Spellbound in Soho

The cinema played an integral role in the chaotic life and now widely admired work of the English writer and bohemian dandy, Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-64). For him, style was an essential component of both his literary output and the idiosyncratic persona he created. In each case, that style was shaped by years of assiduous movie-going.

As a literary stylist, Maclaren-Ross was, at least in his early fiction, synonymous with crisp dialogue and terse, idiomatic prose, exuding an unmistakable combination of wry humour and melancholy. His style was obviously indebted to hardboiled American writers such as Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. Less obviously, the clipped style of his early writing was also influenced by film editing. Often he cuts from scene to scene with abrupt, cinematic flair. And he sometimes uses what amounts to the verbal equivalent of fast editing, sentences being reduced to lists of images.

Even his celebrated sartorial flamboyance, which helped to make him such a conspicuous figure on London pub and club scene, owed an unmistakable debt to the cinema. Modelling himself on cherished Hollywood character actors, Maclaren-Ross cultivated a distinctive appearance that blended the apparently incongruous hoodlum chic of Edouardo Cianelli with the pale-suited, colonial style of Sidney Greenstreet, and the foppish elegance of an 1890s dandy. Envious of the wisecracking, imperturbable aplomb of his Hollywood heroes, he went a step further by copying some of their mannerisms.

Anyone who ventured into the Soho pub where Maclaren-Ross held court during his 1940s heyday would have been left in no doubt as to his passion for movies. He would routinely treat his acolytes to lengthy renditions of scenes from his favourite movies, among them Laura and The Mask of Dimitrios. At other times he would proclaim his cinematic ambitions. Immoderate as he was in most aspects of his life, he envisaged following the example of Orson Welles by writing, directing and acting in his own films. He fell far short of achieving this grandiose ambition, yet he succeeded in combining his career as a novelist, short story writer and literary journalist with a sporadic career as a screenwriter and film critic.

His professional involvement with the cinema began in August 1943. By then, thanks to a string of popular, irreverent and highly original short stories about army life, he had established himself as one of the rising stars of the English literary scene whose admirers included Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Freshly discharged from the army, desertion having earned him spells in a psychiatric hospital and a military prison, he found a job as a scriptwriter with Strand, the leading British documentary film company. Donald Taylor, the firm’s Managing Director, paired him with the poet Dylan Thomas, another of their bibulous scriptwriting team. Maclaren-Ross and Thomas were assigned to work on a film about the Home Guard, which never went into production. When Strand went out of business at the beginning of 1944, Maclaren-Ross briefly found employment with another company, for which he worked on an adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, The Confidential Agent. This doomed project would provide him with what was probably his first taste of the problems that beset so many screenwriters. Against his wishes, the producer insisted on him omitting from the script all potentially controversial references to the Spanish Civil War.

He had to wait four years before his next experience as a screenwriter. It came when he was hired by the London-based Everest Pictures to work on an ill-fated adaptation of Maria Chapdelaine, a bestselling 1914 romantic novel set in the Canadian wilderness. There can seldom have been a more obvious cinematic mismatch between writer and material. Despite receiving a screen credit alongside four other writers, one of whom was the young Roger Vadim, he contributed little or nothing to the consequent film, directed by Marc Allégret and starring Michèle Morgan. Released as The Naked Heart, it turned out to be a deserved critical and commercial failure,

Still optimistic about the possibility of carving a niche for himself in the film world, he went to work on a couple more projects during the early 1950s. First, he was hired to carry out a rapid rewrite of the script of Four Days, a creaky British B-feature about a workaholic businessman whose wife is involved in an adulterous relationship. He was subsequently employed by Alexander Korda’s British Lion-London Films conglomerate to script an updated adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Suicide Club. He hoped to retain what he saw as the ‘cynical atmosphere’ of the book while making the script ‘as different from the original as Hitchcock’s 39 Steps was from Buchan’s book.’ But the script never went into production.

By the mid-1950s, his literary career was in temporary decline, compelling him to earn a living by writing for Britain’s first, soon-to-be-launched independent television channel. He was, however, soon, working on film scripts again. In December 1956 he met the B-movie producer, Alec C. Snowden, who offered him a way out of extreme poverty and homelessness. On behalf of Merton Park Studios, Snowden commissioned him to write The Key Man, an original screenplay about an investigative reporter on the trail of a gang of crooks. As Maclaren-Ross explained to Snowden, he disapproved of the way that British B-movies attempted to ape their Hollywood counterparts. Instead, Maclaren-Ross felt that they should be looking to the example of low budget continental films such as I Vitelloni. Despite Snowden’s assurances, The Key Man — directed by Montogomery Tully — ended up being just another pseudo-American thriller, hamstrung by Lee Patterson’s wooden performance in the central role.

