SEX AND SARDINES

 

What exactly is Swept Away (1974)? A precise answer cannot be given. That is hardly the point of this film, written and directed by Lina Wertmüller, which provides uneasy entertainment off the coast of a sunlit Italy.

 

Events begin aboard the deck of a private yacht engaged by the husband of Mariangelo Melato for a pleasurable voyage, their nautical and catering needs met by a crew from the South which includes Giancarlo Gianni whose staring eyes are set in a bearded face, all of which is redolent of a man at odds with settled order which finds him below decks and enraged at his culinary skills called into question by the pampered few.

 

A tense atmosphere becomes all the more so as she demands a journey upon a smaller vessel of which he takes charge. With a failure in its outboard motor and a switch in the current, they become adrift. A dead calm turns otherwise and they reach an uninhabited island where his resemblance to Robinson Crusoe becomes all the more marked. There is also something of Lawrence about all this – even of Castaway – as the relationship between man and woman, peasant and grandee, is played out amidst a struggle to survive, he taking the opportunity for revenge upon her previous denigration of him now that she needs his skills to seek out and then render that flesh into food.

 

To say more of the narrative would undermine the surprises it contains – and the questions one asks for some while after the credits have gone by. A brilliantly-shot film which plays in each viewer's mind as much it does upon the screen.

SHOWING TONIGHT

 

Whatever happened to Killer Riders of Wyoming? The question comes to mind while revelling in The Smallest Show on Earth (1957). One scrambles to see whether this existed, for considerable trouble must have been entailed in filming those scenes which surface upon the small screen of a rundown cinema in the town of Southborough whose air is dominated by its glue factory.

 

But no, this and several other Western scenes were especially made – fast horses, speeding trains, cliff-edge tumbles and all – for a delightful, moving comedy written by William Rose who was responsible for many other films of an Ealing hue; this was made by British Lion, and it should be as well known as his other work.

 

It opens with a postman on his rounds, who reaches up to hand Virginia McKenna a letter for her novelist husband (Bill Travers). Once he rises from his typewriter, he opens it and finds that he has come into an inheritance, something which could make all the difference to their impecunious state (desirable as their London home appears sixty-five years on).

 

Full pelt (first class) to Southborough, and, in time, down to earth, for the junior solicitor Leslie Phillips's sad task is to inform the young couple that the long-lost great-uncle's legacy is a cinema – the Bijou -, whose rafters and lighting are regularly shaken by the adjacent railway line. Such is the state of the place, it could do with rapid application of the liquid produced by that glue factory.

 

All in all, a legacy which would make a 1957's publisher's advance appear the stuff of dreams.

 

What's more, the Bijou comes complete with three ancient members of staff from its glory days: at the box office and piano is Margaret Rutherford while at the projector and whisky bottle is Peter Sellers (who, in his early thirties, was dressed to look close on eighty) while, equally bewhiskered, there is Miles Malleson who multi-tasks as janitor and commissionaire.

 

To say anymore about the plot is not necessary. It is the familiar one of modest forces in battle with a conglomerate (such as 1939's Cheer Boys Cheer did so well, its subject rival breweries). All this takes but seventy-five minutes, including those preposterous Westerns, but contains so much that one cannot help but want to sit round for the next showing to savour again the rapid dialogue, the ready humour, the pathos, the skilful plotting: here is everything to fuel a term at film school (including Virginia McKenna's hapless attempt to sell ice cream during the interval).

 

All of the cast, directed by Basil Dearden, must have had as much fun in making as this anybody will do if at all tempted to watch it.

TAKE THE AAGH! TRAIN

 

Two decades before the villainous cast of Reservoir Dogs were named after colours, there were those who addressed one another by similar monickers while hijacking the eponymous New York subway train in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Four men, all dressed alike, sought a cool (used) million in exchange for releasing the eighteen passengers (including two children) left aboard that carriage as, after a halt, it hurtles southwards in something close to real time while, above ground, police sirens wail and transit chief Walter Matthau barks into a microphone and the City's mayor whimpers upon a 'flu-ridden bed.

 

No animator or computer generator could ever hope to match the movements of Matthau's face; this always moved from threat to barbed aside in an instant, all of it with a humane thrust, here superbly aided by David Shire's jazz-infused music; and, if anybody needs to be shown the part played by film editors, then step forward Gerald Greenberg and Ronald Lovett: the way in which they cut between scenes as the clock ticks is matchless.

 

One might wonder quite how Joseph Sargent came to direct this film, for previously and afterwards he was by and large occupied with tv movies. No matter, here is an accomplished film, one of the most exciting ever made, not least because it turns upon character, wit, closing doors and brake-pedal

 

And it sprang from a brisk novel by John Godey. He knew that raw Manhattan well: another novel turned around a snake on the loose on Central Park, which one can well imagine that this was optioned for a film but, alas, it was never made.

 

Hard-pressed residents at that time must have found it startling to nip out for a snack and find themselves asked to stand back on the sidewalk, out of camera shot, while a full-pelt, “hard-rubber” scene was made (I think that's the term I heard).

 

Five decades on, this must be called a masterpiece.

 

 

PLOUGHIN' IN THE WIND

 

In these times when dependence upon food has become paramount, the opening scenes, set in Ukraine, of Dovzhenko's Earth (1930) resonate across a near-century. This is, right now, perhaps even more startling than looking upon those recent telescope images of the way in which the universe gathered force whenever that was (difficult to get a handle upon the eons of time and space).

 

Here, though, in this, one of the last silent films, is a reminder that, while, for example, people were bustling around Piccadilly for anything ranging from the latest Aldous Huxley to an Edgar Wallace, others were in those remote plains, some on the point of death, as wheat and fruit were fortified by the sun or beset by the wind - as they had been for centuries.

 

Harvest was all. Every stage of the future depended upon it. As we now find.

 

As Graham Greene observed a few years later, Earth had a “magnificent drive... a belief in the importance of a human activity truthfully reported”. These eighty minutes' narrative are not the main thing: their essence is one of life itself while collectivisation entails the loss of individual land as machinery cuts across many more acres than a man with a scythe can do. One might recall those scenes in Hardy, some four decades earlier, when steam engines did likewise – and indeed of those years after the Second World War which saw England's hedgerows torn up to give way to combine harvesters and the loss of bees' habitat which now prove vital for us all.

 

Thankfully, despite all this, and for us, Earth is not a pamphlet; it is something, literally, much more moving: clouds cross the sky, people traverse the countryside in memory of a man killed for his belief in the land as inherently a greater force than bureaucracy's egotistic craving to submit it to a form-filling régime.

 

Even those who do not read poetry appreciate that the land provides it. An onion, an apple, these have the shape of a sonnet; a field is an epic which we need to celebrate.

 

What's more, startlingly, Earth celebrates those who find that the land's magnetic force has pulled off all their clothes to bring them to a state of Paganism.

 

Here is something whose open faces speak to us more cogently than anything the latest masked Marvel character can ever hope to do.

 

 

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A HOT STOVE – AND BEYOND

 

How many films open with a close up of ducks in a bath? The only one that comes to mind is Imitation of Life (1934). And it lifts off from there. The other occupant of the bath is the infant daughter of widowed Claudette Colbert. As chance has it, there is a knock at the door from Louise Beavers, a black woman who is also a single parent who offers to work in the household. The women strike a bond which combines the cooking skills of one with the marketing prowess of the other (no prizes for guessing this division of labour).

 

All this was bold for the Thirties. It is based on a novel by Fannie Hurst, who, after a struggle, became a bestselling, often-filmed author much given to social issues which, such is fame, was to have her consigned to relative oblivion after a long life; signs are, she is becoming esteemed again. As for this film, directed by John Stuhl, it is as bright as ever (Preston Sturges had a hand in the script).

 

There is a schematic shape to it all. As the enterprise grows, so do the daughters, which, as always brings new problems, not least an amatory tangle as bold for the time as the racial one (partly driven by a case of “passing” which had been the subject of Nella Larsen's eponymous novel (1929)). There are moments, including death, when it appears to become maudlin, but the script – as well as the camera – pulls back, and moves on at a pace which makes one surprised to find that it has lasted almost two hours. One can never miss an appearance by Claudette Colbert – and must wish that Louise Beavers had been to the for more often.

"A DELACROIX IN THE BATHROOM"

 

Such lines occur frequently in this London-set film (1964), much it taking place beside a low-tide Thames. "There's enough junk here for a two-year calendar!" "There are few masterpieces in the world - but there are many millionaires." And these lines are only in the scenes with an extraordinary turn by Richard Attenborough as a gallery owner and himself an anguished painter of calm scenes (with a young Judi Dench as secretary).

 

He has been visited by Stephen Boyd, an American television broadcaster based in London and esteemed by the nation as a rock-steady commentator. In fact, he and Attenborough shared a widowed psychiatrist, who dies, an apparent suicide, in the opening scence with an enigmatic whisper to the housekeeper.

 

The psychiatrist's fourteen-year-old daughter - a remarkable performance by Pamela Franklin - is certain that there was foul play, and enlists Boyd's help. This sounds preposterous but the acting carries all with it. Elements of the customary procedural tale are there, but this is a film notable less for adroit plot turns (a fine script by Robert Joseph) than its filming: director Charles Crichton owes much to the often deep-focus cinematography of the ever-reliable Douglas Slocombe. Even small rooms assume epic proportions, with faces in half-shadows redolent of the With the Beatles cover (as with that photograph, the film would not have worked in colour).

Dream, nightmare and reality overlap, with an emphasis on chalked messages upon Thameside walls, where also stands, or rather sits, a statue of Hans Christian Andersen, who has a bearing on events.

 

If all this sounds rich (in both senses of the word), it is but a small part of a film which also, at one fraught moment, brings allegation of Lolita-like situations, one of them upon a four-poster bed.

 

Say no more.

 

It is a continually unsettling film, not least with something almost unspoken, if not unspeakable, about the past in the life of a Judge - Jack Hawkins, no less: he unbuttons, literally and metaphorically, after sitting through another day in the life of a detailed industrial-espionage case.

 

Why is this film not better known? Give it a whirl, and you will be sure to spread the word. And, meanwhile, word is that a strand of the plot, with Patricia Neal, was cut after filming. That would have made it too long, but would be fascinating to see if the footage survives somewhere. All too often Crichton is mentioned for a late-career return to cinema with A Fish Called Wanda. Make no mistake, The Third Secret Is far better.

OF THE SEASONS AND THE SEA

 

When did cigarette cases pass from general view? This had occurred to me while reading again The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), whose plot turns around an inscribed one. Such an item – also engraved – surfaces in An Affair to Remember (1957) which finds almost all the men sporting hats (except for one who declares, “I'm so stupid, I ain't even ignorant!”). Come Kennedy, hats would be gone and perhaps cigarette cases before them.

 

The plot is familiar, partly because it is a re-make of Love Affair (1939) which was also directed and written by Leo McCarey, a man with an undoubted sentimental side but let us not forget that he made that masterpiece of mayhem Duck Soup; that familiarity is also resonant because it was to inspire that run of Nineties romantic comedies such as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. The plot is a variant upon such shipboard romances as the one which made Anything Goes steam ahead. Aboard a liner – the Constitution - both Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, he a playboy painter, she a singer, are engaged to well-heeled others who are busy in America with their business dealings. Between Europe and New York, there is a dalliance (“let's get some air” “I'll show you the rudder” sounds faintly indecent), which is stoked by a halt on the Riviera, where Deborah Kerr accompanies Grant on a visit to his grandmother (Cathleen Nesbitt).

