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Lonely People Sit at Separate Tables

Updated on August 30, 2021

Movie Poster

Movie Poster
Movie Poster | Source

Movie Trailer


Separate Tables

1 hrs. 40 mins Drama, Romance 1958 7.4 stars

Director: Delbert Mann

Cast: Deborah Kerr - Sybil Railton-Bell

Rita Hayworth - Ann Shankland

David Niven - Major Angus Pollock

Wendy Hiller - Pat Cooper

Burt Lancaster - John Malcolm

Gladys Cooper - Mrs. Railton-Bell

Cathleen Nesbitt - Gladys - Lady Matheson

Felix Aylmer - Mr. Fowler

Rod Taylor - Charles

Audrey Dalton - Jean

May Hallatt - Miss Meacham

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Fateful Meeting

John first notices Ann
John first notices Ann | Source

Synopsis Part I

The Beauregard Hotel in Bournemouth, England, is the setting for this movie. This hotel is within walking distance of the sea. It has a number of permanent residents who have formed a de facto community of largely lonely people or rather people who prefer to be alone and it advertises separate tables for their guests who are dining.

In the opening scene Sybil Railton-Bell (played by Deborah Kerr) is outside looking off towards the sea. She is a troubled woman of weak constitution and temperament. She lives with her overly domineering mother Mrs. Railton-Bell (played by Gladys Cooper.) In one scene her first name, Maude, is mentioned, but otherwise she is always referred to as “Mrs.” and I shall continue that tradition. Sybil is waiting for her one friend, Major Pollack (played by David Niven) to arrive which he does in short course. Major Pollock is always referred to as “The major”. The major is a jolly older man with a constantly chipper demeanor who regales the others with tales of his bravery in the desert campaign during World War II. He apologizes to Sybil for being gone for a few days, but tells her that he needed to help an old war buddy who had fallen on hard times. He explains that this friend had saved his life during the war. They go in to soon join the others at supper, but the major avoids the meal altogether and looks for a copy of the local newspaper, The West Hampshire Weekly. He inquires of the hotel manager, Pat Cooper (played by Wendy Hiller), as to who receives this paper saying that he is interested in finding a used portable typewriter because he wants to begin work on his war memoirs. She tells him that Mrs. Railton-Bell takes that paper and the major starts to scheme how he might get his hands on it.

The scene shifts to the arrival of a new guest, Ann Shankland (played by Rita Hayworth). She is dressed very fashionably which of course catches the attention of the other guests. At the front desk she inquires as to the whereabouts of John Malcolm, one of the other residents. Pat informs her that he is not in at present.

The dinner gong sounds and everyone files into the dining room and to their separate tables. Only Sybil and her mother, Mrs. Railton-Bell, sit two at a table. Everyone else has their own separate table!

When dinner is complete the people file out to a sitting room to talk and gossip. John Malcolm (played by Burt Lancaster) arrives to the consternation of the well-to-do ladies of the hotel, particularly Mrs. Railton-Bell because he has come in through an entrance door he is strictly forbidden from using and he is functionally intoxicated. When John is not at the Beauregard he is at his favorite tavern, The Feathers, medicating an old emotional scar from the past. Though Pat hollers at him for his behavior she tolerates it because they are engaged to each other. John is a troubled American living in this comfortable English hotel far away from his past difficulties back in the USA. Though it is late a plate has been held by the kitchen staff for him and he goes into the dining room to eat. At the table next to his Ann Shankland is still seated finishing her meal. John sees her and immediately, and forcefully, asks her what she’s doing there, because Ann Shankland is the problem he left back in America! It is she from whom he fled to England to escape. She is the reason he drinks. She is his former wife! She has come to the Beauregard to find him. He balks at that. She sees that his life is a wreck and the alcohol has become too important to him, but when she claims that she only came because she has heard that he was in a bad way and she wanted to help him he tells her, “I enjoy one great luxury; being left alone.” He doesn’t believe her stated motives of coming there all the way from New York and tells her, “No one I know lies with such sincerity.”

In the meantime the major gets caught trying to steal Mrs. Railton-Bell’s copy of the West Hampshire Weekly. He apologizes saying he mistook it for another paper he had been waiting for. But Mrs. Railton-Bell is ever suspicious of all and quickly looks through the paper to see what it is that the major was interested in. She and her friend, Gladys (played by Cathleen Nesbitt) quickly found the article that drew the major’s attention. It was an arrest report about him. It indicated that he had been observed several times in the cinema behaving inappropriately with female patrons. The article went on to discuss his military background which mentioned that he had risen to the rank of lieutenant and was stationed at a supply depot in the West Indies for the duration of the war. Suddenly Mrs. Railton-Bell knew that the major was a fraud. She made sure that Sybil also read the article. Sybil was in a state of shock. She went into one of her emotional states and sat catatonically while she processed the news.

Discovering a Secret

Gladys and Mrs. Railton-Bell learn about the major
Gladys and Mrs. Railton-Bell learn about the major | Source

Synopsis Part II

Mrs. Railton-Bell called a meeting of the residences to discuss this and to vote for the major’s expulsion from the hotel. The vote went in favor of expulsion with several notable exceptions the most prominent being that of John Malcolm who brilliantly spoke of the major in such a way as to hold a secondary meaning perceptible only to Ann who had also been invited to the meeting though she was only a temporary resident. John also asked Sybil for her views on the matter and went into one of her states again.

