WAITING FOR THE END

 

The Third Age.

 

The phrase had not been coined in 1975, when Alan Bennett, inspired by his parents' working life (he a butcher), wrote a “Play for Today” about their uprooting to a seaside place for “retirement”, a term which then suggested slagheap rather than several decades' fresh opportunities.

 

Directed by Stephen Frears, Sunset Across the Bay opens in a Leeds whose terraced houses are being torn down as “slums” while the place is being circled by dual carriageways amidst which newly-built, thin-walled tower blocks foster isolation.

 

After years in a machine-tools factory, Harry Markham has been presented with a farewell gift to which colleagues - fellow-workers - have chipped in: an inscribed pop-up toaster. He sits in a caff and marvels at it.

 

That might seem quintessential Alan Bennett, who caps it: back home, Markham's wife (Gabrielle Daye) upbraids him when he adds it to the sideboard souvenirs, and she relegates it, naturally enough, to the kitchen.

 

In that moment, we sense a long marriage's argy-bargy which has been leavened by humour and by support from their son (unusually named Bertram [Bob Peck]) who took the assisted passage to Australia at which they still balk.

 

Much of the play takes place - faces upwards, decidedly chaste - in the bed dismantled in Leeds and re-assembled in Morecombe, where they balk at what they have done. Now flung upon themselves, they are exposed to long days which they had previously spent apart.

 

Here is a series of vignettes of life in which people were being asked, in effect, to buckle their belts for “a final descent”. As time has shown, Bennett may once have have appeared to rival Max Beerbohm for being born middle-aged (as Wilde noted), but he has kept at it and so what was once billed as a “Play for Today” is now very much one for - to coin a phrase - Forty-Five Years On.

 

MUMBLE AND FALL

 

Could Agatha Christie have played Miss Marple? If not right for Holmes, could the stolid Conan Doyle have been Watson on screen? The thought comes to mind while looking at The Girl Hunters (1963). In this widescreen number, Mickey Spillaine plays his creation Mike Hammer who is as hard-boiled as his name.

 

He is not very good, more dud than dude. His manner makes the film lumber, and so it opens with many a less-than-pithy scene whose wandering dialogue is not an opportunity for the wit that could have carried it through. On the wagon, Hammer is trying to rebuild a career as a private investigator who is now motivated by the quest for a long-lost woman.

 

Try as one might, it is difficult to become involved in something which could so easily have been much better.

 

The stop button beckoned.

 

Which meant that one missed the appearance of Shirley Eaton. Perhaps she - familiar from the later Goldfinger - brought seductive life to it, but heigh-ho. This does not inspire one to read the prolific Spillaine. Perhaps that is unfair. After all, some years earlier there was a masterpiece made from one of his works: Kiss Me Deadly.

 

 

SOMETHING WICKET THIS WAY COMES

 

Apples were harmed in the making of this film. Such a note could have been included in the credits of Orchard at Murder End (1981). That might sound a frivolous comment to make of something which turns around murder by strangulation but this fifty-minute drama - mostly set in 1966, as summer ends, in the vicinity of a cricket match in an idyllic Kent - was intendedly lightly.

 

Written and directed by Christian Marnham, who had shunned his family's farming life for one as film editor who turned to commercials, it was made on a minimal budget and found continuing life as the second feature when various all-out gory films worked their way round the circuits. Its title means that one is not giving anything away: Tracey Hyde (best known for Melody), in a Louise Brooks hairstyle and a splendid black-and-white dress, agrees to go with a fellow in a sports car to the village where he is in the cricket team. Their only previous meeting was to neck in a car park. She is keen for more, and is chagrined when a romp in a field is broken off so that he meet his destiny on the pitch.

 

Taking the hump instead of a hump, she wanders about, and chances upon the cottage of a stationmaster (Bill Wallis) whose garden gnomes so attract her attention that she accepts an invitation to tea by a man whose oddness is outdone by that of his handsome lodger: Clive Mantle in a first appearance which heralded a prolific television career.

 

Suffice to say that while strolling in the orchard she succumbs to a deep kiss but shies from more, the price for which is death upon a huge heap of surplus fruit.

 

To adapt the Song of Songs, this is discomfort me with apples. It is simultaneously grim and yet unreal (the murder was filmed at eighteen frames a second to bring out the jerkiness of such a death). Within this short film there is much going on, it is as absorbing as it is unsettling: a glowing England with autumn imminent.

 

The British Film Institute's DVD comes with droll interviews, including one in which Tracey Hyde makes light of long submersion, her naked body pressed against the apples with, out of shot, a drainpipe attached to her face for air. Such was life before computer-generated imagery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ON A CUSP - AND BEYOND

 

As chance has it, an evening's double bill of films brings reflection upon the link between screen and book at a time when French cinema was turning from its theatrical roots to the fast-moving methods of the New Wave.

 

That is, Ophuls's La Ronde (1950) and Melville's Le Silence de la Mer (1949).

 

They are both virtuoso efforts which make use of limited sets (Melville's drama of the Resistance essentially takes place in one room and Ophuls's turn-of-the-century Vienna was re-created in France); both are driven by music; neither shies from dialogue - although Melville's comprises a series of monologues greeted by such unnerving silence as to make for a vociferous reaction (the sea is never silent).

 

Some details.

 

La Ronde is adapted from Arthur Schnitzler's play, and it brought that work wider fame, which has prompted other versions, including a late-Nineties stage play The Blue Room: the sight of a naked Nicole Kidman means that the Daily Telegraph's reviewer has never lived down his description of her as “theatrical Viagra” (around this time she also appeared in Stanley Kubrick's last film Eyes Wide Shut, whose steamy - some might say, foggy - scenes also had their origins in a Schnitzler story). There is no nudity, beyond a provocative shoulder or two, in La Ronde but it is suffused with sex, Anton Walbrook a master of ceremonies aboard a fairground carousel symbolic of ten two-person vignettes which lead from one dark-alley encounter to those more brightly lit: such is the human urge to copulate that this takes the viewer through the strata of society and - just as rain returns to cloud - back to that very alley, with the implication that one and all have become infected.

 

Waltz-driven elegance - an understanding maitre d' and all (the terrific cast includes Simone Signoret) - cannot obscure those seething forces which, did they but know it, fomented a Europe out of control, all those factions which, within fourteen years, brought the terrible accident that was the Great War.

 

And then a mere blink - which saw the rise of the Modern Movement - and there was another War. A bruised France collided with an out-of-control Germany, a Nazi flag rose above Paris, Hitler's hideous face prominent in every office of the Occupation across the Occupied Zone.

 

All this, eighty years on, remains the stuff of controversy. Vercors's novel - in fact, a story - was published clandestinely in 1942. It described, in dialogue, the arrival of a wounded, artistically-inclined German officer (Howard Vernon) to lodge in the small home of a Frenchman and his niece.

 

While bewhiskered, pipe-smoking uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and ravishingly stolid niece (Nicole Stéphane) sit by the fire - he reading, she knitting -, Vernon launches into polite, reasoned, sometimes mad disquisitions upon art and life, nationhood, and more, all undercut by a sense of human vulnerability and upbringing.

 

Ophuls was, of course, a professional, with transatlantic experience; this, however, was Melville's first real attempt at film making. One of his obstacles was Vercors's reluctance to have his story filmed, a fact strangely countered by Melville's duly prevailing upon him to let the film be made in the writer's own home. Crucial to this on-the-hoof, unofficial way of working was cinematographer Henri Decae. His lighting, his sense of when to bring the camera forward and when to pull it back for fireplace to flicker against skin is marvellous: we are aware that the confines of that room are redolent of a turbulent world beyond it.

 

While Oscar Strauss's music was a swirling link between the sections of La Ronde, that created by Edgar Bischoff for The Silence de la Mersuffuses the film: it is there, so it seems, all the time - audible, unobtrusive.

 

An article cannot describe everything about these two masterpieces which have more in common than might at first appear. Seek them out.

 

One should like to have - necessarily learning German in the process - the copious diaries in which Schnitzler chronicled the encounters which brought about his play. Meanwhile, here and now, we are in a world beset by a disease which can have its effect without any champagne-driven, stockings-dropping tumble upon the chaise longue; however many months, or more, all this might last, it does mean that a books-laden sofa can be the place for sedulous, engaging reading - and viewing.

 

All of which is do so here, as I write this, while surrounded by walls whose bricks were laid (in 1894) before Schnitzler's words reached paper.

 

That now can seem but yesterday.

 

 

ANOTHER RAZOR'S EDGE

 

A decade separates Anthony Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) from his wartime thriller Cottage to Let. With the latter he had become what is known as a dependable director, faint praise incarnate, a polite term for stagebound (we still await a good film version of The Importance of Being Earnest: his attempt handbagged Wilde's play).

 

To go back to A Cottage on Dartmoor is something else. The title is misleading. More of it in fact takes place in a barber's chair, a blade silently swishing - so much that one almost suspects that there is a pie shop next door. Murder is indeed likely to be on the menu, for sinister obsessive Uno Henning is smitten with Norah Baring, a manicurist on the premises who prefers the attentions shown by a burly customer, farmer Hans Schlettow.