Forced by persistent financial problems to continue working with Snowden, Maclaren-Ross scripted two more films for Merton Park over the ensuing months. No sooner had he completed The Key Man than he was set to work on a dramatisation of Escapement, a science fiction novel about an evil genius who attempts to attain world domination through an innovative brain-washing technique. In between the releases of The Key Man and Escapement (retitled The Electronic Monster for the American market), neither of which remained in the cinemas for long, Maclaren-Ross embarked on his final film script. Eventually released as The Strange Awakening, this was based on Puzzle for Fiends, one of a series of popular English crime novels, written by Hugh Callingham Wheeler and Richard Wilson Webb under the pseudonym Patrick Quentin. In adapting it, Maclaren-Ross transformed their hackneyed story about the battle to obtain a $2 million inheritance into a light, Hitchcockian romantic thriller. Even with the help of Lex Barker and a more than usually capable cast, his lively script couldn’t, however, offset Montgomery Tully’s leaden direction.

Disillusioned with the film industry, Maclaren-Ross redirected his scriptwriting efforts into radio drama, mainly broadcast on the BBC’s Light Programme. One of the most successful of these dramatised his disastrous obsession with Sonia Orwell, George Orwell’s widow whose murder he briefly contemplated. His work for the BBC soon led to him being hailed as ‘radio’s Alfred Hitchcock’. Being a long-standing fan of the Master’s work, it was a comparison that he would have relished. But his scriptwriting was no match for his prose work, which encompassed fiction, memoirs, literary criticism and essays on the cinema.

Maclaren-Ross’s autobiographical writing, now available in a volume of Collected Memoirs (Black Spring Press), is peppered with references to films and the film industry. The Weeping and the Laughter, his charming evocation of an itinerant childhood, recounts his early movie-going experiences during the silent era. And in The Shoestring Budget, he offers an hilarious account of his stint as a script doctor on Four Days, his colleagues’ identities inadequately concealed behind pseudonyms. Had he lived to complete his classic, posthumously published Memoirs of the Forties, which presents the definitive portrait of mid-twentieth-century Soho bohemia, he would also have left us with a description of his fleeting encounter with Alfred Hitchcock.

Though Maclaren-Ross is best-known for his short stories, novels, and memoirs, he produced an impressive range of criticism, much of it well ahead of its time. In his literary criticism, he analysed popular novels with the same intensity that he devoted to the acknowledged masterpieces of high culture. Besides writing about the pulp novelist Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, he also wrote extensively about Raymond Chandler. As the film critic Philip French recently pointed out, he was the first person to treat Chandler as a serious writer.

His essays on the cinema, which predate the comparable work by the Cahiers du cinéma critics by several years, are just as far-sighted, perceptive, and eloquent. Unfortunately, he never had the chance to write about films on a regular basis, which perhaps explains why his ground-breaking contribution to the genre has, until now, been overlooked.

The recently released Bitten by the Tarantula and other writing (Black Spring Press) rounds up Maclaren-Ross’s essays on popular novelists, not to mention his small but significant output as a film essayist. His earliest excursion into this territory, which appeared in New Writing and Daylight, a miscellany edited by the influential John Lehmann, dates from spring 1945. The essay in question, entitled A Mirror to Darkness, examines the literal and metaphorical darkness of movies such as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, movies to which the term ‘film noir’ would later be applied. In their tangled narratives, he discerns themes more commonly found in continental cinema.

He followed this pioneering essay with ‘The World of Alfred Hitchcock’, written in the summer of 1945, though he had to wait until September 1946 before it was published by New Writing and Daylight. Treating Hitchcock with the same rare seriousness with which he approached the work of Raymond Chandler, the article pointed out recurrent patterns in the director’s work. Implicit in his argument, conveyed with characteristic lightness of touch, is the notion of authorship, a notion that placed Hitchcock on a par with revered literary storytellers.

Under the patronage of John Lehmann, who had gone on to launch Penguin New Writing, a hugely successful, high circulation literary magazine, Maclaren-Ross produced two more incisive articles about the cinema. These focused on the shortcomings of contemporary British and American films. His ‘Brief Survey of British Feature Films’, which laments their use of class stereotypes and their tendency to produce feeble copies of Hollywood hits, can be read as a catalogue of reasons for the imminent decline of the British film industry. A different but equally extensive inventory of misgivings is expressed in his article about The Blue Dahlia, The Dark Corner and other American crime thrillers, within which he criticised the way that they presented ‘a world of corruption without contrast’.

Synonymous though Maclaren-Ross is with a laconic, almost telegraphic way of writing, he was always adept at tailoring his prose style to suit the context in which it would be appearing. When he came to write his 1954 essay on ‘Griffith, Stroheim and the Decline of Realism’, commissioned by Encounter, the intellectual journal co-edited by Stephen Spender, he adopted an uncharacteristically academic tone. And the same was true when, in 1958, he produced ‘Storytelling and the Screen’ for The Times Literary Supplement. Here, he surveys the cross-fertilisation between literature and the cinema, his own negative experiences as a screenwriter contributing to his jaundiced tone.

Always a cult favourite, whose admirers include Harold Pinter, Lucian Freud, D.J. Taylor, Iain Sinclair, Paul Fussell, and Michael Holroyd, Maclaren-Ross’s reputation has been enjoying a deserved revival. Chaotic though his life was, he didn’t conform to the well-established template of the hard-drinking literary bad boy who squanders his talent with reckless abandon. While it’s true to say that he could have been even more productive if he’d led a more ordered life, we should treasure what he did produce as both a creative writer and a critic. ‘The World of Alfred Hitchcock’ provides an alluring introduction to the work of an under-rated twentieth-century writer.

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