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Film / Séance on a Wet Afternoon

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Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a 1964 British thriller film written and directed by Bryan Forbes, based on the novel of the same name by Mark McShane.

Myra Savage (Kim Stanley) believes herself to be in regular contact with the spirit world, and she holds weekly séances in an upstairs room in the house she inherited from her mother. However, she tells her asthmatic, unemployed husband Billy (Richard Attenborough, who also produced the film) that their son Arthur has given his blessing for a scheme to make her famous as a medium. The plan is for Billy to kidnap Amanda Clayton (Judith Donner), the daughter of wealthy industrialist Charles Clayton (Mark Eden) and his wife (Nanette Newmannote ), after which Myra will go to the Claytons and claim to have had a dream that might help them locate Amanda. Though Charles thinks Myra is a con artist, his wife is more receptive and agrees to participate in one of Myra's séances in the hopes of getting news of Amanda. However, Myra's sanity and the plan both start to unravel as her thoughts turn from kidnapping to murder...

This film contains examples of:

  • Anonymous Public Phone Call: Billy calls the Claytons with instructions for the Ransom Drop from a public phone box. The police are already at the Claytons' house and listen in on the call while engaging in a Phone-Trace Race; while it is not clear whether the trace succeeds, they have enough information to send two plainclothes officers along for the money handover.
  • Come Alone: One of the instructions Billy gives Clayton for the Ransom Drop is to come alone and wait in a phone box in Leicester Square for further instructions. Clayton is accompanied by two plainclothes officers, but Billy has planned for this and is able to weave in and out of the crowds in Piccadilly Circus Underground station to give the police the slip.
  • Cut-and-Paste Note: The ransom demand that Myra instructs Billy to put together to send to the Claytons is assembled from words cut out of a newspaper. This is foreshadowed by Billy idly cutting letters out of a newspaper headline in an early scene.
  • Deadly Euphemism: When Myra tells Billy that Arthur has told her they shouldn't return Amanda, but rather that he wants her "to be with him", Billy snaps and reminds Myra that Arthur was a Tragic Stillbirth, revealing that "being with Arthur" is a euphemism for murder.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: After pretending to be a nurse treating Amanda in a hospital and getting her to let her guard down to talk about her friend Caroline and her stuffed hedgehog, Myra goes to the Claytons and claims to have had a dream of a lost girl surrounded by wet clay in which she distinctly remembers hearing the name "Caroline" and the word "hedge", hoping that they will believe the only way she could have known these details about their daughter is because she really is psychic.
  • Faint in Shock: The séance attended by Mrs Clayton at which Myra claims to contact Amanda climaxes with Myra appearing to become so overwhelmed that she faints, prompting Billy to rush into the room and usher out the guests while attending to his wife. Unfortunately, in his haste, Billy leaves the door of Amanda's "private hospital room" unlocked, and their scheme starts to unravel from there.
  • Henpecked Husband: As Myra explains to a police sergeant, Billy has chronic asthma and so is unable to seek stable employment. His weak physique is matched by his weak personality as he goes along with her scheme to kidnap Amanda Clayton despite thinking it can only end badly. It isn't until she starts entertaining the idea of murder that he finally has the courage to stand up to her and disobeys her orders by instead leaving an unconscious Amanda near some Boy Scouts on a camping trip.
  • I Have Your Wife: Daughter rather than wife, but Myra tells Billy they must make the Claytons think they mean business, so she has him cut words out of a newspaper to assemble a ransom note demanding that the Claytons signal their willingness to co-operate with an advertisement in the Evening Standard addressed to "Longfellow" (the nom de plume they use for the kidnapping), to be followed by putting £25,000 in a blue BOAC overnight bag for a Ransom Drop in the centre of London.
  • Insistent Terminology: Myra tries to assuage Billy's discomfort over committing a criminal act by insisting that they haven't kidnapped Amanda, they've simply borrowed her for a while; once Myra is famous as a medium, they'll return both Amanda and the ransom money. When Amanda develops a fever as an adverse reaction to the sedative Myra gave her and a distraught Billy insists they call a doctor, Myra flings his insistent terminology back in his face by pointing out how bad it will look if they call a doctor to examine a girl they've kidnapped.