 

That is the essence of the plot, a variant on one which has done service down the ages: the love triangle - there should have been a Greek playwright called Isosceles. What makes all this so absorbing is Asquith's continual use of light and shadow, camera angles which owe much to Expressionism, that look in the eye which, without sound, denotes terror itself. A set piece is a visit to the “talkies”. Ironically, the sound section of this film is lost, but it is is fascinating to watch the close-ups of a pit-band orchestra: the strings are as taut as the emotions shown by those three adults who have shown up in the audience while two schoolboys' affectation of bravery in the face of on-screen horror serves them ill.

 

Strange to think that it was a decade in which prose and poetry had taken new forms while film was still in its early stages, and yet silent images remain far more a part of Modernism than the early talkies.

 

Would that a version of The Waste Land had been filmed in the London and Europe of the Twenties. Perhaps it could yet be done.

 

 

THE SENSE OF A BEGINNING

 

All too often writing about film is a matter of statistics (opening-weekend grosses, Asian sales). To compound that offence, it is none the less worth noting that Transsiberian (2008) - written and directed by Brad Anderson - had a brief cinema release at the time. Since then - as, one might say, a sleeper - it has accrued a wide audience on disc, although one can imagine that the scenes inside and without the eponymous railway carriages would look all the more remarkable on a large screen.

 

Not that this belongs to the picture-postcard school of film making, for it is driven by a strong sense of character from the opening scenes. Somewhere in Russia, at the water's edge, a dead body is found, the evidence of departure: a knife in the back of the head. What's more heart rending to those around is that a cupboard no longer contains what was evidently a great wad of money.

 

Ben Kingsley, in a grim turn as a police inspector, is set to take up that case. All of which one might soon forget as the scene cuts to the refulgent air of a happy-clappy religious school in Bejing where Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer have been volunteering as part of a worldwide journey.

 

Such is Harrelson's geekish penchant for railway engines that they are taking the train to Moscow as part of a return to suburban life in America (all of which contrasts with Emily Mortimer's highly-charged, freewheelin' past). Anybody familiar with British commuter lines can only marvel at the well-appointed and affordable dining cars to which passengers make their way along corridors which, naturally, will become perilous.

 

Here is homage to many a film set upon a railway, something which mixes mobility with the narrow locales in which, perforce, strangers meet and reveal more of themselves than they are aware. The heavy wood panelling brings to mind rash pub confidences as the couple talk with Kate Mara and the alluringly rough Eduardo Noriega (who prompts Emily Mortimer to recall earlier dalliances and the pleasures of “a pointless fuck”).

 

Something is underfoot - one might say, underrail. This is no charabanc ride. Enigma multiplies. A week is a long time in crime. Just when you thought it safe to go back in the carriage, with a freight of a suitcase of those dolls whose heads come away to reveal another within.

 

Human heads are also likely to come adrift (this is not Rome Express and The Lady Vanishes), but it keeps above the cartoonish, a fit depiction of the Slavonic criminal world and the unexpected limits to which others can have recourse when stumbling into it).

 

Is one moved by it? Perhaps not, and yet is is something more than bland entertainment. Needless to say, here is another bravura performance by Ben Kingsley, but it is a film with many a twist to an actor's face: bespectacled, every mother's son, Woody Harrelson duly drops his guard (and spectacles) when needs must.

 

With an ever-moving camera (including the one used by Emily Mortimer), here is a film - continually switching points of view - which stays with you even longer with you than a points failure outside Etchingham Junction.

 

 

INSPECTOR CLOUZOT

 

Crime pays. Write a novel or a play set in the countryside, with languid talk beside a slow-flowing river (or slow-flowing talk beside a languid river), and you take your commercial chances. Let the gathered eyes duly focus upon a body floating by - and you could be in the money (even if the culprit misses out on such hoped-for worldly goods).

 

Money on the bank, one might say.

 

With his first film as director, The Murderer Lives at Number 21, Clouzot combined a procedural search with a boarding-house setting (from a novel by a Belgian novelist), whose filming on the hoof brought it a film-noir element. What's more, this reflects the undercover nature of working, at speed, in 1942 for a company controlled by the Nazi occupants of Paris.

 

And it is a joy. Of course, the sundry murders, by various means, are no fun for those on the receiving end (whether upon cobbled trottoir or within soothing bain). Along with all this, however, there is the banter between the Inspector and his lover, a stage aspirant, a Nick-and-Nora pair who turn up - independently - at the boarding house which still has a waistcoated gofer who can bang a gong to get it on for meals at separate tables.

 

This film risks the spoiler to end all spoilers. So, say no more, monsignour. Nobody can see or watch everything, but life would be distinctly poorer for missing out on this. What a time, what a place, and a whole new angle on the sense of an ending.

 

 

 

 

 

THE EMOTIONAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE PEACE

 

Pause, and one realises that anybody who worked on, say, Casablanca or The Third Man could screen in their minds a film different from the one familiar to us. That is, they saw the colours of sets and clothing. Not that this is to crave “colorising” (the vogue for which appears to have passed). Such films were designed with their splendid black-and-white imagery to the fore.

 

Similar has been done with Ozon's Frantz (2016), most of which is set in 1919 and appears to us in black and white. It appears in keeping with a small German town where much of the events turn around a graveyard, apparently the last spot for a soldier killed in the war. The plot is simple - and complex. To say more would spoil it, as would any discussion of the graveyard in The Third Man.

 

In grief for the soldier, her fiancé, Paula Beer visits the grave as usual and is surprised to find flowers on it. They have been put there by a visiting Frenchman (Pierre Niney). Discussion ensues, and is welcome - not least because it distracts from a tedious man who is pursing her with an eye on marriage.

 

The film is a marvel to watch, its rhythm finely paced to bring out all the conflicts within and between the characters (including her parents), so much so that the small town smoulders.

 

Only one thing is missing. Lubitsch's 1932 film Broken Lullaby, from a play by Maurice Rostand. It is currently unavailable. Whoever has the rights in it would surely do well, for those who enjoy Frantz will want to seek out its inspiration.

 

 

COME TO DUST

 

Dead at sixty, Peter Finch had appeared in many films. If not enough of them are memorable, such high points as No Love for Johnnie and Sunday, Bloody Sunday make one look at others with some expectations. So it is with Make Me an Offer (1955), and here is, at most, a curiosity.

 

Directed with scant flair in variable, sometimes strangely bleached Eastmancolor by Cyril Frankel, who died recently at 95 after working mostly in television, it sprang from a play by Wolf Mankowitz whose film A Kid for Two Farthings appeared the same year. In his time, Mankowitz was well known for depictions of East-End life - and must always be esteemed for his work on The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) with Val Guest.

 

Here, though, is something whimsical - partly realistic, partly broad comedy – with forty-year-old Finch who spurned the chance to follow his father into life as a market trader but struggles to make a go of life in the perhaps more exalted calling of an antiques dealer. Turnover is never sufficient to buy his wife the fur coat she craves. All this was brought about by a childhood visit to the British Museum where he was transfixed by certain objects - and haunted by a newspaper report of some sculptures stolen and never recovered. Events now take him to a country-house auction. In a cottage on the land lives Sir John (Ernest Thesiger) who is visited in turn by various relations, such as the giggling gamine, Adrienne Corri. The plot is of the slightest (and involves a crucial dog), with the main interest being some ten minutes of the auction itself. That is, apart from Thesiger who never rises from the armchair in which he mostly slumbers noisily - and when he does awake, he is never able to utter articulate words. This is a brilliant performance, with a radiant moment when he smiles. It more than compensates for the implausible sight of Finch in an apron while wielding a feather duster.

 

SLICES OF LIFE

 

Two turbot!” Steam crosses the screen, a frying pan sizzles, plates are piled precariously by a sink, a kitchen hand chain-smokes over the side of meat he is slicing into pieces. Doors swing to and fro in what must be an enormous restaurant, such is the number of black-dressed waitresses who scurry about, again uttering an impatient cry of “two turbot!”

 

Such - but for a brief walk which goes in a bound from Oxford Street to Trafalgar Square - is the setting of The Kitchen (1961) that it risks that deadly tag of “filmed play” (written by Arnold Wesker). That static format has dogged many a Zoomed play in these times. These seventy minutes, though, come to life; under the direction of James Hill, the camera movements match the bustle and sweat which exacerbate a torrid world riven by pregnancy, flashing knives, bruising and a brush with murder fomented by one of the staff being unable to forget the war. Even an array of fuse boxes appear about to snap.

 

Small wonder that le patron (Eric Pohlmann, a German playing a Frenchman is a nice touch) goes around the place, muttering to himself “sabotage!” as he ponders his life's destiny being swept away by so unruly a crowd. Against all this there is a fine music score by James Lee - and a single by Adam Faith which, whatever its shortcomings, has the staff breaking out into a dance which finds James Bolam reduced to partnering an upside-down broom. Some of the cast had appeared in the stage version, many of them not to become screen fixtures (one regrets that Mary Yeomans appeared in little else). And, in a neat twist of fate, James Hill was to make another notable film of a play which focusses upon midday London: John Mortimer's Lunch Hour.

