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Fans of actor Patrick McGoohan will be excited to discover The Quare Fellow, a superior drama filmed in Ireland with an exciting and mostly unfamiliar cast. Adapted from a play by Brendan Behan, the film examines capital punishment through the experience of the prison guards charged with carrying out an execution. The taut direction of Arthur Dreyfuss avoids most of the clichés associated with the subgenre and enhances colorful characterizations completely at odds with the John Ford image of Irishmen -- we don't meet any jolly drinkers with elfin senses of humor. The jailbirds are a fatalistic bunch that wavers between cynicism and contrition. The visiting hangman gets stinking drunk on a pub crawl, almost starting a riot when he foolishly reveals his profession.
The handsome B&W show was produced by Anthony Havelock-Allan, a famous name familiar from many prestigious David Lean classics. That the film isn't as well known is perhaps due to its odd title. "Quare" is an Irish pronunciation of "queer"; "The Quare Fellow" refers to a prisoner isolated on Death Row, who is treated differently than the other inmates.
Eager new prison guard Thomas Crimmin (Patrick McGoohan) is assigned to help senior warder Regan (Walter Macken) prepare for a double execution. The rank and file convicts initially take advantage of Thomas' inexperience, stealing free drinks of rubbing alcohol. Concerned about possible disturbances, the warden and his guards are relieved when one of the condemned men is granted a pardon. Crimmin takes a room in the same house where lives Kathleen (Sylvia Syms) the wife of the remaining Quare Fellow. Drinking heavily, Kathleen vents her frustration on the new boarder. She receives abuse of her own from some of the locals, who consider her responsible for her husband's conviction. Thomas discovers that Regan is opposed to the hanging on religious grounds and begins to take Kathleen's side. She confesses to Crimmin that she indeed was the reason for the murder, a fact that did not come out at her husband's trial.
The Quare Fellow's strong suit is Brendan Behan's rich and convincing dialogue. None of the characters uses a stock Irish accent and nobody quotes folk poetry or acts like Barry Fitzgerald. The various warders and convicts are individualized people with a sense of humor; everyone's trying to get along. Thomas Crimmin is initially proud of his new job but is soon questioning all he believes. He's an easy touch for a cigarette or an unscheduled work stretch, and some of his charges appreciate the favors. But all of the prisoners respect Regan, who is due to retire as soon as the execution is done. Regan puts all of his effort into a last minute pardon appeal, much to the displeasure of the warden.
The prison is a rough but reasonably civilized place. Arriving to serve a long stretch, a new convict is reminded by his peers that as long as he's there he'll not see a full sky or a woman. The prison governor visits and tells the inmates that they can give him their complaints, but the offer is an empty formality.
This is one of the popular Patrick McGoohan's best film performances; fans familiar only with the actor's secret agent characters will marvel at the flexibility he brings to the role. His young Thomas Crimmin is simultaneously tough and vulnerable, a good man who wants to do the right thing. But when Crimmin is drawn to the unstable Katherine, the suspicious locals are given another reason to hate them both. A pub lies so close to the prison that the customers can hear the convicts' chanting. The gossip grapevine insures that no secret remains private for long, in or outside the walls.
Director Arthur Dreyfuss contributed to the script under his real name, Dreifuss. His work is fluid and unfussy; we soon become unaware where the camera is or if the cuts demonstrate good continuity. Only twice are the editors forced to stretch the available film. On the main prison floor, a jarring freeze frame of a cellar walkway is employed every time an unseen prisoner begins to sing from below stairs. In the pub, a grossly mismatched insert isolates the box of nooses and hanging paraphernalia inadvertently left by the drunken hangman.
The film never directly shows the face of the condemned man, the "Quare Fellow" at the center of the story. The tension ratchets up on the night of the hanging, with a last-minute appeal looking more hopeless as the minutes tick by. Katherine and Thomas are both overcome by guilt, and show it in different ways.
Beautiful Sylvia Syms (Bachelor of Hearts, Victim) is a fine match for McGoohan; we understand their sudden and somewhat shameful romance. With its unfamiliar setting and its attention to detail, The Quare Fellow soon has us absorbed in their emotional dilemma.
Kino's DVD of The Quare Fellow is a good transfer of this B&W film from 1962. Although the film is presented flat full screen, the text in the main titles mattes off perfectly on a 1:78 widescreen monitor. The proper aspect ratio is probably 1.66:1. Audio is very clear, although some accents and unfamiliar phrases make us regret that English subtitles are not included.
A photo gallery is included along with a half-hour short subject, Brendan Behan's Dublin. Using voiceover and folksongs, the colorful film functions as a cultural travelogue of the author's city circa 1966.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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