Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 20, No. 13. September 12, 1957
A Brandy Dream? — "The Bespoke Overcoat"
A Brandy Dream?
"The Bespoke Overcoat"
"The Bespoke Overcoat" was written by Wolf Mankowitz and directed by Jack Clayton. It is a story that begins with a funeral and ends with a death.
An ancient clerk called Fender is in need of a new overcoat because in the clothing warehouse where he works there is no heating and it is cold. His employer won't give him a new coat from among the expensive ones in the warehouse and won't agree to deduct the price bit by bit from Fender's pay-packet because, as he tells him, he probably won't live long enough to complete the payments. Fender goes to a friend of his who is a tailor, asking him to repair his old coat which is falling to pieces, but is told that this is impossible. However, the tailor has a soft heart and agrees to make him a new bespoke coat at cost—£10. The coat is begun. Fender pays £2 on account, loses his job, and dies from what seems to be tuberculosis.
All this is told to us in flashback. At the beginning of the film, Fender buried, his new coat thrown on his coffin by the tailor, the tailor returns to his room and receives a visitation from the dead Fender, who has returned to this earth in order to get something from his old boss, in return for the 43 years spent in his employment. Together they visit the warehouse by night. Fender takes a heavy fleecy-lined overcoat from the rack, and departs to the hereafter for good.
This is a very simple story, told at a slow' tempo almost throughout, yet at the same time never approaching monotony. This is because it was well made in cinema terms. This expression in respect of a film does not consist, as in the theatre, in a comment on the construction, but rather in a broader sense upon every aspect of directing. The camerawork and lighting are superb. I shall never forget the low-level opening shots that accompanied the credits, nor the magnificent panning shot around Fender's deathbed, that white face, surrounded by darkness, seen through the black iron rungs of the bed. Also unforgettable is Fnder's first appearance after his death; you just see his hand and know it belongs to the man you have just seen buried.
I have mentioned the slow tempo of the film. I feel that my interest was at no point sustained merely by clever cutting—and this is not to say that the cutting is not clever. But it was at all times deliberately unspectacular and never needed to be otherwise. One became involved by the drama, by directing which by a miracle managed never to be distracting—and by the acting.
David Kossoff and Alfie Bass played the tailor and Fender, and there were two other smaller parts. One of these was Fender's employer, whose name I can't remember, and the other appeared at the beginning wheeling a barrow bearing the coffin and again briefly at the end.
David Kossoff and Alfie Bass made the most of extremely well-drawn parts. They could so easily have become "characters." but gave instead restrained and beautiful performances. Another scene I'll remember is when the two go off to raid the warehouse, both drunk on brandy (and one of them, of course, dead); they arrive outside the warehouse and the tailor tries to persuade Fender to try to walk through the wall. Fender is about to try but says he "feels silly," so they go through the door in the normal way.
The scenes between Fender and his employer are good, too, and extremely moving. There are only two of these—when Fender asks for a new overcoat from the rack and is so sensitively refused, and later when he gets the sack. His boss is a wonderful swine.
I confess, I'm not entirely sure what the film is all about. What can the bespoke overcoat symbolise? What I do know is that there are some strange moments in this film; when Fender dies in his bed he has his arms stretched out upon the rungs of the bed above his head like a Christ. Yet this is a Mankowitz film and Fender is a Jew. Again, at the end the tailor at the warehouse watches Fender vanish forever into the darkness with his new coat. Then he turns about and strangely is back in his own room, where he immediately begins to pray. Can it be that Fender's return was a brandy-dream?