One of the most discomfiting poems I've ever read is Philip Larkin's "The Old Fools," which is about what will happen to all of us who are unlucky enough to live to be very old.
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange:
Why aren't they screaming?
Another of Larkin's poems, "Long Last," tells of the plight of an old woman in the same blunt, terrifying terms:
Suddenly, not long before
Her eighty-first birthday,
The younger sister died.
Next morning, the elder lay
Asking the open door
Why it was light outside,
Since nobody had put on
The kettle, or raked the ashes,
Or come to help her find
The dark way through her dress.
This went on till nearly one.
Later, she hid behind
The gas stove. ‘Amy’s gone,
Isn’t she,’ they remember her saying,
And ‘No’ when the married niece
Told her the van was coming.
Her neck was leaf-brown.
She left cake on the mantelpiece.
This long last childhood
Nothing provides for.
What can it do each day
But hunt that imminent door
Through which all that understood
Has hidden away?
The poem reminded me of The Whisperers, a 1967 film I first saw decades ago, and that I've recently had a chance to see again.
Now that a Republican-majority government in the U.S. has turned its attention to what are known as "entitlements," with an eye to undermine them as much as their constituents will tolerate, I think it's a good time to reconsider a film about one of the people for whom such entitlements were created - an old woman abandoned by what's left of her family who is slowly losing her grip on reality and sinking into what was then (in 1967) called senility, but which is now known as dementia.
The Whisperers is graced by the presence of Edith Evans, one of the greatest British actresses of the 20th century. Based on the novel Mrs. Ross by Robert Nicolson, the film depicts the difficulties faced by a very proud old woman, Margaret Ross, living in a rented flat in a labyrinth of row houses in a northern industrial city. She tells the police, who unfortunately know all about her, that she's being spied upon inside her flat (the "whisperers"). Whenever she enters her front door or otherwise notices the water dripping incessantly from the tap, she inquires of this unseen presence "Are you there?"
A grown son, Charlie, shows up at her flat just long enough to hide a parcel that contains stolen cash in a cabinet in the "guest room." She mentions his father, who hasn't been seen in twenty years. Charlie gives her a "couple of quid" and leaves, saying he'll be back in a week. After a confrontation with "the woman upstairs" (Nanette Newman - Bryan Forbes's wife), Margaret decides to tidy up the guest room, finds Charlie's parcel and discovers the cash. It's nothing but bundles of one pound notes, a few hundred pounds perhaps, but it's more than she's ever seen at one time in her life, despite her claims of owning property in Argentina and having "married beneath her." She thinks that the money must be from the settlement of her late father's estate, and sends a note (along with a one pound note) telling her National Assistance case worker, Mr. Conrad, that she won't be needing him any longer and that she's going to the Bahamas. Before embarking, however, she stops once more at the National Assistance Board and, while waiting in queue, boasts to another woman that her money has arrived, and opens her purse to show her. Telling her she'd like some refreshment with a real lady, the woman takes Margaret by bus to a pub, plies her with port and listens to her stories from her genteel childhood (depicted in blurry images of a little girl and a chandelier). When night falls, the woman takes her back to her own flat where, after more port, Margaret passes out. She removes the money, stashing a little for herself, until a man, presumably her husband, arrives with two teen-aged children. Plopping Margaret in a push-cart, the man takes her to within a short distance of her flat and dumps her beside the street, where she is found by her upstairs neighbor and taken to hospital.
Charlie is arrested and confesses to stealing the money. Mr. Conrad asks the doctor, "Is she going to live?" "Oh, yes." the doctor replies. "Well - recover, shall we say?" Once she has recovered physically (from pneumonia), she is transferred to a mental hospital. There is a fantastic shot of Margaret and a therapist sitting in a large room in the hospital with a bright shaft of light shining into the room - compliments of Gerry Turpin, the film's DP. Her doctor explains to Mr. Conrad how he has to peel away all of Margaret's delusions until she's left with nothing but the truth about her life. "Yes, that must be a very rewarding moment," Mr. Conrad observes to the self-satisfied doctor, "when you tell the Mrs. Rosses that they're nobody - and nothing."
Her husband, Archie, is located. He is played by Eric Portman, who is the only other actor in the film besides Evans to present to us a nuanced, many-sided character. Though he's a "bum" and a "drunk," he's reminded of his legal responsibility for Margaret, assured of some clean clothes and transportation to her address. Living with her again, her silences irritate him, calling her a "bleeding zombie." She discovers her flat has been tidied up during her illness, and even the tap no longer drips. Archie picks up a prostitute on his first perambulation around the neighborhood, and returns to find Margaret still awake in bed. "Don't worry," he tells her bluntly, "you've got nothing I want."
