In his book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut asks rhetorically whether there is something about life in Great Britain that works against cinema. Truffaut means to set Hitchcock apart from other British filmmakers while contrasting them with their Hollywood counterparts. The comparison ignores the tight writing and acting that British films can provide, but Truffaut’s observation inevitably comes to mind when watching a psychological thriller like The Naked Edge because one cannot help imagining what Hitchcock might have done with the material. The film’s contrivances demand cinematic flair, while offering little opportunity for the literary values that might have provided alternative interest.
George Radcliffe (Gary Cooper) testifies in a murder trial that condemns his coworker to life in prison. Several years later, after Radcliffe has established himself as a big-time businessman, his wife Martha (Deborah Kerr), for reasons too tedious and complicated to explain, begins to wonder if he was the killer. Most of the action centers on her deepening suspicions and efforts to determine the truth.
The setup is similar to Hitchcock’s Suspicion, itself a minor effort, but with Michael Anderson in charge, mediocrity is assured. While this is the fourth film directed by Anderson to appear in this blog, it is not out of interest. From his name onward, Anderson is almost the definition of bland. His films are not bad or incompetent, exactly, just thoroughly dull. His soft-headed film making is practically the antithesis of Hitchcock. He almost makes somnolent predictability into a style, except that he cannot resist the occasional misplaced flourish, like extreme close-ups on Cooper’s sweating face to show his uneasiness and arouse Kerr’s suspicions.
Anderson generates no suspense to speak of; there is little effort to put us in Martha’s fears. Instead, we remain decorously outside as Kerr emotes, Cooper tries to calm her down (he is utterly wasted in this, his last film) and an orchestra swoons in an effort to produce emotions we do not feel. We come nowhere close to sharing Martha’s turmoil and assume it is just a matter of the running time before she sorts things out. Things pick up a bit during the climax, but by then we’re just waiting for the happy ending and not very concerned about how it will be achieved. The conclusion is by far the best staged sequence in the film, but by then we’re already half-way out the door emotionally.
To be sure, despite Truffaut’s swipe, the theatrical tradition underpinning British cinema can offer a lot. It is just not enough when the content is not particularly complex or insightful. Hitchcock could sometimes make thin content resonate through sheer dint of execution. Anderson’s sedate transparency exposes the material’s inadequacies, while the actors cannot compensate with the electric involvement of live performance. So if you do not regret watching The Naked Edge, you also do not care much what happens.