Camp David

CAMP DAVID JULY 2010: THE BAROQUE MIRRIORS OF ERIC PORTMAN

By • Jul 21st, 2010 •

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My introduction to the films of Eric Portman was not an easy one by any means. He was brought to my attention by an alcoholic Hindu princess by the name of Rukhmani Singh Devi. She was odd even by my standards of eccentricity, Rukhmani was a bit like the willful princess that tormented James Mason with their past lives in James Ivory’s sinister AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A PRINCESS.

She behaved like a member of the British Royal family if they’d been brought up on Hammer films, and who am I to say they weren’t? She was supremely intelligent, world weary and drunk, in that order. Rukmani worshipped at the altar of British Cinema, with actors Eric Portman and Peter Cushing as the jewels in the crown.

They say every actor has a special follower and I mean much more than just a fan since these people tend to personally morph into the object of their affection in act and deed. In Rukhmani’s case she was to be referred to in these circumstances as “Patty” or “PC two”…her devotion to all things Peter Cushing was something to behold. For example she could tell you how many wardrobe changes Cushing had in say THE CREEPING FLESH…which, in case you were wondering, happens to be an amazing 12 changes in one film. I never really thought about what an Edwardian clothes horse Peter Cushing was until I met the princess, and afterwards I never ever regarded him as just a film star. Saint Peter was now an experience never to be taken lightly.

Paul Mangin {Eric Portman} lives in a dream world of his own making...

Edana Rommey as Mifaney dressing in priceless gowns to please a madman.

Eric Portman and Edana Rommey.

During this period she and I were meeting regularly, every weekend, in Berkeley to see films at the fabled “Telegraph Rep” cinema which at the time {1973} was more like seeing a film at somebody’s apt while sitting uncomfortably in rickety wooden chairs – inhaling pot smoke until you had a contact high. It was there that I first saw Eric Portman in Powell and Pressburger’s World War II epic THE 49TH PARALLEL {1941}. In it Portman played a Nazi U-boat commander to perfection. I was hooked. Who was this suave, slightly psychotic gentleman and where had he been all my life.

Rukhmani quickly filled me in on all things Eric by telling me she had a girlfriend, also from India, who was to Portman what she was to Cushing. This woman was to be known to me as simply Eurika Portman, a name she created to be on a more personal footing with the object of her adoration. So here I was living in San Francisco in the early 70’s, leading a very exhaustive night life, to now be further complicated by knowing these two wacky divas, both completely outre personalites of the twilight fringe of celebrity mania. The one saving grace of it all was the fact that these ladies approached it all with style, wit and class, all courtesy of the on screen persona’s of Messurs Cushing and Portman.

Eventually I began to seek out the films of Eric Portman on my own without the distractions of having to count their costume changes or how many cigarettes they lit during their various running times. One of the first things Eurika ever imparted to me regarding Portman was this comment he gave regarding acting, which is of course priceless: “Acting is like masturbation, one either does it or one does not, but one never talks about it.” Lord Olivier could not have said it better.

American teaser one sheet advertising THE NAKED EDGE trying to follow the example left by Hitchcock's  PSYCHO...even written by the same screenwriter however that is all the two films had in common.

Even in today’s world of entertainment men like Eric Portman remain sadly forgotton I am ever hopeful that he will be rediscovered as his films turn up on you tube and netflix with fairly comtemporary titles like THE BEDFORD INCIDENT with Sidney Poriter and Richard Widmark. Eric Portman became a star on the British stage in 1929 with a breakthrough performance as Romeo at the refurbished Old Vic and this in turn led to many roles in Shakesphere there. He quickly created more modern roles as well.

By 1935 he was well known as an actor with great presence and range. by 1942 he began making films for directors like Michael Powell. Yet he always returned to the stage. In the early fifties he created the role later played on film by David Niven in Terrance Rattigan’s SEPARATE TABLES…in the play as well as the film the character was disgraced by being caught in a local cinema making unwelcome advances to a young girl, years later the playwright revealed the orginal script in which the character was gay and the offence was with a boy. Almost all of Eric Portman’s characterizarions had this coded sexuality, both on stage and screen.

