The Scapegoat (1959)


A lonely British scholar, John Barrett (Sir Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai), meets a French nobleman, Jacques De Gué, (also played by Guinness), who is his exact lookalike. Because of their uncanny resemblance, De Gué tricks Barrett into taking his place. At first Barrett plays along, but then he realizes that he is just a pawn in an elaborate murder plot concocted by his double.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Don’t play cat and mouse with me when you know how much I need it!”

Cinema has had a love affair with British author Daphne du Maurier. Her books and short stories have been adapted to the screen numerous times. Alfred Hitchcock alone made three films based on du Maurier’s works (Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds). I’ve only read her short story The Birds (it’s part of du Maurier’s 1952 book The Apple Tree) and I liked her writing very much so I should make a bigger effort to read her other books.

The Scapegoat is based on du Maurier’s 1957 novel of the same name. It was produced in England by Michael Balcon (The 39 Steps) and distributed in the U.S. by MGM. Author du Maurier was allowed unprecedented input during the making of the film. Balcon yielded to du Maurier’s many demands and I wonder if this is the reason the film is a bit of a mess — this is my least favorite movie based on one of du Maurier’s works.

The film was co-written and directed by Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets), a talented director who had a serious alcohol problem. Actor Alec Guinness directed several scenes when Hamer was found to be “indisposed.” The film looks good, but the half-cooked script leaves a lot to be desired and the movie is a bit on the slow side.

Guinness is effective in dual roles. I’m a huge fan of the actor so I always like him no matter what. However, I have to say that this isn’t one of his best performances. Guinness does an adequate job here, no more, no less. There are other good performances in the film. I particularly liked Irene Worth (Deathtrap) as Guiness’s wife and Geoffrey Keen (Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only) as Guiness’s faithful butler.

Bette Davis has three scenes that amount to 11 minutes of screen time. She plays Guinness’s drug-addicted mother. This is the most interesting character in the movie and it’s disappointing that the mother isn’t explored in more depth. The actress claimed her role was supposed to be much larger and the choppy editing during her scenes supports her statement. Davis’s presence feels like one big tease that doesn’t pay off.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Scapegoat was a commercial and critical failure. It cut off Guinness’s wings, who was flying high after his Oscar-winning role in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Writer du Maurier was very displeased with the results. For Davis, it reinforced the public’s perception that her film career was over. Years later, Davis admitted that she thought it was all over. Remade in 2012. B&W, 91 minutes, Not Rated.

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