A Tale of Two Cities (Ralph Thomas, 1958)

Dirk Bogarde as Sydney Carton
Dirk Bogarde as Sydney Carton

In the UK, the 1958 Rank Organisation adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, starring  Dirk Bogarde, is probably better-remembered than the 1935 MGM version. The 1950s film is the one that’s widely available here (there’s even a special edition DVD), whereas the 1930s version has never been released on DVD in the UK at all and has to be specially ordered on import. I think it is a pity that the later version seems to have edged out the Ronald Colman film, which to me is by far the greater of the two, with its lavish production values and strong script. But, having said that, the 1950s version is well worth seeing in its own right, and Bogarde makes the role of Carton his own, giving a performance which is perhaps as moving as Colman’s, though very different. I also like Dorothy Tutin as Lucie – I’ve seen her criticised as too sweet, but she does bring some humour to her quiet portrayal of a heroine who has to spend a lot of time waiting in the background.

A Tale of Two Cities 1958 6The film is made in stark black and white, with sweeping shadows, and at moments feels almost like a horror film – especially when peacocks are seen screaming in the grounds of the chateau and the music builds to a crescendo as the  Marquis St Evremonde (Christopher Lee) meets his violent fate. (Another famous horror actor, Donald Pleasence, is quietly sinister as the spy Barsad.) Director Ralph Thomas and screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke stick fairly close to the book, but have simplified things by more or less following the story straight through rather than relying on flashbacks. So the back-story which sees Dr Alexandre Manette (Stephen Murray) imprisoned in the Bastille after witnessing the cruelty of the Marquis  comes at the start rather than being revealed later, as in the novel.

The great set-piece scenes of the revolution are all there, including the storming of the Bastille and the scene where the starving crowds lick up wine from the street like dogs after a barrel is overturned.  However, the film doesn’t really give as strong a portrayal of the hunger and desperation of the mob as the earlier 1935 version does. Rosalie Crutchley brings a wild intensity to the role of vengeful Madame Defarge, but somehow I don’t think you get enough impression of this character representing the anger of countless people who have been the victims of the aristocracy – it all seems to come down to her own burning hatred against the Evremondes.

Dirk Bogarde
Dirk Bogarde

The real power of this version is in the portrayal of the other city, London, and the focus on Carton. Bogarde is at once witty and vulnerable as Carton, who seems to be more or less drunk through almost all the film until the final sequence, where his heroism suddenly breaks through, with his last words delivered in voiceover as he steps up to the guillotine. He is brilliant in the long self-lacerating scene where he breaks down in front of Lucie Manette (Dorothy Tutin), confessing his misery,  before hiding his true self again in an instant when Miss Pross (Athene Seyler) walks into the room. Unfortunately, Bogarde doesn’t look much like Paul Guers, the  French actor playing Darnay, so the court scene where the two stand up together doesn’t have the shock value that it should have. (I also find Guers a bit dull compared to Bogarde – but this always tends to be the case when you set any actor playing Darnay against another playing Carton.)

Paul Guers and Dorothy Tutin as Lucie and Darnay
Paul Guers and Dorothy Tutin as Lucie and Darnay

Nevertheless, the courtroom scenes work very well, with an added bonus of Leo McKern, the actor who went on to play Rumpole of the Bailey, giving a glimpse of his determined cross-examination style. The cast also includes Alfie Bass as Jerry Cruncher (his style of humour has dated somewhat) and Ian Bannen as Gabelle, as well as young French actress Marie Versini giving a poignant performance as the girl who holds hands with Carton (and shares a kiss) on their way to the guillotine.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable version of the classic, and, although I prefer the 1935 film, I’d recommend this one too.

Dirk Bogarde and Marie Versini
Dirk Bogarde and Marie Versini
Dorothy Tutin and Dirk Bogarde
Dorothy Tutin and Dirk Bogarde
Christopher Lee as Evremonde
Christopher Lee as Evremonde




9 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities (Ralph Thomas, 1958)

  1. Lucky Brits. This version is nearly impossible to find over here in the U.S. — about all you can get is a Hong Kong import DVD with Chinese subtitles that won’t go away. Everyone here knows the Ronald Colman and James Wilby versions best. I like Colman a lot, but this is my favorite version, and I’m just dying for a good Region 1 release!

    1. Gina, it’s just the opposite here in the UK – this version is easily available, whereas the Ronald Colman one is hard to find! It would be great to see the Colman version released in region 2 and the Bogarde in region 1, so that more people have an opportunity to compare the two!

  2. “The film is made in stark black and white, with sweeping shadows, and at moments feels almost like a horror film – especially when peacocks are seen screaming in the grounds of the chateau and the music builds to a crescendo as the Marquis St Evremonde (Christopher Lee) meets his violent fate.”

    The focus on Carton would certainly alone making this an essential version, but other aspects you delineate, and the presence of actors like Dick Bogarde, Christopher Lee and Donald Pleasance would seem to make a case for this as the second choice to the 1935 Hollywood, as you suggest here yourself in this wonderfully concise assessment. Sadly I haven’t been able to see it myself, but will make the proper inquiries. McKern and Bannen are two other actors I value highly.

    1. Sam, I’d initially assumed this version was well-known in the US too, and was surprised to learn that wasn’t the case! I think you would enjoy it – Bogarde in particular is excellent. McKern only has a small part but I was interested to note him turning up as a lawyer. Thanks very much for the comment, which, as always, is much appreciated.

  3. ellenandjim

    This is one I do long to see and maybe I’ll treat myself over this month. There has been a re-digitalized DVD of this one (2008), but Jim found for me a copy of the 1958 film at Pirate Bay. Bogarde is one of those who could manage the kind of depths Colman could.

    1. Ellen, I think you will enjoy watching this – Bogarde is very good in the lead and does bring depth to Carton, though I still prefer Colman’s portrayal. It’s very interesting to compare the two. I think that 2008 DVD may be the one which has Chinese subtitles that can’t be removed, so the 2002 UK release (which includes a featurette about the film) may be a better alternative, if you can play region 2 DVDs. Thank you for the comment.

  4. I love this movie, it is one of the very few in which i cry :)
    Dirk Bogarde was great but i always remember Christopher Lee as Evremonde….

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