In the early 1970’s Norman Hudis (a well known screenwriter of the “CARRY ON” films), wrote a play about Eric Portman entitled DINNER WITH RIBBENTROP which was a bit like the recent play about Tallulah Bankhead doing sound bites for DIE DIE MY DARLING…only in Hudis’s play we discover Eric Portman’s Nazi leanings as well as his homosexuality, and how he managed to avoid ever discussing it with the press even as late as 1960. The truth of the matter is Eric Portman was a unique personality and the more we learn about him the more fascinating he becomes.

Among the many films Eric Portman would make during and after the war, the two I remember the best are the ones he made towards the end of his life. THE NAKED EDGE is always remembered for being Gary Cooper’s last film, he literally died before it could be released. And DEADFALL, made just before Portman would pass away as well. In THE NAKED EDGE Eric plays Jeremy Clay, a seedy opportunist who has a line towards the end, after much suspense has been made of a straight razor. Eric prepares a scalding hot bath for Deborah Kerr to cut her wrists in, and before he can put her in the hot water he looks up into the camera and says “Tell me, do you think women really like to get naked before they kill themselves”.

DEADFALL was made at the time of Michael Caine’s emergence as a star, and much is made of his sex appeal. The film was advertised as a heist caper, however the real plot was given to Eric Portman as the homosexual jewel thief whose daughter is used as bait to lure Caine into their web. The fact that Portman is supposed to fancy Caine is supposed to shock the audience, as is the revelation of incest later on, but through it all Eric Portman remains a legendary performer who commands the screen, making audiences wish to know far more about his character than Michael Caine’s. It was a bittersweet way to say goodbye to such a remarkable career.

US  half sheet poster for DEADFALL Eric Portman's character is openly advertised as gay in the poster art.

The stage work of Eric Portman is lost to us now but I was told that during his reign upon the British stage his performances were the stuff of legends. He apparently ran up against the equally legendary Tallulah Bankhead on more than one occasion causing the press at the time to speculate on which one of them was going to kill the other after screaming matches during and after performances, both actors fueled by alcohol. Tallulah never referred to Eric Portman in her memoirs as the scars were just too deep. She also managed to keep her encounter with Stephanie Powers all to herself after making her final film, DIE DIE MY DARLING.

Perhaps the most flamboyantly artificial of Eric Portman’s film appearances would have to be his star turn in Terence Young’s CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS which, if remembered at all today, is because the future “Bond” director introduced both Chistopher Lee and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) in the opening scenes of the film, giving each a line or two.

A romantic pose for two star-crossed lovers from the past.

Eric Portman is confused by Edana Rommey's lack of interest.

CORRIDOR OF MIRROR’S is a marvel of genre homages all in one beautiful package. It references Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE even down to having Georges Auric compose the music, which is quite beautiful. The exquisite photography recalls REBECCA and JANE EYRE, with shadowy staircases and billowing curtains with a large white cat roaming the castle to invoke Lewis Carroll for good measure.

Eric Portman plays a wealthy Londoner who is traumatized on a visit to Venice where he catches sight of a portrait of a vixen named Venetia, and spends the rest of the film trying to find a reincarnation of her, which of course he does in the character of Myfanwy Conway played by new comer Edana Romney whose presence in this film is no accident since she is one of the producers along with Rudolph Cartier, who also wrote the screenplay to favor her as well. But no matter, the film belongs to Portman whenever he chooses to enter the frame. His performance is romantic, dashing and of course slightly psychotic, as this was how the British film industry coded gay actors since the days of Ivor Novello

Belgian poster for CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS--A British attempt to create a fantasy along the lines of Cocteau's LA BELLE ET LA BETE.

