The year is 1912 and a group of upper class members of British society are just finishing up their evening meal, with the head of the Birling family, Arthur (Arthur Young) and his wife, Sybil (Olga Lindo) looking on approvingly as their daughter Sheila (Eileen Moore) is presented with an engagement ring by her fiancé, Gerard Croft (Brian Worth). Only Sheila's brother Eric (Bryan Forbes) strikes a note of dissent, but he has been the worse for drink not only for the meal but for quite a few months, though his parents prefer to ignore his obvious alcohol problem. He is sent upstairs to change his shirt after spilling drink on it as the other men retire to the drawing room, but when they do, there's a mysterious man waiting for them...
An Inspector Calls was not the best film made of a J.B. Priestley original, that would be The Old Dark House back in the early nineteen-thirties, but it was decent enough as a record and slight opening out of a play that prompted much discussion in its day, and continues into the modern era. Its real bonus was its casting of the titular Inspector Poole - Goole in the source, but that was a bit of a giveaway, it was decided - as Alastair Sim may have been loved by audiences for his comedy roles, but he was just as adept at playing serious. Not that he eliminated the twinkle in his eye here, it was simply applied to a different purpose as the all-knowing Inspector quizzes the dinner party.
He is here to make inquiries about a woman who has just recently committed suicide by drinking bleach, or at least that's how she died, whether it was by her own hand is something he wants to determine. The assembled have no idea why he would want to ask them about someone who, though evidently suffering a tragic end, was a stranger to them - ah, but oops, wouldn't you know it, turns out this family have each in their own way contributed to making this woman's life a misery, either by unthinking actions or outright vindictiveness, which still doesn't factor in that they should have been behaving a lot better than they did. But for Priestley, a proud Northern socialist, he wanted to make a wider point than the detrimental effects of bad manners.
He was telling us that those who had were obligated to look out for those who had not, and the Inspector acted as a conscience that the Birlings and Gerald didn't realise they held. With the other actors behaving much as terribly well-to-do thespians did in countless polite dramas churned out by the British film industry during the run up to the kitchen sink movement that shook it up in a few short years after this was released, the real electricity in the piece was all on the shoulders of Sim, something he was more than able to command. Allowing a half-smile to play over his saturnine features, he stole scenes even when he didn't get much more dialogue than what amounted to "and then what happened?", perfectly cast as the story's spirit of justice.
In that way, Poole was as much a thorn in the side of the movie's establishment characters as the new blood would be to both Britain's filmmaking and theatrical worlds, and watching him mess with the heads of people who had been oh-so-confident they had been in the right through their enforcement of society's less fair attitudes and conventions. In truth, when Sim wasn't on the screen the effect was rather staid and the righteous anger of Priestley was muted into sad-eyed melodrama as we followed the sorry tale of the victim (Jane Wenham) who changes her identity both for plot purposes and to make her more of an everywoman in the regard of the audience. Director Guy Hamilton, who would graduate to the James Bond franchise the following decade, didn't exhibit much but respect for the play as written, so don't expect any excitement for the first hour of an admittedly brief film, yet the major enigma that arises for that last twenty minutes still provides a kick. It was still probably best as a claustrophobic stage experience, but Sim made it worthwhile. Music by Francis Chagrin.