• Laura Mayne

Follow Mia for Carol Reed’s Last Film (Follow Me, 1972)

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Carol Reed’s last outing is a sensitive film which touches on themes of love, marriage, cultural alienation and British parochialism. Follow Me is a sentimental romance which makes no apologies for its meandering plotlessness, slightly vacant lead characters and curious eccentricities (most of these arrive in the form of Topol’s private-eye character Julian Christoferou). Charles (Michael Jayston) is a successful accountant who suspects his wife Belinda (Mia Farrow) of having an affair. Belinda and Charles come from very different cultural and social backgrounds – Belinda is a free-spirited hippie who would just as soon board a plane for India as she would go to the shop for a pint of milk, whereas Charles is an aristocratic gentleman who is bound by the trappings of respectability. It’s a wonder that the couple get along at all, but in the initial stages of courtship it is these differences that they appreciate about each other, and they share their respective knowledge and life experiences (although Belinda occupies the role of student rather than partner in the relationship). After the couple marry the rot sets in early, however: Belinda begins to find the demands of marriage limiting while Charles is exasperated by Belinda’s refusal to become a ‘good’ wife. Charles’s benevolent lecturing becomes strict and patronising, while Belinda’s unstructured approach to life becomes absent-minded and disrespectful. Where their courtship was once characterised by the communication of shared joys and interests, their marriage becomes defined by missed signals and misunderstandings.

Mystified by his wife’s late hours and her inability to keep appointments, Charles hires detective Julian Christoferou to report on her movements. Christoferou is somewhere between a street philosopher and an idiot savant: a disarming, energetic, macaroon-munching character who responds to serious topics with trivialities and who treats trivial topics with the gravest seriousness. Christoferou is charmed by Belinda who, it transpires, is not having an affair. She is simply bored by her husband and would rather spend her time taking long walks, eating ice-cream and watching trashy horror movies than attending Charles’s stuffy dinner parties. Belinda, unware that Christoferou is a detective, is inexplicably charmed by the bizarre mannerisms of this strange man who takes to following her around town. A series of montages show Belinda and Christoferou walking, eating, watching films and visiting galleries, and while they smile, stare and point at each other, they never exchanging a single word (an idea which seems like it would be romantic on paper but intensely awkward in practice). When Charles realises that Belinda’s ‘other man’ is the detective that he hired, his finally loses his carefully cultivated aristocratic composure.

Follow Me is based on Peter Schaffer’s 1962 play The Public Eye, which on its first run starred the young Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams as Belinda and Julian (renamed Christoferou for the film adaptation). Williams was initially in talks to reprise his role as the oddball detective in the film, which would have made for a very interesting take on the character. Indeed, Follow Me would have been a very different film but for a number of factors. Although the pre-production timeline is unclear, Ross Hunter, who bought the rights to the play, had entered into talks with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to play the starring roles, but Burton and Taylor backed out because they could not agree on a suitable director. In 1965 Daily Variety noted that Julie Andrews was to star in the film and Mike Nichols was to direct. Paul Scofield and Dirk Bogarde were also considered for the role of Christoferou (Bogarde initially accepted but later opted out).[1] The director role eventually went to Carol Reed, a veteran whose career spans the history of British cinema. Reed’s early training had been the British quota quickies of the 1930s – cheaply-made pictures which were produced and distributed to satisfy the requirements of a government act which was designed to safeguard the industry against Hollywood monopoly. After the war he directed his most critically acclaimed films, Odd Man Out (1947), Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). Reed’s career is generally considered to have gone into decline in the 1950s and 1960s, though his more high-profile credits in these decades include Our Man in Havana (1959) and Oliver! (1968).

Mia Farrow was not yet in the prime of her career when she starred in Follow Me but she was still a recognisable name. Farrow had worked as a fashion model in the early 60s before starring in the American soap opera Peyton Place, but during the mid-1960s she was perhaps better known for her relationship with Frank Sinatra, whom she married at the age of 21. In 1968 she landed her first role as a leading lady in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which remains a widely acclaimed classic of the horror genre. Farrow took roles across stage and screen and in 1971 she became the first American actress to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. Chaim Topol (known as Topol) is probably best known today for playing Milos Columbo in For Your Eyes Only (1981), and for his long-running part as Teyve the Dairyman in the play Fiddler on the Roof (a role he has reportedly played 3,500 times). Topol was used to playing a much older character (Teyve is in his 50s) and Follow Me offered him the rare opportunity to play a young, charismatic romantic lead.

