…at the home of the wealthy and respectable Birling family, just as they finish dinner.
The Birlings have been dining with a guest: Gerald Croft (Brian Worth) has just got engaged to the daughter of the house, Sheila Birling (Eileen Moore). Gerald has got her a wonderful ring, and there’s been much love and affection and congratulations being showered all around.
Sheila’s rather pompous father (Arthur Young) has been crowing about how he’s nothing to be scoffed at (he’s been Lord Mayor, after all) and is expecting a place in the honours list. But yes, given that they will be allied to the Crofts soon, they can afford no scandals… all of this being said with a knowing smile: what scandal, after all, could attach to the Birlings?
But there is definitely a whiff of unpleasantness in the room. Sheila’s brother Eric (Bryan Forbes) drinks far too much, and everybody can see it. Everybody, except his mother (Olga Lindo). Or, actually, she is the one who sees it far too plainly, but who must therefore insist that she doesn’t see it. Because Eric is her son, and her son can do no wrong. The Birlings must be above reproach, is the unsaid message.
Into this household comes a visitor: Inspector Poole (Alastair Sim), as he introduces himself. The inspector says that a young woman named Eva Smith has just died at the local infirmary. She had drunk disinfectant. The inspector does not clarify whether it was an accident, or someone gave it to her, but the general assumption seems to be that Eva Smith committed suicide.
The Birlings are shocked; it’s such a horrid way to die. But why would the inspector want to talk to them? They didn’t know this young woman, whoever she was.
It seems, though, that the household is not completely unconnected to the late Eva Smith. The inspector draws Mr Birling aside and shows him a photograph of Eva Smith (which neither we, the audience, nor any of the other people in the room are able to see). Mr Birling recognizes her at once, and it’s obvious he knows who this is.
On being prodded (gently, but still firmly) by the inspector, Mr Birling recounts how he happens to know who Eva Smith was. She (Jane Wenham) used to work at the Birlings’ mill. She was a good worker too, but when she and a bunch of other women asked for higher wages and subsequently went on strike, Mr Birling labelled Eva Smith a troublemaker—and dismissed her.
But that, says Mr Birling, was two years ago, in 1910; why on earth would that have anything to do with Eva Smith’s committing suicide now? There is no connection between the two incidents; his firing Eva cannot possibly have resulted in her death now.
Inspector Poole, however, is not done yet.
Sheila comes in just then, and on being told what this is about, expresses an interest in the dead woman. Who was she? Was she young? Pretty? And what happened to her after she was sacked by Mr Birling? Poole explains that Eva Smith, after losing her job at Birling’s mill, tried to find another job, and finally got one at a large and well-known fashion store, Millford (which, as it happens, the Birlings, mother and daughter, frequent). She was a good worker, and well-regarded, but after a complaint from an irate customer, Eva Smith lost that job as well. This was about a year and a half ago.
Sheila is now definitely uncomfortable, and Poole shows her (and only her) a photograph: does she recognize this woman? Sheila has to admit she does; was this Eva Smith? Sheila didn’t know her name, but yes; she had encountered this woman.
Now looking guilty and distressed, Sheila confesses. She had gone, over a year ago, to Millford with her mother. Sheila had been in a bad mood that day, and itching for a quarrel with her mother. The opportunity for a tiff arose over a hat that Mrs Birling dissuaded Sheila from buying because it was so ugly, and which Sheila (though she too could see it was awful), stubbornly insisted on having. Eva Smith, looking on, had been summoned to show Sheila how to wear the hat to make it look somewhat better…
… and the amusement she obviously felt as she watched Sheila try it on (and make a hash of it) was noticed by an already incensed Sheila. Sheila was so angry, she accused Eva Smith of laughing at her, and when Eva denied it, Sheila summoned the manager and complained. If, the next time she visited, this woman was still around, that was the last Millford would see of the Birlings; Sheila would tell her father to close their account.
Now Sheila is remorseful. She admits that Eva Smith’s prettiness and her own irritability made her behave in such an unfair way. It hadn’t been Eva Smith’s fault, and Sheila is disturbed by the fact that Eva Smith lost her job over the matter.
