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A Severed Head (1970) starring Ian Holm Blu Ray (Indicator)

No actual severed heads here

Despite the title, this isn’t a horror film at all. It’s a British-made comedy-drama which was adapted from a novel by Iris Murdoch. It features Ian Holm as Martin Lynch-Gibbon, a wealthy wine merchant who is secretly having an extramarital affair with a textile design lecturer named Georgie Hands (Jennie Linden).

One day, when he gets home to his wife Antonia (Lee Remick), she (irony of ironies) freely admits that she has been sleeping with his longtime best friend, a psychiatrist named Palmer Anderson (Richard Attenborough), behind his back. While Martin and Antonia get a divorce, the three of them all agree to keep their relations amicable. However, things get shaken up when Palmer’s darkly dour sister, Honor Klein (Claire Bloom), turns up all of a sudden, and Georgie suddenly decides that she can’t keep their affair secret any longer.

Lee Remick in A Severed Head (1970)

Strangely uninteresting

A Severed Head is yet another largely-forgotten oddity to have been granted an Indicator release. It starts with an opening credits sequence featuring its central characters popping up onscreen in doll incarnations. Why? Well, your guess is as good as mine. Honor Klein is revealed to be adept with a samurai sword following her return from a trip to Japan (which we never see). To what significance? Well… There’s also a sitar musical cue which plays every time she pops up. Because? Erm… While Martin acts with decided nonchalance upon his wife telling her that she has been seeing his best friend, she flies into hysterics upon finding out about his own affair. For some reason. The film’s peculiar title is finally explained towards the end but only in the most pretentiously obscure sense of the word. If this is all supposed to be comical, it’s simply not funny. It’s just strange, albeit in a strangely uninteresting way. Director Dick Clement manages one or two cool visual flourishes (a black-and-white photo of a wedding ceremony which comes to life, only to play in reverse) but doesn’t know what kind of overall tone to adopt with regard to the surreal goings-on.

The whole thing amounts to a big game of musical beds between characters who aren’t terribly likeable and whose motivations remain resolutely opaque. The talented cast endeavour gamely but to little avail. Ian Holm is a well-regarded British actor but the character whom he is playing is far from endearing and, frankly, a something of an aggressive thug at times. When I was watching him, I couldn’t help but think of his turn as the creepy Ash in Alien. Richard Attenborough fares well enough as Palmer, a man who ably offsets his rotund appearance with a decidedly conniving charm. However, his character doesn’t really go anywhere once the story’s initial setup has been established. American actress Lee Remick manages a decent upper-class English accent but her performance tends to stray too far into histrionics.

Claire Bloom, who effectively conveys real air of mystery around her onscreen persona, is one of the few good things here.

The painterly visuals lensed by Austin Dempster are also attractive, as is Richard Macdonald’s production design. Otherwise, this is one of those films which has remained forgotten about for many years for good reason.

Runtime: 98 mins

Dir: Dick Clement

Script: Frederick Raphael, from a novel by Iris Murdoch

Starring: Lee Remick, Richard Attenborough, Ian Holm, Claire Bloom, Jennie Linden, Clive Revill, Ann Firbank

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

A visible line down the picture in one scene notwithstanding, the picture and audio are top notch as per usual with Indicator.


Audio Commentary with Dick Clement

BFI staff member Sam Dunn interviews the film’s director, who says that he is proud of the film but concedes that it isn’t for everyone. The title sequence featuring the dolls was his own idea and was shot after principal photography. However, a number of the other visually surreal moments (such as the photo which comes to life) came from Frederick Raphael’s script.

Dick also discusses the film’s title which he is fully aware makes it sound like it comes from the horror genre. Apparently, there were plans to change it to something that more accurately represented the content to would-be audiences. However, they ultimately decided to leave it as it is because Iris Murdoch (who wrote the original literary source) was upset about the prospect of it being changed.

Towards the end of the commentary, Dick talks about his passion for writing musicals. One project in the pipeline is a musical based on the band Foreigner entitled Juke Box Hero.

Guise And Dolls

Saskia de Boer discusses the title sequence which features the dolls which she herself created. She made them out of polyurothane foam and, while she never met any of the actors whom they represented, she was able to replicate their likeness from footage and photographs. The sequence itself took over a week to shoot and she remained on set in order to make sure that the arms and hair were set correctly each time the crew changed their positions between shots.

Slightly Saucy

Production Manager Timothy Burrill talks briefly about his experiences on the film. He reveals that some of the interiors were shot at the Royal College of Art in London. At one point, the college dean visited his office during the shoot and was shocked to find a false pillar placed in the middle of his office which, to him, looked like it was made from the same concrete as the rest of the building!

What Happened Just Then?

Rob Deering comedian discusses the film’s odd style and rhythm. Let’s just say that he clearly enjoyed it considerably more than I did!

A theatrical trailer, image gallery and collector’s booklet round out the extras.


A Severed Head is, quite frankly, a baffling film and a baffling choice for an Indicator release. However, once again, the quality of the restoration and the extras lend it some value for those who are keen on snaffling every release this label puts out.

Movie: ☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆

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