At the height of his stardom, actor Burt Lancaster did the unthinkable: he decided to gamble everything on a chance to be his own star; also to produce his own material as well as for others in the industry who were either tired of the Hollywood studio gristmill or had been prematurely retired from their long term contracts; in part, due to the start of that steady decline in the system itself, soon to engulf the industry in its own maelstrom of professional chaos. At the time, Lancaster elected to join forces with his then agent, Harold Hecht – the concept of two men taking on this system to make their own movies…or rather, movies they would prefer to make, and make them on a budget rivaling the status quo, seemed grossly foolhardy to downright ridiculous and impossible.
Arguably, what gave Hecht-Lancaster its early cache was not Lancaster’s chutzpah or clout as a name above the title, but the three-ring media circus draw of seeing if Lancaster could actually pull it off. Lest we forget, this was not the era of the independent. Neither were the majors particularly willing to fluff off an upstart who thought he could do better; all the worse for Lancaster, who could be known for being caustic, moody and temperamental. Stars were expected to remain indentured to their studios back then, at least until such time as their profitability waned or they ‘chose’ to mutually seek out greener pastures elsewhere. In forming his own company Lancaster, of course, beat the studios to this punch – buying out his contract and going independent virtually overnight, together with Harold Hecht; the man who had discovered him in New York and set his feet upon the golden paved streets of Hollywood.
But Lancaster knew he was more than just a good set of shoulders; his early career in pictures predicated on exuding a sort of raw animal magnetism – capitalized with the prerequisite shirtless moment where his sinewy hunk would take a female ingénue in his arms and passionately kiss her, before storming off to conquer and claim the spirit of adventurism for himself. Lancaster’s brains were rightly situated atop those shoulders, and he would prove it by doing the impossible – or rather, what others had already decided was impossible for him to do.
Perhaps it was Burt Lancaster’s audacity that so appealed to Harold Hecht; this idea any actor – and by most critic’s accounts, not even a very good one – could trump the system that had given him his start, then thumb his nose at the bureaucracy behind it, endeavoring to carve a competitive niche from nothing except his own formidable ego; this teen dropout and ex-circus performer, a hunk of bones artfully slung together with some brawny mass between them to hold everything neatly together. Who did Burt Lancaster think he was? Ah, the secret lay in Lancaster’s wounded past; also in his resilience to triumph and remain above it all. No one was going to stand in his way. “They thought me a steamroller,” Lancaster once said in an interview, “But it’s the steamroller that gets the job done.”
And work they did; both Hecht and Lancaster, along with writer James Hill – like fiends – to make their fledgling enterprise click with investors, but more importantly, with audiences who steadily flocked to see their pictures. Neither man was particularly interested in mimicking the types of entertainments already flooding the marketplace. Indeed, a quick glance at the movies produced under the company banner reveal a handpicked selection of story-driven and fairly intense dramas, mainly imbued with social commentary; in short – ‘thinking pictures’ handled with a deft mantle for quality and always focused on satisfying the public’s insatiable need to be richly entertained. At the height of their success, Hecht-Lancaster was an unbeatable combo, unsettling the mogul/mandarins with their razor-sharp clairvoyance and ability to place their fingers on the pulse of the popular demand.
Today, we have the great luxury of reviewing the Hecht-Lancaster repertoire from the vantage of hindsight, which is always 20/20. Reverse engineering in that analysis, approaching history from the beginning, readily reveals that the steam in Hecht-Lancaster’s engine was definite winding down under their new alliance with United Artists in the fall of 1956. Indeed, by the time the company put Delbert Mann’s impeccably crafted, Separate Tables (1958) into production, Lancaster had grown slightly bored of his position; making important pictures that had increasingly strained the coffers of his company. Many today forget that movies like Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) were not profitable in their day, though they garnered critical praise. Separate Tables was the exception to what had steadily become the rule; an intensely engaged melodrama based on Terrance Rattigan’s superbly crafted two one-act melodramas taking place inside the Beauregard Private Hotel in Bournemouth, a seaside escape decidedly out of season and out of sorts; what with two sets of conflicted lovers made to bear the brunt of small-minded public scrutiny. On the stage, there were two distinct plays ‘Table by the Window’ (dealing with the imploding relationship between a disgraced politico and his ex-wife) and ‘Table Number Seven’ (about a repressed spinster who befriends a fake aristocrat; a kindly old gent, masquerading as a retired army officer). The gimmick of the play was that both couples were played by the same actors; their stories separated by eighteen months.
