aka The Ballad of Tam Lin; The Devil’s Widow
Director – Roddy McDowall, Screenplay – William Spier, Producers – Alan Ladd Jr. & Stanley Mann, Photography – Billy Williams, Music – Stanley Myers, Songs – The Pentangle, Production Design – Don Ashton. Production Company – Commonwealth United Winkast Film Productions Ltd.
Ava Gardner (Michaela Cazaret), Ian McShane (Tom Lynn), Stephanie Beacham (Janet Ainsley), Richard Wattis (Elroy), Cyril Cusack (Julian Ainsley), David Whitman (Oliver), Fabia Drake (Miss Gibson), Madeleine Smith (Sue), Sinead Cusack (Rose), Jenny Hanley (Caroline), Joanna Lumley (Georgia), Pamela Farbrother (Vanna), Bruce Robinson (Alan), Rosemary Blake (Kate)
Wealthy Michaela Cazaret maintains an entourage of adoring young people and chosen lovers. The group depart London to a mansion in the countryside. There Mrs Cazaret’s favourite Tom Lynn is attracted to innocent Janet Ainsley, the daughter of the local parson. The two engage in an affair but Mrs Cazaret refuses to allow Tom to leave. When Janet announces that she is pregnant, Tom is insistent on going to be with her. In return, Mrs Cazaret mobilises the others to hunt and kill him.
Tam-Lin was the only film ever directed by Roddy McDowall, an actor known for classic films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941), Lassie Come Home (1943) and Cleopatra (1963), among a great many others, as well as several ventures into genre material in the likes of It (1966), The Legend of Hell House (1973), Fright Night (1985) and most famously Planet of the Apes (1968) and all but one of the sequels. (Indeed, McDowall’s absence from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), the only of the original live-action incarnations he did not appear in, was due to his choosing to direct Tam-Lin instead). Tam-Lin suffered from distribution problems. It was little seen in its original UK release and was held up for two years before being released in the US by AIP under the title The Devil’s Widow where it was recut to make it into more of a horror film.
The story of Tam-Lin is one that dates back to at least 16th Century Scotland. It is usually told in the form of a ballad and concerns a young woman who is charmed by Tam Lin, only to then find that she is pregnant. She discovers that Tam Lin is in thrall to the Queen of the Fairies. He is about to be sacrificed and appeals to her to help him escape. The story has been told in numerous songs, poems and, in the 20th Century, expanded into books and plays.
Roddy McDowall, who had an American mother and a Scottish father, has a clear affection for the story. Working with a British production company, he has determined to make a lush production. The film is filled with a rich elegance from the surroundings of Ava Gardner’s London home to the gorgeous estate in the Scottish countryside where they take up residence. The credits have a montage of scenes celebrating the pure decadent joy of a convoy of expensive cars heading down the motorway. As to the film itself, this proves slow moving. We even get awfully dated folk songs on the soundtrack, which must have been in vogue back in 1971, but serve to drag the show out now.
Ava Gardner glides through the show with a regal glamour. Some commentators that have placed Tam-Lin in the same category as the Grand Guignol psycho-thrillers featuring faded Hollywood stars that began with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) but that is an ill fit. For one, these other films were about actresses trashing their previous images and showing themselves as aged and no longer glamorous whereas Roddy McDowall seems to have the opposite intent – that of highlighting Ava Gardner’s beauty.
The disappointment in looking back on Tim-Lin is trying to review it as a genre film. I had seen it covered in other genre books and knew that it was based on a legend of the faerie and assumed that it would blossom out into something fantastic as it progressed. The disappointment is that it remains a resolutely mundane film until the very end. Even then it is only in the final shot as McDowall goes in for a closeup on Ava Gardner’s face accompanied by a song on the soundtrack that comes with lyrics about her being the Queen of Fairies, plus end credits that list the extras as members of a coven, that give the film a fantastical reading as opposed to merely being a story about a powerful rich woman who likes to keep an entourage of young people around her and gets jealous when one of them tries to leave. Around the 90-minute mark, there are the scenes where Gardner despatches the young people to hunt down Ian McShane and he and Stephanie Beacham are forced to go on the run across the moors, which does push the film somewhat into horror territory but even that only comes as the finale of the film. These scenes do at least show Roddy McDowall willing to experiment with some interestingly unusual lens effects.
Looking back on the film from the perspective of 2016, there is an astonishing cast line-up that McDowall has managed to assemble, including among Ava Gardner’s entourage young names that were unknown at the time such as Sinead Cusack, Joanna Lumley, Hammer starlet Madeleine Smith and Bruce Robinson, later director of Withnail and I (1987) and How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). In the headline parts as the two lovers, there is Stephanie Beacham, usually known in later years for the same sort of larger-than-life glamour roles as Ava Gardner plays here, who is cast as an ideal of fresh-faced innocence, and Ian McShane, later the winner of numerous awards, particularly for his work on tv’s Deadwood (2004-6), who is an incredibly handsome young face.