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Born to be Cad: George Sanders and Psychomania

  For over thirty years, actor George Sanders was not only Hollywood's idea of what a cad should be, with his characters' callous disregard for other feelings matched with a cruel, biting wit, but the whole world's, so completely did he embody the roles he played. He claimed to be more or less playing himself and if some parts allowed him to perform that better than others, then it was those which he would achieve the greatest acclaim for, but his outward cynicism that saw him through a life that was never less than interesting and packed with incident covered up the fact that he was a very sensitive man who had constructed this persona to save himself from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Nowhere were these contradictions better encapsulated than in his autobiography, naturally titled Memoirs of a Professional Cad.

It was published in 1959, and quickly became a cult item for those interested in Hollywood personalities thanks to Sanders' waspish way with summing up his life to that point (he was fifty-three when he penned it) and his brief, sharp portraits of the stars and notables he had met along the way. He wasn't unnecessarily nasty about anyone, indeed there were people he appeared to convey some affection for such as Marilyn Monroe who he worked with on the movie which was her big break, All About Eve, and was keen to point out that screen personas were not often accurate as to what the actors and actresses were actually like offscreen. He summed up the likes of Basil Rathbone ("Warm, cosy and a pushover for a laugh"), Danny Kaye ("melancholy, sombre, confused and suspicious") and Joan Fontaine ("a private life of considerable vitality and colour" - read into that what you may) in neat phrases that showed off his excellent judge of character.

He spent longer on various others, Yul Brynner's imperious behaviour on the set of Solomon and Sheba bringing out the best in Sanders' putdowns for example, it was clear he preferred the original star Tyrone Power who had passed away while it was being made, and his ex-wife Zsa Zsa Gabor would be referred to in sly tones - she was more excited by his Oscar win for All About Eve than he was (Sanders was dumbfounded). Basically this was everything you wanted from a celebrity autobiography, impressions of the fellow famous and lots of anecdotes, but as a writer he had honed that smooth style to a fine point and his talent in this area was very keen indeed. Even in his earlier reminiscences of what he did before he fell into acting were entertaining, not always the case, thanks to his adept way of putting them across, quite often hilariously funny such as his account of advertising cigarettes in Chile which somehow resulted in him vomiting in a biplane; it doesn't sound like much, but the way he told it was truly ribtickling.

Actually, Sanders seemed pretty impressed with Gabor, or at least her endless maintenance for her self-obsession, as more than once quips are made about her love of hairdryers. Let us not forget that he went on to wed her sister Magda for a short while, so something about that family he must have found irresistible if evidently against his more sensible nature. At the point of the second part of the autobiography he was married to Benita Hume, Ronald Colman's ex-wife, and by all accounts was perfectly happy; as the book ends as he was making The Last Voyage, Andrew Stone's elaborate, ship-sinking disaster movie, we do not gain an insight into what went wrong there from the man himself, nor why he chose Magda as his final spouse once the nineteen-seventies dawned. In print he seemed divided between playing up his scoundrel nature and his more thoughtful side, yet you could perceive that for all his supposed dismissal of women's feelings, he was fascinated by them, no matter his depictions of himself as preferring his own company.

As to his filmmaking, he did not go into a lot of detail about even his most celebrated roles, so no mention of Alfred Hitchcock whatsoever in spite of securing one of his very best performances in the Daphne du Maurier hit Rebecca and a very fine heroic turn in Foreign Correspondent. All About Eve is offered some withering assessment that he was liked largely by the critics because he was playing a critic himself and that appealed to them, but The Picture of Dorian Gray, which matched Sanders with Oscar Wilde's dialogue, is not alluded to. He does explain what it was like to make a film with Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, chaos essentially, but fails to mention its name - it was Voyage to Italy - yet the movie he mostly recalls is the ill-fated Solomon and Sheba thanks to his obvious shock that Tyrone Power, who he clearly got on with very well, died suddenly while making it. That might also have been because he was writing the book during his quieter moments in his shooting schedule, but his description of the rather tacky, hastily assembled memorial services is bracingly frank.

Talking of tacky and hastily assembled, this brings us to Sanders' final film, Psychomania. He had already confided in interviewers that at the latter stages of his career should he have been given a role that really stretched him and demonstrated his undoubted talent, he wouldn't have known what to do with it, so out of practice with anything much of high quality was he. The sixties and early seventies were littered with cheap efforts which hired him for his name alone, not intending to give him anything impressive to do, and there are strong hints in his book that he was growing tired of the life of a jobbing actor, with references to his failing memory (he neglects to recognise Zsa Zsa at a party) and occasionally admitting to darker thoughts, such as the impulse he feels when looking over a high window's ledge to simply climb out and fall to his death. Which was doubly ironic, since suicide was a big part of Psychomania's plot, concerning as it did a biker gang who orchestrate their own deaths to return as immortals.

