Top 10 film performances: Emlyn Williams

Black and white photograph of Emlyn Williams

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Emlyn Williams in The Stars Look Down (1939)

As a lifelong student of criminal psychology, Emlyn Williams doubtless savoured his penchant for playing screen villains. It's tempting to speculate how his film career might have developed if his performance as Caligula in von Sternberg's aborted I, Claudius (1937) had seen the light of day.

Clashes between Charles Laughton (in the title role) and the director and the car accident injury sustained by Merle Oberon forced the film's abandonment but the few surviving clips suggest that Williams as the sybaritic whip-wielding torturer Caligula would have delivered a performance on a par with Laughton's.

As it is, the Welshman's finest film role must be Joe Gowlan in Carol Reed's mining drama The Stars Look Down, a double betrayer of Michael Redgrave's crusading teacher (and ex-miner) his erstwhile friend.

Gowlan, a former pitman himself, is an arch manipulator who cuts a swathe through his community to rise from a lowly position in the local steelworks to hold sway over the coal and steel markets in a north-east England mining community just before World War One.

He's the epitome of rampant capitalism and tramples on all the principles David Fenwick (Redgrave), holds dear as he fights to rectify conditions at Paradise Colliery, which has claimed his father's life. Gowlan also seduces Fenwick's flighty wife (Margaret Lockwood) with the promise of baubles.

Williams invests the venal Gowlan with a permanent swagger as he seizes ever-greater wealth and influence, and he conveys with disdainful comments and increasingly affected dandyism a cavalier contempt for Fenwick's ideals.

The film, superbly photographed with outstandingly authentic-looking mining scenes, finally slips into political compromise. It concentrates more on Gowlan's shortcomings and his carelessness of miners' lives than the employers' culpability or gullibility as the narrative moves inexorably towards the tragedy of the collapsed Scupper Flats seam at Paradise.

Reed's film, drawn from former Welsh-based doctor AJ Cronin's novel, evokes an impoverished community's desperation under the yoke of the industrial barons and parallels can be made with the coal industry crises in Wales around the time of the Tonypandy Riots.

It's the mesmerising central performances of the two male leads, as moral polar opposites, which help to confirm the film's enduring status in the top rank of British mining films.


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