Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Don't call it "Slander"

In TCM's 31 Days of Oscar, we're about to get up to the letter L, which includes the movie Libel, on tomorrow morning at 6:00.

Paul Massie plays Jeffrey Buckenham, a Canadian pilot on a layover in London. While in a pub, he sees a TV program about the gret old manor houses of Britain. This episode focuses on Sir Mark Loddon (Dirk Bogarde) and his wife, Lady Margaret (Olivia de Havilland). That's something which really intrigues Jeffrey, for reasons that will become clear in a short while.

The Loddons have periodic guided tours of the estate in order to defray the costs of living there, and Jeffrey comes to one of those tours, more as a way of seeing Mark in the Loddons' private residence after the tour. It turns out that both Mark and Jeffrey served in World War II, and wound up in the same POW camp. Mark's bad experiences in the camp resulted in his only having sketchy memories of a lot of things that happened when he was younger before the War, which would explain why he doesn't recognize Jeffrey despite the fact that they escaped together.

When Jeffrey sees Mark's hand and sees that Mark has lost the first joint on one of his fingers, his suspicions are confirmed: this isn't Mark Loddon, but an impostor, Frank Welney. Frank was the third member of the escape, and an actor who had lost a joint on that finger. In Jeffrey's view, Frank's actions during the escape were less than honorable and resulted in Mark's death. So Mark writes an open letter to one of the Sunday tabloids.

Mark doesn't like that the letter was printed, and especially doesn't like the resulting publicity. In theory, they could just ignore it as the writings of a crank, but then what effect would it have on Mark and Margaret's son? So Mark makes the difficult decision to sue for libel, since the libel laws in the UK are rather more generous toward the putative victim than in the US. But the problem with taking the case to court is that a whole bunch of uncomfortable stuff is going to come out into the public, and with Mark having all sorts of memory holes thanks to that POW experience, who knows what's really going to come out.

Sir Wilfred (Robert Morley) is Sir Mark's barrister, while Hubert Foxley (Wilfrid Hyde-White) is Jeffrey's. At the trial, we get the views of both Jeffrey and Mark about what heppend both while they were in captivity, and that pivotal escape attempt, told in flashback. It's clear that Jeffrey thought even while they were all in captivity that Welney was a chancer who was trying to learn as much as possible about Mark's past life in order to kill Mark when the opportunity presented itself and take over Mark's identity. That opportunity would, in Jeffrey's view, present itself during the escape attempt.

Libel is a well-acted movie, albeit one with what seemed to me a glaring plot hole. Surely the British military would have had either fingerprint records of everyobdy under arms, or dental records, or both, in order to aid with identification of the killed in action if dog tags or other ID went missing. It should have been a fairly simple thing to check against those records. (A quick search suggests the US Army started fingerprinting soldiers all the way back in 1905; I couldn't find similar information for the UK.) I had other problems with the script, too, which is a shame since the actors all did a fine job.

Libel was produced by MGM's British arm, so it's no surprise that the movie has received a DVD release from the Warner Archive.

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