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Separate Tables (1958)
Set in an English seaside hotel in the off-season, Separate Tables is a character study of the people who live there year-round. There's shy, spinster Sybil (Deborah Kerr) and her horrible, controlling mother, Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper, the old stinker); blustering, bloviating, boring Major Pollock (David Niven), who can't seem to get his own facts straight; young peripheral couple Charles (Rod Taylor) and Jean (Audrey Dalton); and the weirdest love triangle ever, ex-spouses Ann (Rita Hayworth) and John (Burt Lancaster) and his new love interest, hotel owner, sensible Miss Cooper (Wendy Hiller.)
There's a lot going on for such a small place. Mrs. Railton-Bell and her much nicer friend, Gladys (Cathleen Nesbitt) rule the roost, observing and commenting on everything. Somehow they haven't noticed that Miss Cooper and handsome, often-drunk American, John, are secretly engaged. But then again, Miss Cooper isn't completely convinced that engagement is what they've got. With the arrival out of nowhere of glamorous, bejeweled ex-wife, Ann, John's passion is ignited. Turns out that passion is hate, because before their divorce, John tried to kill Ann, spent some time in prison for it, and is now reinventing himself at Miss Cooper's. What is Ann doing there now, anyway? Why, she's engaged to an English guy and is there to meet his family.
Or is she?
And speaking of secrets, Major Pollock has been skulking around trying to steal people's newspapers, because there's something in there he doesn't want anyone to see, least of all that battleaxe, Lady Railton-Bell. Alas, he is unsuccessful, and Mrs. R-B not only learns that Major Pollock has been arrested and tried for indecent behavior in movie theaters, but he has been lying about his background, rank and war record. He was only a lieutenant stationed in a supply depot in the West Indies and not a major in North Africa fighting Rommel, as he's been claiming (or declaiming, wot wot?).
Mrs. R-B can't WAIT to spill the beans to her fellow residents and get the man ejected from the hotel. It's just icing on the cake that her daughter Sybil, who is not-so-secretly in love with Major Pollock, will be crushed by the news. Pretending to protect her from the scandal, Mrs. R-B goads Sybil into begging for the news then gleefully breaks her heart. Sybil's mother takes a vote among the other residents to See What's to Be Done. Mr. Fowler, the ex-headmaster, has always been suspicious of some of the Major's claims and considers him somewhat pathetic, but he doesn't think lax moral behavior should be tolerated -- on principle, The hotel lesbian, Miss Meacham (May Hallatt), doesn't give a damn, and Burt Lancaster is, of course, against expelling the Major. Sadly, Gladys and Sybil always do what Mrs. R-B says, so the vote comes out against the man.
As Mrs. R-B skips off to strong-arm Miss Cooper into giving the Major the boot, we learn a lot more about Ann and John and why their marriage broke up. He wanted children; she wanted a career. He resented her ambitions and she froze him out of the bedroom. So he tried to kill her, as you do. But she's still in love with him, she says, and he can't stop himself. Miss Cooper, of course, has sized up the situation and decides to take a wait-and-see attitude. She waits. She sees.
Major Pollock, meanwhile, runs into a distraught Sybil, who tells him the cat is out of the bag and how could he and what's wrong with him and oh, what will become of him? Deborah Kerr is a bit overwrought as the stunted, frustrated, old maid daughter, but Gladys Cooper did exactly the same thing to Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, and that resulted in elaborate scrimshaw, so it can be forgiven. David Niven, on the other hand, is very affecting as the Major: sensitive, sympathetic, and complicated in this Oscar-winning performance. Wendy Hiller won one as well for her controlled passion and common sense. Miss Cooper dodged a bullet there and she knows it.
Edith Head got a credit for dressing up Rita Hayworth, but I'd really like to know who dressed Deborah Kerr down. Is there an award for frumping up one of the most beautiful women in the world?
It's a fine picture that doesn't mind being a play and is well worth a viewing for Mr. Niven and the peripherals. Nobody dies and things do turn out all right in the end.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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