I first encountered Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth (1958) when I was in high school—and I immediately rushed out and bought myself art supplies. Fortunately for us all, that idea fell by the wayside (I wasn’t very good), but the impact of the film and my love of it has never diminished. (Maybe I was taking the film’s main character’s advice to heart: “Of course, you want to be an artist! Everbody does once! But they get over it—like measles and chicken pox.”) It’s a film that I find endlessly watchable and endlessly inspiring. It also contains my favorite speech about being transformed by art: “I’ll tell you how I started if you like. I worked in an office—oh, very respectable and clerk-like, I was. Then one day I saw a painting by Matisse—a reproduction. I saw it because some of the chaps were laughing at it and called me over. It gave me the shock of my life. It skinned my eyes for me—and I became a different man, like a conversion. I saw a new world, a world of color.” How many of us have felt something like that—regardless of the kind of art? And how few of us have ever expressed it so completely?
It’s also a film that very nearly wasn’t made. Director Ronald Neame had been asked to make a film version of the book once before. Claude Rains wanted to play the painter, Gulley Jimson, and sent Neame the book. Neame decided it was unfilmable and declined. Later, Alec Guinness approached him with the same idea and was told the same thing, but Guinness wasn’t so easily deterred, offering to write the screenplay and then have Neame decide. Guinness had indeed cracked the problem and found the movie in the book. It isn’t by any means a straightforward adaptation, but it so captures the essence of the work and, even more, the spirit of the book’s completely disreputable genius painter that it just didn’t matter. The results were—and are—a film for the ages. It’s funny, perceptive and filled with life. That last is slightly ironic, since the 18-year-old Mike Morgan, who plays the young wanna-be artist who attaches himself to Guinness, came down with meningitis just after shooting the film and died within days. (Watch the final scene in the film knowing this and I defy you to stay dry-eyed.)
Here is what I wrote the last time this film screened locally: http://www.mountainx.com/movies/review/horsesmouth.php
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Horse’s Mouth on Tuesday, June 19, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.