 

How widely is Wesker, who died four years ago, now known? This film makes one suggest that it should be more so.

 

 

 

ACE IN THE HOLE

 

At a time of year when angle-grinders now echo across once-peaceful gardens, one might fight shy from Le Trou (1960). Its soundtrack eschews music for a series of vociferous hand-driven, improvised tools which a group of prisoners use to break through a series of subterranean obstacles in a bid to break free from a crowded cell and, via the sewers, savour the dawn of the Paris outskirts.

 

Viewers often marvel at the long, safe-breaking opening sequence of Riffifi. With Le Trou, we are in even more extraordinary territory,. These two hours depict the monotony of such labour. By a miracle of script, cinematography and characterisation, it becomes all the more suspenseful with every blow of a chisel into concrete and its feebler cousin: cement.

 

What's more, this is based on the true story of a 1947 break-out attempt (the year that Burt Lancaster appeared to such effect in the marvellous Brute Force). In turning to this case, director Jacques Becker (who was dying while at work on it) collaborated with José Giovanni who had written a novel inspired by it. What's more, Becker not only built a replica of the gaol's cells and corridors, but used mostly non-professional actors, including one who had been the diligent brains and brawn of the original escape attempt.

 

An exception to this was Marc Michel who plays somebody added to the four-man cell while his own was being renovated (Becker's son, who worked with him on the film, recalls how prisons were noisy with such work, an inadvertent cover for the escapees' efforts). Michel's character - young, good looking - is charged with the attempted murder of his wife after yanking from her the gun which she had aimed at him, such was her fury at his embroilment with an even younger woman. Meanwhile, Michel becomes in thrall to the men among whom he finds himself. Here, or so it seems, is new world, more secure than the outside one in which he had been buffeted by his emotions.

 

Becker's son has recalled that he did not want to reveal too much about the way in which the film was made (as if a magician would give away secrets). And he was right. One accepts the way in which a myriad devices - a small mirror in the cell door's spyhole - contribute to this relentless narrative, static equalled by surge; in which, though the great work of cinematographer Ghislon Cloquet, close-ups of these faces are matched by long shots of corridors and sewers.

 

As such, it is a ready match for underground terrain of The Third Man. What's more, Becker's film could have been called The Fifth Man, such are the quandaries created by that newcomer to the cell. This is not to place to say more on that front, but to lament its first release (as it were) being greeted with far less than the celebration it has since received.

 

This is a great film. One can happily watch it in solitary confinement. Watch it with somebody else, though, and you find yourselves discussing it for many more hours afterwards.

 

And a point raised therein is that, despite the gruel put through the door by guards at 6am, the prisoners are amazingly, ripplingly fit. Could it be that, sixty years after this timeless film, prisoners are fed stodge lest a high-protein diet spurs them to bound over the wall?

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAMLET AND A GLASS OF WINE

 

I'm sorry to interrupt, sister, but if it's books you're after, this is the joint.” So says a taxi driver to a canoodling couple on the back seat one dark night in Quiet Please, Murder(1942).

 

Yes, they have arrived at a library, quite possibly a Carnegie. Certainly, Babage's own copy of Hamlet has been stolen from it recently, and it is the scene of most of the action - with the public and Nazi agents included - of this engaging B-film. Aided by that “sister” (a splendid Gail Patrick), George Sanders is the Mr. Big of rare-books crookery as he sits in a silk dressing gown, glass to hand, at home.

 

What's more, theirs is a curious relationship. Time and again, he is given to long, increasingly creepy disquisitions on the joys of sado-masochism and the craving of the criminal for the particular security provided by punishment. He even links this with the number of automobile accidents caused by drivers who - did they but know it - harbour a death wish. Extraordinary that this was passed at such a time. Perhaps the censors were distracted by looking into another insistent reflection: upon the name - “solander” - used of those boxes which protect valuable books from dust and other nasties.

 

There are plenty of the latter on display in these seventy minutes, and those of us who hanker for well-filled library shelves can all too easily be distracted from the various chases between them (there is even reference to a particular Dewey number).

 

All of which leaves one to reflect that, here in Hove, funds could be raised by letting out our Carnegie for such a creation (although any villain would be well advised not to mistake the lift for a swift getaway).

 

 

 

WHITEWALL TYRES

 

Whatever happened to these? The thought comes to mind during Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954), which roughly translates as Hands Off the Loot. Those sleek tyres are the automobile equivalent of the suits sported by Jean Gabin, a gangster who, having pulled a last, hefty job, feels that he can no longer run such risks but should enjoy his Satan-given rewards, which include the women who mill around his night-club.

 

Among them is a young Jeanne Moreau, and it soon becomes clear in this drama - directed by Jacques Becker from a novel by Albert Simonin (whom I must read) - that nobody is on the level. All are oblique. Smart as the suits and clinging dresses might be, it is the matter of a moment to snarl coarse threats which reveal, and let loose, the gun within.

 

The loot, or shall we say le grisbi, was acquired in Orly and is stuff chaud, the talk of Paris, where most of the film takes place. Its action is effectively static but many-angled - tension in high-ceilinged rooms, with requisite glimpses of night-time streets and adjacent bedrooms - as the mobsters turn variants on their peculiar code of honour (which can be ripped up without warning while knotted rope sears into arms and legs).

 

For all the post-job calm, the tension never slackens, there is a sense of more in the offing, such is the inherent difficulty of fencing the eight tall ingots (which, during their necessary melting down, could briefly resemble a Gehry design).

 

Ahead of the much-vaunted New Wave, there was a great deal of interesting French cinema (as there was in English theatre before the Angry brigade). Lest this make it all sound a mite existensial, there is an explosive Cagney sequence - which makes one ask how to turn “you dirty rat!” into idiomatic French.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MR. BENNETT AND MRS. WOOLF

 

Alan Bennett has always been drawn to England past - not in any facile brexit way but as a place of turbulent contradictions. So it is with A Day Out. Shown by the BBC on Christmas Eve 1972, it was his first film.

 

These fifty minutes, directed by Stephen Frears, were one of the last television productions made in black and white. As Bennett has said, this was fortunate, for it would have been drained by colour - especially the gaudy variety then on offer. Here, in May 1911, we have a group of Halifax men in charge of bicycles as unwieldy as their moustaches; the latter would surely be even more of a handicap on any latter-day race than hairy calfs, but this is a gentle outing to Bolton Abbey. All address one another as “Mister” while one of their number frets at having done a bunk from church to be a part of this.

 

For most of them - in this seeming Edwardian idyll - the day's main drama is a puncture (interesting to think that, a century later, its repair is much the same, what with a shaking of powder to help adhesion). Here is the spirit of Kipling. That is, in his memoir Something of Myself, he recalls the time that he and his wife rode upon a tandem, a vehicle he called “the Devil's fretwork”, such was the exertion it demanded from one of them. There is a tandem among these bicycles which here ply the steep cobbles and head for the open paths with views across the hills over which belch those chimneys of an Industrial Revolution which, in part, fostered the Great War.

 

Many of the cyclists are hose who now look old before their time, so drained at sixty that it would be an easy stumble into the grave. Also, though, along for the ride are some of the young, so many hopes before them. In one case, these appear to be fulfilled: a young woman, first glimpsed upon a wagon, proves willing to engage in a romp in the grass out of sight of the oldsters who tempt fate with ad hoc cricket against an Abbey wall.

 

Most poignant, though, is the meeting between one youth - a nervous type with intellectual aspirations - and a young woman who invites him to the smart house where her family are taking tea outside and playing croquet. He joins her; and then fights shy, fleeing from the scene. Upset by this, the young woman duly takes to her horse and hopes to meet him again.

 

Perhaps the most haunting image of this short film is her drawn face as events prove otherwise.

 

And all the more so when it turns out that she was played by teenage Virginia Bell, such a filmic echo of her great-aunt - that lifelong cyclist, Virginia Woolf, one of those Bloomsbury figures behind Bennett's 1968 stage play Forty Years On. Splendid as Ms Bell's appearance was here, her film career was an interim one. She is now better known as social historian Virginia Nicholson (one of her books describes forlorn, unfulfilled women in the aftermath of the Great War), her surname that of her husband, a novelist, William who knows something about film: he wrote the screenplay for Gladiator.

 

 

 

 

AN ENCIRCLING KILLER

 

A French film must be among the cheapest to make. With a good deal in large tables, some product placement by way of wine supplies, a competent chef - and the rest can be spent upon a script whose dialogue echoes across the country air. Such is Julie Delpy's Skylab (2011). So prolific is she - both sides of the camera, and even writing the music sometimes - that one can miss a new work by her, which brings the additional pleasure of catching up.

