The Clouded Yellow (1950)
Collections and Traps by Guy Savage
I’ve never understood the drive behind butterfly collecting. Why capture and kill something beautiful and unique just so you can add it to your paltry collection? The idea of butterflies flying free and then killed, stuck with a pin in someone’s collection comes to mind in the 1950 film The Clouded Yellow. The film’s title refers to a particular type of butterfly, and as the plot develops, the title hints that not only butterflies are trapped and pinned by forces beyond their control.
The film begins with British Secret Service agent David Somers (Trevor Howard) driving through London for an appointment with his boss, Chubb (André Morell). There’s a certain amount of tension from Chubb and his secretary while an understated and slightly dashing Somers appears to be generally unconcerned about the meeting. Somers has just returned from a mission that went badly, and in spite of a previously good record, he’s fired from the Secret Service. There’s a moment when Chubb and Somers subtly square off with threats. Somers, a former journalist, hints at publishing his memoirs, and Chubbs replies that if Somers chooses to do this, he will enjoy a brief career. Okay so the chips are down, and while the hostility has a patina of politeness, the meeting leaves Somers without employment and not even a gold watch for his troubles. Is he bitter? Subsequent events play with that possibility.
Somers takes a job as an assistant cataloging a butterfly collection. He has no previous experience but the position is in the country and it appeals because it’s unusual. Butterfly collecting is a far cry from the adrenalin-pumping, dangerous life of a spy. Butterfly collecting, after all, does not include secret codes, false identities and dangerous assignments, and so Somers takes the job anticipating a peaceful period of adjustment from the demands of the Secret Service. Somers is unaware that the Secret Service keeps tabs on his whereabouts through the seemingly friendly concern of Shepley (played by fellow British cinema giant, Kenneth More).
The butterfly collector who employs Somers is Nicholas Fenton (Barry Jones)--a suitably dotty and disconnected, mild-mannered older gentleman who lives with his wife Jess (Sonia Dresdel) and her niece Sophie (Jean Simmons) in a large, remote country home. Somers receives a gentle warning about Sophie, and he’s told she’s had a horrible past and sometimes gets things “muddled.”
The situation at the Fenton home is far from normal, and it’s soon apparent that Somers has left a life of international espionage to land in the muddied, turbulent waters of domestic intrigue. There’s something peculiar afoot, and this is mostly apparent through the appearance of Hick (Maxwell Reed) the surly, virile handyman whose relationship with Jess smacks of a torrid affair gone stale. Hick comes and goes at the Fenton home as he pleases; he’s brutish, rude and suggestive, and yet the minute he turns up (usually with a dead animal in hand), Nicholas Fenton makes himself scare, and Jess morphs from cold and calculating to clingy and sex-starved. As for Sophie, she hates Hick’s lascivious suggestiveness, and she doesn’t hesitate to admit it. When a murder occurs, Sophie is immediately the sole suspect, and Somers persuades Sophie to go on the run through a cross-country race from both the police and the Secret Service. Their flight revives Somers’ old relationships with various characters--his “contacts” from his life as a spy.
The film’s plot has its problems, but it’s the film’s psychological undercurrents that create a better-than-average viewing experience. Sophie begins the film in a mumbling catatonic state, muddled and child-like, but as the film continues, she regains some of her disturbing childhood memories. When Somers first sees Sophie, she’s playing the piano--shades of Angel Face (1952) for just a moment in this scene, but the connection is brief. Angel Face’s Diane Jessup (played by Jean Simmons after the Rank Organization sold her contract to Howard Hughes and she moved to Hollywood) is a cold calculating psycho. The Clouded Yellow’s Sophie is damaged, but whether or not she’s capable of murder is the big question.
While the larger-than-life roguish Hick steals the film whenever he’s on camera for all-too few scenes, the film is ultimately Trevor Howard’s. Howard--a mainstay of British cinema for decades-- had many decent roles under his belt when he made The Clouded Yellow including Brief Encounter (1945), Green for Danger (1946), I Became a Criminal aka They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), and The Third Man (1949). It’s interesting to note the character connections between They Made Me a Fugitive and The Clouded Yellow. In the former title, Howard plays Clem Morgan, a WWII RAF pilot who turns to crime due to boredom with civilian life, and that addiction to thrills is strongly present in The Clouded Yellow. Howard’s career is often defined by his ‘pillar-of-the-establishment’ roles, and these are certainly roles he excelled at, but in The Clouded Yellow, Howard is sexed up as Somers. His hair is slightly more stylish, and his wardrobe tends to the dapper. As Somers, Howard could arguably have wandered from a Graham Greene novel, and a couple of scenes argue that Somers is fired not so much for his mega-fuck-up (never clearly stated) but that he’s considered a bit of a loose cannon, a rogue spy who is not quite included in the same social sphere as Chubbs and Shepley.
