Harry Black and the Tiger

What should one aim for in life, passion or contentment? Ultimately, that is the question posed by Hugo Fregonese’s Harry Black and the Tiger (1958). The answer which is proposed is one heavily influenced by notions of honor, both honor earned and honor bestowed, and there is something very fine about the means through which this accommodation of heart and conscience is arrived at in the movie.

India, a vast country filled with sound and color; the opening sequence presents both as the camera roams through forest and grassland, accompanied by the chattering of monkeys, the susurration of parched vegetation, pierced violently by the screams of alarm and the final shocking spilling of blood. The beauty and the terror of nature are encapsulated succinctly in that scene, one which establishes the threat posed by the presence of a man-eating tiger. This hasn’t been the first outrage, nor will it be the last, but the district authorities have already taken steps to ensure the killer is stopped. To that end, another killer has been employed, one Harry Black (Stewart Granger). Harry is a former soldier, an officer in the British army who lost a leg after being wounded during an escape from a German POW camp in the last war. He now makes his living hunting down and killing those aforementioned man-eaters. In the course of stalking his prey, Harry comes upon Desmond Tanner (Anthony Steel) and his wife Christian (Barbara Rush), both of whom have played significant roles in his life. Desmond is the old friend whose fear and lack of nerve cost Harry his leg, while Christian had aroused forbidden passions within his heart during a brief visit to Scotland. All of this is told via a couple of flashbacks as Harry recuperates from the wounds he suffers in a botched attempt to shoot the tiger, a near tragedy once again resulting from Desmond’s weakness. This is the point at which Harry is himself cornered, maneuvered by fate and circumstance into a position requiring him to make potentially life-changing decisions, and forcing those around him to do the same.

In a sense, Harry Black and the Tiger is a very straightforward story, one which can be approached as simply a blend of exotic adventure and romantic drama. However, as with all good movies,there is a great deal of depth should one wish to seek it out. As I stated above, it raises the issue of what one wants out of life, and thus which path will have to be followed. The focus is on three less than satisfied people: Harry, Desmond and Christian. Harry is the one most conspicuously disillusioned, making a living from death and burying himself in the wilds a world away from his home. Something similar could be said for Christian and Desmond, the former claiming to have reached a place of contentment but quite clearly still haunted by regret, while her husband is weighed down by the dreadful burden of his own inadequacy. The dilemma facing this trio stems from the fact that the prize of fulfillment for any one of them threatens to cast the others into despair.

The role of Harry Black was a comfortable fit for Stewart Granger at this stage of his career, making good use of that quality of jaded introspection he was able to tap into. There is a telling moment during his convalescence when departing nurse Kamala Devi says: “Good luck with the tigers, Mr Black… inside and out.” Prior to this we have been viewing both the tiger and Harry, hunter and hunted (though which one occupies which role may be open to debate) wounded, recuperating and recovering. As I see it, the tiger is a reflection of Harry, or maybe a reflection of the predator lurking within, that formidable and potentially destructive power he carries inside him. It is a power which threatens to consume him because in recognizing the need to harness it and trap it Harry is steadily and ruthlessly tearing his own being apart.

What follows is a personal crisis for Harry, one brought on by the clash of desire, conscience and regret, leading to a kind of temporary moral surrender. In his physically and emotionally vulnerable state, he gives in to all those fears he had repressed and rejected, retreating into a whisky-fogged breakdown. His rescue is effected by the joint efforts of his friend Bapu (a terrific piece of comic/philosophical acting by I S Johar) and his soulmate Christian. Barbara Rush is characteristically impressive not only as the woman who has captured the hearts and of two quite different men but also as the devoted mother – her every move essentially a juggling act alternating between the call of head and heart, duty and desire. Nevertheless, his ultimate salvation lies in his own hands, his release can only be achieved by confronting his own demons. In essence, he must face down the tiger, he must face himself. Having done so, perhaps the greatest sacrifice of all must still be made.

This builds into the climactic scene of the movie, one which sees Granger, Rush and Steel all shine. After triumphing over nature, both in a broader and also in a more intimate sense, Granger returns to collect the reward he feels is now to be his. It is here that the choice between passion and contentment will be made, and it’s to the credit of the performers, director Fregonese and that ever masterful writer Sydney Boehm that there are no emotional pyrotechnics on display to blunt the effect. Instead, we get a beautifully judged and sensitively handled vignette where little is said explicitly yet much is conveyed subtly and surreptitiously via glance and gesture. The resolution is bittersweet yet gratifying in its inevitability and appropriateness.

Harry Black and the Tiger is a 20th Century Fox movie and was released on DVD in the UK almost a decade ago. That disc, which I understand is now out of print, was pretty good for the time. The anamorphic CinemaScope transfer still stands up quite well today but there is no denying that it is the kind of picture that would benefit from the higher resolution offered by Blu-ray. Of course the chances of Fox titles making it to Blu-ray these days are, shall we say, slim. This is the third film by Hugo Fregonese I’ve featured on the site this year and I find it is always a pleasure to view and write about his work, especially a strong effort such as this. Harry Black and the Tiger is film I have seen multiple times over the years and one I hope more people get the opportunity to become familiar with.

As an aside, yesterday it was 14 years to the day since I published my first tentative blog post. The site has evolved a bit since then, and I hope I have too, but it continues to be a pleasure and privilege to have interacted with such a wide range of movie lovers. Thanks all.