Lust-filled treachery in the steaming tropics! He dared to love a cannibal empress! Taglines like that suggest that it wasn’t easy to sell Carol Reed’s phenomenally good adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic, a tale of human self-degradation and malevolence in the tropics. Long difficult to see, it’s finally here to dazzle a generation that might appreciate its superb performances. Forget Lord Jim and Colonel Kurtz. Trevor Howard’s back-stabbing Peter Willems shows us the price of total betrayal: permanent banishment from humanity.
Outcast of the Islands
KL Studio Classics
1951 / B&W / 1:37 flat / 100 93 min. / Street Date April 29, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson, Robert Morley, Wendy Hiller, Aissa, George Coulouris, Tamine, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Peter Illing, Betty Ann Davies, Frederick Valk, A.V. Bramble, Marne Maitland, James Kenney, Annabel Morley.
Cinematography: Edward Scaife, John Wilcox
Production Design: Vincent Korda
Second Unit Director: Guy Hamilton
Film Editor: Bert Bates
Original Music: Brian Easdale
Written by William Fairchild from the novel by Joseph Conrad
Produced and Directed by Carol Reed
As a rule, books by the great Joseph Conrad haven’t adapted well to film, especially his expansive adventures on the high seas and in ‘savage’ lands. In high school we were impressed by the poetics of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, but soon thereafter the go-to Conrad book became his Heart of Darkness, with its grim ideas about colonial evil. The biggest filmic stumbling block was Richard Brooks’ Lord Jim, an adventure epic with great ingredients unable to transcend its jungle warfare story. When it comes time for Peter O’Toole’s character to face up to good old Conradian fatalism, we just don’t think his sacrifice makes any sense.
The second of Conrad’s early maritime tales, An Outcast of the Islands was to be a change of pace for director Carol Reed, who thought that filming in the sunny outdoors of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, would be a change of pace from the dark themes of Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. But Conrad’s story is ‘darker’ than any of them, and William Fairchild’s adaptation and Reed’s direction stay faithful to the main character, a villain as Audience-Unfriendly as they come. That fidelity makes the movie compromise-free, exceptional … and surely did not help its commercial prospects. People didn’t come out of this one smiling or whistling a tune.
The tale of Peter Willems has a great deal to say about human nature and the mystery of self-made villains. We’ve all come in contact with poisonous personalities at some time or another, and hopefully survived. To evoke the morally black ‘Conrad Zone,’ Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now must combine forty minutes of horror-inflected dialogue with visuals of a rotting human evil run wild. Carol Reed’s epic contains its heart of darkness within a single character, one of the most selfishly destructive bastards in film history. Willems is the ‘great literature’ equivalent of the small-time sleaze Harry Fabian of Gerald Kersh’s original Night and the City — they share a reckless, sociopathic ambition to succeed at all costs.
Carol Reed’s Outcast of the Islands can’t have been an easy shoot, with so much precise filming done on the other side of the world. A crew with three future star cinematographers helps designer Vincent Korda create a startlingly vivid ‘savage’ world, much of it beautifully matched on sound stages back in England.
London Films’ Alexander Korda originally proffered the project to Reed, and to play Willems suggested Stewart Granger and then Robert Mitchum. I can’t see Howard Hughes loaning out his biggest star, but Reed wanted actor Trevor Howard just the same. The screenplay by William Fairchild (Malta Story) does make substantial changes to the characters, adding and subtracting story elements.
In hottest Singapore, supervising shipping clerk Peter Willems (Trevor Howard) feels he’s too good for his job and his unappreciative boss, Hudig (Frederick Valk of The Colditz Story). Willems is caught embezzling, and Hudig’s lackey Vinck (Wilfrid Hyde-White) is only too happy to see him fired in disgrace. When his long-suffering wife Joanna (Betty Ann Davies) throws him out, Peter falls back on the charity of the only man who might help him, the respected Captain Lingard (Ralph Richardson). Faking a suicide bid, Peter gets his wish — Lingard takes pity on him and brings him along on a trip to his secret river trading post Sambir, somewhere up North.
