Blue Gene: Tierney in the UK

The three films that Gene Tierney made in Britain, including film noir Night and the City, found the Hollywood icon visiting London, Buckinghamshire and Cornwall. But it coincided with a difficult period in her private life.

9 April 2024

By Josephine Botting

Gene Tierney with Richard Widmark in the London-set noir Night and the City (1950) © Image preserved by the BFI National Archive

A woman desperately pursues a frenzied, dishevelled man along the banks of the Thames at Hammersmith. To shake her off, he pushes her roughly to the ground in front of a dilapidated riverside pub. The film is London-set noir Night and the City (1950) and burned-out spiv Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is running headlong to his death, while long-suffering girlfriend Mary Bristol, played by Gene Tierney, tries to hold him back.

It was 1949, and Tierney’s career had flourished over the decade. But this enigmatic Hollywood star was beset by personal difficulties and had periods of crisis that affected her work; a diagnosis of bipolar disorder would lead to her being hospitalised in 1955. Some particularly dark times occurred while she was filming in Britain, giving her mixed memories of her transatlantic visits.

Born into a well-to-do family, Tierney spent two years at a finishing school in Lausanne where she learned French and developed a love of Europe. But her trip to London to make Night and the City was her first sight of the continent since before the war, and she was to find the atmosphere much changed.

She arrived on 28 July 1949, accompanied by her six-month-old daughter Christina; her marriage to costume designer Oleg Cassini had been rocky, but the couple were recently reconciled. London was still enduring rationing, and much of the city bore the physical scars of the war, a fact that director Jules Dassin made the most of when planning the locations of his noirish thriller.

Gene Tierney and Clark Gable during production of Never Let Me Go (1953)
© Image preserved by the BFI National Archive

From the press stills, it appears Tierney did little more than shoot her few sequences, many of which were night shoots on location. There are virtually no promotional portraits of her, perhaps surprising since the star of such films as Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945) would surely have been a strong selling point for British audiences.  

Her low profile perhaps suggests the three-month London trip was not a fulfilling experience, and the rather insipid role of Mary was designed to be undemanding; 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck, aware of her unhappy personal situation, felt some time away would do her good. When not caring for her daughter, she enjoyed trips to the races with Richard Widmark and his wife, who also shared with her the tinned milk they had brought with them.

By the time of her next visit to England in the summer of 1952, her marriage to Cassini was over. She was starring in Delmer Daves’ Cold War drama Never Let Me Go, demonstrating her versatility in the role of a Russian ballerina, though at 32 she found the rigorous training with choreographer Anton Dolin exhausting. Clark Gable played her love interest, an American journalist who sails to the Baltic to liberate his Russian bride from the Soviet Union, and she found him kind and supportive.

Various English locations, including Newquay and Drury Lane, doubled as Tallinn, while much of the UK-based action took place at the beautiful coastal village of Mevagissey, Cornwall. From the production stills, it looks like an idyllic summer shoot, with Tierney appearing happy and relaxed alongside Gable and British cast members Bernard Miles and Richard Haydn.

After filming, Tierney visited Paris where she began a whirlwind romance with Prince Aly Khan, wealthy socialite son of the Aga Khan. Aly Khan’s marriage to Rita Hayworth was ending and the British press pounced on his exotic adventures with his new love interest. Tierney stayed on in Europe, ostensibly to take advantage of tax relief arrangements, but she was living the high life, meeting the artists Picasso and Utrillo, entertaining on the Riviera and relaxing at Khan’s stud farm in Ireland.

In March 1953 she began shooting the British film Personal Affair, directed by Anthony Pelissier. She was cast as Kay Barlow, wife of a school teacher accused of having an affair with a pupil, played by Glynis Johns. This film was to be a much more trying experience.

Gene Tierney on location at Hambleden Weir in Buckinghamshire for Personal Affair (1953)
© Image preserved by the BFI National Archive

Tierney suffered terrible nerves during the filming, relying on her loyal Cockney maid Ruby to help her learn her lines. It was perhaps this anxiety that led her to spend her down time at Pinewood “with her head in some book”, as observed when the Evening Standard visited the set. However, she was happy to sign autographs for children while filming in Bedford and, while on location in Buckinghamshire, was spotted drinking stout in the local pub. So perhaps she wasn’t quite as aloof as all that.

However, she was living through a very dark time, and her role as a jealous, paranoid wife perhaps negatively impacted her mental state. Some critics perceived an air of detachment in her performance, the Daily Mail reviewer declaring that she “gave the impression not so much of an actress acting but of a star making personal appearance”.

In March 1954, Tierney was seen sporting an enormous diamond ring, and the press speculated that wedding bells would soon be ringing. But the Aga Khan was dead set against another film star in the family and sent his son to Pakistan, ending Tierney’s European adventure. With her daughter about to start school and a Hollywood career to rejuvenate, she headed home.

Although the roles she’d played didn’t stretch her as an actor, or do her career many favours, she looked back on her time in England with affection. “London is a city of gentle memories for me,” she wrote in her memoirs in 1979, fondly recalling a dinner with Noel Coward, endless martinis and her suite at the Ritz. But it was her loyal maid Ruby who perhaps left the strongest impression on Tierney, getting her through her darkest times with her “traditional British resistance to admitting defeat”.

A season of Gene Tierney films is currently playing at BFI Southbank.

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