 

This is a protracted scene which, although elegantly done, goes on a bit (as does the film itself at close on two hours). And, as it is, with Grant then fifty-three, Cathleen Nesbitt should have been at least a hundred. No matter, here is a woman who hugs Grant and, a leap across time, may have recalled while doing so that she once had in her arms another handsome man, Rupert Brooke: she was one of his various girlfriends (her memoir is coy about their involvement).

 

There are, amidst the furs and cuff-links, enough sharp lines to alleviate the inevitable sentimentality. “My mother told me never to enter a man's room in months ending with an r.” And later there is the eternal wisdom of “never is a frightening word”.

 

Some notches beneath Ninotchka, that unsurpassable romantic comedy, here – complete with Christmas scenes – is grand entertainment which reminds us that should anybody utter the greeting “top of the morning!”, the correct reply is, “and the rest of the day to you!”

EAR DEFENDERS

 

“Name?” “Rivett.” Not perhaps cinema's most resounding exchange, but it is a neat joke for, in the space of an hour, Michael Powell's Red Ensign (1934) tells an absorbing tale – inspired by a newspaper story - of an attempt to revive the Scottish shipbuilding industry. For all its air of a quota quickie, it has much in common with the decade's documentary movement.

 

Here are many shots of moribund yards, and some well-nigh exciting scene of very loud rivetting as Leslie Banks, a designer and shareholder in the firm, plots to build a fleet which will bring renewed prosperity to the area, and to the country. He is not only up against his own Board but there are attempts to sabotage it all by a rival (a pleasingly unsavoury Alfred Drayton). This recalls the arson which gave Powell's film earlier that year the title of The Fire Raisers. It also starred Banks, whom Powell called an actor's actor, and Carol Goodner who reappears here as a trustafarian on the Board and, naturally, provides piano-playing love interest.

 

Powell called her “my big discovery”. He had seen her in the West End in an American play. “She hadn't got much of a figure, but she had expressive eyes and a quiet intensity that was quite unforgettable. In addition she was highly professional. I decided that what I liked about American actresses was that they were not content with speaking a lot of words: they knew that there was a real woman hidden somewhere amongst all that verbiage and they were trying to find her”.

 

As he also recalls of the contemporary audience, they did not know what to make of it. “The elaborate staging of the shipyard, the big, sweeping exteriors, the high standard of performance and sincerity of the actors, the overall seriousness of my approach to directing our story, made them run for cover”.

 

No need to do so now but savour it in its own right – and as a prelude to his great run of films with Pressburger.

BELOW THE BELT

 

Suits hang well on Cary Grant. Never more so than in North by Northwest (1959), which opens with their proving - cuff-links and all - intact after a perilous night-time drive down a mountainside road, and which will find him ducking out of reach from a low-flying crop-duster and surviving an auction-room brawl – and he becomes more casually but equally smartly dressed when events contrive to find him grasping the hand of Eva Marie Saint as they dodge villains on Mount Rushmore.

 

To mention all this gives little away, for these scenes have become well known in their own right, much parodied. Familiar to those who have not seen the two hours and more of the film itself. That crop-duster suggests that the remote plain in question was no organic farm, and, indeed this is not an organic film but one built around such scenes. As such, it is contrived, but entertainingly so; one can watch Cary Grant in anything, and he has a great foil in Eva Marie Saint.

 

As chance has it, I watched the film again today, which is not only Independence Day but her 98th birthday. What a performance she gives as a femme fatale with a hint of Dietrich aboard the train where she encounters an innocent advertising man-on-the-run Grant. This is a Buchanesque set-up which had served Hitchcock well (at the very opening, we see the director finding the doors close in front of him as he tries to climb aboard a Manhattan 'bus). And here is the obverse of the shower scene which would follow in Psycho. And it all ends, as had Strangers on a Train, with a clinch followed by the train going into a tunnel worthy of a session on Freud's sofa.

 

At the time of the film's release, Manny Farber linked it with such different items as Wild Strawberries, Anatomy of a Murder and The Devil's Disciple. “Each one of these films uses a precise, currently popular photography in which details protrude with an icy, magic realist clarity that once ruined most surrealist painting.” There is an abundance of macguffins, such as a book of matches, and an imprint upon a pad by a telephone which recalls the train window in The Lady Vanishes. Across the decades, we can perhaps realise that here both Grant and Hitchcock are guying themselves (and a parody, surely, of the Marx Brothers shaving themselves in front of a mirror). To use a term favoured by Hitchcock's adversary, Graham Greene, this is an entertainment; for all its importer-exporter, cold-war background, there are many scenes of abundant American luxury on display at the Plaza and elsewhere.

 

It is a hoot. As such, what dialogue, in Ernest Lehman's script, regularly punctuates the suspense! “The three of you together – that's a picture Charles Addams could draw!” “In advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. It's expedient exaggeration.” “How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?” “She using sex like some people use a fly-swatter.”

 

This perspective upon gadgets-driven Fifties life in America has cameos galore. Grant's domineering, ever-dubious mother is a wonderful Jessie Royce Landis (she rivals Thelma Ritter in elegant abuse) while the name of a gloriously officious railway-station clerk's two minutes is impossible to locate (there are far more people on screen than in the credits, which must be a veritable case of Hitchcock's regarding actors as so much cattle).

 

As for Grant's suits, perhaps their hanging well upon him owes something to his well-known penchant for wearing women's underwear. Was Hitchcock aware of this when, in a rare moment, Grant is prevailed upon to have that much-travelled suit taken by a hotel's valet, which leaves us to glimpse Grant in very-masculine, albeit yellow boxer-shorts?

A MOVING STILLNESS

 

Fittingly, the 12X 'bus took me today along the Sussex coast, even through Newhaven, to Eastbourne, all of it land – hills and port - associated with Eric Ravilious, who was killed while working as a War Artist eighty years ago. The object was to see a new film about him, which is being shown at various places, including Eastbourne's Towner Gallery which has much of his work - and now a small, comfortable cinema, a world away from popcorn-crunching, forever-texting multiplex horrors.

 

Margy Kinmouth's Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War is not a sonorously-intoned account of him but one which allows all concerned to speak naturally about a man who found delight in life – and in rendering everyday scenes, during and before the war in watercolours which are now instantly recognisable as his. It comes as a surprise to find that until the Seventies he had fallen from sight, when his family discovered a trove of his work kept under fellow-artist Edward Bawden's bed. Since then it was been widely shown and reproduced well in an array of books. Even so, one of the contributors to the film, Alan Bennett talks evocatively of seeing on his classroom wall a print of that picture of a third-class railway carriage but also claims that Ravilious remains little known. In fact, among other books, there have been an illustrated volume by Alan Powers (who appears in the film) and a full-scale biography by Andy Friend (who does not).

 

With these, and the publication of his widow Tirzah Garwood's memoir many decades after her death from the breast cancer which lost her their fourth child, the trajectory of Ravilious's life is familiar. The film adds to it, and movingly – not least for the appearance by his third child, Anne who was born a year before his death and was held aloft to wave him farewell on the war-artist work which took him to death over Icelandic waters after chronicling, also aboard submarines, the work of those on the terrifying Arctic convoys.

 

The film opens, and ends, with an evocation of this airborne plunge. Modern techniques are brought to bear upon it – including some digital animation of Ravilious's watercolours, which might sound gross but would surely have delighted him as much it did the audience today. And, wow!, at the other end of the cinematic scale, here is silent film of his marriage (the two families had an evidently uneasy gathering in a garden after the church ceremony, her side better funded than his).

 

Doubtless, this film will stream and become available on DVD, but it was a joy to watch it with an appreciative audience – and to ponder the often-primitive circumstances (no electricity) in which Ravilious worked, and to envy him a free-and-easy time (he bought some horse-drawn carriages in which, Augustus John-fashion, to trot from spot to spot - a wonderful watercolour).

 

And I was glad to see appreciation of him by playwright and novelist Julian Mitchell (now eighty-seven, which seems absurd) who talked about his own (post-war) submarine experience: new to me.

 

It was startling to emerge from this to the Eastbourne sunshine – and to wonder what Ravilious would have made of the decades he should have seen. Here is a film to hearten an audience in times which are becoming as troubling as those which Ravilious depicted with that alluring and troubling stillness.

 

The ninety-minute film is a quiet masterpiece which suits Ravilious without skirting his turbulence (there are postmarks of letters to lovers who did not sunder his marriage).

 

Strange to think that on a seabed somewhere are the remains of a man who wrote to his wife so well of the charming seals which rose greetingly above the waves beside those ships.

 

Ravilious, who decried working in oils as doing so in toothpaste, should inspire more to embrace watercolours.

 

Among those to celebrate him as such in this film is Grayson Perry. Ravilious is of our century.

BLACK, WHITE - AND GREY

 

No masterpiece, Checkmate (1935) is a diversion which makes the most of a North London house presided over by a widowed, hard-up, doddering Felix Aylmer. His greying looks make one wonder how he sired two pretty daughters (Evelyn Foster and Sally Gray), one of whom is girlfriend of Donald Wolfitt who runs a garage opposite. Along comes Philip Green in need of lodgings.

 

Such a cast carries this tale which runs deeper than the piano, tea cups and chess games which appear to comprise the daily round, with a rare excursion to a dance hall. It is in something of the Edgar Wallace vein, and there are moments when one can envisage it as a silent film. Director George Pearson made many of those – and died at almost a hundred in 1973. Five decades further on, he makes for a pleasant hour, and leaves one wishing that the two daughters had made more films than they did.

OF BAWLS AND BRAWLS; BUGLE AND BUNGLE

 

Have you brought an adding machine?” It gives nothing away to say that From Here to Eternity (1953) contains a famous beach scene in which, as the waves break on the shore, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr grasp one another upon their clothes. Less often recalled is this line of dialogue. Why, in the throes of passion with his superior's wife, should a Sergeant feel the need of so mundane a device? Then again, this is a film in which, for all the current events at an Army base in Hawaii in the early part of 1941, all those involved have a backstory (as they say).

 

Lancaster's been told that Deborah Kerr has been free with her favours while she and her husband were at another posting; meanwhile Montgomery Clift has sought a transfer after killing somebody in one of the service's boxing bouts; first glimpsed with a broom in his hand, Frank Sinatra is as much a bundle of insecurities as his bête noire, Ernest Borgnine who runs a prison with, literally a rod of iron; and the beach scene is intercut with an encounter at the New Congress Club, which is aptly named, for its staff are prostitutes, including Donna Reed who is saving to return to the mainland and the life of respectability which had been hers before being jilted at what she has assumed would be the altar.

 

All this, and more, two hours of it, was adapted by Daniel Taradash from James Jones's novel, one of those sprawling late-Forties novels which tried to make sense of everything through which the country had been put before the Bomb dropped and all our woe.

 

As directed by Fred Zinnemann in effective black and white, it is, for all the bawling marching exercises, a big-screen chamber drama. Scene after scene, even a bar-room brawl, takes place in confined space, notably the night-time moment when Sinatra and Clift hug each other, almost passionately, one last time. This is accomplished film-making, of which Manny Farber said at the time, it “happens to be fourteen-carat entertainment. The main trouble is that it is too entertaining for a film in which love affairs flounder, one sweet guy is beaten to death, and a man of high principles is taken for a saboteur and killed on a golf course”.

 

And yet, Farber, like anybody who sees it, was gripped (as one is by Lumet's equally pounding The Hill a decade later). How one should like to leap From Here to 1953 and listen to talk, in the bar afterwards, and learn from the discussions between those who had elected upon it as something through which to hold hands on a date-night. Did it foster argument or passion? Or both?