 

Such is the case with Skylab. Had history turned out differently, this film would have required computerised imagery but, then again, Julie Delpy might not have been here to make any films. The strange title is redolent of dark solar journeys, accompanied by that electronic music always deemed the thing for inter-galactic endeavour (perhaps, come the discovery of alien life, such expectations will be confounded, when it turns out that the creatures have a bootlegged copy of Matt Monro's greatest hits on repeat-play). Meanwhile, in Brittany during the summer of 1979, the fear under which (literally) Delpy - playing her own young mother - lives is that the eponymous orbiting craft is due to return to earth and quite possibly land upon that corner of France to the most deleterious effect since that endured by the dinosaurs.

 

Why go there, then? Well, it is her mother's 67th birthday (a great turn by Emmanuelle Riva). The large clan, when making plans and a cake, had not reckoned on such a metal intruder. Tension - with Julie Delpy and her husband (Eric Elmosnino) playing a couple who have abandoned fiscal safety for radical theatre - was always going to be high, what with two of the gathering being at the opposite but equally radical end of human experience: the inability to return to peaceful life after the horrors of war. What's more, Delpy's own father (Albert Delpy) appears again, his incipient senility springing several surprises.

 

So much Eric Rohmer, a suggestion of Altman, a dash of Woody Allen, but Julie Delpy is always herself. Doubly so here, for the eleven-year-old girl - played by Lou Alvarez - is at the centre of things as she sits on the cusp of adolescence. One very funny scene (her eyes unable to resist dropping low) is as if Rohmer had made Pauline at the Nudist Beach.

 

Beneath these refulgent skies, the viewer, too, reaches for a good red - and, after a second glass, has a brief image crossing the mind of the fish who look wonderingly at Skylab in their midst. It landed somewhere off Australia, and the wonder is that it has not yet inspired a film of a different nature from this. Who knows what strange creature is biding its time to emerge and to what effect?

 

 

 

 

MANY A BLUFF

 

When a dentist appears in a film set in the war, chances are that he is working for the other side. This theory is not countered by Count Five and Die (1957), a title which refers to instructions given to those caught by the enemy: swallow the cyanide tablet and in that time one will have departed this vale of sorrows.

 

Meanwhile, in the here and now, a handsome American Jeffrey Hunter has been deputed by the Secret Service to join Nigel Patrick in its British counterpart which is working under the guise of a Film Unit in London. By this stage of the war, their task is to convince the Germans that the Invasion will take place via Holland. Matters were of course more complex than that, and would be another twenty years after this film was made that details of the Enigma machine and all that went on at Bletchley began to emerge (an amazing feat of stiff upper lips across the decades).

 

For this film, it is more a matter of the human factor, in particular the arrival of Dutchwoman, Anne-Marie Duringer who, naturally, falls for Hunter as he does for her. Others appear, suspicions grow. It is well made, with some scenes that have a noir touch, and yet - with the outcome known - it does not suspend disbelief in that way that, for example, The Day of the Jackal does. As a film it is, at best, fittingly, a diversion.

 

 

 

SLIGHTLY FIZZING

 

Time was, before the Disneyfication of Times Square and 42nd Street, when New York was grime incarnate. A reminder of this comes with The Seven-Ups (1973), directed by Philip D'Antoni, who had produced Bullitt and The French Connection. Despite intermittent sunshine, a bleak, wintry city is made all the more so for a crack team of Police, led by Roy Schneider, on the trail of various, often corpulent gangs who are pulling off large crimes. Any who are caught face a minimum of seven years in gaol - hence the Police team's nickname of the Seven-Ups.

 

A reminder of what they are up against is painted upon a blind in their weatherbeaten office: keep the blind down, there may be snipers. This is a world in which a fast mumble is the favoured method of discourse, all of it obscuring who might be working for which side.

 

As a narrative, it is not the best paced, but it does turn around a number of set pieces, high among them two visits to an automatic car wash (small wonder sensible people now prefer “valet cleaning”), a less-than-holy funeral - and, of course, what has a fair claim to be cinema's greatest car chase (the children who jump out of the way could still be having nightmares about their day as extras). This chase, which must have taken longer to film than all of the rest of it, makes it worthwhile.

 

THE GLOSS-ADJUSTERS

 

By way of Alice and Oedipus Wrecks, matters magical recur in Woody Allen's films. With The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), they returned to prove a close run with The Purple Rose of Cairo and would remain way ahead of Midnight in Paris's repetitive hackney vehicle.

 

The proportion of Allen's period settings increases steadily against those in the here and now - though, come to think of it, Annie Hall is now closer in time to the 1940 of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion than it is to 2020. Temporal concerns soon vanish as the camera lights upon the office in which Allen himself is one of the staff of an insurance firm's claims investigators. This is as brown-hued as much of the film, a place promptly lit up by Helen Hunt who has been sent to impose efficiency measures upon an outfit which has given free rein to Allen's handy way with instinct and lowlife contacts (his jacket, though, is well cut).

 

A path is set for conflict and badinage, with Helen Hunt displaying - whether by command or subconscious - some of the mannerisms and facial expressions which were once Diane Keaton's. A nice touch is that she is an hour late for a meeting in a bar. It does not give away too much to say that when both are prevailed upon to join a works' outing (if one can call a gathering at the Rainbow Room such a thing), events take a different turn as a hypnotist sets to work upon them. While they speak, so many inner thoughts emerge that they would have Freud wishing he'd taken shorthand lessons (a phrase which just occurred to me - perhaps I could offer it to Allen, a small offering for all that he has provided).

 

Crime ensues. And with it there appears, well-nigh shimmeringly, Charlize Theron in a long white dress, with her hair and cigarette so well poised that she is more than a tribute to Veronica Lake (who could not have away with some of the salty lines uttered here).

 

To give prominence to the women present here should not overshadow the effective turns by seen-it-all guys Dan Aykroyd and Wallace Shawn on the staff (“you look like my Uncle Jerry right after the United Parcels truck hit him”).

 

Allen's roots have always been is night-club sketches. He is not one of nature's plotters. The same can be said of some novelists. Their skill is in finding ways around a little local difficulty (think how short are the chapters in War and Peace). With The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Allen has a more cohesive plot than he did in another period number Bullets Over Broadway, which was no match for the front- and back-stage about-turns of Michael Frayn's play Noises Off.

 

Well, one should not pre-empt too much of what is on offer here, all of which can be summarised in Allen's retort when caught by surprise: “I wasn't spying - I was rummaging.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 POSTCARDS OF THE HANGING

 

A blight upon the Summer of Love was that morning when a limousine pulled up in Noel Road, Islington to collect Joe Orton to take him for discussions about a screenplay which he had recently written for The Beatles. There being no answer, the driver looked through the door, and saw the playwright murdered - bashed about the head head by a troubled lover, himself dead.

 

Along with that screenplay, Orton - his career as hard-won and as mercurial as The Beatles' - left a diary of those fevered 1967 months and a final play, What the Butler Saw. This was staged two years later, in a misbegotten production by Ralph Richardson which had it left in oblivion until Lindsay Anderson's unexpurgated, brilliantly-cast version at the Royal Court in the summer of 1975.

 

Since then it has been performed innumerable times.

 

As chance has it, a decision to stay indoors here - Summer of Hove - on the evening of the July 4th unlockdown led to watching this and the film His Girl Friday (1940) as an ad hoc double bill. The Orton was an archived production made by the Curve theatre in Leicester three years ago. Currently, Leicester is back in lockdown - which becomes the fate of all those one crazy day in the psychiatrist's clinic of Orton's play.

 

To watch this and His Girl Friday was to reflect upon the playing and filming of farce (one could write very much more about both of these works). As with The Importance of Being Earnest, which had its own troubled opening season, What the Butler Saw has become so familiar that that it can stale if the actors are not swift enough to deliver those lines which, time and again, cap the initial gag (a noun which Wilde perhaps never used).

 

Filmed by a fixed camera some distance from the stage, the Leicester production makes for our looking in rather than watching, a frustration compounded by a cast not quite up to speed at unleashing the lines. What's more, they hurled them rather than speaking them: as in Wilde's verbal opera, the cast has to be serious in its task if the comedy is to succeed.

 

For a while it had seemed that What the Butler Saw has become Orton's greatest play but perhaps, despite its many wonderful lines, now could be time to look again at the greater complexities of his earlier work (and to hope that the Beatles script, which was duly published, might be filmed).

 

Meanwhile, as for pace, there has not been a film to match the gunshot speed of the talk which is His Girl Friday - a film redolent of the time when shootings were as much a feature of the nocturnal air as nightingales or, at any rate, small-stage canaries. It is still a rule of thumb that a ninety-minute movie should be a ninety-page script (much of a talkie is silent). Based upon Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1929 Broadway play The Front Page (which had soon been stodgily filmed), His Girl Friday is a wonderful exception to that, a torrent of words made all the more glorious by its anticipation of transgender matters: a male rôle made over to Rosalind Russell as a journalist divorced from suavely ruthless Cary Grant, his sales pitch still so on-key that a return to the typewriter becomes a tremulous prospect which has her doffing her hat and pulling off her gloves (her trouser suit has a fetchingly masculine hue).