Consider two scenes: the scene in which Somers is fired by Chubbs and a later scene in which Chubbs meets Shepley to discuss Somers. The first scene between Somers and Chubbs is cold and official. The hierarchy between the two men is clear. Somers is fired and he has no recourse for appeal or even discussion. Game over. But then a scene takes place between Shepley and Chubbs. Shepley is on Chubbs’s side of the desk, and in an atmosphere of congenial informality, Shepley stuffs himself with biscuits and drinks tea. The relationship between Chubbs and Shepley indicates an equality, a chumminess that is glaringly absent in the scene between Chubbs and Somers. There’s something a bit rum about the way Chubbs and Shepley companionably munch biscuits while discussing Somers--a man who, for his pains, got the shaft from the Secret Service.
While Somers argues that he wants to help Sophie and that she needs a lawyer, at no point does he seek one. On the run, they flee to London, Newcastle and the Lake District before they end in Liverpool. He’s not far into the chase when he’s talking about South America and forged passports. Did he ever intend to seek legal channels or is his flight with Sophie a way of showing the Secret Service that he’s still got what it takes? Or is he simply a man who’s doing what he does best? Then there’s the question of Sophie’s vulnerability. At times she looks like a penitent schoolgirl ready to do whatever Somers says. There’s more than a hint that Somers, in control and operating like a low-tech James Bond, is taking advantage of Sophie’s meekness and confusion. At critical points in the hunt for Somers and Sophie, it’s clear that the hunt intensifies for Somers--not for Sophie. His involvement in the flight brings down massive efforts that would not have been launched for Sophie alone--the so-called Butterfly Girl in the headlines.
Criticism of the film can be directed towards character motivation. There’s little to indicate that Somers actually goes through the process of falling in love with Sophie, and it could be argued that the behaviour of the Fentons is inexplicable. This is where the film’s meta-meaning clicks into play through the motif of dead animals and insects collected for the pleasure of humans. Images of dead animals are cleverly scattered throughout the film: there’s Fenton’s butterfly collection, and whenever Hick shows up he’s carrying something dead. Later, Somers visits the taxidermy shop of one of his contacts (Eric Pohlman) and finds himself surrounded by countless dead and stuffed animals--another collection--captured and killed and now gathering dust in the dark shadows. In one seemingly unimportant scene, Somers and Sophie are out trying to catch an elusive butterfly when the topic of collecting and killing comes up. Somers asks what seem be fairly innocent questions, but given our knowledge of Somers’ history, the exchange is important:
Somers: Don’t you ever get tired of butterflies?
Sophie: I get tired of people first.
Somers: Oh well, of course. But I’ve only had three weeks of butterflies. What do you do when you get tired of people? You can’t stick pins through their middles….
Sophie: I think sometimes I’d like to.
Somers: Yes, I know that feeling….
As the plot develops, Somers’ instinct is to get Sophie to safety and to not permit her to be captured and confined. She is, in essence, the delicate beautiful butterfly sought by every available law-enforcement agency in Britain.
The Clouded Yellow is based on a story by Janet Green who later wrote the screenplay for Victim (1961), a landmark film in the history of British cinema. Although The Clouded Yellow is not a prominent British film, the fact that it’s the first of thirty two films (including the immensely popular Doctor series) to result from the teaming of producer Betty Box and director Ralph Thomas makes it a signpost in British film history. Box who was married to husband Peter Rogers of Carry-On fame, moved to Rank’s Pinewood studios after the Rank Organization closed Gainsborough Pictures. Box’s last film for Gainsborough Pictures was So Long at the Fair (starring Dirk Bogarde & Jean Simmons), and Dirk Bogarde later credited Box for playing a major role in his film career. The Clouded Yellow was Box’s first film for Pinewood studios, and she mortgaged her home in order to help finance the film.