 

What surprised audiences at the time is that the seemingly innocent Deborah Kerr took on a salacious rôle. Of course, we now know, from Michael Powell's memoirs, that in Thirties England he had a similar encounter with her, albeit not upon a beach but on a rug in front of a lodging house's gas-fire. We shall never know whether this went though her mind when asked about the adding machine.

THE PRICE OF CRISPS

 

A knife. This is – almost literally – at the heart of The Boys (1962), as it was at an earlier trial drama: Twelve Angry Men (1957). While that was confined to the jury's deliberation room one New York afternoon, Sidney Furie's London film not only takes place in a courtroom over which Felix Aylmer presides but it incorporates flashbacks, sometimes repeated, to scenes as recollected by witnesses of the events which ended with a night watchman killed.

 

Amidst those recollections are some by the four flashy youths accused of the crime, whose defence lawyer is none other than Robert Morley. This might sound preposterous but he, Groucho eyebrows and all, turns in as engaging a performance as the prosecuting counsel, Richard Todd.

 

At two hours, this has led some to say that it is a swollen production (although shorter than most trials); in fact, there is so much happening, with an array of character parts, including Steptoe as a lavatory attendant, that one's attention is continually engaged. Whether in the street, pub or atop a 'bus, the London of that era is wonderfully caught in a few moments of screen time. To say any more about the twists of events would be unfair: the title of this review gives an indication of the forensic detail.

 

Here is a film which should be far better known – and cherished for a Judge who asks, “what do you mean by yobboes?” This is on a level with the Judge who, a year or so later, would ask, “who are these Beatles?”

 

Another period detail. Nowadays, jurors are not allowed to wear hats. But in 1962, all of those three women upon the jury sported headgear.

HIGH JINX AND HYDRANTS

 

In these difficult times for department stores, their owners might be tempted to follow the example of the imposing art-deco one at the centre of A Fire Has Been Arranged (1935). Before the doors open upon the crush of those eager for its summer Sale, there is a more orderly, more shapely procession. Dancing girls come down the spiral staircases and join in song with a youthful manager while a dance band plays in a light style which suits this number in which love vies with commerce (the rhymes are hardly Larry Hart but good enough for this time of day).

 

This is all the more surprising because the film began with Flanagan and Allen as part of a trio of robbers who have made off with £10,000 of jewellery and buried it in a field before being rewarded with ten years' gaol for their trouble. All that, despite the use of a fast motor-car, is redolent of their ever-punning music-hall act. This patter, which includes a disquisition upon digging a hole, is no match for the Marx Brothers', and the whole thing did not meet with Graham Greene's approval.

 

He said that it “is meant to be funny and is very, very dreary. Flanagan and Allen seem to be famous comedians, some people laughed, but, like most English farces, it made me embarrassed. I wanted to stop everyone and tell them that they oughtn't to play the fool in public; a private joke should not be repeated noisily before strangers. I felt rather sad and outcast, as I do on the rare occasions I look at the English comic weeklies. Perhaps it was that association which made me feel at the end that I had been waiting a long, long while for a haircut and had come away without one.”

 

Greene gives no mention to a man whose haircuts cannot have taken very long. This was Alastair Sim, in one of his first films and already looking and sounding as he would do for the next forty years of husky diffidence. He is one of the management of the store which has been built upon the land where the sparklers were buried. As it turns out at a shareholders' meeting, the enterprise has problems of its own, so much so that he finds the eponymous common cause with the newly-released villains.

 

All this was directed by the prolific Leslie Hiscott, who, earlier the same year, had made Department Store. There are several films running simultaneously here, the best of which has Sim to the fore, but there is room for another motor-car chase, which not only includes the countryside but also a racing-car track before ending up on a railway line. Part of that chase renders driver and passenger blackface for a while (a puddle cleans them), and the purchase of their vehicle has brought a discussion with the Jewish owner of a garage – all of which which might now bring askance looks. But there it is, something accepted at the time.

 

As for the bright-eyed dancing girls, they double as the store's in-house fire brigade, their thighs scarcely protected from any fire - and their helmets precarious. There is more fun to be had here than Greene would lead one to believe, even if one does have to embrace such slang as Sarahwill (dynamite) and Adamfell (evesdropped) – say these aloud, and see what reaction you get.

 

 

VICE IS NICE...

 

Incest. One might even now be startled to find this the underlying theme of Banana Ridge (1941) which had appeared in the West End three years earlier. All the more so as it is a farce with the requisite number of doors - and even a wardrobe.

 

Ben Travers had a long series of these produced at the Aldwych Theatre in the Twenties and Thirties. Most were filmed, and are often dismissed as stagey when in fact they are more than a record of the era's acting styles. Robertson Hare and Alfred Drayton are part of a company which deals in rubber (with the former on leave from a Malayan plantation). Along comes a charmingly insinuous Isabel Jeans, who reminds them of their lodging at her mother's house as officers during the Great War. It appears that either of them could have sired a son upon her (Jeans) – the very fellow (Patrick Kinsella) who is waiting outside, and even then beginning to romance Drayton's daughter (the great Nova Pilbeam) – and he simultaneously would Drayton's wife, Pilbeam's mother.

 

Small wonder that Drayton is aghast at his possible son marrying his certain daughter. Hence his being bundled off to the eponymous plantation (by dint of a money and some rain showers, this was filmed in Hertfordshire). All concerned give dashing performances (literally and metaphorically), not playing it for laughs but taking it seriously, which is the necessary requirement of effective comedy.

 

And it is a repository of vanished phrases. When one wife tells another that she does exercises every morning, she is asked, “don't you find that terribly heating?” And one husband, when told to do something, expostulates, “I'm sugared if I'll do so!”

 

Travers was to have a revival in the Seventies – and, at the age of ninety, a new play, directed in the West End by Lindsay Anderson. If at the moment, sightings of them are rarer, these film versions are a chance to discover a master of mayhem.

OF PERFUME AND SCENT

 

In a remarkable performance as a blind New York detective in Eyes in the Night (1942), Edward Arnold has an assistant, Friday. He is a dog of such extraordinary abilities that, without him, the case would not be solved. It opens, routinely enough, with Ann Harding visiting Arnold as she is concerned that her step-daughter (Donna Reed) has fallen for an actor (John Emery) with whom she herself was once involved.

 

Before long, she finds him dead, and flees the scene. There is, of course, more to all this than youthful infatuation; after all, there's a war on, with Ann Harding's husband at work on a secret device. Based on a novel by Baynard Kendrick, this was an early work by director Fred Zinnemann. Mainly one of interiors, above and below stairs, it maintains suspense even when one has become aware of the set-up with which Arnold is contending.

 

Often fittingly dark-hued, this is not exactly noir but one lengthy fight scene takes place upon a screen which is almost entirely black: it is difficult to think of anything like it, which could be said of much of this film. One must seek out Kendrick's novels.

A PRICE ON HER HEAD

 

Give my best to Mrs. Cross.” “Yes, I'm going to meet her at the lodge,” replies Vincent Price in Shock (1946), a line which has one chortling – and horrified.

 

Why should this be? The dialogue appears unexceptionable. It gives nothing away to cite it because, in the opening scenes, we have witnessed Price club her to death with a candlestick in a San Francisco hotel, where he keeps an apartment, before he returns to the grand, out-of-town asylum over which he presides with elegant authority.

 

While leaving a flunkey to send the trunk, the late Mrs. Cross therein, to the mountainside lodge which is his bolthole from matters medical.

 

Not only us, but also Anabel Shaw has witnessed the murder across the way from her hotel suite. She had checked in, anxiously, as she had assumed her serviceman husband (a fresh-complexioned Frank Latimore) dead these past two years only to hear that he has survived and that they will meet here. Her anxiety, heightened by his unexplained delay in fog and the candlestick, leads her to a state of collapse, with a wonderful nightmare sequence which lays her out on the sofa.

 

As fate has it, Price is summoned to help her – and he finds that her subconscious gives voice to sentences which, in the circumstances, only he is in a position to understand. Under guise of concern, he offers to take her to his sanatorium – something for which the delayed Latimore is grateful.

 

And all our woe.

 

Long before Nurse Ratched, there was Lynn Bari – and wow! As the mistress whose sultry presence led Price to clobber his wife, she repeatedly quashes any remaining scruples he is about to summon. Hers is such a bravura performance that anybody should seek out whatever else she appeared in. And, by contrast, has there been a rôle to match Anabel Shaw's? Fiercely sweet-faced, she is mostly in a horizontal position as, wincingly for us, she becomes victim of Price's smoothly-administered needles, part of his process to convince everyone that she is delusional.

 

In the annals of asylum-set films, can anything match the stormy night when another patient (John Edwards) goes on the loose for several crackling minutes which bring his hands to Anabel Shaw's throat? Director Alfred Werkler is not well known (some of us relish his News is Made at Night, which also features Lynn Bari), but he commands a pace, one of such velocity that, here, it brought to Vincent Price to the fore – and the rest we know.

 

There is much more than this to see in these seventy minutes. Do so for yourselves.

OF DIMPLES AND DIPLOMACY

 

The middle-European tangle of events which yielded the Great War has brought much commentary. What all can agree is that these had roots which went back centuries, and grew rapidly around 1910. And yet, even with the shooting in Sarajevo in 1914 many did not anticipate the War and its consequences.

 

No historian has mentioned the part played in this by Marilyn Monroe.

 

As she puts it, “your Balkan revolutions, you have them all the time!” She is addressing the Regent of Carpathia, which did not exist but sounds as though it should. How does she find a place in territory chronicled by A.J.P. Taylor and Christopher Clark? She is the eponymous hoofer in The Prince and The Showgirl (1957) who has stayed in London in 1911, and is among the cast visited backstage by the Regent who is also there for the Coronation of George V.

 

He is so struck by her that she receives an invitation to meet him at the Embassy in Belgrave Square. Flattered, she also wises up when she realises that there will be only the two of them (cold food means that flunkeys are not needed to serve it). Marilyn is in well-nigh every scene – and blows the Regent off the screen. An achievement all the more remarkable in that the he is none other than Laurence Olivier who also directed but did not dissuade himself from giving one of those hammy performances to which he was prone. The accent! The hair! One fully expects him to give her (oft-wiggling) bum a cackling slap, a routine which Sid James made all his own.

 

Written by Terence Rattigan from his own play, it would be far less without Marilyn who understood comedy and is well supported by an array of English actors, among them Sybil Thorndike as something of a comic Dowager while the chorus line includes Vera Day and Jean Kent – and, in another outing as a supercillious official, Richard Wattis gets to wear a costume grander than his usual suit and tie. The plot turns around the succession in Carpathia, the King-to-be played by Jeremy Spenser who a few years earlier had given a tremendous performance as a troubled boy in Edge of Divorce.

 

Born in 1937, Spenser is the only main player in this film who is still here. He vanished from the scene in the late-Sixties. Would that somebody could prevail upon him to recall his work on this and other films. As it is, The Prince and The Showgirl is now perhaps not as often seen as the charming My Week with Marilyn (2011) which sprang from Colin Clark's memoir of working with her and Olivier on this very film.

 

At almost two hours, The Prince and The Showgirl is perhaps too long but it makes good use of a limited set, from which it sometimes breaks out for a ballroom and the Abbey, and Rattigan's dialogue includes such sharp lines as a showgirl's assertion, “I wouldn't miss the Coronation for the whole Body of Guards!”

 

Meanwhile, Marilyn makes another apt political point: “that's the thing about General Elections – you never know who is going to win.”