Sanders certainly didn't return from the dead, as far as we know anyway, and he wasn't buried standing up on a motorcycle either, which is what happens to Nicky Henson's character, the leader of the pack, when he drives his bike off the M3 motorway to his doom. Say what you like about this film, with Don Sharp as director the stunt work was excellent, and indeed that's what he was making his name with around this time after establishing himself making Hammer horrors, so surely Psychomania would combine those two elements? There was a horrified reaction, all right, as at the time everyone thought it was awful, the naffest of the naff and in the worst possible taste, so naturally that's what cult movies are made of and regular showings on late night television, particularly in its native Britain, ensured a new audience on every broadcast of people who couldn't quite believe what they were seeing. Was it supposed to be funny or did everyone involved genuinely believe they were making something perfectly serious? The answer perhaps lay somewhere in between.

Certainly there were aspects that were more grave (no pun intended) than others: you cannot imagine Ann Michelle driving her bike through a baby's pram and sending it and the young mother flying as supposed to be anything except horrible, but the sequence where the gang takes Henson's lead and top themselves in a variety of ways was actually hilarious, as were many other scenes and lines. When this was released on Blu-ray in 2016 by the BFI, it included interviews with the cast who confirmed they thought it was all a lark, and were convinced nobody was going to watch it, yet that sense of humour was infectious and very British. If it wasn't an outright comedy, that self-deprecating, almost pantomime air of Psychomania proved its value, camp but with a straight face almost accidentally achieved when the participants were never going to be troubled with its existence ever again - or that was the misapprehension they were under, at any rate. But what of Sanders? For there was a rumour going around that his reaction to this was rather more drastic than any of the other cast members'.

The story went that after filming on Psychomania for about five or six days, Sanders returned to Spain where he was sent a copy to run to assess the production. On watching it, he promptly returned to his hotel room, wrote a suicide note saying he was bored with life and took a bottle of pills, expiring soon after. Was this movie so awful that it caused the suicide of one of its actors, the man who was indeed first billed in the opening credits? It's a good yarn, and lends the film a dose of macabre potency, but the truth was rather more complicated, as Sanders was suffering from broken relationships, failing business enterprises and a general depression about growing old, all of which contributed to his death; besides, by all accounts he had a pretty good time making Psychomania, that devil may care attitude very much the overarching mood of the shoot. He was paired with Beryl Reid, who played Henson's mother, and Sanders was the Satanic butler who self-amusedly sees to it that the immortality is attained since he knows all the proper spells and rites (and as Henson mentions, he never seems to have gotten an older in all the years he has known him).

Of course, with Sanders performing these rites this meant the last lines he ever spoke after an acting career that stretched back to the stage and BBC radio in the nineteen-thirties were absolute gibberish, and if you read his autobiography you had the impression he would be quite entertained at the thought, such was his flippancy regarding his profession. That said, he did rather play the scoundrel a shade too much, happy to give nasty quotes to journalists if it contributed to his persona, and his book did lapse into casual racism or misogyny at the occasional point which may have been what he thought was expected of him but doesn't come across so well decades later. Yet considering he did play the villain with such smooth accomplishment, it’s possible he wouldn't have minded that so much either, though the fact that he was best remembered now as the voice of Shere Khan in Disney's The Jungle Book (first version) where you didn't even get to see his aristocratic features may be the ultimate irony. So appreciate that, and all his other excellent performances, but don't forget Psychomania which may be the film that determines his place in the cult movie firmament (or fundament). You wouldn't have been surprised if he had been quite partial to playing one of the murderous, undead bikers, had he been given the chance.

As mentioned, the BFI has released Psychomania on a Blu-ray and DVD combination set, giving the film worthy if unlikely respect. Here's the rundown of those great features:

Newly remastered in 2K from preservation negatives and presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition

• Return of the Living Dead (2010, 25 mins): featuring interviews with stars Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, Denis Gilmore, Roy Holder and Rocky Taylor
• Sound of Psychomania (2010, 9 mins): interview with soundtrack composer John Cameron
• Riding Free (2010, 7 mins): interview with 'Riding Free' singer Harvey Andrews
• An interview with Nicky Henson (2016, 14 mins): the star of Psychomania recalls his time on the film
• Hell for Leather (2016, 8 mins): documentary about the company who supplied the film's costumes
• Remastering Psychomania (2016, 2 mins)
• Discovering Britain with John Betjeman: Avebury, Wiltshire (1955, 3 mins): the celebrated British poet narrates this travelogue about the Avebury stone circle and nearby burial grounds
• Roger Wonders Why (1965, 19 mins): a church-made amateur film which sees two Christian biker youths visit the legendary 59 Club, where they meet its founder, Reverend Bill Shergold
• Original theatrical trailer
• Wilson Bros Trivia Track (2016, onscreen text): a newly-produced subtitle trivia-track by the horror aficionado siblings
• Fully illustrated booklet with new writing by Vic Pratt, William Fowler and Andrew Roberts; and full film credits
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006