I seem to be extolling the virtues of Kanopy in this column, and there’s good reason for that. Since the demise of FilmStruck, it has become my go-to for classics and more obscure films, made even better by the fact that it’s free (!) and that my local libraries are in a major metropolitan area and hence have great selections. So while I appreciate that it’s not yet accessible to everyone, due to the choices made by libraries, Kanopy is a fantastic resource for film fans to discover some films you may not have seen or even heard of.
I had heard of An Inspector Calls, the 1954 film based on a J.B. Priestley play and starring Alastair Sim as the inspector in question. The plot looks like a murder mystery, but it quickly becomes a bit more than that. Inspector Poole interrupts a celebratory engagement dinner at the upper middle-class Birling household with the report that a young woman recently committed suicide. Her death has led him to the Birlings, all of whom have some connection with the young woman and may even be considered suspects. As the inspector peels back the layers of hypocrisy and middle class complacency from the Birlings’ staid exteriors, he reveals the rottenness at the very core of British society.
An Inspector Calls was seen as a socialist polemic when it was first produced (in Moscow) in 1945, and in some ways is even more powerful in a post-war Britain. The story is set in 1912, with World War I just a few years off. The Birlings are a compendium of middle class hubris and insulation—the father is a factory owner who cares little about his workers, the mother sits on a charity committee and adjudicates between the deserving and undeserving poor; the drunken son cannot escape from his father’s shadow, and the daughter and her fiancé are self-centered examples of generational rot. As Inspector Poole reveals their individual connections to the dead woman, they all are forced to face their culpability at both an individual and a social level. The story is not subtle, but it is powerful, a breaking down of middle class hypocrisy and egotism, and the sort of story that continues to have resonance today.
The performances here are uniformly excellent, but none better than Alastair Sim’s inspector, a dogged seeker of justice who makes it his mission to expose the Birlings for what they are. Sim always toes the line between sinister and the humorous, and his sleepy-eyed, laconic style creates a perfect, grounded anger as the Birlings grow more and more hysterical. The film is directed by Guy Hamilton, best known for his Bond and Harry Palmer movies, and he shows excellent restraint and sense of space here. Movies based on plays sometimes threaten to become static, but Hamilton’s camera creates a superior sense of claustrophobia in the midst of comfortable middle class trappings. As the characters attempt to justify themselves, the camera closes in on them, rendering their flaws and their hypocrisies without shying away from some of the nastier elements of the story. You may condemn the unwed mother, but what about the unwed father? You may save the poor girl from the streets, but what do you ask in return? This isn’t just a film about overt hypocrisy or overt class warfare, but about the small, insidious reinforcements of the class hierarchy, about the power of patriarchy, and about the complacency of everyone involved.
Coming in at just under an hour and a half, An Inspector Calls is timeless filmmaking at its finest, intense, close-knit, and well-written, with a critical edge that still feels as sharp today as it did in 1954, or 1945. Essential.
An Inspector Calls is available to stream on Kanopy.