The Birlings, a wealthy family, are sitting down to dinner to celebrate the engagement of Sheila to Gerald Croft. Brother Eric is getting slowly plastered across the table, while Mr and Mrs Birling try and ignore the fact that anything is wrong. Then a guest is announced – one Inspector Goole – who tells the Birlings that he has come to ask some questions about a girl, Eva Smith, who recently committed suicide. At first, the Birlings and Gerald Croft deny knowing her, but it slowly comes out that each of them did know her and each of them held some blame for her death, unbeknown to the rest of the family. Will this knowledge change the Birlings’ perceptions of a girl from a lower class? Or will they continue to refuse to take any blame?
In An Inspector Calls, Inspector Goole is played by the brilliant Alastair Sim. This role is anything but funny and in fact is perfect for Hallowe’en – although purportedly a police officer, there is something very creepy about the way that he seems to know everything about everyone. There is also something commanding about his performance, which makes it totally understandable that the Birlings should listen to him rather than throwing him out of the house. His performance was mesmerising and, despite the fact that the film was made in 1954, was set even earlier and is in black and white, it is one that stands out even by modern standards.
Eva Smith was slighted by the Birlings and Gerald Croft in more ways than one, but Jane Wenham’s portrayal of her is head and shoulders above them. We see Eva in a series of flashbacks, under different names, but in each, it is clear that she is a woman of restricted means who has her pride and refuses to be a doormat. Wenham does Eva proud; it is clear that she is suffering, but refuses to accept charity or defeat…until the last moment that is.
Of the others, there are two performances that stood out for me. One is Olga Lindo as Sybil Birling, a woman who is proud of her status and much too proud to think of the feelings of the lower classes. Her behaviour is reprehensible and utterly convincing. The other is Eric Birling, played by Bryan Forbes. He has an affair with Eva and gets her pregnant, but is then too cowardly to do anything about it. Despite this, he is clearly affected by her news and starts to drink even more than before. Again, this is a really good performance that was completely compelling and natural.
There is an obvious theme coming out of the film – class differences and the way that those who consider themselves of a higher class can shrug off the feelings, and to an extent, the very existence, of anyone from the lower classes. Although society today is very different, there is an important message – don’t judge before you know the full truth – and this is something that is just as relevant today as it was back then – although it may not just be class that is the problem.
The set is very simple – it revolves around the dining room and hall of the Birlings. This is ideal as a backdrop for the story, because there is nothing to distract the eye from the performances of the characters and it is this, after all, that makes the film so strong. In many ways, the fact that the film is in black and white is an advantage, because again, it forces the eye to concentrate on the acting. There is a colour version of An Inspector Calls, made in the 1980s, but this version is the best.
The pacing of the film is superb and although the director cannot perhaps be entirely congratulated with this, he has at least adapted it from the play very well. We start out by finding out that a woman is dead, but have no idea how the Birlings, a respectable family, can possibly be involved. We are then fed the story bit by bit. Then, the ending to the film provides the audience with a totally unexpected twist.
An Inspector Calls is a must-see classic.