Watching Guy Hamilton’s An Inspector Calls (1954), which stars Alastair Sim, Arthur Young and Bryan Forbes, one is presented with a masterclass in tension and unease. This screen version of J.B. Priestly’s classic play, released by StudioCanal to mark the film’s 60th anniversary, focuses on the hidden secrets between the members of an upper-class Edwardian family and how they are laid bare during the course of one fateful evening. The Birlings are a rich and powerful family, of high standing in the local community. Unfortunately their carefully constructed façade of genteel breeding and moral superiority, begins to crumble under the relentless questioning of a mysterious inspector.
Many of cinema’s best-loved examples are those which found their origins in the theatre. Due to the restrictions of the environment, stage plays often focus more on character, dialogue and situations, as opposed to elaborate locations or special effects – probably one of the reasons why so many film stars approach theatre work with trepidation. By their very nature plays emphasise the character, proving the skill of actors to capture emotion in all its myriad of human forms. Which is exactly the case with Priestly’s tense and engrossing depiction of an upper-class English family, and how their veil of social perfection is undermined when brought under the scrutiny of a mysterious police inspector. Such is its theatricality, the impression of An Inspector Calls being a filmed play remains in the viewer’s thoughts.
However, whereas this air of restrictiveness could prove a distraction in other films, here it focuses the attention on the unfolding drama. The arrogance of the Birling family, with their acute awareness of their standing in the local community and constant fear of how any hint of scandal may destroy it, is vividly brought to life by Young as Arthur, the pompous head of the family and Olga Lindo as his aloof wife, Sybil. Equally sharp are Forbes and Eileen Moore as their children Eric and Sheila who, unlike their parents, show remorse when the error of their ways are made clear to them. It’s Sim, however, who steals the show. His depiction of Inspector Poole – who may not be all he seems – has a sinister otherworldliness which haunts the viewer as much as it does the characters, leading An Inspector Calls to linger long in the mind.