WATCHING THE RIVER FLOW

 

Ha'Penny Breeze (1950) is not as well known as Ealing Studios' films, but this depiction of post-war life beside the River Orwell has much in common with them. Directed by Frank Worth, it is from a story which he wrote with Don Sharp, who also stars in it as an Australian who had been in a prisoner-of-war camp and is invited by Edwin Richfield to his home village of Pin Mill.

 

The film opens with their walking, kit-bags in hand, up a quiet lane. All of which is very pastoral, but reality intrudes with a turn of the corner and their finding the small shipbuilding yard in disrepair. The place is bleak. Richfield's family come in sight to explain what has happened. The mood is sombre, even despairing but, having got this far, Richfield is not one to be daunted. He proposes they continue to build the yacht on which he had worked before the war and use it as a means to bring purchasers for more of them: a new world beckons. Such a notion runs up against objections from the old guard who look askance at such pleasure-seeking notions.

 

Into all this comes a familiar cast: a vicar, a genial publican a beautiful young woman – and a bounder intent upon scuppering the race for which the yacht is eventually entered (Darcy Conyers, who also produced the film). Put like this, it might sound whimsical but its strength owes much to the cinematography by Gordon Lang and George Stretton. Buildings and landscape (including the river) are made as much characters as those who act out their destiny in the foreground. There is something almost Expressionist about the way in which a single head fills the screen in profile each time events take dramatic turns.

HOME COOKING

 

She's a real live, livin' doll.” No, it's not the Cliff Richard song. Two years earlier, in San Francisco, one of a group of querulous Italian-Americans had praised Tony Curtis's dancing partner (Marisa Pavan) this way in The Midnight Story (1957).

 

And she certainly is. As for Tony Curtis, think of him in the Fifties and there inevitably come to mind the same year's Sweet Smell of Success - and Some Like It Hot (1959), where he himself tried to be a livin' doll. The Midnight Story is in the shadow of these, and shadows it contains (along with hills if not cliffs). It opens with a priest caught in an alleyway at night, and killed; the rosary is between his fingers when he is discovered.

 

This is filmed in cinemascope, alas, for this late noir is very much one of confined spaces; happily, it is in black and white to match the nuns' outfits at the orphanage where Curtis grew up and was helped by that priest, who found him a job in the police.

 

He is shaken by the killing, and, although in the traffic department, suggests he help the homicide team; his offer declined, he turns in his badge and goes underground in pursuit of the man (Gilbert Roland) whom he saw in a strange state at the priest's funeral. Roland combines fishing with selling his catch is a restaurant while sharing a house with his cousin (Marisa Pavan) and her widowed mother (a strong, ever-aproned turn by Argentina Brunetti). In a manner typical of noir plotting, Curtis coins a story sufficient not only to get him a job with Roland but become so much a part of the household that he falls for Marisa Pavan.

 

Love and detection are uneasy partners. No need to say more about the course of events, Curtis frequently conferring with his erstwhile, otherwise stumped colleagues. Except one has to pause to credit a key, brief turn by a potential witness: Peggy Maley is here the archetypal flowsy blonde married to a man whose night shifts mean that she does not have to shield her roving eye. One could watch her in anything.

 

Joseph Pevney is not widely known as a film director. He worked mainly in popular television series whose audiences took scant notice of the figure behind the camera, but he should be esteemed for here bringing a noir turn to the domestic drama which was the work of Edwin Blum, who certainly knew what he was about: he had written Stalag-17.

FERMEZ LA PORTE

 

I'm not scared of bachelors! Married men are the worst.”

 

Who, at some time in life, has not been in love with Jessie Matthews? Well, perhaps not Graham Greene. Less than gallantly he referred to her “long tubular form... the curious charm of her ungainly adolescent carriage”. This is to ignore that face, those winsome eyes which look directly into others', a mask of innocence – a probing of the soul - worn to traverse the farcical situations in which life lands her. Could any other woman flutter her eyelids in the way she did? One might even say that Liza Minnelli closely studied that gesture.

 

The Thirties were her time, and early on came There Goes the Bride (1932). Adapted by W. P. Lipscomb from a German story, it is a farce which, as prose, could have attracted Wodehouse to swathe in in his glorious wordplay. As it is, directed by Albert de Courville, the film is diverting. Aghast at the prospect of being married off (to a briefly-glimpsed Basil Radford) as part of a business deal, Jessie Matthews bolts – and climbs aboard a train for Paris.

 

These opening scenes, with her expressive face, are in effect a silent movie, and she might even bring Louise Brooks to mind. No need to delay over the circumstances which find her after dark in the City of Light – and prevailing upon a man (Owen Nares) to hide her away until it is too late for that cattle-market marriage to go ahead.

 

That chic apartment has many doors, through which there come and go several of his top-hatted, drunken cronies, a fierce housekeeper – and, of course, his fiancée (Carol Goodner). By now, some fifteen minutes in, there is almost an hour to go, and it does so entertainingly. Scenes are as varied as a grand house, all ballroom and curving staircase, and a wide bath in which Nares recovers while reading a newspaper: this is L' Intransigeant, a real one but singularly misnamed: by now it had shifted from its left-wing, nineteeth-century origins to a distinctly conservative stance. We are left wondering whether this long night, complete with songs and dance, will change his point of view.

 

 

NOISES AWF

 

Two women share a bath while others loll upon the floor beside it as their gossip and barbed asides echo around the walls of a high-ceilinged French château. The beverage within their grasp, however, is nothing stronger than tea. This is the early-Forties, and they are holed up in a building requisitioned by the Germans to intern Brtitsh women who had not made it out of the country before the Occupation.

 

There are moments, with the banter between this mixed bunch, when Twenty Thousand Women (1944) could almost be the stuff of a boarding-school romp or that rooming house of Stage Door. A febrile atmosphere, and what a cast for a film written and directed by Frank Lauder and Sidney Gilliatt.

 

Here are Phyllis Calvert, Patricia Roc, Flora Robson, an especially sultry Jean Kent, a glimpse of Thora Hird (and her own infant daughter). Their voices are crystal clear, they are well outfitted, and – as with the confines of these writers' The Lady Vanishes – comedy blends well into a thriller which turns around some airmen baling out only to find their parachutes have directed them into these grounds by night.

 

It would be easy to deride the plot but, as it picks up speed but has to resist doing so but relish such things as the most unusual card game ever filmed – and a stage show, which could have been a West End hit and almost brings to mind The Producers.

THE MAN IN A WHITE SUIT

 

I'm going to play it by the book, I'm not even going to trip over a comma.” So private investigator (Mark Stevens) informs a police detective (Reed Hadley) after relocating from San Francisco to a rundown New York office with the sound and sight of the elevated railroad a few yards away. Oh, and between times, he has been in stir, stitched up by former business partner, a suave Kurt Kreuger.

 

He is, evidently, used to the rough and tumble of his trade. In adding to this, The Dark Corner (1946) plays by the noir book, with many commas along the way. Here are such noir tropes as shadows, staircases, wet streets, venetian blinds, outstretched nylons – and a jazz band (a chance to see Eddie Heywood).

 

What one might not expect to be part of these captivating chapters is Lucille Ball. First seen at desk with the word private in reverse on her side of the glazed office door, she is the newly-hired secretary to Stevens with scant knowledge of what his work involves.

 

She is set to learn far more as the elements of the plot cohere and her fast typing is outpaced by her talking: wisecracks are as much in Manhattan's water supply as its gin joints. Stevens's erstwhile partner has not gone away but is entangled with the wife of a Fifth Avenue art dealer so elegantly sinister that Clifton Webb was best placed to play the rôle. He and Lucy do not get to share a scene; that would be too heady a cocktail, especially one with an ingredient which is William Bendix: outsize, he sports a white suit which makes him an even more obvious tail as Stevens goes about the next job: saving his own life.

 

All this is accomplished with style, even if the film could have lost some of its running time to regain the spirit of its inspiration: a story by Leo Rosten which had appeared in Good Housekeeping. Goodness knows who plays a briefly-glimpsed taxi driver but he taught me more than any of his cohorts have done: the phrase “to take a brodie”, which, I find, means to endure a fall.

THROUGH THE NIGHT

 

Released in 1952, The Narrow Margin has not staled through seventy years and has outlived the Nineties incarnation with Gene Hackman. Directed by Richard Fleisher from a screenplay by Earl Felton, it stars a railway train. Aboard it, and in its sleeper compartments, are a detective (Charles McGraw) and the woman (Marie Windsor) whom he is accompanying to give Mob evidence at a trial in Los Angeles.

 

Naturally, they are pursued. After all, the film has opened with one of the police being killed before they reach the railway station. Here is a world of wide boys and narrow corridors, a smart dining car. Everything familiar from, say, Rome Express and The Lady Vanishes; and yet this is no imitation; it brings its own shade of noir to a tale which finds room for an amiable ticket collector, a mother and mischievous child (complete with Red Indian feathers and a hankering for a gun), a fat man – and any number of fast cuts during these seventy minutes, notably from Marie Windsor's rhythmical nailfile to the scissoring movement of the train's wheels as the engine's whistle blows.

 

Her performance is the epitome of sultry, her dialogue as sharp as that file. Watch it once, and one is sure to see it several times – and even read the script which was published in the Eighties.

 

 

A VERY PROPER CASE

 

If the lovers in Brief Encounter had spawned a child, it would be Background (1953). Philip Friend is an ambitious barrister married to Valerie Hobson; their well-clipped accents are rather different from that of a long-serving housekeeper (Lily Kann). Talk echoes around their smart suburban house where the children are on holiday from boarding school; it takes nasty turns as the marriage founders and another man (Norman Wooland) appears on the scene to enjoy a round of afternoon cinema and teashops and plans for life on a Dorset farm.

 

All this is given edge by the three children – Jeremy Spenser, Jeanette Scott and Mandy Miller. They dispute amongst themselves, and even brawl in a way that is rather more convincing than many an adult fight in Fifties films. Such is the venom caused by the parents' news that Jeremy Spenser fixes a photograph to a dartboard and pierces it with a well-aimed shot.

 

This splendid performance is a harbinger of the startling turn in the film's second half. Sufficiently opened up by screenwriter Warren Chetham Strode (perhaps best known for The Guinea Pig) from his own play, here is a film with more to savour than might at first appear.

LUST AND A GARTER

 

If The Long Dark Hall (1951) is by no means a great film, it is very well made. As its jury will do, consider the evidence.

 

Written by the excellent Nunnally Johnson, it sprang from a novel by Edgar Lustgarten, well known in his time, and co-directed by Anthony Bushell (who also appears as a lawyer).

 

All are wonderfully supported by cinematographer Wilkie Cooper who, with an effective score by Benjamin Frankel, brings a noir tone to every setting, whether it be a bar, a lodging house or suburban Richmond. Curiously, Manny Farber said that it was a “dillie... shot without electric lights in a dark walnut courtroom”. What a dillie might be in this context is uncertain, but that oppressive courtroom is as well depicted as the rest of the film.

 

What has led to that scene in which white wigs stand out against dark walnut?

 

Here are familiar notions. A married man (Rex Harrison) has fallen for a West End showgirl (Patricia Cutts) and so wants to help her that he is more than tetchy at the thought of her “seeing” any other man. And there is his downfall. He lets himself in at her lodging house, to which she has given him a key against the orders of forthright landlady (Brenda de Banzie) who is one in a long line of those who tell the police (including Raymond Huntley), “I keep a respectable house”.

