The death of the British director Alan Bridges at the age of 86 is a great sadness. Bridges was a brilliant poet and cinematic satirist – in tones both mordant and melancholy – of the English class system of the early 20th century, and a director with a flair for psychology and interior crisis, as evidenced by movies like The Return of the Soldier (1982) and The Shooting Party (1985). A film-maker to bear comparison with Joseph Losey and John Schlesinger , he was one of the few British directors to win the top prize at the Cannes film festival . Bridges earned that accolade with his wonderful 1973 movie The Hireling, when the award was called the Grand Prix – jointly, in fact, with Jerry Schatzberg's marvellous Scarecrow , another film only recently being rediscovered. Writing about Bridges and The Hireling back in 2009 , I wondered why this superbly gifted man had been rather forgotten. (I myself, I am ashamed to say, was only fully alerted to his existence by the souvenir bag distributed at the Cannes film festival in 2007, for its 60th anniversary, in which Bridges's name was printed alongside those of other illustrious award-winners including Martin Scorsese , Ken Loach , Michelangelo Antonioni and Quentin Tarantino . Perhaps Cannes remembered Bridges more clearly than we British.) The Hireling is an utterly absorbing film, based on a novel by LP Hartley, and featuring excellent performances from Robert Shaw and Sarah Miles . In post-world war one England Shaw is the "hireling", a chauffeur who becomes the kindly confidant of an aristocratic woman, played by Miles, who has suffered a nervous breakdown following the death of her husband. Something in this kindly, shrewd man's manner inspires confidence, and the woman opens up to him. His friendship begins to heal her. But then a catastrophe looms: the driver begins, heartbreakingly, to fall in love with his beautiful employer just as she outgrows the need for his intimacy – and, in fact, shows signs of submitting to the courtship of a local, well-bred fellow whom Shaw's chauffeur knows to be a cad. It is an intimate, exacting movie: the kind that could never get made now. And it has a fiercely sceptical attitude to the hidden nastiness and pettiness of the class system – very different from the Merchant Ivory movies that were to become fashionable a decade or so later. The Return of the Soldier, based on a novella by Rebecca West , takes a similarly sharp and unforgiving look at sex and class. Alan Bates plays a captain who returns from the first world war suffering memory loss and shell shock. His rather haughty society wife, played by Julie Christie , tries to rebuild their marriage, but her husband's mind has been damaged in such a way that he fails to recognise her, and remembers only his lost passionate love for a lower-middle-class woman, played by Glenda Jackson . It is a story that allows the audience to wonder if this memory loss has, in some semi-intentional way, been willed by the captain. Is he using the destructive calamity of war to cut through stifling social expectations to reach some kind of emotional truth? The Shooting Party is a movie set on the eve of the first world war: James Mason , in his final performance, plays the aristocrat Sir Randolph Nettleby , who hosts a shooting party at his country estate. His ordered world of privilege is still inviolate, but about to be blasted away: the contrast between their shooting and the guns of August is obvious. Bridges's film dissects the party's venom and conceit, and also the ruling classes' culpable arrogance and evasion. For my money, the most extraordinary moment, replete with horror and pathos, comes when – with the afternoon wearing on – Nettleby's guest, the careless and arrogant Lord Hartlip (played by Edward Fox ), accidentally shoots a beater in the face (this is Tom, played by Gordon Jackson ). Sir Randolph bends over poor Tom, who asks: "Is it dark, sir?" After a tiny pause, Sir Randolph replies, uncomfortably: "It's getting dark, Tom." His instinct is evasion and deceit and splitting the difference; he is reluctant to spell out the awful truth, which is that a wealthy guest has blinded him. In 2001, The Shooting Party was widely held (along with Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game) to be an influence on Gosford Park , directed by Robert Altman and written by Julian Fellowes . But it is far darker and gloomier than that film, and certainly more critical than its TV spinoff, Downton Abbey. We have lost a world-class director in Bridges; it would be great to have a full retrospective of his work. In the meantime, BFI Southbank is showing two of his television dramas in February: Strindberg's Miss Julie , starring Gunnel Lindblom and Ian Hendry , transmitted in 1965, and David Mercer's Let's Murder Vivaldi, starring Jackson and Denholm Elliott , first broadcast in 1968.
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