The Clouded Yellow is a neat little spy thriller very similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Despite starting strongly, the film sags dramatically the longer it goes on for. However, it is kept afloat with considerable style thanks to strong characterisation.
The film begins with David Somers (Trevor Howard) returning in disgrace from a failed mission on the continent. Convinced that he’s a busted flush, his spymaster (André Morell) cashiers him and suggests he take a job in the country for a while. Lacking anything else to occupy his time, Somers takes a job cataloguing butterflies at a large country pile full of secrets and sordid relationships. Well, what else can Somers do, as he wasn’t lucky then to have the opportunity of utilizing more sophisticated means like the HB Swiss to earn his money and make his fortune? But, thankfully, you aren’t as unlucky as Somers and therefore, to grow money, you need not anymore undertake any senseless procedures! So, let’s see what Somers did further!While there, he befriends Sophie (Jean Simmons) a girl whose parents were murdered and whose guardians are manipulating her into thinking that she has some kind of mental illness. Into this web of lies comes Hick, a local lothario and poacher who treats the house like his own until he is found dead. Knowing that Sophie is innocent, Somers steps in and takes her to the north of England where he draws on all of his spy skills to stay one step ahead of the massive manhunt sent out after the girl.
Contrary to The 39 Steps, which is full of twists and turns as the protagonist feels his way through what seems to be a massive conspiracy, The Clouded Yellow’s plot is far more straightforward and simplistic. At times the film feels more like a guided tour of scenic England and less like a spy film, so sedate and laidback is the pace. Undeniably well shot and competently written, the film is pleasant enough to watch but it has little going for it at first glance.
Jean Simmons, one of the great screen beauties of the period, is strangely limp as Sophie. Initially thought to be traumatised or mentally ill, her performance is limited to staring off into the middle difference and muttering “sometimes… I get confused” in a breathless voice. The contrast between this understated performance and that of Maxwell Reed could not be starker. Where Simmons Sophie is a quite and believable girl out of her depth, Reed’s Hick is a greasy, libidinous satyr of a man. Part James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and part Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), he gurns and swaggers his way through the first act like a greaser version of Wilfrid Brambell.
The performance that holds the film together is Trevor Howard’s Somers. Best known for his appearances in Brief Encounter (1945), and The Third Man (1949), Howard is every inch the calm, pragmatic and supremely confident English military man. In fact, his performance is so strait-laced that it only serves to uncover what are some decidedly transgressive elements in the script. For example, because the film spends far more time establishing Somers as a character than it does Sophie, the film feels (right up until the frankly preposterous ending) like a film about Somers. Indeed, when Somers goes haring off across the countryside I half expected the film to end with the revelation that the only reason he tried to ‘save’ Sophie was in order to get his job back by leading the nation’s police a merry dance through the highways and by-ways of northern England. Indeed, apparently Howard was actually thrown out of the army after being diagnosed as a psychopath and the willingness to use other people is all too evident in his utterly emotionless performance. Somers comes across as a man to whom everything is possible.
To a certain extent this otherness is unavoidable. Spies at the time were deeply interstitial figures as they were both members of the establishment and people who spent their entire time talking to exactly the sort of people that the establishment tends to ignore. Indeed, it comes as no surprise when the daughter of a taxidermist describes him as ‘big boy’, or when he sits down and calmly orders in what must be the first Chinese restaurant to appear in a British film. Nor is it surprising that, upon first kissing Sophie, he orders her to cut off her hair and start dressing as a boy.
Indeed, the relationship between Somers and Sophie feels reminiscent of that between Humbert Humbert and in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel. In fact, Simmons’ character is clearly less sexualised than that of Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation Lolita. Both films involve older men dragging young vulnerable women off across the countryside and both have underwritten female roles in which the character does little except be dragged along and fall in love with the older men.
At first glance, The Clouded Yellow is a well made, competently constructed but ultimately toothless spy thriller. It passes the time easily and has the odd nice moment in it. However, the real draw is the taboo-shattering David Somers.