 

Harrison finds the girlfriend dead – and panics, a moment's mis-judgment which brings all his woe. To relay all this here is not to give anything away, for these few minutes have seen the killing itself, by a brilliantly creepy Anthony Dawson, who will re-appear to taunt Harrison's wife (so well played by Lilli Palmer, calm incarnate) just as he did his first victim, none other than Jill Bennett.

 

And it all has a tinge of metafiction. Now and then the narrative cuts to a room in which a detective tells a novelist about the case, and teases him to suggest its subsequent turns.

 

If this makes it sound as though there are several films unreeling beside one another, that is a fair point, M'Lud – but any jury has to bring in a verdict of... quality.

 

 

HEADLINE MUSE

 

Headlines appear as newspaper pages are turned in Cat and Mouse (1958) - and bring a running commentary.

 

BISHOP BRAINS BOBBYSOXERS

 

Well, I bet he has a bit of fun himself.”

 

DOPE FIEND SWITCHES SEX

 

The things people get up to, Sarge!”

 

As it turns out, all this makes for a crucial moment but to cite these droll remarks does not give anything away. Here is a film with curious origins. Adapted from one of the many hundreds of novels by John Creasey, it was directed and co-written by none other than Paul Rotha who was, of course, best known for his documentaries praised by Graham Greene with the caveat that they were “seldom free from a certain prettiness and self-consciousness”.

 

Prettiness is not to the fore in this tough tale, apart from Ann Sears. She arrives at a bedsit house somewhere in London in answer to a summons by a wonderfully creepy Hilton Edwards who had witnessed the crime for which her father was hanged twenty years earlier: the killing of a man during the theft of some diamonds which, Hilton asserts, do survive – and he wants his share.

 

This is but a prelude, for he takes a tumble – and the noise of their altercation is heard by a man the other side of the door: Lee Patterson. As suave as he is insecure, he hits on her and a plan to collar the sparklers. Far from documentary – apart from its nighttime scenes in the West End -, most of the film is a matter of interiors. Some might question the implausibilities but, then again, one can do so of Hamlet. There is enough happening here – ample mcguffins – to carry one through its seventy-five minutes with a relish aided by a fine musical score, the work of Edwin Astley (he of The Saint and much more), whose daughter was to marry Pete Townshend a decade later.

 

There is surely much more of John Creasey that could be filmed. He knew how to plot, and others could supply snappy 2022 dialogue.

BULLETS AND BULLETINS

 

They can get courage from a bottle – but we've got lipstick.”

 

So says one woman to another in one of the many fraught dark moments which comprise the eighty-minute running time of Split Second (1953). That sounds the stuff of film noir dialogue but this was also the decade of hostage drama (so well caught in the Sinatra of Suddenly) and one in which an unfettered Bomb loomed. All these elements are drawn together in a film directed by Dick Powell who had moved from musical comedy to a noir starring rôle – and he is now so effectively behind the camera as events unfurl in a remote spot where a town has been cleared for another mushroom cloud to reach for the sky as dawn breaks.

 

What is the need for these Bomb testings? The effect had already been shown in practice.

 

For all that, at the time, Manny Farber said of the film, “an unusually good performance by Stephen McNally”. He of the tick eybrows has broken out of gaol, a flight which has landed a comrade with a chest wound: that bullet needs retrieval to fend off a festering death.

 

One way and another, an unlikely crowd – half-a-dozen others - chances to be fenced in. Her is the very spot upon which the Bomb is likely to render all their immediate preoccupations a tawdry concern.

 

These bright open skies form a variant upon an old dark house.

 

And very good it is too.

 

What's more, McNally's repeated threat that others should not dare to be “cute” - that is smart - prompts one to look up Jonathon Green and find that this usage dates from eighteenth-century low-life.

 

Here is a masterpiece.

OF BANDSTAND AND SHIPYARD

 

Boy, before the evening's over, I might poison him.”

I'll toss you for it!”

 

Such is the exchange between two Broadway showgirls on the pavement in Twenties Manhattan after they have been introduced to a gag-laden, straw-chewing Danny Kaye who had just arrived from hixville to ply his cornet in a band which plays to audiences in a swanky hotel. He persuades them to head to Harlem and hear a hot player (Louis Armstrong), with which one of them (Barbara Bel Geddes) afterwards falls in love with him during a taxi ride southwards.

 

All this, some two decades making for the two hours of The Five Pennies (1959), is based upon the life of Red Nichols, who himself supplied the soundtrack for the fingering well mimicked on screen by Kaye. Manny Farber wrote of it at the time, “even a schmaltzy jazz delight like Danny Kaye's hot cornet film The Five Pennies, has a solidity and thoroughness that belongs in an Encyclopedia Britannica discussion of post-Dixieland music”.

 

As musical bio-pics go, this might not rank as highly as Love Me or Leave Me, Young Man With a Horn and Yankee Doodle Dandy but Kaye's is a bravura performance whose comedy is given heft by his on-the-road, card-playing life being transformed by news that his daughter Dorothy has fallen victim to polio (a growing rôles shared so well by Susan Gordon, who died soon after Nichols's daughter, and Tuesday Weld).

 

Talking of which, Kaye and Barbara Bel Geddes talk during a dance-hall scene of having “a real corny, old-fashioned family”; with which, she informs him that she is “three months' corny”, which appears to be a one-off term for pregnant.

 

How well is this film now known? It provides more than enough to make one want to see more of Danny Kaye.

 

MUSIC IN CAFÉS AT NIGHT

 

Simone de Beauvoir is not on trial!” So proclaims the defence lawyer (Charles Vanel) when her name is mentioned during a murder trial, his client Brigitte Bardot in the dock of a crowded courthouse which is partly the setting for La vérité (1960).

 

The author's name had been mentioned as part of a reflection upon the way in which women are oppressed in society, with catastrophic results. That reference might lead some to recall that Simone de Beauvoir had written a long, philosophical article in 1959 for Esquire about Bardot, soon reprinted as a paperback book.

 

Bardot, to her own horror, was everywhere as the Fifties became the Sixties, but one might now ask how many watch those films then thought sensational. (John Lennon had a photograph of her on his Liverpool wall and encouraged his future wife to dress like her.) To miss La vérité, though, would be a tremendous shame: it shows how very good she could be. Directed by Henri-George Clouzot (he of half-a-dozen masterpieces such as The Wages of Fear), it was created, from true-life inspiration, by him and several other screenwriters (with sections suggested by Bardot herself). This befits a film which cuts from the court room to the several strands of a narrative which lands Bardot with her hands on the wooden dock as she gives vent and has to be silenced by the Judge.

 

The magnificent black and white cinematography brings out the shades of grey which make something complex of the gunshots of subsequent events. (One might also think, around that time, of Ruth Ellis in Hampstead and of that great film with Diana Dors, Yield to the Night.) Put simply, Bardot has joined her sister (Marie-José Nat) in a Parisian rooming house where they share a room which one of them has to vacate when matters amatory are in prospect.

 

Location scenes catch so well this era in Paris: streets with cars as curved as many of those on the pavements; strolls from one night-time café to another (topically, one is called Le Spoutnik); television screens are watched through shop windows; one almost expects a glimpse of Sartre struggling to re-light his pipe - but there isn't. Into the fray comes Sami Frey, a handsome student of conducting. His affections volley between Bardot and her sister; that love triangle has to take second place to the podium of an orchestra whose work includes some forcefully rendered Stravinsky.

 

Here ensue rows worthy of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. The walls of these humble rooms close in, before cutting back to the expanse of the court room where the two lawyers engage in jousting which parallels those rows (Paul Meurisse for the prosecution). All this is as free-flowing as the emergent New Wave, so much so that, afterwards, it is a surprise to find that the film has lasted well over two hours. No scene is superfluous.

 

Bardot, like Marilyn, could bring tremendous resources to the screen when the likes of Clouzot and Wilder were behind their cameras. A process which, on set, could be as fraught as any of those encounters which make La vérité an enduring reflection upon the way in which passion can dwindle into a power struggle with so many in its wake.

 

As for John Lennon, it is said that in the late-Sixties he and Bardot briefly met but, one way and another, communication was hopeless: “worse than meeting Elvis.”

A KNIFE IN THE CRUST

 

I don't want to hear what you've got to say! You've got a lot of crust!” So declares Jane Randolph to a detective (Hugh Beaumont) as he steps in and tries to turn her when it becomes plain that her beauty salon is the front for the murderous gambling racket which is the mainspring of Railroaded! (1947).

 

The film's dialogue is as dark as its seventy-minute setting. Jonathon Green's matchless dictionaries of slang reveal that crust, in this sense of nerve, dates from 1900 American colleges. There is much crust to the film's characters as Jane Randolph joins those (including the police) who try to pin murder upon Sheila Ryan's brother, who, when accused of stealing $5000, is asked what he spent it on and replies in exasperation, “the first thousand on bubblegum and the rest on beer.”

 

Written by John Higgins from a story by Gertrude Walker (both had noir credentials), it was brought to the screen in fine style by director Anthony Mann. Manny Farber referred to Mann's “inhumanity to man, in which cold mortal intentness is the trademark effect... The films of this tin-can de Sade have a Germanic rigor, caterpillar intimacy, and an original dictionary of ways to punish the human body. Mann has done interesting work with scissors, a cigarette lighter, and steam, but his most bizarre effect takes place in a taxidermist's shop. By intricate manipulation of athletes' bodies, Mann tries to ram the eyes of his combatants on the horns of a stuffed deer stuck on the wall”.

 

None of this takes place in Railroaded! We find here, though, that beauty is certainly no defence against a loaded gun, but all that is capped by a brawl in which two women combatants out-do that celebrated instance of Destry Rides Again. It's small wonder that a smart apartment's sofa does not collapse with the final push.

 

Terrific stuff, and if it does not find a place among 1001 movies to see before you die, it should certainly be high in the list for that eternal cinema upon a cloud the other side of St. Peter's Gate. Better, though, to sneak it in this side of Paradise.

SWEAT THAMES

 

Basil Radford.” In any word-association challenge, the name is likely to bring the reply “Naunton Wayne!” They were to reprise that cricket-obsessed pair from The Lady Vanishes quite a few times. There is good reason instead for replying “The Flying Squad!”

 

Made in 1941, this is just short of an hour in length. Cinematically speaking, it was made as rapidly as the Edgar Wallace novel upon which it is based (he could dictate one in a weekend). As such, it sports the familiar Wallace device of a scam in which the élite conspire with low life (the latter set to take the rap, should things go awry). Boldly, it turns around an import business – an aeroplane by night – which uses face powder as a front for what appears to be cocaine. Even more boldly, the Bond Street ringleader is a suave Jack Hawkins who would become noted for the portrayal of probity itself (except of course for that masterpiece The League of Gentlemen).

 

Along the way, Hawkins has caused the brother of glamorous Phyllis Brooks to meet a watery end, something which prompts a Scotland Yard Inspector (Sebastian Shaw) to prevail upon her to nail this long-running racket. Her many furs spring up against art-deco settings, but all the while a violin plays, a haunting reminder of the dead.

 

Hokum, of course, but Basil Radford's appearances – in gaol and without - transform this into something else – and make for one of the best endings to a film (which brings back ever-rebarbative Kathleen Harrison who supplied a good what-for early on). Here is time well spent.

BEHIND THAT LOCKED DOOR

 

“You can talk until your tongue is dragging on the floor!”