 

Director Howard Hawks was a byword for pace and, what's more, he did not shy from Ortonesque bad taste - clanking try-out gallows - in this chronicle of a crowded day and evening ahead of the likely eight o'clock execution of a man who had inadvertently shot somebody: as in What the Butler Saw, the higher authorities are malign, their eye upon promotion and self-gain, an Election in the offing. No time here to quote the overlapping dialogue (something from which Robert Altman surely learnt), and in any case the page cannot match the screen; rather, it is worth pointing out something easily overlooked: His Girl Friday is by no means that dread thing, a filmed play (as were, alas, early-Thirties cinema incarnations of the Aldwych Farces), and yet it takes place in just a few settings: newsroom, prison cell, the gaol's press-room and, crucially, a restaurant.

 

And so, back to the here and now, when film productions will be a fraught matter with the virus buzzing from all sides as if a drone of one's own. The small-scale sound stages of His Girl Friday must be an inspiration.

 

We might, though, have to wait a while for an overdue re-staging of Hecht and MacArthur's original play - and the unexpurgated edition of Orton's diary.

 

 

 

 

 

CHILDHOOD GAMES

 

When did Laurence Olivier encounter The Zombies? No, this is not a little-known science-fiction endeavour (curious as that would be) but a reference to a scene in Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing (1965). As a decidedly straight-backed Superintendent from Scotland Yard, he has taken young Carol Lynley to a pub for nourishment amidst the disappearance that morning of her four-year-old illegitimate daughter known as Bunny.

 

So far, what with Olivier invariably accompanied by a Sergeant (Clive Revill), this might appear a thriller sprung from an episode of Edgar Wallace Presents... Nobody, however, is a stock figure, even the junket-making cook at the School from which Bunny vanished. With a script by John and Penelope Mortimer (with some anonymous work by Ira Levin), this makes something well-nigh Gothic from Evelyn Piper's novel. The appearance of The Zombies on Ready, Steady Go on the pub's 23-inch television is but one of of the details that take all this out of the ordinary.

 

Did any pub feature a television, let alone in a film, at that time? Then again, this is a film in which Olivier suggests that it would be futile to seek out those aboard the 'bus which took Carol Lynley and Bunny to school earlier that day: “bus conductors are rarely observant - they tend to be dreamers and philosophers, a form of self defence.”

 

Already suspicions are aroused by Anna Massey's creepy turn as the School secretary, a School whose founder (Martita Hunt) keeps to a cluttered top-floor flat where she works, well-nigh obsessively, upon a book about children's talk. This is but one of many great performances (and how one hopes her Fifties television rôle as Lady Bracknell might yet surface).

 

And, yes, is there any more unsettling performance than that by a now large-eared, shuffling Noel Coward as neighbouring landlord of the flat into which Carol Lynley and her brother (Kier Dullea) have moved this same, crowded day? Dressed not in a silk dressing gown but a woolly jumper and clutching a tiny dog, Samantha (one imagines he asked to be paid more to do that), he appears at first affability and concern, even though stating “no caged birds, no livestock of any kind” (a catalogue which includes children). As the sky turns dark, he is given to suggestive moves while proclaiming, “I am told that my voice is extremely seductive. It has seemed to unleash whole hurricanes of passion in the breasts of women who watch me on the BBC.” And if that is not enough to tempt them to drop before him, he takes a whip from a wall of wooden African heads and cracks it with practised ease (even if one cannot quite credit the claim that “I sung rude old Welsh ballads”).

 

Bloody pervert, if you want my opinion,” as Revill says to Olivier, who, in a nice turn, suggests he temper any prejudice during this investigation. Coward's fairly brief appearances linger in the mind, but a key one is Carol Lynley not only obeying her brother's order to bring him a cigarette in the bath but sitting in the edge of it - gaze not averted - for some while as they discuss the situation. Their shared past has not gone away, imagination and fantasy loom throughout, heightening Preminger's marvellously shot widescreen, black and white cinematography,. This works to equal effect inside and out, a masterclass in pace and rhythm, leaving no moments for doubt. Even slower scenes have a necessary tension, all of them making this a high-clamp production.

 

The wonder is that - as Carol Lynley says in a recent interview included as an extra on the DVD - much of this was filmed at night in order to accommodate Olivier who, earlier in the evenings, was on stage as Othello. In many strange, seemingly logical turns Carol Lynley visits that night a real, gaslit Dolls' Hospital in Soho where Finlay Currie plies his trade. As Carol Lynley also recalls, Currie had been on stage that day - indeed, for two performances - which led him to ask if, aged 84, he could play the part while sitting down. A practical concern, this adds to the drama.

 

As for The Zombies, their appearance should not distract from the rest of the soundtrack, which was written by Paul Glass, who, two years earlier, had written the music for Lady in the Cage which found Olivia de Havilland in as unexpected a rôle as Coward in this one. Such is the Glass's score that the DVD offers an unusual opportunity. One can opt to watch the whole film with all the dialogue muted, the only sound being children singing and Glass's score. A few minutes' experiment with this reveals that, another time, one might be tempted to play it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A PRINCE OF DENMARK STREET

 

 

The closest you've ever come to a bird is a boiled egg.” Such is the banter in one of the many coffee bars and cafés frequented by Joe Brown and Marty Wilde in What a Crazy World (1963). One such bird is Susan Maugham, Brown's on-off girlfriend, the off segments caused by his embarrassing lack of funds, a situation compounded by his inability/reluctance to find a job.

 

All of which brings frequent dinner-table, plate-wiping monologues by his father, Harry H. Corbett (Steptoe's son) a dog-racing working man who is bringing up three children in a sharply-detailed tenement block, the flats reached by an outdoor corridor with a view of the bombed-out land south of the Thames. The film derives from a musical by Alan Klein, who also appears as one of Wilde's gang, a posse not exactly from West Side Story but startling indeed with their first number, “The Layabouts' Lament”. This is surely unique for taking place in a Labour Exchange and, what's more, now likely to raise other eyebrows than those of the hapless man (Michael Ripper) behind the counter: in the queue are immigrants dressed in costumes from their various countries to which the tune plays homage with such things as a calypso turn.

 

It is only some way into the film that one finds Brown is an aspirant songwriter as he tries out the title song in the safety of his bedroom - on a banjo. Meanwhile, he and Wilde have found enough spare change to go to what is promised to be a great group at a club. This turns out to be a British Legion hall, and the entertainment is provided by Freddie and the Dreamers (he of those extraordinary spectacles favoured by potential murderers holed up in boarding houses). One of their songs is a version of “Short Shorts”, amidst the singing of which Freddie divests himself to reveal more pairs of striped baggy underwear than Benny Hill can have ever dreamed of. As if that were not enough, Freddie then turns to a song “Sally Ann” which has all the group dressed in Salvation Army hats.

 

Well, Guys and Dolls this is not. There is, though, a suggestion of Brecht refracted though Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Lo and behold, the hapless man in charge of the Legion hall where a fight breaks out is the same one who was behind the counter down the Labour, and also, amongst much else, pouring the tea in the café while Susan Maugham sings one of her laments. He is indeed billed as The Common Man. And it is extraordinary to think that he did not change his surname from Ripper (though perhaps it helped to get him work at Hammer).

 

By the time that this was released in December 1963, the pop world had changed. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was Number One, with “She Loves You” duly returning there. That said, What a Crazy World is a notch or more above those films which had bundled singers into a scant plot in order to belt out recent hits. Here are real glimpses of kitchen-sink London, with relief provided by bowling alleys and a Bingo Hall (a surreally-dressed figure calling out the numbers) - and a montage of discs in citywide jukeboxes which could have appeared in a German film in the Twenties. And some salty dialogue: “He just grunts and turns over.” “My Bert's the same.” And, in the Legion Hall, a strange way to praise a woman's figure: “Look at that and the price of fish!” And one might reflect that just as Steptoe's son appears here (and, Heaven help us, sings), so Steptoe himself would appear memorably a few months later in A Hard Day's Night.

 

Best of all, however, is a sequence in which Brown tries to sell his song to music publishers on Denmark Street. Sportingly, several real premises allowed themselves to be filmed - while turning down the proffered ditty, until Brown lands a modest job with an invented one-man outfit and, by some subterfuge, gets the song taken on. The publisher duly exchanges a cigarette for a cigar as the sheet music rolls off the presses alongside copies of New Musical Express proclaiming it a hit. This is perhaps the most startling depiction of a music publisher's premises that side of Pennebaker's Don't Look Back documentary about Bob Dylan. And a reminder that, around this time, the Beatles were taken on by publisher Dick James, with that ensuing tangle of events which means, to this day, Paul McCartney has to pay to sing his own songs in concerts.

 

Well, as for Joe Brown, he is as engaging as ever. It is well worth seeking out his autobiography, an account of rise from similar circumstances. And he is a past master at self-deprecation. What a moment at the memorial concert for George Harrison in 2002 when he came on stage and said, “I've played at the Albert Hall before - on the pavement opposite!” Strangely, that remark was cut from the DVD release, which includes of course his matchless encore for the whole evening: a version of “I'll See You in My Dreams”. Paper petals fell from the roof, and everybody was in tears.

