Is mental illness a laughing matter? When it comes to cinematic treatments, it all depends on the filmmaker’s approach and this was an issue that divided critics and audiences over Morgan! (1966, released in the U.K. as Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment). Whether embraced as a wild, eccentric anti-establishment farce or derided as a schizophrenic mess that can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, Morgan!, remains a polarizing film even today; there is no middle ground here. Most people either love it or hate it.
The film, directed by Karel Reisz, is based on a 1962 teleplay A Suitable Case for Treatment by David Mercer (who adapted the screenplay). It depicts the breakup of a marriage between an unconventional London artist named Morgan (David Warner) and his free-spirited wife Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave), who is fed up with her husband’s madcap behavior and opts for a more sensible marriage to Charles Napier (Robert Stephens), a successful art dealer friend of the couple. Morgan, who had an unorthodox upbringing due to his mother (Irene Handl), an avid Marxist, lives mostly in a fantasy world of his own making and the divorce seems to unhinge the artist completely. In a desperate attempt to win back Leonie, Morgan mounts a campaign to stop her impending marriage to Charles through increasingly lunatic schemes such as planting a bomb under their bed, abducting Leonie and whisking her away to a remote location in Wales and eventually crashing her wedding reception dressed as a gorilla.
Morgan! was partly inspired by events in the life of David Mercer, who along with such influential writers and playwrights as John Osborne, Allan Sillitoe and John Braine addressed issues of class and society in a style that become known as kitchen sink realism in the world of theatre, TV and cinema. After Mercer’s marriage collapsed, he experienced severe depression and had a nervous breakdown in 1957, which led to a long period of treatment at the British Institute of Psychoanalysis. As a result, Mercer’s experiences provided the basis for two of his acclaimed teleplays which dealt with madness: A Suitable Case for Treatment and In Two Minds (1967), which was adapted for the screen in 1971 as Family Life, directed by Ken Loach. By the time Mercer adapted his teleplay for Karel Reisz, however, his ideas about psychiatry underwent a radical change after being exposed to the revolutionary work of Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing; he reworked the story of Morgan, changing numerous details as well as the ending.
The sections of Morgan! depicting the main character’s infatuation with symbols of Marxist ideology as well as his mother’s devotion to Communism are also reflective of Mercer’s background. In a 1973 interview, the screenwriter said, “I think if you are intellectually and emotionally committed to a particular ideology, as I was and am to theoretical Communism, and yet find no way of becoming active in the world which is consistent with your beliefs, this does create just the kind of split that is dramatized in A Suitable Case for Treatment. Morgan, remember, was the son of a Communist working-class family, and perhaps turning the whole thing into a joke and resorting to fantasy was his only way of coping with the situation.” (from Karel Reisz by Colin Gardner).
For Czech Republic native turned British filmmaker Karel Reisz, Morgan! was a complete departure from his earlier work. As a founding member of Free Cinema, a group of filmmakers who rejected the conventional, mainstream approach to documentary film by advocating a more personal, attitude-driven approach, Reisz co-directed (with Tony Richardson) the influential short Momma Don’t Allow (1955) and the 53-minute feature, We Are the Lambeth Boys (1958). He also directed one of the key films of the British New Wave, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), which was adapted for the screen from the novel by Alan Sillitoe. The latter film’s critiques of class conscious British society led critics to associate him with the “Angry Young Men” movement in literature and film during the late fifties and early sixties.
Morgan!, on the other hand, was an offbeat social satire with Mack Sennett-like slapstick and pop cultural references from King Kong to Karl Marx, all of it set against the backdrop of a mod, hipster London. Yet Reisz did not think Morgan! shared any similarities with the free-wheeling films of Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night , The Knack ) to which Morgan! was sometimes compared. “It was sometimes bracketed with “swinging London” and Dick Lester and all that,” Reisz noted. “I don’t see that at all, because I think Morgan! has a certain substance; it’s not pure jeu d’espirit, which is what the Beatles films and the swinging London thing were. Morgan! was a one-off.”
As for Reisz’s approach to his title character, he said, “The fact that we can laugh at Morgan does not mean that we do not sympathize with him. It means that we have made contact with him as a person….In illuminating Morgan’s feelings of frustration, the film also illumines your feelings and mine.”
