Readers Write In #511: Classics on YouTube #4 – The Card (1952)

Posted on October 15, 2022

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By ​Vijay Ramanathan

Note: YouTube’s vast repository includes a multitude of wonderful movies in many languages – some hidden gems, and some that are hard to find elsewhere. In this series of articles, I will share some of my favorite classic movies freely available on YouTube, along with a brief analysis. The videos are not posted by me, and I do not benefit from anyone viewing them.

Directed by Ronald Neame, The Card is a charming British comedy starring a fantastic Sir Alec Guiness, as a “card” (meaning a crafty, clever sort), Denry Machin. On the surface, the movie is a simple tale of a man who uses his smarts to elevate himself from a life of poverty to that of a popular, wealthy citizen. Underneath, there is a commentary on capitalism, and how one can pull themselves up by their bootstraps so long as they have a sharp mind, a clear purpose, and perhaps, some ability to gently bend societal rules. It’s a very American concept but told in a very British way.

The story is simple and the screenplay doesn’t complicate things much. It follows Denry as he grows up poor, gets through school by hook-or-crook, and makes his way through life jumping from one money-making venture to another. The movie unravels like a series of important but feathery episodes in Denry’s life, and overall it works amazingly well.

Denry is always looking to improve his status in life – be it by faking invitations to a grand ball being hosted by a Countess and selling them to locals who would otherwise not be invited, or later on, by creating a thrift club that allows common people to buy things they need from local vendors for a membership fee. Denry’s approach to making money isn’t to work hard but to work smart. He isn’t out to con common folk but he won’t let go of a money-making opportunity either. Some of Denry’s most lucrative money-making ideas involve very little manual effort on his part – and that doesn’t bother him in the least. When Denry makes a nice packet sitting on the beach while using a wrecked boat as a tourist attraction, one of the workers whom he employs asks him “That’s a mighty lot of money for doing nothing, Mr. Machin,” to which Denry replies, “Ah, but you see, I did do something, Simeon. I thought of it.” And then Simeon and Denry exchange a nice laugh. This casual interaction underlines one of Denry’s core philosophies – using your brainpower to earn money is a lot more valuable than simply using your physical power. Brawn is for the common working class; to move up in life you need to use your brain. Denry never lectures anyone about this but it comes across loud and clear in his actions and approach. Speaking of which, have I got a great tech startup idea for you!!

Denry is also very clear that there’s no shame in wanting to make money. While trying to get patronage from a Countess for his thrift club venture, the Countess comments, “You’re very charitable, Mr. Machin,” to which Denry immediately replies “Oh no, I just want to make money… I don’t see anything wrong with that, Countess. Do you?” Most times, Denry’s actions do help others but that’s not his motive – and that’s what makes this story so interesting. The “hero” isn’t driven by some big urge to do societal good, or to prevent some social injustice. He just wants to make money – that’s his goal. In this journey, none of Denry’s life problems seem too complicated, and Denry overcomes them with relative ease. Time and circumstance support his abilities and propel him forward. One may wish Neame and his screenwriter, Eric Ambler, had embedded a bit more dramatic conflict to make Denry’s rise feel more emphatic – but this isn’t that kind of a movie. Introducing heavier dramatic situations would mar the tone and experience of this purposefully casual comedy.

Guinness plays Denry at a deliberate pitch which slyly subverts the viewer’s expectations. He exudes a wide-eyed, clear-faced naivete that belies his intellect. He conveys his smartness primarily through his words and acts rather than his expressions. Denry’s face conveys a sense of innocence even when he faces pitfalls. As a result, the viewer is never turned off by Denry’s doings – they always feel good-natured. What makes Guiness‘s performance even more impressive is the effortlessness with which he pulls this off.

Neame’s brilliance is in how he maintains a consistent comedic tone throughout the movie. There’s hardly any melodrama, or even drama for that matter. Drama-worthy scenes, like the ones between Denry and his washerwoman mother, are subtly handled. There is a subplot involving a failed romance between Denry and Ruth (a marvelous Glynis Johns), and another one where Denry successfully romances Nellie (Petula Clark, CBE). These are handled with a light touch as well. Nothing seems overplayed.

The Card is an easy watch. The movie invites the viewer for a fun-filled ride through the life of Denry Machin and that’s precisely what it delivers.

The Card is available for viewing on YouTube at