Yes, it is true, Erich Portman, like Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Dennis Price were all gay actors working in the British film industry and doing their utmost to play straight. Fortunately for the viewing audience this still did not prevent screenwriters from coding most of their parts with tell tale signs of Wilden allure. In CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS for example, Portman plays Paul, an artist and from the looks of it an interior decorator who furnishes not only his mansion with antiques and all manner of Object’Art. No, he does not stop there, he also installs a lavish wardrobe of ballgowns that would put Cher on fashion alert and place Elton John under house arrest until he got his game on.

How Edana Romney could not suspect her phantom-like lover was gay is just a device of cinema we must refer to as fantasy. For her role in the film, Edana comes across much too mature to really be taken in romantically by his posturings of love. By the time she does sleep over at his gothic abode, our poor Eric is so worn out with all the costume changes that he finally hands her a set of velvet pajama’s and toddles off to parts unknown for the evening. They never kiss or make love on camera he might as well have worn one of those Jean Marais beast make-ups to justify his reluctance to go further than a waltz or an embrace.

The plot of CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS is really divided into two distinct halves, the first being the fairy tale world represented by Paul’s Regent Park estate, a re-creation of a palace in fourteenth century Venice. His gothic quest for the ideal woman, the Borgia-like Venetia who was wanton in the past and then again in Edana’s recreation of her later on. The films greatest moment arrives with Paul’s staging of a renaissance Venetian ball with masked party goers all behaving like the guests in Corman’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.

The second half of the film darkens and changes mood as we observe Paul descend into what we mistake for madness, leading to his death and then retribution through the faithful manservant that was looking out for his master all along. We also have a madwoman living in the villa not unlike the first Mrs. Rochester in JANE EYRE.

The first meeting between Eric Portman Edana Rommey in a vintage Hansom cab.

What really holds all this together is of course the performance of Eric Portman who has the style to carry off the costumes much like his colleague Peter Cushing, He does lack the necessary glamour of a matinee idol and knowing that, instinctively invests all his characters with breeding and intelligence, which makes him appear more attractive than he actually is. When it is apparent his character is going to his doom after the trail for a murder he may have committed, Eric is given another classic moment that even Dirk Bogarde (perhaps the most closeted of all British actors) could not have improved on. Portman tells his lost love the following

“There is a time to be born and a time to die, so please don’t spoil the exit I’ve chosen for myself. You ought to know I’ve always had a liking for dramatic effect.”

What an exit for a remarkable performer. Eric Portman would make a number of other films before his demise in 1969, all of them graced with his impeccable sense of timing and a desire to entertain.

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3 Responses »

  1. Dear David,

    By coincidence, last night I was watching Eric Portman in The Archers’ production of ..One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, and asking myself if contemporary audiences even remember the often chilly and but always charismatic Mr. Portman. Many stars of today can project intellect, but very few can combine this intelligence with a cultured grace and style in such an effortless display. I mourn the loss of Mr. Portman every time I have the good fortune to experience the uniqueness he brings to the screen.

  2. Dear David,
    Just a quick addendum of Eric Portman’s playing the “hero”, a gypsy framed of the title character’s murder in MARIA MARTEN or THE MURDER IN THE RED BARN and as a son avenging his father’s brutal murder in THE CRIMES OF STEPHEN HAWKE(which had the great later director Ronald Neame as Cinematographer), in both films where Portman gets the best of the villain in both films, the great TOD SLAUGHTER! It seems that a leading young actor always played the hero in 2 different Slaughter films in which they walk away after having given Tod his just deserts! (John Warwick in THE TICKET OF LEAVE MAN and THE FACE AT THE WINDOW, Sir Bruce Seton in SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET and THE CURSE OF THE WRAYDONS). Portman was quite fierce, causing the “cowardly” Tod to cower from his staring eyes and commanding voice!
    In addition, Portman played the seedy no-good hubby Archie Ross of Dame Edith Evans suffering elderly pensioner in THE WHISPERERS and watching the two interplay is a delight indeed! Eric and Tod, Eric and Dame Edith!

  3. great and fascinating article on this strange and interesting film. I’m hoping you can get in touch with me again as I have material for you that I sat aside — want to make sure of where you are before I send it out since it’s one of a kind.

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