The critical reception for Follow Me was overwhelmingly negative, and this is curious because the film is so pleasantly innocuous. A reviewer for the New York Times dubbed it ‘a comedy that pretends to be in favor of all of life's good things—more or less in the order of love, horror films, sunsets, dolphins, ice cream and Franco Zeffirelli's “Romeo and Juliet”—and succeeds in making them seem more unbearably boring than need be.’ [2] Roger Ebert felt the film was so dull that it did not even deserve the benefit of his (usually) droll prose style. He called it ‘dumb, dumb, dumb. Worse than that, it’s boring…one of those sickening movie romances in which adults play child’s games in soft focus while the sound track stages a forced march through congealed honey. [3] These disappointingly superficial readings seem to have missed out on the deeper messages contained within the film. Yes, there are some dialogue-heavy scenes which suggest that Follow Me was adapted a little too directly from the stage, and yes, Carol Reed’s location shots of London occasionally have the air of a Pathé travel newsreel, but this is much more than a bland romance.

Ebert notes that Michael Jayston acts as if he is in a film about investment banking, an odd criticism given that Charles is supposed to embody the characteristics of an uptight Englishman.[4] As the film opens we are introduced to Michael Jayston’s character walking down the street in the classic businessman’s uniform of bowler hat and umbrella, and in this scene he gives such a good impression of a middle class bourgeois gentleman that he would be quite at home in a Rene Magritte painting. If that seems like a slightly obscure cultural reference, Follow Me is full of obscure references to art and culture which would only be understood by someone with a classical education. This is intentional; the film is as much about the relationship between high and low culture as it is about the breakdown of a young marriage. Charles and Belinda’s marriage represents a clash between young and old, British and foreign, cosmopolitan and provincial. It is no accident that Belinda, ‘an armor‐plated anti‐intellectual of scary determination’, is an American. [5] It is also worth noting that Christoferou, the idiosyncratic oddball who lives outside of polite society, is Greek and therefore positioned as something of a foreign other. In the film much is made of the fact that Belinda simply does not belong in Charles’s social circle, where a knowledge of implicit social rules is a pre-requisite to polite conversation.

Belinda believes that people are the sum total of their education and cultural experiences, but Charles is limited by his cultural experiences. They are a way of negotiating his social world but they prevent him from experiencing it. Belinda is very much the Eliza Doolittle in this dynamic which seems to be ripped from the pages of Pygmalion, but unlike Charles she is enriched by art, music and books. She also recognises that, where culture is concerned, there are no hierarchies but the ones we impose, and she will happily watch Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet and then settle down for a double-bill of ‘Werewolves From Mars, Bloodsuckers from Venus’ and ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’.[6] The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that in a society organised along class lines, an individual’s education, style of dress, taste in music, knowledge of culture and manner of speech all form part of their ‘cultural capital’, and this in turn determines their social status. Charles has the cultural capital of an upper middle-class businessman and Belinda, as a classless and uncultured American, has none. But unlike Eliza, she is unwilling to change herself in order to join the club. She makes it clear to Charles that he must change if he wants to win back her affections.

Follow Me feels like a distant great-aunt of films like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and (500) Days of Summer (2009), and Belinda does seem to typify the classic ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, a female character comprised of charming quirks who essentially functions as a blank screen for the projection of the fantasies and anxieties of a male protagonist. But Farrow brings some charm and substance to this character who wears funny hats and ponchos and makes jokes about the male genitalia over aperitifs. Follow Me has the air of a lost classic which was under-appreciated on its original release. It is no darkly comic Harold and Maude (1971) and it is more restrained than a challenging melodrama like The Way We Were (1973) but it does offer a quietly intelligent take on modern relationships.

Reference list:

[1] American Film Institute, ‘Follow Me’, [accessed 21/02/2019] [2] Anon, ‘Public Eye’, The New York Times, July 19 1972. [3] Roger Ebert, ‘The Public Eye’, September 26, 1972, [accessed 02/02/2019]. [4] Roger Ebert, ‘The Public Eye’, September 26, 1972, [accessed 02/02/2019]. [5] Anon, ‘Public Eye’, New York Times, July 19 1972. [6] These horror movies are fictional. The clips that Belinda is shown watching in the cinema are from Hammer’s Brides of Dracula (1960)

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