 

.

THE RIGHT COMBINATION

 

I'm a man of action.” So says a Scotland Yard Inspector (played by John Stuart) in The Missing Million (1942) in a Soho café, where Linden Travers replies, with a flash of her eyelids, “I might make you prove that one day.”

 

Such a flashy moment enlivens a film, where so many words have been used to explain who has been where, when and perhaps why, when Miss Travers's brother (Ivan Brandt) has gone missing shortly before marrying the daughter of a well-to-do Treasury official.

 

All this springs from an Edgar Wallace novel. Does anybody read him now? He was in the habit during the Twenties of dictating his thrillers over a weekend, and reaping the royalties from those who read them at a similar speed. He had a way with a plot – shown, two or more decades after his death, in the Fifties and Sixties television series inspired by his work.

 

He turned variants upon a metropolis where sundry Mr. Bigs held sway. In this case there is one who leaves porcelain pandas after he has paid a visit to a scene of interest to him. And so it is that, with a blackmail threat against him, Brandt vanishes, as does the million pounds which became his when his businessman father died.

 

What is going on? In the ordinary course of events, one might not linger, especially as there is repetitive misogyny from a safecracker (Charles Victor): “married? I may have been in prison but I've not fallen that low!” Against his performance one must set the stylish turn by Linden Travers, who appeared in films for too short a time - and had inspired Graham Greene five years earlier to laud her rôle in the sultry Brief Ecstasy, notably for “the buttocks over the billiard table” as an emblem of “the ugly drive of undifferentiated desire”.

 

There's nothing to match that here as many of those around her duly receive a slug in the chest while it becomes clear that for the Panda matters are never black and white - but one's patience is further rewarded in the final moment by seeing the irritating safecracker making a gay advance (I kid you not), which would certainly count as a specialised taste.

 

CHEAP THRILLS AND GREAT HOT DOGS

 

 

Who will complete Woody Allen's last film? This is hardly a tasteless question, for the end of life recurs in his films (notably, the remark in Annie Hall that all the books with Death in the title belong to him). Such is his continuing rate of production, with several works on the go at once, that, amidst one's own life, it is sometimes unfortunate to miss a new one. Three years on, Wonder Wheel (2017) turns out to be rather a treat.

 

It could have been called Carousel, for that ride - operated by James Belushi – figures more prominently than the eponymous one which towers over a skid-row Coney Island fairground in 1950 where, on the beach, Justin Timberlake, fresh from the Navy, spends a summer as a lifeguard while aspiring to be a dramatist.

 

Will he succeed? Well, as he admits, in his addresses to the camera, he is caught up in one forthwith. As the sun sets he had chanced upon Kate Winslet, a former actress about to turn forty and unhappily married to alcoholic Belushi who took her on after she had been unfaithful (with somebody else) to her jazz drumming first husband. She has baggage, made worse by now waitressing in a clam bar.

 

Under the broadwalk, passion smoulders, flares - an apt metaphor, as her young son (an excellently obnoxious Jack Gore) is given to setting things on fire. All this is set against red-hued cinematography which makes something lush of rundown premises, almost as if the wheel glimpsed from inside makes the glazing appear a stained-glass window. Events are further lit up by the arrival of Belushi's daughter (Juno Temple) who had run off to marry a gangster; such are gangsters, that husband turns out to be more displeased than most at being treated in this way by a dame.

 

This is perhaps to say more about the plot than one often might do when reflecting upon a Woody Allen film. It is better constructed than, say, Bullets Over Broadway and it has no gags at all. For those who did not relish Interiors and September, this might sound ominous. A more apt comparison is with the charming period quality of Radio Days, and it is all more convincing than the spate of Europe-set works - including Midnight in Paris, which felt like a New Yorker sketch extended to a hundred minutes.

 

Woody Allen has always been terrific in giving women good, challenging rôles, such as the one for Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose (and even Madonna in Shadows and Fog). Here, Kate Winslet is upon the screen for much of the time (one does not get out a stopwatch, that is simply how it feels). And what a performance it is, suspending one's disbelief at such brilliance, such a flow of lines being given to the depiction of an actress who had seen her skills, her life slipping away with her face. This is worthy of Eugene O'Neill - had he been able to rein in some of his harbourside histrionics.

 

IMPERSONAL BELONGINGS

 

An opening scene in Grand Central Station always raises hopes. So it is with Midnight Limited (1940), as the eponymous railroad train is about to set off for Montreal. Among those aboard is a somebody with $65,000 worth of jewellery, of which he is duly relived at gunpoint by a thief who is spotted by Marjorie Reynolds from whom he then takes some deeds which are the only evidence that she and her mother are due to inherit upstate property.

 

As she informs the railroad's Investigator (John King), “I'm a grown woman.” To which he replies, “I was fully conscious of that the minute I met you.”

 

And so they join forces. While he puts the plain into plain-clothes detective, she is decidedly glamorous but only came to wider attention in Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby. Alas, Midnight Limited does not rise high in the railway-movie stakes (even for those who hope to glimpse a rare breed of engine). An even odder turn is that in his favourite Italian restaurant King goes over to the piano and accompanies himself to a song with the refrain of “your quiet hands in my hair”, the handiwork of the film's co-writer Harrison Carter. This might leave one wondering what noisy hands might be, while also reflecting upon another passenger's weary observation: “curse the bones that have wicked problems on the mind.” Plato could have been given to such an angle upon body-and-soul dualism if he been hired to act as a go-between and, what's more, did he but know it, a diversion from the baggage car.

 

A branch-line movie on a trunk route.

 

 

 

A DOUBLE BILL

 

When did the double bill disappear? It has perhaps made a comeback in recent years, at home that is, with the advent of a “binge watch”. A better time, though, can be had in substituting episode after episode of a television series for a couple of diverse films.

 

The thought comes to mind with an evening's disparate duo of Mr. Ellis versus The People and Fargo.

 

The latter is of course well known, but the other one was written by Jack Rosenthal as part of a series, each episode created by different people, set in a Village Hall. Two series were shown by Granada in 1974 and 1975. This was the opening episode, with dawn breaking as one hears from outside a suburban house a row breaking between a weary Mr. Ellis (Ron Moody) and his wife (Marjorie Yates) about plans for the evening.

 

Nothing is resolved as he sets off duly arriving at the Village Hall just in time to set up things for its use as a Polling Station where he is the Presiding Officer, helped by the young, officious, Regulations-reciting Brian Miller for whom the other assistant (Veronica Roberts) has the hots.

 

Mr. Ellis - his back slumped, his eyebrows raised - has seen it all since first doing this in 1945. Nothing fazes him, from checking the seal on the ballot box to dealing with the sandwich-sharing tellers the other side of the door and - during these fifteen hours compressed into fifty minutes - an array of the hapless, confused and obstreperous voters who are democracy in action. Jack Rosenthal had wide experience of life (all of which comes together so well in his day in the life of seven people moving house, The Chain). In a few sentences he brings to life these voters who are briskly through the door and out again, their presence memorable, even when they are not as well known as Richard Griffiths became. An early appearance is by Bernard Hill, a policeman who begs a cup of tea and firmly told that he can have one but that it would be illegal to drink it on the premises. Astonishingly a well-oiled man set upon his civic duty is played by one Joe Belcher.

 

Here is heightened realism, as resonant then as now, with a sentimental undertow which does not make one wince but celebrate human quiddity. Who would have thought so much could turn around a spilt cup of coffee?

Rather more blood than that spurts across the scenes, within and without, which comprise Fargo. Strange to think that it is now quarter-century old. It continues to be acclaimed, and there is much to admire in its depiction of a snowy Minnesota noted for its residents' well-mannered, cheerful greeting of one all (especially in these Floyd times). There is, though, an undercurrent, indeed a flood of something else as automobile dealer William Macy comes up with a plot to have his wife kidnapped so that he himself can pocket most of the money that his father-in-law will surely cough up for her return but would not lend him in the ordinary course of events. In all this, Macy is relying upon the services of Steve Buscuni and Peter Stormore, their very looks enough to ensure that even better-laid plans would go awry.

 

The plot is one that would have animated a Warner Brothers tale in the Thirties and Forties. Those writers knew the world of gangsters around them. With Fargo, and most of their films, the Coen Brothers appear to know only Warner Brothers. There is scant sense of observed life here, brilliantly as it is filmed, with a notable turn by Frances McDurand as a pregnant cop who is on the trail of all the mayhem after the first corpse hits the highway. (Perhaps the film's highpoint is when she asks two hookers about a suspect's identifying features: “well, he wasn't circumcised.”) And so it goes on, emotional involvement dissolved rather than caught in the deadly whirlpool that was invariably the case with even a lesser-ranking Warner number. People become cartoons, and a contrast with a real cartoon, that seven-minute version of Wagner's Ring - What's Opera, Doc? - which never fails to prompt a tear as Bugs Bunny dies.