Afterwards John and Ann meet up on the porch. Ann appears to be somewhat interested in getting back together with John, but he is staunchly against that. It comes out that she is starting to age and is no longer the glamorous model she used to be gracing magazine covers. John doesn’t feel sorry for her; she’s made her bed and now she must lie in it. Up till then her looks got her all her friendships, but they’ve always been superficial friendships at best. But now that she’s aging she feels so lonely and her cool and collected self-confidence is crumbling. She can’t own up to it and John can’t tolerate her so he pushes her aside and runs off to the Feathers.

The next scene takes place in the morning the major who has been out for a stroll talks to Sybil out on the porch. She asks him why he did it, but he has no understanding of his own dark impulses. He does point out that he and she are alike in that they are both afraid of other people. He made up what they have known of his background because he didn’t like who he was so he made someone else of himself.

Sybil can’t deal with this and leaves. She goes in and talks to Ann who is waiting for a taxi in order to depart the hotel. While she’s talking to Ann she shows real sorrow for the major and she does realize that they share a unique lonely friendship with each other; she really doesn’t want him to leave.

John comes back from the Feathers and hides in Pat’s apartment, but Pat advises him to talk to Ann. Soon the major also comes into Pat’s apartment where she tells him that he is welcome and encouraged to stay.

The guests go into breakfast and John goes over to sit at Ann’s table raising some eyebrows.

The major also comes in and is in short time greeted by most of the other guests. Mrs. Railton-Bell pointedly refuses to acknowledge him, but Sybil, in an act of defiance greets him.

John and Ann agree to get back together and give it a try.

The major decides to stay on after all.

Sybil and the Major - Bonded Friends

The major trying to explain his actions to Sybil
The major trying to explain his actions to Sybil | Source

Analysis Part I

Separate Tables is really two stories taking place at the same English hotel. The hotel advertises separate tables for its guests which is an appealing feature for the hotel’s single, lonely occupants. Despite the isolated eating arrangements the hotel guests have developed into a community of their own and they absorb the two stories which take place at the same time within the hotel walls.

The one story is that of Sybil and the major. They have developed an attachment to each other as two needy people who have found a unique ability to share with each other. The convenience of their friendship is shattered when the major’s life and persona are found to be fraudulent. He is not who he says he is. This news causes devastating consequences for Sybil.

The other story is that of Ann Shankland’s visit to the hotel. She is the former wife of John Malcolm one of the permanent residents there. More than simply a former wife, she is in his estimation the cause of his withdraw from society and his subsequent alcoholism. She wants him back, but is afraid to say so and he wants nothing to do with her.

The two stories touch each other as both Ann and John try to be helpful to poor Sybil whose devastation is patently palpable. But “time heals all wounds” they say and this is also true in this case. When John asks for Sybil’s views on the topic during the meeting she is forced into hysterics, after which he states that if she would ever disagree with her mother just once she would be freed from her mother’s domination of her. He meant well, but it wasn’t quite time yet. In the final scene where all the other problems are resolved this one is too. Sybil greets the major at breakfast, an act that absolutely defies her mother. And we know at that time that she is free and, presumably on the road to a better life.

Sybil Heartbroken over the Major

Sybil heartbroken over the major
Sybil heartbroken over the major | Source

Analysis Part II

The final scene is one of redemption all around. A subplot involving a young couple, Jean and Charles (played by Audrey Dalton and Rod Taylor respectively), plays out in the opening part of the final scene. They are staying in the hotel at different ends of the hallway as he studies for med school. Jean is a modern thinker who does not want to marry or have children. Her role represents modern thinking in the more traditional community that has developed in the hotel. Without provocation, however, traditionalism wins over when Jean suddenly decides to marry him and have at least three children. Charles is dumbfounded and they wander off to start making their plans.

The major experiences the sensation of redemption when the other guests all greet him at breakfast, all except Mrs. Railton-Bell that is. She departs in frustration when this is happening and Sybil greets the major and has a short conversation with him. Due to this conversation the major informs Pat that he’ll take lunch at the usual time, indicating that he intends on staying. The community has accepted him despite his shortcomings and, especially, Sybil has accepted him. With this scene as an inspiration John, who has sat or rather “tabled” with Ann, asks what chance they have together at all but she answers by asking what chance they have apart.

The hotel states in its ad that among other things that it offers “separate tables”; the movie uses this to emphasize a certain measure of loneliness that each one of the residents deals with. Even those who have formed friendships within the hotel remain seated at their own tables at meal time. Each person has time to themselves at meal time, time to read the paper or a book. But if they wish to speak to someone else they shout across to that person’s table. In this way the dining room serves as a visual to the social status of their lives. There is a certain measure of closeness, but there are definite boundaries to that closeness. As mentioned before only Sybil and Mrs. Railton-Bell sit together and it has been noted that part of Sybil’s dysfunction is that she is stuck under the power of her domineering mother. To use the metaphor of the dining room she has not moved to her own table in life yet.

Likewise the decision of John to get back together with Ann is symbolically shown with him moving to her table.

The dining room is also the scene where the major is accepted back into the community by its willingness to greet him at breakfast.

The separateness of the dining room tables does not thwart the development of community within the hotel. This building is home to its occupants and their daily lives naturally interact with each other. Though dining at separate tables they do dine together and they have formed friendships with each other of varying degrees. Certainly Gladys and Mrs. Railton-Bell have become friends. And, of course, Sybil and the major have bonded quite strongly.

A Scene of Redemption All Around

The Final Dining Scene
The Final Dining Scene | Source

Introducing Sybil and "The Major"

The Major Talks with Pat


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