicholas Mosley’s novel, Accident. A subtle film on class tensions and age-old conflicts over sex and territory, it was considered to be Losey’s finest. It definitely gave Bogarde one of his most subtle, against-type roles as a repressed Oxford don conflicted by his sexual interest in a student versus his duties as husband and father. While Barrett in The Servant was easy for Bogarde to slip into, the character of Stephen in Accident was not.

with Jacqueline Sassard and Stanley Baker, Accident (1967)

Accident’, commented Bogarde, ‘was a terribly difficult part. It was layer upon layer of thought and pit after pit into which I could fall. The one thing that man must never have is self-pity, and it is the one indulgence an actor adores. An audience just love to see it; they like to see a man being sad for himself. Accident was the most full, the most intelligently conceived, the best used performance that I’ve ever given. I’m trying to be modest and dispassionate, but it’s very difficult. The part cost me a great deal, mentally, physically and spiritually.’ (Wiedenman, 55) Of Bogarde’s portrayal, Dilys Powell wrote: ‘a superb performance of a character forced into self realization.’ (225).

Modesty Blaise, their last film together, drew opposing reactions from the two men. Bogarde came to dislike his camp role in the spoof, while Losey saw real merit in the performance: ‘I still believe that Dirk gave one of his best performances and demonstrated in that film a kind of icy wit which was new in his repertoire, though not in his character.” (Introduction, The Films of Dirk Bogarde, 2)

In the end Bogarde and Losey realized they had to call it quits. ‘We’d both got so tremendously disillusioned by trying, by trying desperately to make a new kind of film in Britain. And it didn’t work,’ Bogarde commented. ‘Well, it worked extravagantly for the critics, but not for mass audiences.’ (Bilbow, 207)

When Joe Losey died, Bogarde recalled their work together with love and deep praise:

with Joseph Losey, King and Country (1964)

‘…he was respected and loved by the team with whom he worked, for the excellence of his work… His ‘greatness’ lay in his courage, his vision, his whole cinema-intellect. It lay in the incredible feeling he had for texture, shape, light, rhythm and film-pace, in the acute awareness that the camera photographed thought as well as the object. His understanding of the camera, the use of sound, of silence even, was total. Working for him was telepathic; we spoke no words together. …Life with Losey was never easy, but I loved him. At his best he was inspiring, audacious, stylish. He cared and he dared. This is the Losey I knew…. When he died, the cinema lost a man who made films because he actually loved them. He may have been all kinds of a scoundrel, but he was, without doubt, a great film-maker. He is our loss.’ (For the Time Being, 95-96)

Other Directors in the Sixties

as Charlie Hook, Our Mother's House (1967)

In 1965, Bogarde would win a second BAFTA for his subtle, controlled portrayal of Robert, a journalist disillusioned by his scheming lover Diana, played by Julie Christie, in Darling. Inexplicably, the director, John Schlesinger, was not satisfied and kept editing Bogarde’s role in and out of the film. The award was a fitting payback. Margaret Hinxman of the Sunday Telegraph wrote, ‘Only Dirk Bogarde’s performance touches a responsive chord… more probably because he has the experience and independence to create something true and moving from within himself.’ (Hinxman and d’Arcy, 157). In a brief return to television, he did two classy Hallmark TV productions, ‘Blithe Spirit’ by Noël Coward (7 December 1966), and James Costigan’s ‘Little Moon of Alban’. (1964 NBC)

One of his most enjoyable films of the time was the dark comedy Our Mother’s House, (1967) directed by Jack Clayton, whose recent success Room at the Top was foremost in the public mind. He found working with the child actors and playing their no-good, conman father a wonderful experience. The film was chosen as the British entry at the Venice Film Festival, an honour also given The Servant, King and Country and Accident. Bogarde felt ‘a glow of pride’ saying, ‘at last, I am really contributing something to the British Film Industry, especially abroad.’ (A Particular Friendship, 34)

Along with his excellent work with Losey were several average films in the ‘60s, always enriched by Bogarde’s performances: The High Bright Sun, set in British-occupied Cyprus, and the Bond spy spoof Hot Enough for June (both 1964). The decade would also see him support his friend Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing (1963). He was excellent as the icy surgeon and ex-lover, but the film was more a showcase for Garland, greatly aided by his ‘mending’, or rewriting a good deal of the script to please a difficult Garland and to get the film completed and her performance in the can.

Sebastian (1968)

In 1968 he made the two films he went on record as hating the most: Sebastian and The Fixer, neither giving him the satisfaction he had felt from working with Losey and Clayton. David Greene’s Sebastian was another ‘60s atmospheric piece but from a different angle with Bogarde playing a mathematician in charge of codebreaking. ‘I was so unhappy and disenchanted that I kept my shirt on in one of the bed scenes,’ he recalled. (Castell, June 1974, 387) Greene’s hurrying of scenes during the filming dismayed Bogarde enough to comment on the director’s stopwatch approach – ‘…Everything done in what he calls “quick time.” Of course I can shorten a scene from one minute to five seconds, but it wouldn’t be the same scene, would it? In television, they don’t want screen time, they want scene time. We don’t make films that way in Europe any more. That probably is one of our greatest secrets . . . Now the best things that go on television are the old movies. They were never made with the premise that they had to be made in ten minutes.’ (Wiedenman, 56) Yet many filmgoers enjoyed the swinging atmosphere in Sebastian, its Jerry Goldsmith score, and watching Bogarde, Gielgud and Susannah York manoeuvre its various plot twists.

with George Cukor, on set of Justine (1969), Hollywood

In The Fixer, Bogarde again played a barrister representing a doomed prisoner, this time as the Russian Bibikov, defending a persecuted Russian Jew played by Alan Bates. From the outset, Bogarde had been unhappy with what he considered an inept script: ‘The script, the dialogue to be exact is frightful. Not Malamud’s. Why, when they have spent so much money on a book, must they re-write the author’s dialogue… It happens constantly and it never works.‘ (A Particular Friendship, 42) The role of Bibikov was poorly conceived, limited, and not written to allow him to develop the character. Instead, Bibikov was conveniently killed off to focus on the protracted angst of Bates’ character. ‘I stuck as closely as possible to the Malamud lines, it was the best any of us could do.’ Unhappy with director John Frankenheimer and the crew, he was glad to be rid of the film. (Castell, June 1974, 387)

By the end of the decade, Bogarde found himself once again with his friend George Cukor, who had been called in to salvage the direction of yet another film, this time Justine. Bogarde thought the script ‘not bad at all’, noting that ‘at least it has some of Durrell’s “feel” about it.’ (A Particular Friendship, 114) Portraying Pursewarden, a jaded British consular official assigned to Alexandria, he did an excellent job of conveying an ennui that masks the inner pain of his character who was trapped in a disillusioning career and a hopeless incestuous love. In writing about the film the critic Robert Emmett Long noted that under Cukor’s direction ‘Dirk Bogarde overshadowed all the other players, including the leading lady Anouk Aimee.’ (ix)


Barbara Siek received her Ph.D. in English Literature from The University of Chicago and has lectured on and written about British literature and cinema for over 20 years.