Director Delbert Mann was baffled when Separate Tables, long after its release, was included in a retrospective of British film. Although set in the sleepy seaside resort town of Bournemoth, filming was completed entirely within the confines of Stage 5 of Goldwyn Studios in sunny California, and the director was very American by way of birth and by aesthetics, as displayed in his previous hit films Marty, about an Italian-American butcher in Brooklyn.
But there are a number of characteristics that very British that running through Separate Tables, and it is not only its setting a British resort hotel during the off season. One is—for the time—a relatively frank discussion of sex. Even though the more “British” characters are completely scandalized by the very idea, sexual deviation is discussed, which was still something unthinkable in films with a more American setting. David Niven plays one of the long-term residents at Beauregard Hotel, a retired major who is always mumbling about his glorious war record and his plans to eventually write his memoirs, although some of the other residents have doubts as to his true background. He is especially viewed with suspicion by Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper) who worries that her somewhat frail daughter (Deborah Kerr) has strong feelings for the major. When his attempts to intercept a newspaper fail, the mother learns that the major has been charged with “attempting to take liberties” with a woman in the darkness of a local cinema, and she leads a campaign to have him thrown out of the hotel, ignoring the obvious fact that her daughter is heartbroken. In other storylines, Rod Taylor and Audrey Dalton play a young couple planning to get married, and, it is implied, have been sharing a bed before doing so, while Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster play an American couple who have been through a bitter divorce but are still attracted to each other.
Another distinction which somehow strikes me as British is a focus on performance rather than plot or spectacle. One of the best scenes in the film comes when the shy, mousey Sibyl confronts Mr. Pollock (who really isn’t a major after all) to ask if he really did the things written about in the paper. She holds back her tears and he makes a full, and rather moving confession. It is just a shot of two people sitting and speaking, with now help from camera angles, music, or even overt gestures, but it could be used as a master class in acting, so skillful are Niven and Kerr. The scenes between the two American characters, played by Hayworth and Lancaster, do not have the same depth of characterization, but here again the focus is on the performances, and Hayworth, who was well past her glamorous prime by this point, is especially good.