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.
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. (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.
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.)
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.