For obvious reasons the screenplay written by Terence Rattigan (along with John Gay and an uncredited, John Michael Hayes) chose to condense and combine the action. Both stories now take place simultaneously; the couples played by four different actors with Lancaster slightly miscast as the disgraced politico, living obscurely at the Beauregard. The hotel’s major feature is it offers ‘separate tables’ in its cozy dining salon. Alas, human curiosity will not allow these couples to remain ‘separate’ for very long or prevent the rest of the hotel’s rather snooty inhabitants from discovering what is going on from the outside looking in. As with the play, the insidious nature of gossip is deconstructed in the movie; its proponents eventually shamed and the couples allowed their very genuine need to be loved - regardless of personal estrangements and/or past indiscretions.
Viewing Separate Tables today, one tends to regard Lancaster as the outsider, even though the ensemble is a healthy mix of British and American stars. Lancaster had begun his company with a general abhorrence for always being miscast as the young stud. But by 1958, no one could accuse Lancaster of being that anymore, and in the interim his reputation as an actor had badly foundered in most critics’ not-so-humble opinions, collectively labeling his ambitions as just a little too far-reaching. There’s something to be said for this – Lancaster, too strong a presence to ever hide behind, or rise above, his material. Separate Tables requires some very heavy lifting indeed. All of the parts are zingers and each has its’ ‘look at me’ moment.
In some ways, Lancaster is playing John Malcolm as a sort of stud gone to seed; John’s affair with the hotel’s prim middle-age proprietress, Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller) thrown the proverbial wrench when his ex-wife, Ann Shankland (Rita Hayworth) – still stunningly beautiful and as affluent as ever – deliberately arrives for a brief respite that turns out to be anything but. Alas, like an American character in an English novel, Lancaster just doesn’t seem to fit into this cast. Even Hayworth, whom no one could ever confuse of being anything except American, manages a veneer of aristocracy. But Lancaster’s performance is, in ample portions, flashy, yet infused with tainted sullenness; Lancaster’s own brio coming to bear on his character; John Malcolm morphing into Lancaster instead of the other way around.
The real irrefutable standouts herein are David Niven and Deborah Kerr as toffee-nosed, but kindly, Major David Angus Pollock and Sibyl Railton-Bell; a very mousy and much younger prospective paramour. Niven, in fact, won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for his subtly nuanced portrait of this tragic and fearful elder statesman, desperate to keep his more recent past a secret. Kerr is, of course, playing against type, uncommonly dressed down and with priggish ringlets to boot. It is one thing to look the part; quite another to embody it heart, mind and spirit. But Kerr’s Sibyl is a tortured soul of convincing completeness; henpecked by her deliciously demonstrative mother, Maude (Gladys Cooper), who treats family, friends and all those whom she unfairly regards as her inferiors (which pretty much encompasses everyone else) with the same uncompromisingly rigid code of ethics - noblesse oblige.
Separate Tables remains near perfect melodrama; Delbert Mann’s deft handling of the play’s dialogue-driven narrative, modestly fleshed out with several set changes. The tempo of the piece is pitch perfect, Mann relying on his great love of live theater, his many years – first, acting then directing the Yale Drama School, and finally his decade long tenure in live television. In blocking his scenes, Mann conferred with Harry Horner, whose superb production design made it possible for Mann to shoot his entire picture within the confines of Stage 5 and 6 at Goldwyn Studios – even the outdoor sequences; a cost-cutting measure that never once impugns the overall quality of the production values.
Horner did, in fact, purchase remnants from an old Pasadena mansion slated for the wrecking ball, tearing out its grand fireplaces, a staircase, and, making off with most of its double-paned beveled glass windows. These eventually became part of his set design for the Beauregard Hotel. Exemplary work too from Edward Carrere and Edward G. Boyle, whose art and set decoration created spaces of screen intimacy surrounded by walls of beveled glass and open French doors, thereby giving the illusion of being quietly observed through a fishbowl; also allowing transparency of action from one room to the next; the fluidity in Charles Lang’s cinematography lending yet another layer to this distinct cohesiveness from shot to shot and scene to scene.
Of particular contention was the inclusion of the title song, written by Harry Warren and Harold Adamson. In agreeing to make the picture, director, Delbert Mann really had only one stipulation – that the score by famed composer, David Raksin would dictate the mood and tone of the piece. Harold Hecht willingly agreed to these terms while the movie was still in preproduction. However, in postproduction, the topic arose to incorporate a song into the main titles – a popular practice from this period and from which many a movie of this vintage artistically suffered. When Mann learned of this, he marched straight into Hecht’s office demanding an explanation. Assured the song was merely being recorded as a promo, not for inclusion in the final cut, Mann skipped the New York premiere, confounded when he learned from a total stranger at a cocktail party the song, ‘Separate Tables’ had indeed survived the final edit. ‘Separate Tables’ is sung by Vic Damone with forlorn majesty and in some ways it maintains the integrity of the ‘British setting’. But Mann always considered this alteration underhanded and disloyal to the original terms of his contract, ordering his agent to get him released posthaste from his Hecht-Lancaster contract. As a result, Delbert Mann would never work for the company again.