 

And talk they do, throughout Twelve Angry Men (1957). What can left to be said about this film version of Reginald Rose's play? It continues to hit one straight in the heart and in the forehead, which is what one of the jurors threatens to do to some of the others in that closed room. Even then, it sports a glugging watercooler whose paper conical cups ease their tempers as a humid summer's afternoon tacks towards a storm and an evening's verdict (despite which, many keep their ties in place).

 

What's more, one of them asks another, topically enough, “don't you ever sweat?”

 

This is a tale, in resonant black and white, told in retrospect as the diverse Jurors, each known only by their number, listen to architect Henry Fonda who elucidates his doubts about a murder which has happened three months ago in the midnight shadow of an elevated railway. Here is logic contending with prejudice, that social concern which was so often the mark of Sidney Lumet's films.

 

Mostly sporting ties and with ashtrays to hand upon their shared table, these men often lurch to contradict the others and have to be reminded that “we're talking about somebody's life here” (an ad man doodles and claims it helps him think).

 

One might wonder how it was filmed, for it does something interesting with time. These ninety-five minutes appear seamless, the stuff of one take, but daylight turns to dusk as the hours go by. A working definition of suspension of disbelief.

 

Lest it all appear technical, the dialogue includes such lines as the ad man's variant on run it up the flagpole: “let's put it out on the stoup and see if the cat laps it up.” As one of them sneezes, he is told, “your horn works, now try your lights!”

 

He don't even speak good English.” “Doesn't speak.”

 

One could say more, but should not spoil it for those yet to see this masterpiece. Simply ignore Manny Farber's contemporary description which reduces it to Lumet's “bringing a hundred tiny details of schmaltzy and and soft-center 'liberalism' into a clean mosaic”. And Farber also derides it as “the shrill tingle of... couterfeit moviemaking”.

 

Watch this film and call upon others to bring a verdict upon Farber.

PRIVATE RITES OF MAGIC

 

Altogether elsewhere, vast / Herds of reindeer move across / Miles and miles of golden moss, / Silently and very fast.” The concluding stanza of Auden's 1947 poem “The Fall of Rome” - an allegory about the nature of society – comes to mind when watching The White Reindeer (1952).

 

It was written by director Eric Blomberg with his wife Mirjami Kuosmanen who also stars in it (and died too young a decade later). She plays a newly-married woman whose husband is so often away that she prevails upon a shaman in their remote, snowy homestead to bring him back. He does so but the catch is that the process brings out this beautiful woman's latent witch: now and again she will turn into the eponymous creature who leaps from the herd which swirls across the landscape. None of the human tribe is safe from her predations.

 

That is the sum of it, and, put like this, it might sound the stuff of nordic Hammer. This is to reckon without Blomberg's wonderful filming of that land, and, being almost silent, the hypnotic score which evokes the wind and the ever-moving animals of a Lapland briefly visited by the sun. As with the places to which Auden alludes, the film is a meditation upon the fragility of society. What will survive of us is reindeer.

STOPPING SERVICE

 

A familiar situation. Disparate people find themselves in a remote spot where danger threatens as the lamps go low and the rain heralds a storm. In the case of The Ghost Train (1941), the Shepherd's Bush studio re-created a Cornwall halt too far from Truro for the passengers to reach it that night.

 

All this derives from Arnold Ridley's play. Now a century old, it was first filmed in one of the late-Twenties Anglo-German productions (Hitchcock learnt from a stint in Berlin) and then in England by Water Forde in 1931. For many decades that version was thought lost but some of it has resurfaced. Meanwhile, the best-known incarnation is Forde's wartime re-make. This brings ration coupons and blackout curtains to a tale which turns around a couple about to marry, a temperance adherent with a pet parrot (Kathleen Harrison), ever-suave Raymond Huntley, along with Richard Murdoch. Proceedings are dominated by Arthur Askey who is on his way to a seaside season, and does not shy from vexing one and all with his gags, some of which are funny.

 

High in the credits is the terrific Linden Travers (she of “the buttocks over the billiard table”, as extolled by Graham Greene's 1937 review of Brief Extasy. Her arrival, as here and in The Lady Vanishes, is enough to rival that of any express. If the comedy is too broad for a thriller, it all makes for a diverting time. Most startling is the moment when Kathleen Harrison takes fright and is calmed by some of the whisky which a doctor keeps about his person. Liquor had never touched her lips but now she beams at the effect; to which Arthur Askey says, “wait till it reaches the junction!”

 

To continue the railway metaphor, how did that line ever get through?

BEYOND THE TURNSTILES

 

In his anthology The Faber Book of Movie Verse, Philip French cited, in turn, George MacBeth's preface to his Penguin Book of Animal Verse: that is, if one has a penchant for the subject in question, one is well disposed to anything about it.

 

This comes to mind while watching The Girl on the Pier (1953). Who can resist a film largely set upon Brighton's Palace Pier as it was?

 

A place which sports, for example, not only buildings which have since been destroyed but a sign which asserts: NO CANVAS CHAIRS ALLOWED ON THE LANDING STAGES. No need for it now: boats no longer pull up there. And all this alongside a Waxworks museum run by a former Dartmoor jailbird who endures the crooning feelers of another lag. There is a love tangle, an errant clown, a youthful journalist, a London detective on holiday. Guy Morgan's hour-long screenplay, directed by Lance Comfort, portrays a familiar Brighton mixture but the film's success owes much to William McLeod's cinematography which crisply evokes the Pier and beyond.

 

Here is a town in which people are given to such remarks as,“I cover the waterfront – but in my case it's only a beach and two Piers.” Somebody is accused of having “a face like a piece of knitting.”

 

One suggestion yields the reply, “I'd rather go to a funeral – yours for preference.”

 

And it is a sign of life seventy years ago that the question “Does he knock you about?” is answered with, “No. Sometimes I wish he did. Things would be livelier.”

 

Has there ever been more romantic a declaration than “I'm not crazy about Australia, but I'm crazy about you”?

 

No, this is not Raymond Chandler but it is a Brighton in which the tawdry stands in relief against gleaming stucco.

TEA AND DISDAIN

 

A point rarely made was put well by Manny Farber some eight decades ago: “script writing has been rare that could make the whole equal to its good parts, as were Alice Adams, Wuthering Heights and The Lady Vanishes”.

 

Some say that the opening section of Hitchcock's 1938 film, which finds a number of people snowbound in a mid-European hotel, is a different film from its famed railway carriage sequence; in fact, it needs this to set in motion the relationship between those involved – just as there is an equally engaging and comic a time at the start of Rear Window before apparent murder takes place. The Lady Vanishes, too, has comic brio throughout which is not simply the cricket-vexed pair Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne but the banter between folksong specialist Michael Redgrave and a woman who is on her way back to marry into grand circles at St. George's, Hanover Square.

 

The title is a summary of the plot, the railway making the disappearance all the more puzzling while one and all, such as the creepily elegant doctor (Paul Luckas) amd the dining-car attendants assure Margaret Lockwood that she is suffering from delusion, as people were to inform wheelchair-bound James Stewart as he looked across that New York tenement block.

 

And to think that all this European voyage was filmed at Islington. Hitchcock's use of model sets and miniature engines carries one into a Europe on the brink of war, and, as Farber suggests, much of this is buttressed by the way in which Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder's script has these couples' lives running in parallel (not least the fusty lawyer, Cecil Parker, who is having an affair with the ever-spirited Linden Travers).

 

Here is high entertainment, as is so much of Hitchcock's English period. If the transatlantic Rear Window and Shadow of a Doubt have a claim to be his best work, The Lady Vanishes is not toiling along a branch line.

NORTHWEST BY NORTHWEST

 

Sally” So much has this song become associated with Gracie Fields's stage appearances that some might be surprised to find that she first sang it near the beginning of her first film, Sally in our Alley (1931) while working in a tough and steaming café – where she also gives vent to “Lancashire Blues” which has a touch of Bessie Smith about it.

 

The film is about the aftermath of the Great War. She had agreed to marry a soldier (Ian Hunter) who, after battle (filmed with effective stock footage), fears that he will be in no state to be her husband and asks a comrade to inform her that he has died. A slender plot, especially one to sustain a decade over seventy minutes' screen time but it could have easily been the stuff a Jacobean drama. There is something torrid about the doubts, worries, friendships and rivalries in and around this café and pub.

 

Not whimsical comedy, this shows Gracie Fields able to broach comedy as well as tragedy – and there is raw power to the scene in which she encourages movie-struck Florence Desmond to demonstrate her acting skills by dashing down treasured ornaments from shelves and the mantlepiece.

 

Written by Miles Malleson and Alma Reville, this is a strange film which, with some adjustment and transposition to Germany could have been it remembered widely as an expressionist drama. The print survives in very good condition, and only on reflection does one realise that it has made use of few sets. Small wonder that, as the decade went on, she was to be praised by Graham Greene, with whom she became a neighbour on Capri.

 

 

SUMMER'S NOOSE

 

Watch a number of English films from the Fifties and one is not surprised to find Sam Kydd in a small part, whether a spiv or a desk sergeant, even a newspaper seller. How pleasing, then, to see The Price of Silence (1960) and find him given a chance to stretch out. Stretch is the word. He has been in gaol, and now notices, as a small-town sweet-shop owner, that a fellow prisoner (the mild-mannered Gordon Jackson) has changed his name by deed poll and shows prowess as an estate agent.

 

This brings dynamic to a film – the title suggests the pivotal blackmail – with a cast which includes two women who have amatory designs upon Jackson. One is his elderly employer's startlingly sultry young wife (Maya Koumani); the other June Thorburn, an artist who lives near a delapidated house Jackson has been deputed to try to sell.

 

From a novel by the dependable Laurence Meynell, this was directed by Montgomery Tully who made many such films. It is one of his best, bringing out to good effect such minor characters as a Councillor (Norman Shelley) whose indiscretion in a pub loses him the chance to make a killing by swinging the Planning Committee when it discusses a timber yard. One fully expects him to clasp his lapels, puff his stomach and proclaim, “don't you know who I am?”

 

The elements of the plot fit together plausibly, which is partly a matter of Tully's opting for a succession of jump cuts. The pace keeps up, nothing stales six decades on. In that time, June Thorburn died, pregnant, in an aeroplane crash but Maya Koumani is still alive.

 

 

 

 

STARS AND BRAS

 

In a bid to name something that captured the Twenties, few might cite Millie (1931). And yet it has an outlandish quality scarcely matched on screen or in print. Based on a novel by Desmond Henderson Clarke, it tells of a shy woman – played by the wonderfully-named Helen Twelvetrees – who marries, and gives birth to a daughter, only find that her husband strays, so much so that she too takes up with others. There are many scenes in bars and restaurants – and, early on, one of two women in bed, something which does not seem driven by economy measures.

 

Played by Lilyan Tashman and Joan Blondell, their dialogue brings the necessary saltiness to a tale unabashed in the turns it takes. They are matched by John Halliday whose creepiness resonates all the more ninety years on. In an earlier period he woud have twirled his moustaches as he turns his attention from Millie to her now sixteen-year-old daughter (Anita Louise) whom he plies with cider by a fireside and pays close attention to her Mandarin dress.

 

It would be unfair to say any more, as comedy turns to something close on melodrama (“in the best traditions of screen hokum, as the New York Times remarked at the time). Scenic in its construction - an echo of the recently supplanted silent era -, it pulls no punches (literally so). Fists land on bone to bring high entertainment with an undertow of more.

 

Clarke made something of a trade in such material. His story was the basis for Female, and he also wrote The Impatient Virgin as well as Millie's Daughter, itself filmed in 1947 when Hollywood could not be as bold as it had been in these eighty-five minutes.

