Welcome to my page of notes on Guy Hamilton’s 1954 film version of J.B. Priestley’s famous play, starring Alastair Sim.
The action of the film (and play) takes place in the north of England of 1911, a time when society is divided by class distinction. We join the well-to-do industrialist Birling family as they celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft. In considerable comfort they rather smugly look forward to the future, but they are disturbed by the arrival of Inspector Poole who wishes to ask the four members of the Birling family and Gerald Croft about their involvement with a girl who has just committed suicide.
It transpires that each member of the family appears to have known her (though in a variety of circumstances and by different names), and each has played a part in her descent and degradation to the point where she feels she has no alternative but to kill herself (and her unborn child, fathered by Eric Birling).
As the storyline and characters are revealed, so too are various themes, some of which are little more than touched upon, while others are more fully developed.
Justice in the workplace is looked into as a group of girls make a claim for fair wages for a fair day’s work. Mr Birling abuses his position and authority by ensuring that one of the girls is dismissed for asking awkward and challenging questions about profit levels and wage scales. This reflects the position and authority of owners of businesses who put profit above social responsibilities as an employer, and indeed reflects the weak position of the ordinary worker who was in no position to make demands.
Social justice is then touched upon as the Birlings’ daughter Sheila has the girl dismissed from her job as a shop assistant because she laughed at her as she tried on a hat which didn’t suit her. She goes on to abuse her social and financial position, threatening to withdraw her account in order to ensure the girl is dismissed.
Then there is what might be called romantic abuse as Gerald Croft offers the girl shelter and ends up taking her as his mistress, only to drop her when a more promising (and socially acceptable) partner comes along in the shape of Sheila Birling. Although no real harm was intended at the outset, he nonetheless used her until it didn’t suit him any longer, showing little real thought for her feelings and eventual fate.
Mrs Birling then goes on to abuse her social position as the girl, by now pregnant, turns to Mrs Birling’s charity for help. Her case is somewhat haughtily rejected by Mrs Birling who rather self-importantly declares that the father should not evade responsibility in this matter. She adopts a very superior attitude and reacts personally to the case, as she feels she has not been shown enough respect by the girl, rather than concerning herself with the girl’s genuine need for help. This whole situation may well seem alien to modern society, but it reflects a time when treatment for matters of health was not given as a right, but depended on the charity (or otherwise) of subjective do-gooders.
Finally, there is the situation where the girl is left pregnant, but the father Eric Birling can’t tell his parents the truth for fear of damaging their public standing. His father is in the running for a knighthood and any breath of scandal would damage his social standing. In desperation, Eric drinks increasingly and commits an act of theft.
In the course of the interviews during which all this information is revealed, the Birlings object to the way the Inspector speaks to them – he holds their social standing and apparent importance in no regard whatsoever, and steadfastly insists on facts and the truth.
The young Birlings, Eric and Sheila, do show remorse and are willing to accept responsibility for their actions and wish to learn from their mistakes. However, Mr and Mrs Birling are too self-important and confident to accept responsibility or see that they may have done wrong. Gerald simply seeks to evade responsibility.
The plot thickens when it transpires that the Inspector does belong to the local police and there has been no such death at the hospital. The older Birlings seize on this and claim this absolves them of guilt. Since the Inspector has no authority and there has been no death, there can be no consequences and therefore no guilt. Gerald is simply opportunistic about it and is relieved that it will go no further, but Sheila and Eric are shocked at the others’ attitude and clearly feel morally guilty.
There is then the whole question of the identity of the Inspector. From the start we are made to feel that there is something “other-worldly” about him, from the way he makes his entrance, to his insistence on duty and truth, his detailed knowledge of the case (apparently knowing of events before they are mentioned), his hearing Eric’s arrival before he actually enters, his unflappable and determined manner exuding total calm and confidence. And of course there is the small matter of his disappearance from the room he could not leave without being seen. Clearly we are not dealing with an “ordinary” inspector, but someone who has come to inspect moral guilt as opposed to legal guilt.
The plot thickens even more with a phone call which informs the family that a young woman has indeed just committed suicide in exactly the circumstances described by the “Inspector”, and an officer from the police is on the way … .
The police may not have all the details, but the family knows the truth now, and the suggestion is that there exists some superior authority and justice.
I really cannot praise this film highly enough. Deceptively “small”, it deals with huge themes of existential responsibility, social responsibility and the whole concept of justice. Although it may seem dated in places, Sim’s playing of the Inspector is, quite aptly, ethereal and superb.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.
I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the film or this page of notes. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .