Morry (David Kossoff) is a tailor in the East End of London, and he has just been at a funeral this morning where he was the sole mourner. In fact, it was only him, the rabbi and the gravedigger present, and as the coffin was lowered - or more accurately, dropped - into the grave, he made a point of dropping an overcoat on top of it as the earth was shovelled on. The deceased was Fender (Alfie Bass), also involved in the clothes business, though he was not self-employed as Morry is, he slaved away for a larger firm that produced far more than his pal could ever have achieved, and he was paid a pittance for it, barely enough to live on. Morry is painfully aware of this, particularly as that coat was a bespoke one Fender has asked him to make and now will never wear. But the dead man is an unquiet spirit, and will visit his sole friend one final time...
The Bespoke Overcoat began life as a Nikolai Gogol short story, but by the time up and coming playwright Wolf Mankowitz got his hands on it, the action has been transposed from Russia to England and the Jewish upbringing he was familiar with. His version had been a successful theatrical production, which in spite of plenty of work in television and on film was his main arena, though latterly be became better known for his mishandling of his funds, racking up a massive debt in taxes. This was perhaps relevant to the short he made here, for the question of what you do not only when your money runs out, but if you hardly had any in the first place, was well to the fore in what had first been broadcast as a BBC play with the same cast before making the jump to cinema, quickly garnering a reputation for itself.
Not a bad one, quite the opposite as it gathered up a host of awards which included an Oscar for Best Short Film, a highly prestigious award ensuring this tiny budget affair would be talked about across the world. It was cheering to see this tiny, independent effort do so well in the face of such major studio competition and indeed it is still talked about occasionally even after all this time, partly thanks to the success it enjoyed in the nineteen-fifties (though it comes across as at least being set in a far earlier era), and partly thanks to its quiet poignancy. It seems like it will be a comedy when Fender shows up in Morry's hovel as a ghost, but it wasn't really, because the pain life has inflicted on these characters was all too tangible. They were not exactly thwarted in their dreams, since dreams were things they could ill afford, as we see when Fender gives in to optimism and believes he can get a coat of his own.
We are witness to the events that led up to his death thanks to flashbacks that start in the first ten minutes (it was barely over half an hour long), and Kossoff (whose father was in a profession much like Morry was, which must have struck a chord) and Bass had a genuine rapport that rendered the impoverished air authentic, purposefully so. On learning that initially Fender's hard-hearted boss (Alan Tilvern, the most fifties-looking character here) had turned him down for one of the coats off the rack at the warehouse because he knew the old geezer would never be able to pay him back, not even in instalments, he went to Morry who would have cut him a better deal for a cheaper garment to keep out the bitter cold (the one he is wearing is threadbare). But sadly the old man dies before he can receive it, probably because the cold got to him first, though he has returned as a phantom for a reason, a chance to settle up and get one over on his old boss. It seems, in conclusion, the joke is on Fender - and Morry, who has lost his friend. It was a melancholy little fable, but heavily atmospheric as director Jack Clayton managed later in The Innocents, a shade stodgy perhaps, but ultimately effective. Music by Georges Auric.