Separate Tables opens with a steady crane shot gradually moving in toward the Beauregard Hotel under the main titles; the action coming to rest on Sibyl Railton-Bell (Deborah Kerr), seated quietly on a lonely bench overlooking the countryside at dusk and just beyond the hotel’s dining room. In a few moments, she is warmly greeted by Major David Angus Pollock (David Niven), the two becoming engaged in friendly conversations. At once, and despite their respective discrepancies in age, we witness how ideally suited these two people are; each terrified of the world beyond these cloistered walls. Alas, Sibyl’s moment of happiness – presumably, like all others she has entertained in her young adult life - is interrupted by her mother, Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper), who wastes no time isolating this meek girl in a corner to tell her what a forward little tart she has been with the Major; her conversations misrepresented as forward and aggressive.
The Major delays his displeasure by casually consulting with Charles (Rod Taylor), a medical student on holiday from his studies with his girlfriend, Jean (Audrey Dalton), who is fairly forthright in her affections, much to David’s chagrin. The Major is a social butterfly, his clever exchanges with the hotel’s proprietress, Miss Cooper (Wendy Hiller) and fellow patrons, Lady Matheson (Cathleen Nesbitt) and Mr. Fowler (Felix Aylmer) raising Mrs. Railton-Bell’s dander more than a little.
In these early scenes, director Mann captures the tenor of what is essentially Terrance Rattigan’s ensemble soap opera. Rattigan had, in fact, based virtually all his characters on people he had met in Bournemouth – largely a retirement community and where his elderly mother resided. In capturing the flavor of the piece, Mann made his own pilgrimage to Bournemouth just prior to principle photography, discovering such prototypes for these complex characters in his midst and returning to Hollywood with a renewed interest and the confidence necessary to make a movie as English as anybody.
In short order, we are introduced to the rest of the principal players staying at the Beauregard; including the spry Miss Meacham (May Hallatt), a vibrant, billiard player who bets Mr. Fowler she can actually split two balls with a single shot – and does! The shot was performed by Hallatt, who had practiced it incessantly. Alas, in the editing processes, a break was inserted, thus giving the illusion the skilled split had been performed by genuine pool shark instead, when in actuality it was Hallatt’s doing.
The aged actress had been in the play’s original London run, touring the provinces; then invited to reprise her role for the New York premiere. Hallat, who was elderly at the time, not only played the part for its Broadway run, she had a whale of a time doing it; her exuberance infectious to cast and crew. Thus, when the movie version was proposed, Mann could think of no one better suited to reprise the part than Hallatt. Film is a rare media. For it has the power to transform a bit player into a star virtually overnight, and indeed, with Hallatt, the international notoriety long denied her as an actress in her home town was, at long last, made secure. Returning to Bournemouth to bask in the afterglow of her newfound celebrity, Hallatt retired and soon thereafter died of natural causes.
All of the aforementioned scenes are, of course, mere window-dressing leading up to the introduction of Rita Hayworth’s Ann Shankland, arriving late in a taxi and garnering the interests of Mrs. Railton-Bell, Mr. Fowler, Lady Matheson and Miss Meacham, who are immediately impressed with Ann’s deportment, but more so with the cultured jewelry and fur collar she wears. Thoroughly unimpressed by Ann’s sudden appearance is Miss Cooper (Wendy Hiller), who immediately recognizes what a stir her presence is about to create; particularly for her fiancée/Ann’s ex – John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster).
Interestingly, Wendy Hiller did not initially want to do this part despite being in the London stage production; discovering in Rattigan and John Gay’s rewrites, her character had slipped in importance from third to fifth position. Mann implored the actress to reconsider and thereafter heard not a single peep of a complaint from Hiller who, after all, went on to win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. Fifth or third, Hiller proved, at least on Oscar night, she belonged at the head of the line.
