Filmed plays often get a bad rap. This is particularly true among people who generally confine their viewing to Hollywood-style movies, with their careful adherence to a time-honored set of conventions so familiar that they seem realistic. News flash: those conventions are as much a human creation as the sonata form or the haiku. Still, if you’re firmly in Hollywood-or-nothing camp, you probably won’t get much out of watching Guy Hamilton’s 1954 film An Inspector Calls, based on J. B. Priestley’s play of the same name. But if you skip it, you’ll be missing out on a classic melodrama combined with a thunderingly obvious critique of the British class system, done in a high style that only the British seem to be able to pull off. You’d also be missing out on the chance to experience a filmed version of a play that remains popular in England, according to that fount of knowledge the Wikipedia—An Inspector Calls has enjoyed multiple productions and adaptation on the other side of the Atlantic, and is also taught in schools.
An Inspector Calls, set in 1912, opens in the comfortable home of factory owner Arthur Birling (Arthur Young) and his wife (Olga Lindo). The Birling family is celebrating daughter Sheila’s (Eileen Moore) engagement to the handsome and well-heeled Gerald Croft (Brian Worth), who seem poised to take up their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Industrialist, second generation. Aside from the excessive drinking of younger son Eric (Bryan Forbes), which everyone does their best to ignore, all seems right and settled in the Birling’s cozy little world.
Then, without explanation, a stranger appears in their midst. He introduces himself as Inspector Poole (Alastair Sim), and insists on telling the Birling household about a young woman (Eva Smith, played by Jane Wenham) who killed herself by ingesting poison. What has this to do with us? they ask. Quite a bit, as it turns out—Inspector Poole goes on to draw out from each family member an admission of the role they played in the young woman’s life, and how their selfishness helped lead to her unfortunate demise. The connections in question are spelled out in a series of flashbacks, which allows Hamilton to open things up a bit and get the camera out of the Birling’s living room. The inclusion of Eva as an actual character is a major change from the play, because in the latter she never appears on stage.
The plot of An Inspector Calls is a carefully constructed piece of clockwork that has no interest in confining itself to what passes for naturalism in the movies. It is so completely what it is, in fact, that it seems churlish to wish it to be anything else. The best way to enjoy this film is to pretend you are at the theater, ready to suspend your disbelief and enter into the quite different world of the characters and their times. At the same time, you may find yourself thinking that the Birlings are not that different from many people living today, and that there are plenty of Eva Smiths in today’s world as well.
Every aspect of An Inspector Calls is well done, but the art direction by Joseph Bato deserves particular mention. The Birlings’ home, where most of the film takes place, is decorated in High Smug Edwardian, which is not only a perfect evocation of the period, but also an apt visualization of the family’s habit of encasing themselves in protective layers of denial. And here’s a fun fact for you BritFilm fans: Guy Hamilton went to direct several James Bond films, including Goldfinger (1964) and Diamonds are Forever(1971), as well as the Agatha Christie adaptations The Mirror Crack’d (1980) and Evil Under the Sun (1982). | Sarah Boslaugh
An Inspector Calls is distributed on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by film historian David Del Valle and an interview with actress Jane Wenham.