 

Well, if for some of us Fargo is a farrago, it does have a great, unexpected closing line, which takes place in bed and is a meditation upon the minutiae of... stamp collecting.

 

 

 

AN ICE-CREAM RIDE

 

Who knew much about diabetes in 1960? It is now a familiar subject, but Night Tain for Inverness opens in a ward in the, er, Longford Children's Hospital near London; disaster is averted there, just in time, when a nurse prevents another boy's mother from giving Dennis Waterman a chocolate.

 

He has been there some while but is recovering, and due to go home with his mother (Silvia Francis) to the flat they share with her positive Gorgon of a mother (played superbly by Irene Arnold, her spectacles adding to the domineering horror of her regular egotistical cry of “I was only trying to help”).

 

In neat symmetry, Waterman's father (Norman Wooland) is returning home. That is, he has been released from gaol after six months for a theft which he had hoped would ease the domestic pressure wrought by life with the mother-in-law. It was not to be, and he has a Court order to stay away, something with which his wife has gone along - she did not realise that his weekly heartfelt letters had been intercepted and destroyed by her mother. This is a tragic situation, if not quite on the level of Hamlet, in which Wooland had been Horatio beside Olivier.

 

Obliged to hole up in a Euston boarding house, he comes up with a plan to take the boy (whom he meets outside the Hawtrey Prep. School) on a trip as far away as possible, in which he is aided by an old flame (the great Jane Hylton). And so, much of these sixty-five minutes is given to some twelve hours - illustrated by diverse clocks and announcements - of real time as the boy, who does not reveal any need for painful injections, takes the opportunity to gorge upon ice cream and chocolates,. With copious use of the telephone, the police try to discover his whereabouts while, beyond the briefly-glimpsed Euston Arch, the vigorous wheels of a billowing and bellowing steam train head northwards, the restaurant car allowing another form of smoke before diners head back along a side corridor to those wide seats of which passengers can now only dream.

 

All this is handled well by that proficient director Ernest Morris. Some might pick holes in it - but, then again, one can question Hamlet's construction. And, well, this was the first appearance by Dennis Waterman, who soon became widely known on television as prankster schoolboy William. (The film also briefly includes John Moulder Brown who, a decade and an era later, appeared alongside Jane Asher in the tremendous swimming-pool tale Deep End.) It is an accomplished performance, not least because, for much of it (and far from William), he has to sleep and indeed go into a coma, limp in his father's arms.

 

Here was work for those on the rise and the decline - and modest but rewarding entertainment for us six decades on.

 

 

 

FAMOUS GREY RAINCOAT

 

“It will demand sacrifices, but will save lives.” So says the Prime Minister in a broadcast to the nation.

 

This might sound familiar at the moment but in Five Days to Noon (1950) he is speaking from a Downing Street which did not have a high barricade at the junction with Whitehall. A postman has been able to amble along, a tune on his lips as he puts the mail through that very door one sunny Monday morning in May of that year.

 

One of these envelopes turns out to contain a letter which, for all its elegant phrases, is not merry matter for a May morning. A mild-mannered, humane scientist (Professor Willingdon, played by Barry Jones) from an atomic station in Wallingford has gone rogue, and threatens to let off a bomb the following Sunday at noon that will take out London from Rotherhithe to Notting Hill Gate - unless the Government gives up the stockpiling of atomic weapons.

 

From a story by Paul Dehn and directed by the Boulting Brothers, this takes place some years before the familiar CND marches upon Aldershot. That town, though, is mentioned, and many times at that - as we shall see.

 

Meanwhile, the initial music by John Addison, with an emphasis upon ominous drumbeats, recurs  as it becomes clear that Willingdon - his weapon (the UR12) concealed in a Gladstone bag - means what he says. He skulks around the metropolis, favourite raincoat over his arm despite the heat, as the police, with help from Willingdon's daughter, set about tracking him down.

 

That pursuit is one thing but a great interest of the film is its time, its place - a panoply of it - as, come Thursday, all is underway to evacuate that tranche of the city.

Here we have vignette upon vignette, with allusion to other films, such as Colonel Blimp being outraged by disturbance in his Turkish Bath and salty comments upon the sewers an echo of The Third Man (and the whole set-up brings to mind Val Guest's The Day the Earth Caught Fire a decade later). Here - as rumours spread in seconds of screen time from the clubs of St James's to back-garden fences in Kennington - we find a spiv hustling a queue with the offer of “a nice hotel, near Brighton, twenty quid a night.” A youth is hurried from a pinball machine whose screen depicts a mushroom cloud beneath the title of Atomic Racer. Animals have to be left behind, and they howl; a jewellery thief is shot dead; a soldier holds a bra against his chest for a moment, and makes off with the matching silk knickers (what's all that about?) while searching for stragglers and even, perhaps, the fugitive Professor. Such a crowd finds fleeing glimpses of those who will become better known (Laurence Harvey, Sam Kydd).

 

All this is wonderfully managed, but central to it are two women down on their luck. One of these, Mrs Peckett (played by Joan Hickson) is a cat-festooned landlady whose newsagent advertisement is answered by the Professor. She informs him, “I won't allow theatricals in the house. You won't believe the trouble I've had with them!” The claustrophobia of this cluttered boarding house is filmed so well - and she turns out to have a point about theatrical types: the Professor is duly put up for another night by Mrs. Philips - a dog-fixated actress still in forlorn hopes of work - who meets him in a pub and, it is clear, would not object to budging up should he chance to stray into her bedroom. She is played by Olive Sloan, of whom one must hasten to discover more.

 

Good as everybody is in their part, she echoes most of all in one's mind with her frustrated hopes of joining the evacuation - to stay with a friend in Aldershot. She makes that Aldershot quest as resonant as Pinter's caretaker would do of Sidcup.

 

One of the great post-war British films, Seven Days to Noon reveals more on every viewing - although one has yet to see the Inspector's tie slip.

 

 

 

 

 

SHOWER; RAIN; FLOODS

 

As titles go, Postal Inspector (1936) might be as crowd-pulling as Chartered Accountant or Local Councillor. There is more to these fifty-five minutes than that suggests, for here we find a story by Horace McCoy, he of the novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and a cast which includes Bela Lugosi (Dracula behind him) and Hattie McDaniell (three years before Gone with the Wind) as well as two songs by Frank Loesser (long before Guys and Dolls).

 

True, though, Loesser was not enthusiastic about his lot. As he wrote to his wife, he was “trying to knock off a hit out of a situation where the producer orders a certain title, the musical director orders a certain rhythm, the dance director orders a certain number of bars and the composers order a certain number of aspirins”.

 

Two of his songs figure: “Let's Have Bluebirds (on All Our Wallpaper)” and “Hot Towel”. He mentions another song “Don't Let Me Love You” which “is in at every possible moment, during bank robberies, flood scenes, dance-hall sequences and a long shot of the Bronx Zoo. It is also sung by a guy and Pat Ellis, very mournfully indeed, while they dance. God, why didn't I stay in the process-serving business?” In fact, that song was cut, as were all those scenes which Loesser mentions - apart from the floods.

 

Quite how the Bronx Zoo would have fitted into it one cannot imagine, for there is plot enough as things stand. Loesser, still disgruntled, called the film an “utter stinker”.

 

It has more interest than that. Things begin bumpily, upon an aeroplane caught in a storm. Among those aboard are the eponymous Ricardo Cortez, a nightclub singer (Patricia Ellis), her maid (Hattie McDaniell) and a splendidly obnoxious, harmonica-playing boy (Bill Burrud). Such is their peril that Cortez has the bright notion of Pat Ellis singing to the boy's accompaniment, and all join in - especially Hattie. Anything to drown out the harmonica.

 

Naturally, the 'plane makes it safely, the press are waiting, and the nightclub, run by Legosi, anticipates more customers. So much for this new angle on Lugosi's night-time activities, but the days are filled, at first, by a parade of people who inform Cortez that hey have come a cropper when finding that their mail-order goods are shoddy, even preposterously advertised. Curiously, it turns out that - in Cortez's words - “a postage stamp is the best insurance in the world”. Anybody who uses the US Mail to send dodgy goods can be prosecuted by it. What's more, the Mail has been used to send stolen greenbacks, which of course, nightclubs being what they are, is where all this ties together.

 

That is, until a crash on the levee, and the rain turns to floods, in some dramatic scenes which are evidently intercut with stock footage.

 

A shower, though, is what lifts this movie. After her hairy flight, Patricia Ellis reaches a hotel, there filmed quite suggestively through the shower's steamy glass while singing Loesser's “Hot Towel”, a garment in which she emerges from it, her vocal cords continuing with their task as she walks around the room, there joined in the enterprise by the great Hattie as they point to the incontrovertible truth of “how can you slumber /to the rhythm of a rhumba!” Loesser insisted on efforts being given to the orchestration and recording of the songs – and these few minutes make it all worthwhile.

