A compelling and enjoyable little film, with solid performances all-round, The Scapegoat is one of myriad stories about doppelgängers switching roles, from The Prince and the Pauper through to Dave and beyond. However, The Scapegoat kicks off with a little more of a North By Northwest vibe, as depressed provincial university professor John Barratt (Alex Guinness) is constantly taken for Jacques de Gué (also Guinness), despite all protestation, following being drugged by Jacques and left with his familial and financial responsibilities, including an alienated wife, a daughter who threatens to self-defenestrate simply to start a conversation, an invalid morphine addict of a mother (Bette Davis), and an amorous Italian mistress.
Not simply for Alec Guinness in multiple roles did I however feel a startling connection to Kind Hearts and Coronets, so I’m completely unsurprised to discover this film is in fact a Robert Hamer film. Sadly, I am also unsurprised to discover this was his penultimate, and last film he completed (being sacked during School For Scoundrels‘ production) due to his alcoholism being in full swing, Wikipedia informing me Guinness himself having to take on directorial duties when Hamer was too inebriated.
I wouldn’t call The Scapegoat‘s direction necessarily lacklustre, but it is certainly – and unsurprisingly – non-committal. There is at least one strong narrative turn that demands considerably more suspense than it receives, and an ending which should address a startling ambiguity and conflict of interests, but casually glides over them to make the viewer somewhat unsatisfied, rather than on the tenterhooks I believe they should be. Instead, The Scapegoat is left largely at a point of pleasant viewing, simply because the majority of the story is, well, pleasant: John does a very impressive job of settling into his new life, as long as you ignore all the plot holes – as you are encouraged too. Ignoring the big one at the end, how is he going to continue supplying his mother with illicit morphine, without Jacques’ presumably Parisian connections?
Thus, The Scapegoat is absolutely fine in an afternoon-viewing sort of way but, with Hitchcock at the helm, or even just a sober Hamer, this might have been elevated to something much more memorable.