Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Pearl of Bloomsbury (Anthony Mann, 1959)

Terry Kelly as Zane Grey, proofreading one of Virginia Woolf's novels in her garden

Mann's typically visceral British-set Western recounts the story of Zane Grey's 'lost years,' when he pitched up in London and was taken under the wing of the Bloomsbury Group, following his separation from his wife, Dolly.

Grey, played convincingly by the aging Terry Kelly, is spotted wandering around Russell Square by Virginia Woolf (a fulsome Sophia Loren, who, it has to be said, struggles with the accent); taking pity on him, she invites him home for a spot of tea. Initially, the others in her circle are suspicious of him and in a tense moment atmospherically shot in the reading room of the British Museum, there is a stand off between Grey and Lytton Strachey (David Niven, slightly out of his depth and looking for comedy where there is none), who is, surprisingly, quicker on the draw but a lousy shot. Grey is about to gun him down, but Woolf pleads with him and they all retire to the refectory for home-made crumpets, over which they bond.

Later, in awe of his talent, Woolf secures a lucrative contract for Grey's next novel, Spirit of Bloomsbury, but the 'odious little fascist' Wyndham Lewis (a superb performance by Elisha Cook Jr) appears on the scene, claiming Strachey owes him money for some etchings.

With his Proto-Vorticist gang, attired in black shirts and floral trousers tucked into their boots, Lewis hunts down Strachey. The latter reaches into his pocket for his wallet, but Lewis thinks he is going for his gun and fires three shots at close range. Strachey falls onto the floor, bleeding profusely, and Lewis and his men leave. Thinking, wrongly as it turns out, that his friend is dead, Grey straps on his revolver and vows vengeance, though is implored not to by Woolf who fears losing another of her circle.

Catching up with Lewis outside the Penn Club, he outguns one of the Proto-Vorticists and turns to face Lewis, not realising that another gang member is hiding in the club's porch, armed with a shotgun. Lewis tries to humiliate Grey by reading out a couple of his poorer reviews and calling him by his given name, Pearl. Despite the sniggering of the Penn Club doorman (an early role for Bernard Bresslaw), Grey maintains a brave face and draws on Lewis only to hear the click of the Proto-Vorticist gang-member's gun being cocked behind him. Suddenly a shot rings out: it's Virginia Woolf at the third floor window of the building opposite, armed with Grey's Winchester. "Take-a that, you damned son of a beetch!" she grins, blowing the would-be back-shooter away, as Grey shoots Lewis' revolver out of his hand and warns him to "keep ridin' west and never to come back to London town again."

The movie ends, somewhat unrealistically, when Grey returns to America with Woolf, where he writes his masterpiece, Riders of the Purple Sage, and she takes up painting and changes her name to Georgia O'Keeffe.

The director's cut is now available; this includes the newly-restored ending, long thought lost, along with various extras, such as a 1972 Philip Jenkinson interview with Terry Kelly who confesses to drinking too much tea on set and being worried about being goosed by genial prankster Richard Wattis, who played one of the Proto-Vorticists.

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