Initially, Morgan! was intended to be one story in a three-part film which was eventually aborted; the other two segments were going to be directed by Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson. Luckily, Morgan! was expanded into a feature length film by David Mercer but getting it produced was no easy task. According to Reisz, “The Bryanston people had gone out of business and British Lion had been sold to six producing units. One of these units was Tony Richardson’s and mine, and we had an agreement that each group could make its own films. When we put Morgan! on the table, the other five groups all said, “Please don’t! This is an experimental highbrow picture!” I thought it was a comedy – about serious things.” (from Karel Reisz by Colin Gardner).
One of the major assets of Morgan! was its exceptionally talented cast which gave David Warner and Vanessa Redgrave their first major starring roles in a film. Both actors came from theatre backgrounds and had done some incidental work in TV and film but Morgan! launched their movie careers on an international scale.
In her autobiography, Redgrave revealed her doubts about how to prepare for the role by asking her husband for advice. “What must I do?” I asked Tony [Richardson]. “You must listen to what Karel says, and try to do everything he asks you,” Tony said. “Remember, in the theatre everyone has eyes and can watch what they like. But in the cinema only the director has eyes, and they are the camera. What communicates through the camera is a different substance from that of the theatre.”
Once she began working with Reisz, she recalls that they had some rehearsals but “I was very nervous and I overacted terribly, which was what he wanted me to do, to clean myself out.” She added that the director also “explained to me that in filming each individual scene is a whole unit, and its own value must be found, unlike a play which has a single value and climbs to it from start to finish.” (from Karel Reisz by Georg Gaston). The hard work paid off because Redgrave won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award and the equivalent in the BAFTA (The British Academy of Film and Television Arts). David Warner was also nominated for Best Actor by the BAFTA.
Critical opinion over Morgan! was more sharply divided. The New York Times reviewer called it “Howlingly funny…Not since Alec Guinness played Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth  and vitalized that sly bohemian scrapegrace with charm and poignancy have we seen an artistic nonconformist as wild as David Warner’s Morgan Delt.” Also endorsing the film was The N.Y. Herald Tribune which proclaimed it “a wildly wacky British comedy….A provocative and riotous film of leapfrogging lunacy and shock,” and Time magazine, which noted “At moments, Morgan! goes so far ape that a viewer may wince a little, but director Karel Reisz quells resistance by assigning the mad-capital antics to two gifted young British actors, David Warner (London’s hottest new Hamlet) and Vanessa Redgrave (daughter of Sir Michael).”
On the negative side was Hollis Alpert of Saturday Review who called the film “an odd jumble of irreverence, high jinks, black humor, fantasy and compassion,” adding that Morgan! “tends less to enthrall than to irritate, and one reason for this may be that British anger, ordinarily so dependable a theme for dozens of novels, plays and films, is beginning to wear thin.” Variety also pointed out what it considered major flaws: “Schizoid directorial aspects are demonstrated by the abrupt shift in tone, from a comedic lighthearted style, to a heavy suddenly tragic climax. Problem is Reisz attempted to juggle the two elements, always a delicate operation, and thuddingly dropped one. Ironically, it is apparent that he was too expert in handling both, but not deft enough to fuse them.” Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was also no fan of the film, writing “this satirical tragicomedy often seems to be out of control as it teeters along, sometimes presenting its hero as cute and funny, other times as tragic and in pain.”
Despite the mixed critical response, Morgan! was a box office success and was particularly popular with younger filmgoers. British critic and author Alexander Walker identified its appeal when he wrote that the film was “probably the first film of social protest to be adopted as their own by the post-Porter generation, the teenagers who had been children in 1959. And in this sense, it was a prophetic film. It was one of the earliest appearances in the commercial cinema of the kid who feels like an outcast.” (from Karel Reisz by Georg Gaston).
As for Morgan!‘s ambiguous ending, the meaning is open to interpretation and not spelled out by the director. Pauline Kael had pointed out in her review that the final shot was in homage to the conclusion of Luis Bunuel’s El (1953) in which the obsessive protagonist has finally succumbed to total madness with no possible return to sanity. The ending of Morgan!, however, offers multiple readings, one of which suggests that Morgan’s rebellious spirit is alive and well. Whether one thinks the ending works or not, Morgan!‘s enigmatic fadeout is nonetheless memorable and reflected other films of its era like Blow-Up (1966) which resisted formulaic endings and challenged moviegoers to form their own interpretations without the aid of a calculated, audience pleasing denouement.
Morgan! is currently available on VHS and Blu-ray from various distributors. KL Classics released a Blu-ray edition in June 2020 that featured a new audio commentary by author Bryan Reesman.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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