Gerald tries to comfort Sheila and reassure her; what happened to Eva Smith might have been unfortunate, but Sheila mustn’t hold herself responsible for it. To seek assurance that Sheila is indeed not to blame and that Eva Smith was able to find another job quickly after losing her position at Millford, Gerald and Sheila turn to Poole again.
But no, Poole says; Eva Smith was very badly affected by losing her job. Because Millford did not give her a reference, she could not get a job anywhere else. Half-starved and desperate, she tried to get a new start in life by changing her name.
What was her new name, they ask, and Inspector Poole says Eva Smith now called herself Daisy Renton.
At which Gerald Croft sits up, suddenly alert and suddenly uncomfortable.
And thus, slowly and surely, the inspector draws out the entire family, the Birlings as well as Gerald, exposing the way one thoughtless or utterly selfish (often both) deed on the part of each one led to Eva Smith committing suicide… or did it?
Based on a play by JB Priestly, An Inspector Calls has been adapted for screen time and again, even in languages other than English. And I can see why it seems to be so popular: it’s a gripping story, and (given that most of the action takes place within just a couple of rooms at the Birlings’ home) it requires neither a huge cast nor extravagant sets. Plus, overall, it’s the sort of film that stays with you long after you’ve watched it.
I decided I wanted to watch at least one more of the adaptations of this play to see how it might compare with the 1954 version, so I watched a 2015 British production, a TV film that starred David Thewlis as the inspector.
What I liked about this film, and some comparisons:
Both the 1954 and 2015 versions of An Inspector Calls are pretty much the same when it comes to the story. There are minor variations in how the way the story is treated, but I’ll come to that later. For now, a brief overview of what I liked about the story itself.
This is an excellent sort-of whodunit. Sort of, I say, because while nobody abetted Eva Smith in committing suicide, all these people are certainly in some way responsible for her death. But the way the truth emerges, slowly and shockingly, makes for a very interesting story indeed.
A story, too, which isn’t just about the fortunes and misfortunes of the obscure Eva Smith, but is also a subtle commentary on the hypocrisy, greed, and selfishness of those with wealth and position. Eva Smith, from the time Mr Birling throws her out of his mill for daring to ask for more, goes into a downward spiral that ends with the tragedy Inspector Poole tells them about. But do the Birlings relent? Yes, two of those present, when circumstances open their eyes, do realize just how ruthless they have been, but to the others, it doesn’t matter. For the majority of those present, Eva Smith’s death is an unpleasant business simply because it can discredit them in society and cause monetary damage or a loss of reputation; it does nothing whatsoever to their conscience.
And it’s interesting to see how, when the tables are turned (and they do turn, every now and then in the last 10 minutes or so of the film, especially), people are quick to change. Two-faced, turning whichever way the wind is blowing, eager to go down whichever path is likely to be most beneficial to their interests, no matter how hard-hearted it may be, no matter how lacking in scruples or morals.
Where the 2015 film differs from the 1954 version, primarily, is in the way it spells out things. The 1954 version is more subtle; Inspector Poole gently pushes the questions along, only making the odd observation here or there. Inspector Goole (a rather unsubtle change of the name, there), on the other hand, becomes rather more pushy near the end, where he spells out, in no uncertain terms, exactly what the Birlings and Gerald Croft should be ashamed about. In 1954, the audience is credited with the emotional maturity and the intelligence to see what this is all about; in 2015, it must obviously be told to them, in no uncertain terms.
Also, the end is much more graphic in the 2015 version, and makes things just a wee bit clearer for a clueless (?) audience. The 1954 version is (unsurprisingly) more understated, more sanitized—and with a greater ambiguity that I liked a lot.
Overall, I’d say that though the two films are very alike, I did like the 1954 version more. There is one thing, though, for which I’d rate the 2015 version higher: the casting of Sheila. Sheila’s interaction with Eva Smith, and Sheila’s unwarranted and unfair lashing out at Eva, is based on her jealousy of Eva: Eva is prettier and more self-assured. But Eileen Moore, in the 1954 film, is to me as lovely as Jane Wenham; even more so, I’d think; one can’t imagine her being so furiously jealous of the other girl. In the 2015 version, though, Chloe Pirrie looks definitely less attractive (and is told off repeatedly by her mother in front of everybody) for one to understand that she would be jealous of, and irritated by, Eva Smith, who looks so pretty and self-assured in comparison.
Do watch the 1954 version: a superb film.