That evening, all eyes in the dining room are on Ann, the other residents absolutely awestruck by her demure nature. Absent from the gathering is the Major, who is more interested in grilling Miss Cooper about the West Hampshire Weekly News; determined no one else should see it before him. To delay the audience’s discovery of this pivotal plot point, the screenplay momentarily differs to a tidy little piece of camp; Jean playfully goading Charles to go upstairs to bed. Seemingly oblivious to the obvious inference, Lady Matheson innocently encourages the couple to ‘sleep tight’ – Mrs. Railton-Bell immediately chastising Lady Matheson for her rather plainspoken comment. As Jean and Charles hurry off to bed, we are introduced to the other star in the piece – Burt Lancaster – whose introduction as John Malcolm is slightly disheveled and thoroughly engaging; a loveable scamp possibly, having only just returned from the local pub; hair tussled, trench coat wet and wrinkly and, of course, incurring Mrs. Railton-Bell’s immediate displeasure.
Miss Cooper admonishes John for tracking fresh mud on her clean carpet, ordering him to conduct himself properly in the presence of ladies, and instructing him to hang his sopping coat in the front hall closet where it belongs. She treats him as she might any delinquent child, her austere exterior immediately softening once the two are alone. Cooper forewarns John of Ann’s arrival.
The narrative now shifts ever so slightly to pick up Ann and John’s story; the pair’s first tempestuous ‘cute meet’ in the dining room after hours, facing each other across their own separate tables. She poo-poos his desire to remain happily buried in this near forgotten community. He admonishes her for their breakup – presumably predicated on her having an extramarital affair. At different moments, Mann draws out parallels in each character’s loneliness; Ann’s wounded spite, forcing John out into the cold where we discover the Major quietly isolated in a chair on the veranda, his own inner dread mounting. The Major’s insistence on the paper before anyone else can read it raises Mrs. Railton-Bell’s curiosity. Sure enough, upon acquiring the newspaper ahead of the Major, Mrs. Railton-Bell learns he has pleaded guilty to a spurious charge of soliciting young women inside a local theater. Although the complaints against him remain dubious at best, Mrs. Railton-Bell is only too eager to spread this unearthed manure about the hotel; first to Lady Matheson, then to Miss Cooper, whom she demands take immediate action to evict the Major from these premises.
However, Miss Cooper has no intention of complying with such an impertinent request, forcing Mrs. Railton-Bell to conduct a group meet of the tenants and put the issue to a vote. In the meantime, Ann coolly informs John she is engaged to be married, believing the revelation will wound him. Instead, he combats her announcement with one of his own. He too is slated for the altar a second time, although he manages to keep Miss Cooper’s name out of the equation. John suggests if Ann had desired a rich husband she could have as easily had him; her decision to marry a less established man predicated on her need for control in any relationship. Despite these bitter barbs, neither can entirely dismiss the truth; that even with all this water under their bridge the two still desperately lust after one another.
Miss Cooper interrupts their bittersweet détente, telling Ann she has a phone call. Pulling John aside, Miss Cooper attempts to get him to confess his true feelings about Ann, asking John to reevaluate the real reason for her impromptu visit. In reply, John takes Ann’s side – a telling bit of foreshadowing. Miss Cooper has already lost. Or has she? For in just a few short moments she will relay more news: that Ann is talking to John’s publisher, the only man who knows John and Miss Cooper are engaged. Coincidence? Or is Ann spying on her ex to add new fuel to their fire? John needs to know, confronting Ann in her bedroom.
She’s coy and vindictive, applying her feminine wiles to seduce him. John has had enough, drawing Ann’s face to the light and informing her she no longer holds the physical appeal that once commanded his attention. Furthermore, without it Ann has very little to offer any man – much less entice him into her bed. It is a moment of extreme cruelty – also a lie – for John doesn’t believe his own words for an instant. Nevertheless, they sound convincing and succeed in wounding Ann’s pride and vanity. She begs him to remain, but John storms out of her room and Ann suffers an emotional breakdown as a result.
In its aftermath, Miss Cooper plays the part of the devoted nursemaid and Ann quietly confesses she is not really engaged. It was all just a ruse to see if she could get John back. Despite the airs she has been putting on, life has not been nearly as kind to Ann and in the interim since the dissolution of their marriage, she has taken to medicating her anxieties with sleeping pills. The next morning, Sibyl decides to confide in Major Pollock. She knows all about his indiscretions and it makes absolutely no difference to her. He is still the same man she cares for, recognizing within him the self-same streak of loneliness she has endured at her mother’s command these many long years. He confesses to never having felt comfortable around people: that the only way he could achieve satisfaction of a kind was to become intimate with strangers – easily disposable and just as easily forgotten after the moment of their flagrante delicto.
