Sunday, September 25, 2011

Psychic or Psychotic? That's a question for a
'Seance on a Wet Afternoon'

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Kim Stanley, Judith Donner, Nanette Newman, Gerald Sim, and Patrick Magee
Director: Bryan Forbes
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A spineless husband (Attenborough) is bullied by his would-be-celebrity medium wife (Stanley) into kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and demand a ransom, so she can use her "psychic powers to save the child. As he executes the hoax, he starts to fear that his increasingly delusional wife will cause the girl's death.

This is a slow-moving, deliberate, and decidedly talky psychological thriller where the fate of a naive child rests entirely in the hands of a man too weak to either stand up to his unhinged wife, or to get her the help she needs. In the end, his weakness brings a predictable doom down upon him, but the way its executed is brilliantly done.

With the only remotely action-oriented scenes being the ones surrounding a ransom drop and the nominal hero of this tragic story's efforts to avoid the police, this is a film that succeeds due to the superior acting abilities of the cast and the well-crafted script they had to work with. If a lesser performer than Kim Stanley--as a psychotic woman who has been encouraged in her delusions of a psychic gift since childhood and who now is driven to desperate measures to gain the recognition she believes she deserves--had been portraying the part, this is a character who would come across as ridiculous instead of sinister and obnoxious instead of pity-worthy, despite the depth of her madness and evil.

Similarly, if a lesser actor than Richard Attenborough had been playing the wimpy, conflicted Billy--with brilliant subtlety in contrast to Stanley's over-the-top, in-your-face performance--he would have come across as sniveling instead of distraught and disgustingly pathetic instead of deeply sympathetic.

Although this is film with virtually no likable characters--with the exception of the kidnap-victim played ably by cute child actress Judith Donner--Attenborough and Stanley nonetheless make us care about the people they are portraying. (The cops come across as basically unlikable, because as the film unfolds, we become emotionally invested with Billy and his wife, so we them from their point of view.) We want Billy to grow a spine and to do what he knows is right before it's too late for him and the innocent child.

And we are kept guessing up to the very last moment of the film whether Billy's weakness has turned him from kidnapper to killer, with one final tense scene and seance on the titular wet afternoon.

This is an excellent film that anyone who appreciates psychological thrillers should seek out.


  1. Great review of an underrated movie.

  2. Thanks. It's one of the many movies I don't understand isn't talked about more.

  3. Yes, incredible performances from both leads, and I agree with your analysis of Billy: "a man too weak to stand up to his unhinged wife," I wrote a short essay on Seance on a Wet Afternoon called "The madness of appeasement." If you would like to read it, here is the link: