[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
I first saw The Hireling last summer, during a week full of events filmic and otherwise. Shortly thereafter, the chief impressions I carried with me were the sight of Sarah Miles near-deathly white, a strained smile on her face and wet rosy bruises beneath her eyes, and the feeling of having watched some schematic playing-out of the old English class warfare game. Perhaps, after my recent second viewing has receded into the past, these formerly overriding impressions will reassert themselves. But I’m inclined to doubt it. The film is an exemplary study of how class structures both create opportunities for privileged intimacy between two persons of different castes and certify the ultimate withering of such relationships; there can be no more succinct image of the hopelessness of the lower-class lover’s situation than the final scene of the chauffeur slamming his prized Rolls-Royce (which he hires out, along with his services) into first one wall, then another, then another, in a claustrophobic courtyard. This level of the film is very clear—and ‘schematic’ isn’t really a fair word to apply; ‘lucid’ is more like it. The fact is that, as the film plays—at least, as it plays a second time—the social comment simply does not stand out starkly. The societal system is there, almost palpably; but it’s merely one part of the film’s structure. Of equal importance—and, with the social theme taken more or less for granted, of greater importance—are the richly inhabited, sympathetically nuanced performances of Shaw and Miles, and the abiding sense of Alan Bridges’s sensitive, detailed, impeccably craftsmanlike realization.
Miles’s look is a valid—indeed, controlling—element. Her character and her appearance set the tone for every aspect of the production—at least up to those final scenes wherein Shaw’s position becomes intolerable and the futile violence of his frustration is loosed upon the film itself. Till then, the colors, the textures, tones of voice and behavior, the discreet unobtrusiveness of the camera (cameras can be too-pointedly unobtrusive, hence obtrusive), and above all the circumspect movement of the film convey a place and time that feels right, to us in 1974, as rural England shortly after the Great War. But Miles’s presence validates the film far beyond our acceptance of the limited delights of period-picture reconstruction. At the beginning of the movie she is about to be released from a sanatorium where she has stayed since the sudden death of her husband, a respected lord in whom she apparently reposed her personal as well as her social identity. Now she is to be forced to confront the world outside on her own. The director of the institution interviews her for the last time; she contrives to say the right thing, agreeing with his every remark, groping to complete an occasional sentence on her own but invariably deciding that the last word he used is the one she should use as well. She walks outside, steps into a hired car, and finds herself being driven to her mother’s home.
The driver is, of course, the hireling of the title, the man who will become her friend and companion, and who will, without her having consciously connived at it, fall in love with her, and take her selective openness to this hired friend as evidence that she loves him. The pathetic outcome is a foregone conclusion; that’s not important. What is important is that this first scene between them, like so much of the movie that follows, so subtly and—again, lucidly—states their relationship. The drive is a marvelous experience. There is no sense of time o’erleapt: the action is continuous. The passing English countryside, the yards, the fences, the lanes, the verdant land, almost belongs to the same genre of experience as the scenery outside Murnau’s miraculous trolleycar in Sunrise. There is perhaps an even subtler subjectivity at work here: To the recent inmate of an asylum, the landscape, almost continuously peopled, is a source of both wonder and terror, and Bridges catches this. But we can see in retrospect that he catches something more: the quiet, deceptive sense of authority that the hireling himself derives from the masterfully controlled motion of the automobile that provides, in more ways than one, the vehicle of this impossible romance. The practical man proves more dangerously deluded than the lady from the asylum ever was. The car ride stops far short of the rapture of Sunrise; rapture is forbidden to all in this film. But there is nothing self-delusive in the authority with which Alan Bridges realizes this comprehensively beautiful sequence. His name should be kept in mind, and watched for on more movies.
Direction: Alan Bridges. Screenplay: Wolf Mankowitz, after the novel by L.P. Hartley. Cinematography: Michael Reed. Music: Marc Wilkinson. Production: Ben Arbeid.
The players: Robert Shaw, Sarah Miles, Peter Egan, Caroline Mortimer, Elizabeth Sellars, Ian Hogg.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson