Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Michael Reeves

While researching Shocks to the System I decided to go on a pilgrimage to Knightsbridge, London and look at the homes of Michael Reeves.

In the tradition of ‘psycho-geography’ I wanted to see if I could gauge something of Michael Reeves’s mental state towards the end of his life by ‘tuning into’ his surroundings at the time.

For anyone who may not be familiar with Michael Reeves, he was the director of two of the most important British horror films of the 1960s, The Sorcerers (1967) and Witchfinder General (1968). He died from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills during a period of depression shortly after making these films. He was 25 years old.

Michael Reeves had a privileged background – public school, trust fund – and a passion for filmmaking that translated into two powerful (and controversial) meditations on the nature of violence as intrinsic to the human condition. The schism between comfort/darkness, homeliness/alienation seemed to pervade his life as much as it did his films, and the startling contrast between his two Knightsbridge homes – although situated only a few streets apart – seems to bear this out.
23 Yeoman's Row

Reeves’s first home at 23 Yeoman’s Row, where he lived from 1964 to 1969, is a quaint three storey cottage on a quiet little cul-de-sac off the busy Brompton Road, just a short walk from Sloane Square. Reeves owned this house himself but shared his occupation of it with friends. He lived in the second floor rooms and the third storey housed his office. Looking up from the street at the small dormer windows, it struck me that this was an incongruous place to have written the scripts for The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General,  films that brilliantly capture the dark underside of the Swinging Sixties.

According to John Murray’s biography, Reeves was very happy in this house, receiving lots of visitors, including Lee Marvin and Don Siegel, and enjoying a family-like atmosphere with his friends. It was here that he would endlessly screen The Killers (1964) – Siegel was his idol and it is clear to see Siegel’s influence on Reeves in terms of the lean and mean trademark style that Reeves was himself to adopt as a director.

A few doors down on Yeoman’s Row there is a steakhouse that Reeves frequented with friends (Reeves was generous to a fault: this led to him acquiring various hangers-on, which eventually contributed to his decision to move house). The steakhouse is now called ‘Frankies’ and is owned by Frankie Dettori and Marco Pierre White. On the corner is a pub, the 'Bunch of Grapes', where it is easy to imagine the young Michael regaling friends with talk of films and his plans for productions.

After the release of Witchfinder General, Reeves found himself the subject of a critical savaging at the hands of morally outraged film reviewers, including Alan Bennett. This and his battle with the censor, John Trevelyan, left him feeling that both he and his film had been misunderstood, and caused Reeves to fall into a deep depression.

19 Cadogan Place

It was during this period of despair that Reeves sold the Yeoman’s Row property and moved into the top flat at 19 Cadogan Place. In stark contrast to the homely family cottage at Yeoman’s Row, the Cadogan Place building is a strange Tudor-style apartment building of red-brick and stone with black leaded bay windows. It has a brooding feel, not unlike the apartment buildings that you might find in a Roman Polanski film. In short it is exactly the kind of place that you would expect a tormented young director of horror films to live.

Reeves resided in the top floor apartment, isolated from the rest of the world. His depression left him reclusive and withdrawn; he would leave the flat only to visit his psychiatrist and to take his meals at the Carlton Tower hotel across the road, literally a minute’s walk from his front door. He might see the occasional friend, but by his 
own admission he had become 'a hermit'.

His girlfriend at the time, Ingrid Cranfield, has published a moving account of his final days, At Last Michael Reeves. In it she describes Reeves as self-absorbed, melancholy, unable to shake off his bewilderment at Witchfinder General’s hostile reception. 'Witchfinder represented Michael’s deepest- held principles.' she wrote, 'It was his manifesto,championing peace against violence, justice against persecution, morality against sin, good against evil. It was an exposé of his soul. And nobody understood.'

One wonders if the isolation of living alone in the Cadogan Place apartment also contributed to his continuing depression, and if he had stayed in the more communal environment of Yeoman’s Row might he have recovered. Who knows? - Michael Reeves was found dead in the Cadogan Place apartment on 11 February 1969. The loss to British Cinema was immense.

Michael Reeves on the set of Witchfinder General (1968)


Wes M said...

Incredible post Jon, just fascinating. Reeves perfectly encapsulated the maxim "the light that shines twice as bright burns half as long"

Witchfinder General is of course a touchstome for Horror Cinema, but I was really impressed with The Sorcerers, a film I only discovered a few years ago. I had the same feeling seeing it as I had with The Damned - it was a film that genuinely startling and inventive...

Jon T said...

Thanks for your kind words, Wes. I totally agree with what you say about The Sorcerers. Both extraordinary films, and ones that grow in stature over time. Reeves is a fascinating figure: I would urge anyone to read the books by John B Murray and Ingrid Cranfield.