Peter Willems (Trevor Howard) is a trader in Singapore who thinks he knows it all, or at least knows how to take advantage of any good luck which may come his way. That is, until that luck runs out, as it does today when his boss grows sick of him spending his money without much reward, and promptly sacks him. Willems quickly realises this means his source of profit has evaporated just like that, and he is suddenly plunged into dire circumstances: who will hire him now? But then he has a brainwave, as there's a very sucessful trader, Captain Lingard (Ralph Richardson) due in port...
Lingard, you see, has managed to negotiate the seas between the dangerous islands around this area, but will not tell anyone his secret as he alone believes he knows what's best for the natives and their wellbeing, not to mention their trade. Thus begins a complex moral dilemma, not that either man is willing to face up to their reponsibilities as they both are out to better themselves, but Lingard is more about protecting the people from the worst instincts of those who would exploit them, yet Willems recognises they would be quite happy to be exploited if it made them rich. So who do we side with, is the question raised? Who has the moral high ground, if any of them do?
Outcast of the Islands was based on a Joseph Conrad novel, and his works were famously difficult to do justice on the screen what with the deep inner lives of their characters, but director Carol Reed, coming off the triple successes of Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, evidently fancied a challenge, so off he went (with Alexander Korda's blessing) with his crew to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to film around the coast there, a decision that paid artistic dividends, especially when you consider what it would have looked like if they'd been forced to shoot it all in the studio (interiors were studio-bound, but much of this was on location). Not that this would have been half as good without a clutch of strong performances to back him up.
But when this was released, it flopped, with a critical reputation generally of the opinion that Reed had lost it, and his grasp had exceeded his reach this time; he never quite recovered his standing, although he would have hits later on, most notably with musical Oliver! However, when selected viewers began to return to Outcast of the Islands they noticed that it had been given far too short shrift, and there was actually a rich, dark plot here brought to life principally by the excellent Trevor Howard in one of his career best roles. Perceiving that Willems would actually be quite a pathetic character if it were not for his lust for life, Howard skillfully depicts his frustrations and weaknesses while still making plain his determination to take the bull by the horns.
Not that it helps him in the long run, but God loves a trier, even if we see by the end it's not going to redeem Willems - or any of them. He fakes a suicide attempt by jumping into the sea in full view of Lingard, who then fishes him out of the water and thinking he was at the end of his tether (which he was, even if he wouldn't quite face up to the fact) transports him all the way through those dangerous channels to the village where Lingard does his trading from. There, in charge of operations when he's away, is his son-in-law Elmer Almayer, played by Robert Morley who proved he could be a terrific dramatic actor here when not asked to play comedy as he often was. Almayer is married to Wendy Hiller as the sensitive daughter of Lingard, and they have a daughter themselves (unmistakably Morley's own offspring), yet the villagers treat them with respectful suspicion, and Willems soon comes to realise he is in some kind of hell which his lust for a native girl (Kerima) will not soothe as she is out to exploit him. As a portrait of a soul fighting and failing to survive, Reed's work just missed the classic status it sought, but offered a vivid and haunting experience nonetheless. Music by Brian Easdale.
[After a long time in obscurity, Studio Canal have released Outcast of the Islands on Region 2 DVD in a clear, crisp print. No extras, but those curious about it will be rewarded.]