Until two months ago, although I felt I had a reasonable layman’s knowledge of the writings of Muriel Spark, I had never heard of The Driver’s Seat. Then, at a talk about Spark given by journalist Alan Taylor at the Boswell Book Festival , he mentioned that the 1970 novella was her own favourite. He also mentioned a forgotten film version starring Elizabeth Taylor, as well as an upcoming stage production by the National Theatre of Scotland .
When I read The Driver’s Seat, I was struck by its structural similarities to Spark’s famous novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – both works use a non-chronological narrative from multiple perspectives – but also its similarity to films by Alfred Hitchcock. Like Psycho, which begins with a woman at her work and follows her on a dangerous adventure, or Marnie, which looks into her troubled past, or Spellbound, which features a romance with a man who has psychological problems.
The NTS production, directed by Laurie Sansom, plays further on the Hitchcock influences. The mysterious behaviour of Lise is depicted in a way which recalls many of those Hitchcock heroines such as played by Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren or Ingrid Bergman; the heavy use of video brings many scenes stylistically closer to parts of a film; the grey checked patterns of the suits of all the male characters reminded me of the one worn by Cary Grant’s character in North by North-West.
Fortuitously, the film, directed in 1974 by one Guiseppe Patroni Griffi , is currently available on You Tube. Although at the time of original release it will probably have fitted the fashion of the many international co-productions of the era, its visual style now looks closer to arthouse films like Bertolucci’s The Conformist or Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bougeoisie or Costa-Gavras’ Z. The story is told mostly in slow-moving middle- and long-distance shots. People are eerily silhouetted by bright light in airport, hotel, department store, police station and gardens. Franco Mannino’s piano music helps create a dissonant environment. The political turmoil which is mentioned only in passing by Spark is given a higher dramatic prominence.
As you watch the film now, you would surely spot its influence on the NTS production design even if it hadn’t been acknowledged in the programme or as an exhibition in the theatre. For example, the repeated scenes of police interviews are recalled by the use of video cameras by the actors and the large images thrown up at the rear of the stage. Like the film, the play has a mixed British and Italian cast.
Although the narrative deals with sexual desire, the 2015 play does not add any explicit depictions. It is also interesting to compare the two differing approaches, both 40 years old now, of book and film.
In a few places, Spark uses overtly the words “gay” and “queer” in ways which are different to current usage. When a woman at the airport says that Lise in her vividly-coloured outfit looks “very gay”, she replies that she is hoping for “a gay time”. Later, the predatory health-food fanatic Bill says he is “queer for girls”. In 1970, a woman in her 50s like Spark would remember the days when “gay” did more often mean cheerful or light-hearted. But to feature both words in the same short book at a time when homosexuality had just been legalised and was more openly practised and discussed? It seems mischievous and perverse – which, of course, Spark’s writing is often regarded as being.
The film finds additional ways to depict Lise’s sexually provocative behaviour . Tastes towards deviancy and bondage are hinted by the way the female airport security officer puts on her rubber gloves and unties the scarf around Lise’s neck to receive the retort, “I can’t stand being touched”. We see Lise tighten her safety belt on the plane with a sigh which suggests pleasure. When Bill says that his macrobiotic diet requires one orgasm a day, she replies defiantly, “When I diet, I diet, and when I orgasm, I orgasm”.
Although the film of The Driver’s Seat looks very different to Ronald Neame’s film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one snippet links the two strongly. In another demonstration of her disturbed behaviour, Lise shouts repeatedly at an airport security officer, “You’re all so suspicious! Suspicious! Suspicious”. It brings to mind Jean Brodie’s equally hysterical yelling of “assassin” at her treacherous pupil Sandy at the end of that film. Suddenly you spot the similarities between these two apparently very different Spark characters.