by NIR SHALEV
George Bird (Sir Alec Guinness) is an ordinary man who makes a routine visit to the doctor and is told that he’s contracted Lampington’s Disease, which is fatal. Then, acting on his doctor’s advice, he buys new clothes, takes out all his savings from the bank, and heads over to a seaside resort where he had booked a room.
The hotel is expensive and caters mainly to the upper-class so George dresses the part. In earlier scenes we saw George sporting a moustache that signifies how ordinary he is; after delivering to him the bad news the doctor insisted he shave it. He keeps his imminent demise a secret and tries to enjoy his stay, but alas, every little joke he hears reminds him of his ailment and he sinks into a slight depression every so often.
Eventually, with misfortune comes a bit of good luck, and for George the luck keeps coming. He wins at crocket, a game he’d never played in his life, bets and wins four hundred pounds on a horse he hadn’t heard of, and wins another hundred pounds at a game of poker. The guests of the hotel hear of his “established” nature and positive gossip begins to spread around. When he first showed up he was uptight and mysterious and within a couple of days he’s the talk of the resort.
This film carries a curious air of melancholy in a human way and also makes a social commentary. On one hand it’s a film about a man who wants to spend his life savings on one final vacation before he dies at an early age. There is somber violin music played here and there and Guinness’ performance brings out the pathos in George’s situation. On the other hand, it’s about the idea of an ordinary man who hides among the rich and snobbish for a short length of time. Ironically, the latter comes with the former’s territory.
The film is shot in black and white and its cinematographer superimposes a lot of shadows. It’s not a Film Noir in any way, shape or form because the shadows here represent what is lurking just around the corner, in a humanistic way. We know always what goes on inside George’s mind and react with him to what others think about him.
But the film is a comedy after all. When the staff at the hotel goes on strike, the guests band together and cook a large dinner. It allows them to open up to one another as civilized human beings and we, the audience, also get to see the good side of the snobs. This is not a happy-go-lucky comedy with slapstick humor and one-liners; it’s a social comedy of the upstairs and downstairs of British society. The snobbish guests insist on having things their way and the staff just wants the days to pass. Every day is the same and we can see that clearly through George’s eyes.
It makes sense that George connects better with the staff at the hotel rather than its guests because he’s a simple agricultural equipment salesman from the city. Sure he’s good at his job, but he’s just an average person. George strikes up a relationship with a fellow married guest (Beatrice Campbell), but the person he confides in is the no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Poole (Kay Walsh).
Sir Alec Guinness made a reputation for himself as a master chameleon from the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. He played the grotesque Fagin in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) and then eight different characters in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). In Last Holiday, Guinness surprised audiences by portraying an everyday man and by making this performance finely nuanced. He’s plain but eventually we open up to him because of his situation.
I am utterly impressed with Guinness’ performance as George. Even recalling his performances in The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) this just might be his most perfect performance. He’s not a general in Her Majesty’s Army or a bank robber or a decayed aristocrat, he’s just plain ol’ George Bird and he wants to die in peace. That is unless the snobs persist on talking about him behind his back.