AN ARDENT TRAIL

 

A shooting outside a shop after a failed raid, retreat to a Soho hide-out – and, as the Home Service echoes across the room, a need to make a further bolt from so fraught a capital where the Mr. Big is not going to provide sanctuary. This could be the stuff of many a B-movie, or even those deemed to be higher ranking.

 

Chances are, though, that few have heard of A Gunman Has Escaped (1948). Written by John Gilling, it has the distinction which marks out much of his work. His scenario, as directed by Richard Grey, plunges a little-known cast into a well-nigh existential situation as they leave London and, not ours to reason why, find themselves given work on a farm, their first task being to muck out pigs as dawn breaks.

 

The budget cannot have run to porcine extras. We only hear about that scene, in the farm's kitchen, where the killer – a magnificently unpleasant John Harvey – again reveals himself as desperately insecure. His fate is inevitable, but there are many turns to it through these fifty minutes (not least a blind, all-knowing barman).

 

And part of the allure is down to Jane Arden. As well as acting, mostly on television, she also turned to writing for screen and stage, many of these works duly inspired by her Women's Liberation Movement involvement. A great beauty, a counterpoint to the startling violence of this film, she would now be ninety-five. As it was, she killed herself forty years ago - and leaves one to explore all that she did in her five decades (does her BBC appearance with Pinter in Sartre's Huis Clos survive?).

 

Strange to think that before watching this film, I did not know of her. Every day should bring its surprises – and A Gunman Has Escaped has certainly done so.

A TOUCH OF TARTAN

 

He works for the Council. Would you like a ride on his handlebars?” So banters a suave Leslie Phillips in The Fast Lady (1962) and is told by another of his fetching young women, “he can ring his own bell!”

 

This suburban sunlit scene outside the house where he and a very Scottish Stanley Baxter lodge suits a film which, as that dialogue shows, is hardly Ibsen. At other moments it is all the more politically incorrect, so much so that if it were a school essay there would be a “see me!” beneath it.

 

Phillips is given to amatory/motoring metaphors which find room for such ambiguous terms as “syncromesh”. That said, it also has a contemporary tone, for the opening scenes turn around battle between cyclists and motorists; in particular, when Baxter is out on a group ride along a country lane, he is propelled into a ditch by an impatient James Robertson Justice at the steering-wheel of a Rolls.

 

Naturally enough, the bureaucratic Baxter tracks down Justice to a smart house in whose garden languishes none other than Julie Christie in an early rôle and a bikini (the technical term for that construction is zeugma). Baxter is so smitten that he resolves to sacrifice his saddle and learn to drive. To this end, he buys the vintage Bentley whose sale keeps Phillips in his salesman job (and so a shortfall in their landlady Kathleen Harrison's rent is cleared).

 

Many an Elizabethan comedy turned around as slender a pillar as this. It all depends upon the horse-power of the cast (no more motoring metaphors, I promise). Justice is his usual benignly-belligerent self (only the churlish could take exception to his telling Julie Christie that she is smitten by a “haggis-headed half-wit”). The supporting cast make the most of considerably less than fifteen minutes of fame: Derek Guyler has a wonderful turn, three whiskies in, while testing Baxter for drunken-driving; not once but three times does Frankie Howerd's head lift a manhole cover as a motor-car chase ensues.

 

As such, several sections of the film, which was directed by the prolific Ken Annakin, are de facto scenes from a silent movie. One gasps even when knowing that a handbrake-turn will bring all concerned to heart-pounding safety.

 

And has there ever been as surreal scene as the dream sequence in which Baxter outpaces once-famous racing driver Graham Hill? It would spoil things to reveal his waking moment. It is not overstating the case to say that there is a touch of Bunuel to this (as there is to the end of Carry On Up the Khyber).

 

Ours not to reason why: enjoy The Fast Lady for what it is: great entertainment.

 

What's more, could there be a revival in the Tartan wallpaper and bed-sheets with which Baxter has enlivened his room?

HEAD OVER HEELS IN LOVE

 

Although based upon Philip Barry's Twenties play Holiday, Cukor's 1938 film could not be called stagey - for all that it takes place indoors. Here is a Fifth Avenue mansion, the like of which no longer exists. Palatial is scarcely the word for something which, many-pillared and with swirling staircases, would cause any theatre's boards to crumble at the first dress rehearsal and land all of the cast in the morgue.

 

What sort of holiday does this fevered scene make for? Well, one finds Cary Grant stumbling into the servants' basement quarters one sunlit day in order to meet again Doris Nolan; he does not realise, having met her recently, that she is in fact one of the upstairs Seton family beholden to stock-dealing Henry Kolker, whose other, rebellious daughter is played by Katherine Hepburn; all of them are vexed by a brother (Lew Ayres) whose greatest devotion – far from All Quiet on the Western Front - is to the bottle often within his reach.

 

Doris Nolan is not as well known now, as such, it comes as little surprise that Grant's affections turn towards her sister who has shunned the swell New Year's Eve gathering at which Grant's engagement is announced. Grant is not on the make; he has worked himself up, through the Depression, from grocery-store origins and has enough in hand for there to be no need to succumb to the offer of a place on the Board and the prospect of a million.

 

He wants to use this moment in his life to discover what he can enjoy before everything slips away into routine. A holiday to a purpose. Neither farce nor screwball, Holiday – as scripted by Donald Ogden Stewart - is a social comedy which turns upon that artistic/business dichotomy which animates, for example, Howards End (for all that Forster and many Bloomsburyites' writing was funded by such ancestors' businesses as the coal mines behind Clive Bell's writings on Picasso).

 

That is to make heavy weather of a situation carried so well through Holiday's ninety minutes, the incarnation of sprightly - not least in Grant's back-flips and headstands, for which on stage he had been so renowned that there is no sign of a body double here.

 

Well delivered, the dialogue do not demand to be quoted but suits the purpose from moment to moment, so much of its effect turning upon the twist of an eyebrow, whether Grant's or that of an all-knowing butler. Grant's recent biographer Scott Eyman has observed that “his secret was an unmatched ability to lend shadings of seriousness to comedy... and vice versa. He never displayed only one color, no longer played a person with only his perfect profile. There was an edginess about him – the fretful tone in his voice, the strange accent, and the abiding sense that beneath his calm surface well-oiled gears were whirling faster and faster.” A couple of pages earlier, Eyman remarked upon Grant's vaudeville experience, which taught him those acrobatics, the result of which on screen he displayed that effortless “timing, the crucial element of comedy. When Grant played a heavy drama his body perceptibly tightened and stiffened; the loss of buoyancy radiated a seriousness that could easily ascend to threat... In comedy, his movements would appear supple and uncontained, prone to explosions while always maintaining a beautiful balance.”

 

Holiday finds both of these Grants on screen. Which makes one curious, but not just yet, to see the earlier, 1930 film of the play (it is available, as an extra, on the Criterion Collection disc of the Cukor). And we must be rueful not to have seen Lindsay Anderson's revival of the play at the Old Vic with Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell (when the latter soon realised that he was not up to emulating Grant's back-flips).

 

PRESS BUTTON B

 

Don't expose yourself – you'll make the neighbours randy!” So Billie Whitelaw is instructed after climbing naked from bed and looking through the lamplit basement window of her Paddington bedsit. Moments before, her breasts had been lolling upon the chest of none other than Kenneth More (whose character has the unlikely, doubly female name of Chick Byrd). This is a setting in which one hardly expects to find that upright hero of such dramas as Reach for the Sky; he himself, though, esteemed The Comedy Man (1964) as his best work – and rightly so.

 

The film opens with him in his accustomed declamatory manner, upon the stage of a provincial theatre where he tells an audience, during a curtain call, that their applause is meat and drink to an actor, “and thank you for the dinner”.

 

Food is to become exiguous, for he goes on to reveal to them that it is his last performance there: he has been sacked after a fling with the producer's wife. We would have heard more, but the curtain is rapidly brought down. And the scene rises upon his arrival at a London railway station which is a short taxi-ride from “darkest Camden Town” where he has arranged to take a room in a lodging house full of self-styled “thespians”. This is run by Norman Rossington, who had recently played am ever-cajoling roadie in A Hard Day's Night, and he is here accustomed to being an ad hoc pawnbroker when residents cannot scrape together the rent. Such is the place that another arrival asks, “does the ceiling always leak?” and by way of a reply is told, “only when it's raining”.

 

Here is all the badinage of actors seeing their way through tough times, every public-telephone offer of a cameo being something to seize upon as a harbinger: even a stint as Santa is surely but a stepping stone to Lear. Based upon a novel by Douglas Hayes, who should be better known, this was adapted by Peter Yeldham and directed by Alvin Rakoff (both of whom were born in 1927 – and alive).

 

Rak(e)off could be an apt surname for an agent played wonderfully by Dennis Price, who gets More the part of what was then known as a Red Indian, which is a sight to behold – and compounded by its leading a shop steward to tell the extras to down their tomahawks. This experience prompts More to inform Price that he could take on another ethnic rôle but finds that the agent had met the genuine article “the other night in a lavatory at Leicester Square”.

 

All of which is to describe but a few of the surprises which leap from so brilliantly paced and photographed film whose array of familiar faces in challenging, sofa-surfing settings includes the likes of Cecil Parker.

 

Here is the most engaging encapsulation of that era between - yes, one need not quote Larkin's lines about sexual intercourse. Suffice to add, though, that it features a party scene, with Chubby Checker on the soundtrack, that would be hard to match: the camera moves to and fro in a way that should have it made an obligatory study for a tracking shot (and, what's more, as the drink flows, one finds two men dancing together).

 

One can well imagine that anybody who saw this at the time would have sat round for the next showing. There is so much to enjoy here that one cannot but deem it a masterpiece.

CRIMES AND WHISPERS

 

Let's be fashionable and make it a trunk murder!” So says Billy Milton to Leslie Perrins a dozen minutes or so into No Exit (1936). The latter is a crime novelist informed by a critic outside a theatre that he has no grasp of modern police methods; to this end, the riled Perrins soon suggests to a man-about-town friend that he conceal him, Milton, for a month with the intention of showing up flummoxed Scotland Yard as fools.

 

The pair fashion a plot, which indeed turns around a substantial trunk – just as it had in Graham Greene's under-rated novel It's a Battlefield. Inspired by real life, that was the only one which Greene had deliberately written with a film in sight; alas, it has never been made. (For his trouble he was, surreally, accused thirty years ago by biographer Michel Shelden of being the actual Brighton Trunk Murderer.) If No Exit is no match for that putative film, it exists, it survives - and proves to be diverting stuff.

 

And boldly so, for Milton is in thrall to a young married woman Valerie Hobson who is not averse to the situation and so smitten as to leave upon blotting paper... Add to this a canny novice detective (who had been thrashed by Perrins at Charterhouse) and a bumbling local reporter – and several scenes in which Perrins bluffs his way through questioning while inadvertently scattering clues as Milton cowers in a cupboard or loft: capacious hideaways after a journey in the trunk whose dripping bottle of port leaves traces mistaken for blood.

 

As far as the plot goes, we can leave it there as glorious hokum – but then a phrase leaps from the screen, a reference to “the third man”. Which makes one wonder whether Greene could have reviewed the film.

 

He did not do so.

 

So that on-the-hoof theory falls as flat as his being the trunk murderer.

 

Such films as No Exit are often accused of being “stagey”. It was based upon a play by George Goodchild and Frank Witty, and has sidelights upon theatre in the Thirties, with some self-referential gags about the movies, but it stands in its own right as what Greene would have termed an “entertainment”. In any case, these films are, at least, a record of plays that one is never likely to see again upon a stage.