By now the inhabitants have all learned about the Major’s peccadillos, Mrs. Railton-Bell effectively convincing everyone to ostracize him from their tiny social circle. Realizing he can no longer remain hidden from the world - even in this much smaller one of his own design - the Major makes ready to pack and leave the Beauregard for good; Sibyl genuinely concerned for his welfare, but also worried he will never find another home. In another part of the hotel, Miss Cooper awaits John’s return, informing him of Ann’s genuine emotional fragility. She encourages him to see Ann before her planned departure later that morning. Miss Cooper also implores the Major to reconsider leaving. He is genuinely touched by Miss Cooper’s concern, but politely declines her offer. She does, however, convince him to partake in one final breakfast.
At first, the reception inside the dining room is frosty at best. Gradually, the hotel’s residents come around to making their own decision about the Major. He is not the monster Mrs. Railton-Bell has made him out to be; just a world-weary old fraud who desired nothing more substantial from his friendships than a little honest peace and quiet. Defying Mrs. Railton-Bell, the residents cordially greet the Major with sincere friendship, taking their cue from John who knows more than a little something about how destructive a woman’s influence can be. Realizing she has lost the battle against the Major, Mrs. Railton-Bell commands Sibyl at least to leave the dining room with her. But Sibyl politely refuses her mother, at last free of this maternal tyranny, for so long a plague upon her own social development and friendships. The Major decides to remain at the Beauregard; John and Ann reconciling on its front steps as Miss Cooper realizes she has lost the only man she’s ever loved.
Separate Tables is a masterwork of discreet introspection; Delbert Mann’s direction utterly superb in quietly unraveling all of these secret lives. Mann was, frankly, charmed by costars Cathleen Nesbitt and Gladys Cooper – stalwarts of the British stage and each considered great beauties in their prime; Nesbitt, the one-time sweetheart of poet, Rupert Brooke, whose life was tragically cut short in the First World War; and Cooper, whose career in the movies would be revealed playing a series of brittle English dowagers, quite unlike her open and appealing true character. But Mann would later confess he thought the entire cast enchanting; everyone a real professional.
In Burt Lancaster, Mann had feared encountering either the tough as nails workaholic producer-type disinterested in following his directives, or the arrogant leading man who had on occasion torn down many bridges during his early years in Hollywood. Mercifully, Lancaster was to both thoroughly disappoint and delight Mann on this score; proving every inch invested in giving the sort of performance Mann wanted; a mutual win-win for star and director.
In preparing for the part of this malicious viper, Rita Hayworth placed herself completely at her director’s mercy. She would later confide to Mann a terrified anxiety to be in such distinguished company; her casting made secure by the fact Hecht-Lancaster’s third and silent partner, Jim Hill also happened to be Hayworth’s husband at the time. Nevertheless, Hayworth relied on her years of experience to see the role through; a very accomplished piece of screen acting she would continue to hold in high regard, and from a woman who had once been known simply as Columbia Pictures enduring pinup girl.
Composer David Raksin was unimpressed at having to rescore several key sequences in the movie. His initial compositions had focused more on capturing the inner tenacity and strife of each character’s emotional context. Harold Hecht believed the theatricality expressed in Raksin’s cues wounded, rather than aided, in evolving these narrative threads. As is often the case in Hollywood, a stalemate was averted by a show of force; Hecht informing Raksin either he would do as required or be replaced on the picture. Given this option, Raksin rescored the requested sequences with subtlety, although he would later chalk up his experience on Separate Tables as one of the most unpleasant of his entire career.
Viewed today, Separate Tables retains most of its original drama, primarily due to the stellar craftsmanship in each performance. Mann was afforded six weeks of rehearsals – in essence, gathering together the entire cast for dry run-throughs of the play; performing their parts as though they were to be done on a live stage. The result: by the time these performers stepped in front of the camera, each was meticulously versed in their motivations; every movement, nuance and intonation gone over to a point beyond mere performance. The proof is in the finished product. Separate Tables is an engrossing tour de force.
We’ll begin by commending Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray; mostly, crisp and solid in glorious B&W, with gorgeous amounts of fine detail and superbly rendered contrast levels; the one caveat being minor hints of age-related debris. It’s really more of a quibble than anything else. The original 2001 MGM DVD was a travesty by comparison: not even in anamorphic widescreen. The Blu-ray rectifies this immense sin. It also provides us with a DTS lossless stereo track of Raksin’s score. The DVD was a flat mono. This being a dialogue-driven movie, there’s not a lot of opportunity for spatial separation. But it’s still an exceptionally solid track with only slight hints of stridency. Kino Lorber has ported over the commentary Delbert Mann recorded for the DVD – an eloquent backstage pass into the making of this movie. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Separate Tables is a blind purchase – or rather, should be. Wonderful stuff given its due in hi-def. By God – an enthusiastic ‘yes’!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)