Title: Separate Tables
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Delbert Mann
Music: David Raksin
Cinematography: Charles Lang
An all-star screen adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play, a BEST PICTURE nominee (7 nominations and 2 wins), SEPARATE TABLES is directed by Oscar-winner Delbert Mann, the only case a person won BEST DIRECTOR trophy for his debut feature (MARTY, 1955) in the Academy Awards’ history.
The story takes place at a seaside hotel in Bournemouth in off-season, where “separate tables” are prepared for its long-term tenants. Among them, there is the mousy but high-strung maiden Sibyl (Kerr), who has been through some disturbing mental “states” and is tyrannized by her snobbish mother Ms. Railton-Bell (Cooper). Sibyl is overtly attracted to the middle-aged Major Angus Pollock (Niven), who is constantly bragging about his army feats but also appears to conceal an ulterior motive related to his shady side. In the opening, he just returns to the hotel after a two-days outing, when Sibyl concernedly asks his whereabouts, his response sounds with an affectation of casualness, and as usual he excels in dodging Sibyl’s affection.
The hotel is run by the competent Pat Cooper (Hiller), who is in a secret relationship with the longest tenant John Malcolm (Lancaster), on this day, arrives Ann Shankland (Hayworth), a gracefully divine woman, who turns out to be Malcolm’s ex-wife and their marriage has ended quite violently and uglily, she bears an ulterior motive to win him back, and for John, unexpectedly meeting her again dramatically stirs his feelings blended with anger, contempt, chagrin and attraction.
Apart from those mentioned above, there are several old people, the goodhearted Lady Matheson (Nesbitt), the eccentric spinster Miss Meacham (Hallatt) and the ordinary Mr. Fowler (Aylmer); plus two young lovers Charles (Taylor) and Jean (Dalton), who are arguing about the prospect of tying the knot.
The main narrative twist is about Major’s true nature, after his darkest secret is exposed by the nosy Ms. Railton-Bell, everyone is pushed to take a vote of whether Major should be expelled from the hotel. Meanwhile, the confrontation between Ann and John also reaches the boiling point, surprisingly Pat becomes the intermediary even it is her own relationship is at stake.
The next morning, all the drama comes to a close, Major divulges his feelings to Sibyl in a most straightforward way he can properly address. The tenants all express their stand on the case, Sibyl finally can utter a staunch rebuff to her mommy’s dominion. Ann and John reconcile and rekindle their love.
The central cast is all fully charged in this sensational melodrama with top-notch vivacity. Niven won a Leading Actor Oscar for the shortest screen-time, a little more than 20 minutes, but his naturalistic mannerism as a chronic liar whose minor peculiarity hampers his entire life is both realistically pathetic and farcically sympathetic (particularly when his nudge nudge wink wink behavior cannot lift one’s eyebrows now). All he can do is to keep up appearances in order to remain his dignity, a self-torturing pattern, but the ending advocates a brighter outlook for him since puritanism smells rather putrid under any circumstances.
Kerr, nominated for an Oscar as well, coherently exhibits her outstanding aptness in playing a character of frailty and neurosis; Hayworth, as gorgeous as she has ever been, also delivers a conceivably affecting performance against Lancaster’s rigorous mien as the man who can never get over her no matter what. But in plain truth, their love story is a stock one, all the more it gives an enormous halo to Pat, whose sacrifice is much more vicarious for viewers, Hiller won an Oscar for Supporting Actress as well, a very creditable win indeed.
Shot in fine black & white, Mann and DP Charles Lang deftly arrange the lighting effect to construct a sharp-contrasted presence, especially between Hayworth and Lancaster, to foreground the tension and sentiment. The accompanying score by David Raksin adheres to the course of the story development to perfection, also, Vic Damone’s tuneful titular theme song is pertinent to demonstrate the solitude eternally resides in each individual, like the separate tables, when two hearts find their resonant frequency, it is a godsend which one should never shy away from.