  • My Card: When Myra goes to the Claytons' house to offer her services as a medium to locate Amanda, she gives them her business card, complete with her name and address. As she leaves, the policeman standing outside asks for one of the cards, as they are keeping records of everyone who visits the Clayton house in case they become persons of interest in the case. Sure enough, the police later show up at the Savage house as part of their routine inquiries.
  • Oh, Crap!: After Myra faints at her second séance, Billy is in such a hurry to minister to her that he forgets to lock Amanda's door, so when he and Myra are having a loud argument later that evening, Amanda is able to leave her room, although she is still a bit groggy from the sedatives she has been given. Myra and Billy both get alarmed looks when they hear her voice, doubly so when Billy puts Amanda back in bed and she gets an unobstructed look at his face, increasing the probability that she will recognise him as the man who kidnapped her.
  • Phone-Trace Race: When Billy calls the Claytons as "Longfellow" with instructions for the Ransom Drop, the police are listening in and tell Clayton to keep the call going for as long as possible while they trace it. Clayton stalls for time by pretending to keep misunderstanding the instructions, but eventually the nervous Billy loses patience and hangs up. It is not clear if the trace succeeds, but the police have enough to go on to attempt an arrest during the money handover.
  • Phony Psychic: Myra believes she has a gift for communicating with spirits, and she decides to boost her profile by kidnapping Amanda Clayton and making her think she is in hospital with "double German measles" (Amanda already having had ordinary German measles), in which capacity she gets her to mention her school friend Caroline and her favourite stuffed hedgehog. Myra then goes to the Claytons and offers her services to locate Amanda, saying she had a dream about a lost girl surrounded by clay and mentioning the words "Caroline" and "hedge". Mrs Clayton is more convinced than her husband and agrees to participate in Myra's next séance in the hopes that she can offer information about Amanda.
  • Ransom Drop: As part of the kidnapping scheme, Myra makes Billy put together a ransom demand for £25,000 in a blue BOAC overnight bag to be handed over in the centre of London. As Clayton is accompanied by two plainclothes officers during the handover, Billy has to rush in and out of tunnels in Piccadilly Circus Underground station before grabbing the bag from Clayton before he and the police officers have time to react, then blending in with a crowd to board a departing train and change his disguise.
  • Rule of Three: There are a total of three séances in the film, one in the opening scene to establish Myra as a medium with a regular audience of spiritualists, one attended by Mrs Clayton at which Myra purports to receive word from her kidnapped daughter Amanda, and one in the final scene with two detectives in which Myra's Sanity Slippage causes her to confess to telling Billy to kill Amanda (though she seems to realise he disobeyed her and left Amanda alive).
  • Sanity Slippage: Myra's mental health has been deteriorating ever since Arthur's Tragic Stillbirth, while she never even got to see or hold him. She initially seems to be pretending that he is still alive, but it emerges that she thinks she is communicating with his spirit, and her grip on reality continues to slip over the course of the film until she tells Billy that Arthur wants Amanda to be with him (meaning, he wants them to kill her). In the final scene, she breaks down and rolls up a cloth, pretending it is Arthur and cradling it in her arms.
  • Spooky Séance: Myra holds regular séances in her house in which she claims to communicate with the spirits of the dead or otherwise absent. When Mrs Clayton attends one of her séances, Myra pretends to talk to her daughter Amanda (who is actually in another room in their house), then she becomes so overwhelmed that she faints.
  • Tragic Stillbirth: Myra talks about Arthur as if he were still alive in the first two acts of the film, but when she tells Billy that Arthur has told her not to return Amanda because he wants her "to be with him", Billy reaches breaking point and shouts at Myra that Arthur died at birth; she never even got to see him as she was still coming round from the drugs. It soon becomes apparent that she is so tormented by grief over losing Arthur that she has undergone years of Sanity Slippage, and in a séance with two detectives in the final scene, she unwittingly confesses everything before rolling up a cloth and cradling it as if it were a baby.