 

 

DRAW UP THE DURBRIDGE

 

An automobile crashes over a cliff and explodes. At first glance, one might take the scene to be somewhere in California before the opening credits roll, and Postmark for Danger (1955) duly gets underway in London, where one soon learns that the apparent accident happened in Italy.

 

The dead man was a reporter, one of three brothers; one is a pilot for hire (William Sylvester), the other a painter (Robert Beatty) whom we first see in a top-floor studio at work on a portrait of a model (Josephine Griffin) whose last sitting this proves to be, for she has become engaged to suave Allan Cuthbertson, he of the pencil-sharp moustache and swank open-top roadster.

 

Directed at a pace by Guy Green, all this is based upon a story by ever-reliable purveyor of mysteries, Francis Durbridge, and it had been a now-vanished television series the previous year.

 

With the arrival on the scene of an increasingly doubtful Inspector from Scotland Yard it emerges that, alas, dead beside the reporter was one Alison Ford - and, what's more, interest has been aroused by a postcard the reporter sent to somebody in London shortly before he set off on that fatal journey.

 

Any number of red herrings defrost, and to say much more, as suspicion lingers upon the painter, would eat into these closely-packed eighty minutes. Yet again, these find a small but key rôle for Sam Kydd as one of an array of functionaries in a well-depicted post-war London of small hotels, discreet nightclubs - and a used-car yard in Fulham with the sign Cash! Cash! Cash!

 

Which, if anything, is the theme of this film in which one and all are trying to make a go of it, one way and another, on the level or on the sly.

 

As had been the case in the war, it proves rash to speak loudly. You never know who might be listening.

 

UNLUCKY JIM

 

Based upon a Simemon novel translated as Newhaven-Dieppe, Temptation Harbour might lead viewers to think that they are in for events which take place across a cross-Channel ferry. That could be dramatic enough, but this is all the more so as it finds widowed Robert Newton as a wide-eyed, heavily-eyebrowed signalman who spends much of his time in pulling levers to and fro, often while it is dark outside, even foggy and wet as trains arrive and a ship docks.

 

This was directed by Lance Comfort, who is now best known for a long series of serviceable B-films he made during the Fifties and until his death in 1966. Before that, he had made several notable films, and claims can reasonably be made that with Temptation Harbour he fashioned a bleak masterpiece a few years after the same novel had been the basis for a film - The Man from London - made in wartime Paris.

 

It is simple enough. One night two crooks, former acrobats, arrive from France with a cash-laden briefcase, and, as thieves do, they then vie with each other for it all. One of them, and the case, falls into the sea; with which Newton jumps over the railing to the rescue, only to emerge with the case, whose contents he duly discovers.

 

Naturally this is hot stuff which gives him cold feet, until he realises all that he could do for his daughter with it, a girl Bet (played by Margaret Barton who had been in Brief Encounter) whom he has upbraided that very morning for purloining some tasty kidneys from the butcher's shop where she is oppressed by the sour owners. What's more, the film has opened with a fairground scene as dramatically filmed as such interiors as a pub and and a beachside fishing shed. Among the fair's “attractions” is a stall in which a mermaid - Simone Simon - apparently turns into atoms to escape her handcuffs and re-atomises herself in an off-stage cupboard. Despite such apparent powers, she cannot escape the tyrannical barker and his piano-thumping wife.

 

You can guess the rest - or can you? - as one and all come to the attention, one small slip, of the surviving thief, played devilishly, creepily well by William Hartnell who has others on his trail, one of whom dubs him “unlucky Jim”, which was some years before Kingsley Amis's novel.

 

Strange how time can turn tricks. On first release, this did better at the box office than another of the year's releases, Brighton Rock. And small wonder. Some might say that this - in fact filmed in Dover - has the edge on it.

 

Long hard to find, it can now be found to rent on the BFI's player.

 

"FROM GARBAGE CANS TO MINK"
 
Hammer. The word brings to mind crypts, blood, after-hours appointments with the increasingly impatient Dead - perhaps all at once. It is sometimes forgotten that, earlier in the Fifties, the studio had found its way by means of a British take on b-movies rooted in those noirs which readily spooled from the sprocket in California.
 
For Blackout (1954) - sometimes known, too revealingly, as Murder by Proxy - Terence Fisher, later adept at horror, was behind the camera for the film. It was from novel by Helen Nielsen, who had designed aircraft in America during the war.
 
The film opens, yes, in a nightclub.
 
Did anybody but know it, the singer on stage was Cleo Laine. To the foreground is Dane Clark, one of those American actors who found himself for a while over here in hopes that such an accent would boost the box-office takings over there.
 
He is down on his luck, near-skint, and well-nigh sloshed.
 
At which moment there steps from the bar the young, impossibly glamorous Belinda Lee, her character described in the novel as "this gorgeous doll (with eyes like purple smoke) had come slithering into the cocktail lounge". She pays for a round, and makes him an offer, cash in hand, which involves their leaving rightaway.
 
Cut to the next, Chelsea morning, when he finds himself waking on a sofa in artist's studio in front of a painting of Miss Lee, whose father, he learns from a newspaper, has been murdered in the meanwhile.
 
The plot is complex, but carried along by adroit cinematography of the contemporary scene and Clark's bantering tone as he finds himself in a world far from the one in which he grew up and takes the challenge to dig himself out of this elegantly-walled hole. "Be a detective? I can so that. Well, I've seen enough movies."
 
No need to dwell on events, which could have been pruned - but not at the expense of Miss Lee who is glorious. She was to reach California, via a stint in Italian films, and there died in 1961, driven in an automobile which another driver testified had overtaken him at around 100mph.
 
She could be alive now, quite possibly the author of a lively memoir, all of it far from childhood in Budleigh Salterton.

THE HYPOCRITIC OATH

When did people stop referring to "a woman's picture"? At any rate, those which found a starring rôle for James Mason invariably tacked in that direction - and so it seems in the case of The Upturned Glass, directed with verve by Lawrence Huntington in 1947.

 

It opens with a suave Mason, a neurosurgeon who is lecturing to students about the nature of sanity - and murder. It is not long before the viewer, and the cannier students, realise that he is narrating his own part in recent events.

 

These began with his operating upon the unhappily-married Rosamund John's twelve-year-old piano-playing daughter (played by Ann Stephens, who had made discs of "Teddy Bears' Picnic" and "They're Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace"). The daughter recovers after some time, in which heightened atmosphere Mason and Rosamund John have been drawn closer, their affection intensifed by a mutual love of music, which forms a strong part of the soundtrack throughout.

 

So far, so much "a woman's picture". The situation is complicated by Rosamund John's malevolent, widowed sister-in-law, played with an evil eye by... James Mason's own wife (who also had a hand in the screenplay). With this, The Upturned Glass gains a noir element, replete with smart car, fog, remote house - and one of the most splendidly brittle parties ever filmed.

 

All of which is strong enough to sustain a great deal of Mason's elegant voiceover - and, at many a turn, has one taking deep breaths.

 

 

A SIGNAL SUCCESS

 

An MGM production, its masthead in colour the first image to fill the screen, followed by the name Glenn Ford, Terror on a Train (1953) is in fact very much an English black-and-white film, whose seventy-five minutes' journey moves through a summer's night at a pace of which many a daytime commuter can only dream.

 

The title might suggest a pelting series of carriages along whose corridor run and squeeze a motley contingent who have animated many such a voyage across the points. This is something different. Apart from those in the engine wagon, the carriages contain just - just! - a number of mines, their destination Portsmouth Harbour.

 

Early on, it's apparent that one of them has been sabotaged, and capable of blowing up thousands within the vicinity as it leaves Birmingham.

 

Cue the local police, and in particular pipe-smoking Maurice Denham, who issues the order to divert the train to a siding at Felsworth Junction and evacuate some 15,000 people from the area.

 

All this, complete with graveyard scenes and a vicar tolling a bell which brings to mind Went the Day Well?, is superbly captured, its director Ted Tetzlaff a Hollywood veteran from childhood - and he was the cinematographer upon Notorious, which stood him in good bomb-disposing stead.

 

The man called upon to work his way through all the potential bombs was Glenn Ford, whose character had met his wife (Ann Vernon) while in the Army, the state of their union currently so, well, explosive that she has donned marvellous clothes and set off for Paris, only to find the line is down; she has to hunker down in a station buffet where a purported businessman flirts with the woman behind the counter, who - worthy of Brief Encounter - retorts, "I'll be grateful if you kept your eyes to yourself!" "I'm just giving you your due."

 

The many tracks of the film are deftly interlocked. Half an hour's screen time of going from one mine to the next would be insufferable (the opening of Riffifi is an exception to that rule); Terror on a Train's switching of locations heightens suspense, all of it alleviated by an array of small parts deftly done, such as Sam Kydd's remarks behind a ticket-office counter.

 

To say any more would spoil things, only to mention that just when you thought it safe to go back on the platform... Oh, and there is a pioneering turn by Herbert Walton as an eldery fellow in the grip of Alzheimer's, his world vision one of flowers and the repeated plea of "I like trains!".