20th Century Films

What it Means to be Judgmental: Separate Tables (1958)

A judgmental person looks down on other people with contempt.


separate tables

Delbert Mann’s film Separate Tables (1958) sheds light on what it means to be judgmental. It is not judgmental to believe or declare that a person’s actions are wrong; it is to look down on the person for their wrong actions and reject them. A judgmental person believes they are superior to another human being.

 Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper) believes that she is better than other people. As a member of the English upper class, she has “no curiosity about the working classes” and refers to Major Pollock (David Niven) as an “awfully common little man.” Looking down on the Major increases her self-worth, making her feel superior to him. With her wealth and fortune, Mrs. Railton-Bell is judgmental because of her pride.

A person is not judgmental if they declare that someone’s actions are morally wrong. John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster) says, “I feel repelled by what the Major has done.” Similarly, Sibyl Railton-Bell (Deborah Kerr) says, “it made me sick.” Major Pollock was found guilty of criminal behavior in a movie theater. Although his exact actions are unclear, he sat next to a woman and “attempted to take other liberties” with her. John and Sybil are repelled by what the Major did because they have a conscience. They are not being judgmental by expressing their moral convictions.

 To be judgmental is to devalue and disparage someone because of their wrong actions. Mrs. Railton-Bell devalues the Major, calling him “that horrible man.” She condemns him as a human being and wants him evicted from the Hotel Beauregard. In contrast, Sybil only condemns what the Major did, separating the man from his actions. With his head in his hands, he is deeply ashamed and does not defend himself. Unlike her mother, Sybil loves the Major. She does not treat him with contempt or reject him.

A judgmental person will shun people they consider inferior. In the climax of the film, Mrs. Railton-Bell ignores the Major, while John, Sybil, and the other residents make conversation with him. Although no one approves of his past actions, they accept him as a human being and treat him with kindness and respect. Their actions demonstrate what it means to be a non-judgmental person: While it is right to sometimes confront someone for the wrong that they have done, if the person admits to it and is remorseful, then we should be compassionate and forgiving.


  1. I don’t think I could have summed up SEPARATE TABLES with more love, compassion, and sheer insight than you have done here. It has long been a favorite of mine, especially for the perfection of the casting. I don’t think David Niven or Deborah Kerr have ever been quite as superb as they are here; Gladys Cooper and Cathleen Nesbitt are perfection playing opposite sides of the same coin: the old busybody. And I don’t think Wendy Hiller’s performance has an equal in bringing out the loneliness of a woman who sees her youth fading and her chance at love getting ready to flee. Rita Hayworth plays a woman in the same situation (the man they are both interested in is of course Lancaster), but she is a fading fashion model who will cling to the remnants of her beauty as long as they serve her; Hiller’s hotel keeper is a plainer woman whose attributes may not be enough to bring her happiness and she knows it.

    Liked by 1 person

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