When Archie takes a day job as a driver for a local syndicate boss, and a few days later as his enforcer's driver, the film goes quite a bit silly. The enforcer is attacked, Archie escapes in the car with a bag full of cash, boards a train and mutters, "You poor old bitch. You're on your own again," At that point the film - and John Barry's otherwise subtle musical score - has reached its lowest point.
As soon as Margaret knows that Archie has run off again, she goes to the National Assistance Board and tells Mr. Conrad, who, of all the people acquainted with her case, seems to be the only one who gives a damn about her. He asks her if she's sorry he's gone. "Not him," she says. "You?" Mr. Conrad asks pointedly. "Yes," she says wanly. With Archie never coming home again, Margaret falls back into her old habits - the Free Library and the church soup kitchen, picking a newspaper out of the trash can on the way home, and, once alone in her flat, her whisperers.
Bryan Forbes (1926-2013) was a British filmmaker with a background somewhat different from his contemporaries, entering films as an actor in the 1950s. Older than the generation that introduced the "kitchen sink" realism of such fine films as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, and A Kind of Loving, he was nonetheless the beneficiary of a renewed international interest in British films and shared the same interest in working class subjects. If his films lack the raw energy of the best British films of the period, their technical polish and structural plottedness were used by Forbes to his advantage. He made three films, I think, that will last - The Whisperers, The Raging Moon (1971), and The Slipper and the Rose (1976).
In his biography of Edith Evans, Ned's Girl, Forbes wrote:
"I elected to shoot the film in the Moss Side area of Manchester; in 1966 this was in the process of becoming a planners' Hiroshima; whole areas had been flattened by the bulldozers in preparation for a petrified concrete forest of high-rise tenements. It was a waste land ... It provided me with the requisite desolation I needed for my story and I moved my film unit into the area."
Evans was 78 when she appeared in the film and she was entirely committed to whatever was required of her. Accustomed to playing dowagers, like the old countess in Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1949), The Whisperers was the first time she had played a working class role in a film. This was the same woman for whom George Bernard Shaw had written roles in the 1920s, the same woman who had played Juliet's nurse in four different stage productions of Romeo and Juliet. Her performance as Mrs. Ross is especially remarkable today for its intimate study of an uncomfortable subject, an old person's descent into dementia, which wasn't as well understood or documented in the '60s.
Forbes cleverly shows us how mercilessly such charitable institutions as the "Free Library" and a church soup kitchen are presided over by mean-faced men who can't let an old man sleep over his morning newspaper or allow Margaret to warm her stockinged feet on a steam pipe - or who make a roomful of hungry people sing a hymn for their supper and order them around like they're children, under that ghastly sign on the wall, GOD IS LOVE. (is He?)
So many hoops they have to hop through for their "entitlements" - like the new Republican proposal that will require Medicaid recipients to work for their "entitlement" (an odious, offensive word, especially in the mouth of a Republican). It reminds me of how two people, a husband and wife, define "home" in Robert Frost's poem "The Death of the Hired Man":
"Warren," she said, "he has come home to die:
You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time."
"Home," he mocked gently.
"Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he's nothing to us, anymore
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail."
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."
"I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."
In his Paris Review interview, Frost pointed out about the poem, "You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. One’s a Republican, one’s a Democrat. The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat." Republicans think the poor and the old should do something to "deserve" the assistance that the government provides for them. Democrats think it is a citizen's right. The debate will go on as long as people cannot agree on what role a government is obliged to play in society, since private charitable institutions have to worry about profits before providing for our most needy citizens. It always comes down to Gandhi's remark that there is plenty to satisfy the world's need, but never enough to satisfy its greed.
The sad irony is that the National Assistance Board was terminated before The Whisperers release date, replaced by the Supplementary Benefit Act. In a sense, the film is a rather sad protest, like Kenji Mizoguchi's last film, Red Light District (Akasen Chitai-1956) - stupidly renamed Street of Shame in the U.S. - which follows several women engaged in legal prostitution in Tokyo, a film made while the Japanese government, during the American occupation of postwar Japan, was voting to ban legal prostitution.
It's a bit difficult communicating the shattering effect this film has had on me. We have watched an episode in the life of a forgotten old woman on the extreme fringes of our world, going through the motions of what is left of her life, for how much longer Forbes couldn't bear to say.
The last moments of The Whisperers leave us with Mrs. Ross, somewhat the worse for the wear she's been put through, returning to her flat, smiling wanly (because it is, after all, home), asking - hopefully for a change - "Are you there?" The voices in her head are all she has left for company.