Sailing a perilous course through the rocks of a costal passage, Lingard and his pilots are the only ones that can reach Sambir. The secret route gives the Captain exclusive access to the trading village. Willems is dropped off in the care of Lingard’s agent in Sambir, Almayer (Robert Morley), whose wife (Wendy Hiller) is also Lingard’s daughter. Almayer recognizes trouble right away, but Lingard insists that Peter Willems just needs a fresh start. As soon as the Captain has sailed, Peter reverts to form. He alienates Almmayer and devotes his time to schemes instead of honest work.
Peter soon becomes entangled in the desires of the dispossessed angry tribe across the river, that wants a trading post of their own. Spokesman Babalatchi (George Coulouris) is quick to exploit Willems’ attraction to the mysteriously silent, beautiful Aissa (Kerima), the daughter of chief Badavi (A.V. Bramble). A delay in Lingard’s return allows Willems to fall under Aissa’s spell — he holds her in contempt even as he desires her. Peter is convinced he can set himself up in a parallel trading arrangement with Almayer, even as Babalatchi promotes a ‘partnership’ with the Arab trader Alagappan (Peter Illing of Never Let Me Go), who desperately wants the secret of navigating the route through the giant rocks. When Peter’s pride is hurt, he betrays Captain Lingard and Almayer, a treachery that spells disaster for everyone including himself.
Outcast is one of those movies that casts an ideal actor in each role. Trevor Howard seems born to play the irredeemable Peter Willems, a knave whose every selfish and petulant act seems offensive. As if born with a chip on his shoulder, Willems seems intent on punishing the world and everybody in it for some unspecified insult to his dignity. He’s too thick-headed to realize that these Asian ‘savages’ can easily outwit him. He’s a frightening character — ever in deeper exile from society.
Ralph Richardson’s Captain Lingard embodies the colonial-mercantile power that holds an entire region under his economic control. We’re told that the Captain Lingard character turns up in as many as three Joseph Conrad novels. The paternalistic Lingard plays the part of the superior, well-dressed Englishman, and believes that he’s doing good for Sambir. He took Peter Willems under his wing at the age of twelve, and has foolishly accepted the man as a personal responsibility.
Robert Morley was never better as the nervous, insecure Almayer, ordering his wife around and doting on his tiny daughter Nina. Wendy Hiller’s tropical wife can only watch as the reckless Willems incites the villagers to storm their house like a lynch mob. Hiller’s part is not a big one — lots of fussing and trying to keep things civil — but the great actress of Pygmalion and I Know Where I’m Going! is pitch-perfect.
George Coulouris (Citizen Kane, Tarzan and the Lost Safari) is subtle and knowing as the tribal spokesman Babalatchi. We don’t complain about the brown-face performance. Instead of a typical villain, Babalatchi is a shrewd games-player, patiently waiting to connect Willems to Alagappan. The Arab trader partners with Babalatchi and Willems only long enough to steal Captain Lingard’s exclusive access to Sambir.
‘Kerima’ is the stage name of Yvette Barousse, who Alexander Korda promoted as an exotic North African. She creates a compellingly realistic turn with Aissa, a woman of ferocious instincts. Devoted to her sickly father, Aissa becomes obsessed with Peter Willems and vents a savage rage when tormenting Mrs. Almayer. She follows Babalatchi’s instructions to further ensnare Peter into a scheme to betray Lingard. Although Aissa was in the original novel, her fervor to punish the Almayers connects her to Daliah Lavi’s warrior woman ‘The Girl’ in Richard Brooks’ Lord Jim.
In the small but visible part as Lingard’s first mate is a young Marne Maitland, a great character actor familiar from numerous Hammer films. England’s favorite Cosh Boy James Kenney is in for a bit as a juvenile who admires the boastful Willems. Almayer’s cute little Nina is Robert Morley’s own look-alike daughter Annabel. Director Carol Reed elicited special performances from children in several pictures, most notably The Fallen Idol and A Kid for Two Farthings. Nina has several pointed moments (“Pig! Pig! Pig! Pig!”). Also making an impression is the un-billed tiny boy who follows Willems around in a boat the size of a soup pot. He’s rarely more than a few feet away, observing or listening from below, an impish reminder of Peter’s contempt for the ‘natives.’
