One of the main extras on the BFI’s new dual format reissue of Separate Tables is an archive commentary by director Delbert Mann, who died in 2007. Mann is still probably best known for his Oscar-winning 1955 debut Marty, but he’d worked extensively in television beforehand. Back then the medium was less prestigious but more demanding; many shows, including scripted dramas, were broadcast either live or ‘as live’ (i.e., in studio with no retakes), and as such Mann became a quick, instinctive film-maker. He’s one of those old-fashioned professionals who just seem to instinctively know when to cut from a two-shot to a close-up. Anyone with an ambition to direct dialogue-driven movies could do much worse than listen to him.
Of the film itself… Mann talks on the commentary track about how he’s always happiest directing intelligent, meaningful material, but he says very little about what he thought Separate Tables actually means. It is a film about loneliness, adapted from two interconnected one-act plays by Terence Rattigan set in the same Bournemouth hotel. Rattigan’s plays were written in 1954 and Mann’s film came out just four years later, but in between Rattigan’s reputation had been completely overturned. The 1956 success of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, and the Angry Young Men who came in his wake, caused a massive backlash against Rattigan’s dramas of upper-middle-class repression. It reached the point where, when Rattigan expressed his fondness for the edgy, transgressive farces of Joe Orton, the younger playwright actually became less popular with critics.
The 2010s have seen several hit revivals of Rattigan’s unfashionable later plays and one major adaptation – Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, with Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. Frankly, they now seem less dated than a lot of the work of Osborne and his imitators, but Separate Tables is an exception. The first of the two dramas features the hotel’s manager Miss Cooper trying to get her partner Martin, an alcoholic failed politician, back together with his ex-wife. We’re supposed to see Cooper’s actions as selfless and generous, but the fact that Martin was jailed for beating his wife makes it hard to see their relationship as anything other than a time-bomb waiting to go off. In the second drama, Cooper mediates when some of her other guests turn against Major Pollock, an eccentric old man who has been charged with nebulous sexual offences against women in cinemas.
Mann’s film tones down the abuse storyline significantly but fails to handle the Major Pollock storyline any better than Rattigan did. The playwright’s failure, at least, was caused by a last-minute loss of nerve; in his original draft Pollock was arrested for soliciting men, and it’s obvious throughout that this is Rattigan’s true subject matter. The play’s sympathetic characters all agree that Pollock wasn’t doing anyone any harm, and make witty remarks about how his victims weren’t really the “respectable women” they’ve been described as, and these days it just makes you want to scream. Some modern performances reinstate Rattigan’s original text, and perhaps there is a risk here of making the drama too much of a foregone conclusion, of reducing the whole dilemma to a silly prejudice people used to have. But it can’t possibly be worse than making someone who does not immediately forgive sexual assault into the villain of the piece.
It is possible to enjoy the Major Pollock segment, largely because Pollock is played by David Niven. Niven rightly won an Oscar for his tragicomic, exquisitely judged performance, as did Wendy Hiller as Miss Cooper. (Hiller’s acceptance speech is one for the ages – “Never mind the honour, cold hard cash is what this means to me!”) In Rattigan’s play Cooper was present for both halves but the other characters changed, and on his commentary Mann praises Rattigan and co-screenwriter John Gay for intermingling the two casts. It’s an obvious way to give the play a more filmic structure, but it works at the expense of Rattigan’s original point about loneliness. The idea that two dramatic events could happen in the same hotel at the same time and only the manager would notice is a subtler, sadder indictment of modern alienation than anything in the rest of the script.
The cast, including Rita Hayworth and Deborah Kerr, is uniformly strong. Of particular note is a really enjoyable, relaxed performance from Burt Lancaster as a much-rewritten, less English, less abusive version of Rattigan’s Martin. Lancaster produced the film as part of the famous collaboration with Howard Hecht that made him one of the first movie stars to move into production. In a lengthy audio interview included among the BFI’s extras, Lancaster talks passionately about the noble social function of escapist entertainment, and there’s no doubt that the assembled stars under Mann’s confident direction give Separate Tables a sense of sophisticated fun that almost makes you overlook the inadvertent unpleasantness of its plot. Almost, but not quite.