Father Michael Keogh (John Mills) has arrived in this Mexican small town in the 1950s to take over from Father Gomez (Leslie French) who is regarded as a weak priest in the region, and everyone Keogh speaks to on his journey is baffled as to why he would want to take up a position there, including Locha de Cortinez (Mylène Demongeot) who is the daughter of a local landowner. The reason this place is so poorly thought of is down to the presence of the most powerful man there, Anacleto Comachi (Dirk Bogarde), an irredeemable criminal who rules over the village and its surroundings with an iron fist and nobody can stop him, not police nor the religious authorities; but what about Father Michael?
Some films just are not camp enough, and The Singer Not the Song was a good example of that. It seems to be about to bubble up into screaming homosexuality in practically every scene Dirk Bogarde was in, but never quite did, which left an air of wondering whether you were reading too much into what you were watching or whether there really was supposed to be a sexual tension between the bad guy and the good guy. The question in one's mind was mostly straining at the plot's credibility because Bogarde, fresh from playing a persecuted gay man in Victim, was evidently keen to portray something closer to his sexual alignment once again, but the trouble with that was he just didn't fancy John Mills.
Mills was a very fine actor, but he was miscast here when what was actually needed was a younger, more hunky priest to suffer his spiritual and romantic torment, someone more like Montgomery Clift in I Confess or looking forward, Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds miniseries. The romantic angle emerged when Locha is the woman both men are apparently in love with, but Mills wasn't an especially convincing attraction for her either, with Demongeot very much in the mould of the Brigitte Bardot clones to rise up from the Continent in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, and if you couldn't imagine BB getting hot and bothered about Sir Johnny then you sure as hell couldn't envisage Demongeot doing the same.
In fact, everything about The Singer Not the Song remained self-consciously artificial from beginning to end, from its Spanish locations standing in for Mexico, a host of British thesps with brown makeup on to look more Central American yet retaining their received pronunciation English accents (apart from Mylène who retained her Gallic tones for extra oddity and Mills' intermittent Irish brogue), but more than any of that the pretence that the narrative was a searching meditation on faith. This was simply beyond the capabilities of the film, and no matter how self-serious it became (director Roy Ward Baker was most displeased with how it turned out), how po-faced it lumbered across the screen, there remained a suspicion it had bitten off more than it could chew when everything about it missed the mark, notably as far as encouraging a debate on how we can face God in such a cruel world.
The title (which was the last line, absurdly enough) referred to Anacleto's belief that there was no God and religion was useless, so what Keogh represented was a good man who had found himself in a futile profession. But was Keogh innately good because of his personality, or was it because there was considerable worth in joining up with the Church? This was an issue never satisfyingly resolved, as if the script was keen to bring up these dilemmas but reluctant to resolve them in any manner other than allowing the audience to make up their minds. Would Keogh be happier if he rode off into the sunset with Locha, or pertinently with Anacleto who comes across as stimulating him far more? Intellectually, if nothing else? With his leather trousers and soft-spoken menace, Bogarde was nobody's idea of a vicious bandit (he kills people in alphabetical order!) and would look more at home trading polari barbs at a specialist gentlemen's club, but Mills lets the side down, quashing what could have been delirious with a far too straightlaced reading of daft material. Only the shootout ending and ludicrous final scene hints at what could have been. Music by Philip Green.
Reliable British director who worked his way up from teaboy to assistant to Alfred Hitchcock to overseeing his own hit projects from the 1940s to the 1970s. Making his debut with The October Man, he continued with Morning Departure, Don't Bother To Knock, Inferno, The One That Got Away and what is considered by many to be the best Titanic film, A Night To Remember.