Outcast of the Islands was an ambitious production challenge for Alexander Korda and Carol Reed. Brilliant location work and creative optical manipulation give Outcast its epic feel. The cinematography prowls through those hot, soggy stilt-houses built over the water. The screen teems with locals, watching, waiting. The steamy atmosphere feels real.
In HD we can see that the picture uses no rear-projection process photography, but dozens of near-perfect opticals. Excellent traveling mattes mix location work with interiors presumably filmed back in England. The matching works because the black & white cameramen keep the intense daylight consistent, routinely intercutting shots filmed thousands of miles apart. It also helps that Trevor Howard, George Coulouris and Kerima all went to Ceylon; the continuity match between locations is flawless.
Outcast should have been nominated for Best Special Effects, just for its thrilling montage sequence up front. (The winner that year, unopposed, was Paramount’s When Worlds Collide). The sailing ship’s thrilling passage through the narrow strait to Sambir is accomplished with at least twenty clever mattes, ‘stacking up’ levels of foreground rocks both real and painted. The ship appears to be running a crazy gauntlet at top speed, as the crew trims the sails and Lingard spins the wheel to make hairpin turns. Its much more naturalistic than the CGI overkill of the ‘running aground’ scene in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake.
In the two images just below ( ↓ ) the original shots with the sailing ship were filmed in open water, nowhere near any rocks, or even the shore.
Joseph Conrad’s show is not about white masters amid the heathens. There is no jungle voodoo-hoodoo on view, and no BS talk about ‘restless native drums.’ The local religious rites and customs are strange because the whites have no interest in understanding them, and the cultural differences only highlight a source of unspoken hatred that goes both ways. The dances that Lingard’s villagers perform for the Almayers are entirely ignored. We’re told that American censors didn’t like the mixed-race relationship between Aissa and Willems, which might account for the seven minutes of cuts made to the film for U.S. release.
The bleak and forbidding ending in the rain is faithful to the source novel. Willem’s final refuge in the wilderness reduces him to a savage animal in the rain, ragged and dirty and still seething at a world he insists has cheated him. Nobody’s dreams come true. He’s been expelled from Eden with an Eve equally drained of hope. Is this ‘great literature noir?’
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Outcast of the Islands is everything I hoped for, a clean, clear and accurate HD scan of a great picture that could use more viewer appreciation. The sharp transfer conveys the movie’s play of light and shadow, showcasing one impressive scene after another. It might be the best screen work of Trevor Howard and Robert Morley (although both are consistently good elsewhere). The music score by Brian Easdale (Black Narcissus, Gone to Earth) mixes Asian themes without resorting to easy orientalist clichés.
What must Carol Reed and company have thought? After spending a year on the monumental undertaking, their obviously superior film, surely the most faithful Conrad adaptation, was more or less rejected by critics and audiences.
The disc contains some good Kino trailers, but not one for Outcast. Author Peter Tonguette mostly vamps his way through an information-sparse auteurist commentary track. He has little to say about Joseph Conrad but spends minutes discussing the typeface of the movie’s main credits, explaining that consistent credit fonts are the mark of a true auteur, as with Woody Allen and John Carpenter. His only analysis of Outcast is to call it a ‘castaway’ film (?), which prompts discussions of more movies that have nothing to do with what we’re seeing.
Tonguette then proceeds to elaborate at length on the critical opinion that Orson Welles and other Carol Reed collaborators somehow share co-authorship on his films. Tonguette quotes critics David Thomson and Sarris instead of making his own arguments but agrees with them that only Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man are truly auteur-worthy. He defends Outcast of the Islands yet slams Reed’s later films, most of which are fine entertainments.
I first encountered Outcast of the Islands back around 1985 on PBS, an intense experience that floored me. I couldn’t believe that the show had become semi-obscure. It didn’t again come within reach until a TCM cablecast over twenty years later. It’s a great time for rediscovering great pictures on videodisc — all kinds of under-appreciated European gems are emerging from disc distribution deals with the enormous Studiocanal library.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Outcast of the Islands
Supplements: Audio commentary by Peter Tonguette, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 15, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson