15 October 2015
But his range was enormous. He could play the officer class (Above Us the Waves) or could be below decks (In Which We Serve). He could do comedy (The Black Sheep of Whitehall) or tragedy (Scott of the Antarctic). When you look down his list of works, you realise he was in a significant proportion of the greatest films ever made in this country.
What finally convinced me of Mills's greatness was his 1953 film The Long Memory, directed by Robert Hamer, whose most famous work was Kind Hearts and Coronets. The critic Jonathan Meades first alerted me to it and opened my eyes to its many facets. It is the story of Philip Davidson, played by Mills, imprisoned for a murder he did not commit. I shan't spoil the story for you, because you should watch this brilliant film: but suffice it to say it is an essay on the morality (or otherwise) of revenge, and the effect of revenge on the revenger as well as on his target. As one would expect of Hamer, who as well as directing the film also wrote the screenplay, there is nothing predictable or clichéd about his approach to the question, and there is a twist concerning Davidson's principal betrayer that adds to the film's depth.
The Long Memory shows that Mills could give a performance entirely at odds with the generally lovable or admirable types that the British cinema-going public of the Forties and Fifties was used to seeing. Habitually charismatic in his films - whether playing Captain Scott or a cheerful squaddie - here Mills is introverted, sullen, angry, and unrelievedly bitter. There is not even a touch of gallows humour.
He had hinted at this side to his acting talent in The Rocking Horse Winner, a 1949 dramatisation of a D H Lawrence short story, in which he has a crucial supporting role: and in a film of 1952, Mr Denning Drives North, where he plays a professional man who takes a dislike to his daughter's boyfriend and, by accident, kills him. It would surface yet again in 1957 in The Vicious Circle, in which Mills plays an eminent doctor who becomes the victim of a blackmailer. I recall seeing those last two films on television around 20 years ago and thinking them rather ordinary. Having watched them again recently, I can see how wrong I was, and how Mills brilliantly articulates the personal crises of the characters he plays.
Hamer's genius - also displayed in Kind Hearts - is always to force his actors to go beyond themselves in what they say and do. John Mills certainly responded to him. If you haven't yet seen The Long Memory, you have the greatest treat in store.