 

That said, an amateur group could have a Christmas hit if it seeks out the original play.

BAIRN ON THE RUN

 

Any child fortunate enough to see Johnny on the Run(1953) will have a lifetime's memory of a film which carries aloft comedy, suspense and a measure of social commentary. It is an early work by Lewis Gilbert, who was always willing to try something different – and generally find success with it. In this case, with support by the Children's Film Foundation, he tells of a Polish orphan - Eugeniusz Chylek - housed in Edinburgh by a woman (a splendidly contrary Mona Washbourne) who is only in it for the money. His life is miserable, although he is viewed with compassion by her young daughter.

 

One day he finds a small poster from which he learns that a voyage to his homeland can be had for £17. There is, throughout, an intensity to his face, a sense of purpose (it is the only film in which he appeared). He determines to leave the city and head for the port. Before long he meets two buffoonish thieves (Michael Balfour and Sydney Tafler) who have failed to get through the small window of a smart house. Johnny is prevailed upon to help (he believes the yarn of their having lost the key). Needless to say, the theft of a broach goes wrong, they have to split up, and Johnny is left with Tafler to walk across the hills; this section of the film takes on a Buchanesque turn, complete with a suspicious, rifle-toting character in a remote cottage.

 

The chase is on, and Johnny goes it alone. Entertaining as all this has been, the film comes into its own when Johnny chances upon a village run for, and by, displaced children from abroad and home.

 

With guidance from a few adults, they make the decisions about life in a comfortable building beside an idyllic loch. This is equally entertaining, with quite a part played by an ad hoc safe in the Treasurer's care. Although not stated as such, all this owes something and more to the Swiss reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who was inspired by the work of his contemporary Rousseau to put into practice educational theories that would benefit society as a whole. (In recent times there was just such a school in Seddlescombe in Sussex.) Not that there is any stuffiness or sanctimony about it: much of the action turns around a cross-country paper chase which would not be out of place at Lindley Court, that boarding school at which Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings and Darbishire were forever pupils (and contemporary with this film).

 

Even if one did not see this film in childhood, there is time to catch up - and be well rewarded.

 

AN UNSWEET THAMES

 

It was a shop girl's melodrama and the public loved it.” So recalls Joan Collins of Cosh Boy (1952), directed by Lewis Gilbert (“adorable to me, and good to work with”). He was also to work with her on The Good Die Young, and from these English variants on noir he would take in such diverse items as Reach for the Sky, Alfie, several Bonds and Educating Rita.

 

As Joan Collins puts it in her 1978 memoir Past Imperfect, “the film was the story of a group of youths who spent their time getting their kicks by robbing and beating up people – rather like today's muggers. I played Rene, the innocent young girlfriend of James Kenney. We had an explicit love scene in the garden of a deserted house, which by today's standards was tame enough to be in a Disney film.”

 

Kenney played the leader of a gang whose ad hoc headquarters was one of the era's numerous inner-city bomb sites with cover provided by a youth club to which he and an accomplice (Ian Whittaker) had been assigned as a condition of probation after an earlier assault. Kenney's performance is remarkable. It can be rightly compared to that by Richard Attenborough as Pinkie. Both are troubled, insecure. In the case of Kenney, he is one of many whose father did not return from the war and is in well-nigh Oedipal thrall to a mother (Betty Anne Davies) who hankers for another man, one who might be able to control this wayward juvenile delinquent (when did this Fifties term fall from use?).

 

As with Pinkie, there is a hysterical pitch to Kenney's commands; it gets higher with his every refusal to believe that he himself is responsible for anything going wrong. As Joan Collins recalls, Lewis Gilbert brought out the very best in a young cast. He also had a veritable troupe of experienced actors. Almost inevitably there is a moment with a seen-it-all desk-sergeant Sid James, who is taking down evidence from Hermione Gingold, one of those whose illicit takings have made her a victim of the gang's cosh. Meanwhile, Joan Collins's mother is played by a Hermione Baddeley hopelessly adamant that her daughter should have no truck with this hoodlum.

 

So much for the scenario. What brings all this to another level is the cinematography. Much of it takes place after hours, filmed in some Hammersmith streets; this does not preclude a robbery which finds them on Chelsea Bridge and narrowly escaping the fangs of an outraged occupant of Battersea Dogs' Home after ducking over a wall.

 

There is more to all this than was perhaps evident to all those involved at the time of its filming. To them, it was welcome work; to us, it is a well-realized, enduring record of the fact that for no country does war end with the signing of a peace treaty: there are repercussions in which psychology plays as much a part as ration books..

 

This remarkable film is currently available as dvd issued by the British Film Institute. Its “extras” include numerous other early works by Lewis Gilbert. Believe it or not, among these is one in which Charles Hawtrey explores the steel-based nature of post-war pre-fabricated buildings. And, geekishly fascinating at that is, a more exciting item, made for the Children's Film Foundation, is Johnny on the Run (matter for another day).

 

And after all that, there is a recollection by one of the Cosh Boy gang. Ian Whittaker was with Kenney in the original play, Master Crook, by Bruce Walker which toured the country before it reached the West End. They were the only two of that cast to appear in the film. Curiously, such is memory, he recalls – contrary to Joan Collins – that the some public shunned the film as it coincided with the enduring controversy of the Craig-Bentley “let him have it!”

 

All of which shows that this terrific film is the very stuff of life and sudden death.

BESIDE A WIDE RIVER

 

Got into some interesting conversations with Sidney [Poitier] about life. He's one of the few people in this town [Los Angeles] who talks about something meaningful and deep.” So noted Joan Collins in her diary one evening in 1997. His recent death showed the esteem in which he was held – and the regret that he had been in fewer films of late.

 

In the Heat of the Night (1967) is perhaps paramount. Nobody could wear a suit - and cuff-links - quite like him, even when up against it on a visit to the South where he finds himself arrested for a murder which he promptly sets to work on solving. After all, as the local, portly police chief (Rod Steiger) is surprised to discover, Poitier – playing Virgil Tibbs - is in fact a homicide expert.

 

This was the Sixties, the Delta had seen many lynchings, the rabid were still on the loose and set to do so again. There are many turns to the film, all of which lift it above the didactic. Here is suspense, forensic detail, a terrific car chase, any number of potential murderers – high and low – and an array of squalid premises from a diner to the police chief's own home.

 

Directed by Norman Jewison, with Hal Ashby prominent among the crew, it catches the indelible light of the South so well. Landscape as character when the cotton is high. Nobody, however grotesque, is a caricature. All of which makes one eager to seek out the 1965 novel by Alan Ball on which it is based. He wrote many of them,

including more which feature Tibbs. Less well known is that Poitier played the character in two more films. These would be hard pressed to match this one but surely worth a whirl.

 

And let us not forget the score by Quincy Jones, which opens with the eponymous song by Ray Charles and, throughout, has many an echo of the Delta which gave rise to Robert Johnson and so many others.

 

 

THE WINGS TAKE WING

 

Mary Orr. Margola Cranston. These are not names that immediately come to mind when thinking of one of the most famous movies: All About Eve.

 

This sprang from a short story “The Wisdom of Eve” in which Mary Orr, having heard of a real-life incident, created a character, an actress Margola Cranston who would be upstaged by the eponymous help Eve, a smooth-talking serpent. This was clear from the opening sentences, as it would be in the awards dinner which begins the film where Bette Davis, as Margot Channing is swept aside by the machinations of Anne Baxter. This scene is notable for its use of two voice-overs, a device anticipated by Mary Orr's own opening: “A young girl is on her way to Hollywood with a contract for one thousand dollars a week from a major film company in her pocketbook. In a year or two I am sure Miss Harrington will be as much of a household word to you as Ingrid Bergman or Joan Fontaine.”

 

That destiny is the result of Eve's inveigling her faux-innocent way into the lives of these thespians whose bravado and insecurities mirror her own. So much for the brief plot of the story, published in Cosmopolitan in 1946; the film, just four years later, turns upon so much more, with pleasingly baroque screenplay and direction both by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. He had to hand elegant sets in which to swathe not only Bette Davis but a cast so good that the phrase “supporting players” does not do justice to the ensemble effect, one in which the ever-acerbic Thelma Ritter is never cowed by her employer's tongue.

 

And one has to treasure the creepily polite columnist played by George Sanders, whose clothes and intonation make him Noel Coward with an edge. Not to mention, though one must, the few minutes with Marilyn Monroe (if minutes they are, they linger in the memory).

 

The dialogue - “a bumpy night”, and all that - is well known, but the thing is that it gains so much from being heard, and seen, as a whole. Such is the pacing that one does not realise, until it is over, that the film has lasted for two hours and twenty minutes. One could dwell upon in-jokes, such as a jocular reference to the film's own producer and to Eugene O'Neill, but that would be geekish, contrary to a film carried aloft by passion - with a stunning final moment.

 

Who knows where a short story might lead? Not only this, but Mary Orr made a play from it and it became a long-running musical, Applause. Twentieth-Century Fox got a great deal from her for its $5000, even if she had been inspired by life itself, a quality evident upon every inch of this film.

MR. O'REILLY'S ANCESTOR

 

Anybody who has wielded an allen key and unfolded the innumerable pages of an ikea assembly-instruction leaflet will feel that this was a tranquil experience compared with all that Buster Keaton and his bride (Sybil Seely) endure in the matchless One Week (1919).

 

Astonishing to reflect that this was made over a century ago. Its stunts bring far more gasps than anything that computerised imagery can do. On the (often-terrified) face of it, the plot is simple. The couple have been given a house as a wedding present. Which sounds very generous. In fact, it is a self-assembly item, sabotaged by a rival in love who mis-numbers the many boxes; the puzzles of its construction bring many more - and all in some twenty-five minutes.

 

To reveal too much would spoilt it. Sufficient to say that there is a storm as virulent as the one in The Wind. And one reflects that a “sight gag” should be as subtly done as a verbal one. Just as a joke in Wilde or Orton should not be protracted as the real laugh comes with the follow-up line, so each calamity here gains its full effect by a shot a few seconds later (a classic example in the final moments). The actors take it seriously; that is the point of true comedy. As James Agee was to say of Keaton, thirty years after One Week: “he used this great, sad, motionless face to suggest various related things: a one-track mind near the track's end of pure insanity, mulish imperturbability under the wildest of circumstances; how dead a human being can get and still be alive; an awe-inspiring sort of patience and power to endure, proper to granite but uncanny in flesh and blood”.

 

In light of that, one should not be surprised that, some fifteen years later, the author of Keaton's final film was none other than Samuel Beckett. And, indeed, is One Week the first instance of post-modernism? For reasons not to be revealed here, the bride is discovered in her bath; the shot reveals more than would be allowed a decade later, but, as she leans out to retrieve a towel, a hand drops in front of the camera: a gag which brings a whoop of laughter in a cinema if one is fortunate enough to see this there.

 

Otherwise, enjoy it at home - what's more, ask a few friends round to share a great time.

INGOTS AND INGRATES

 

A heist has taken place. That is stock in trade for a film noir. What distinguishes Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) from others is that there is no rush to dispose of the goods, indeed the gold. The ingots can bide their time as smartly-dressed Monsieur Big (Jean Gabin) decides when to bow out quietly from an illicit trade, and enjoy a less anxious life.

 

Here are women (including Jeanne Moreau) as curved as the smart automobiles whose whitewall tyres ply the Paris streets from one night club to another. Trouble is that Gabin's accomplice, René Dary, has let slip sufficient to his girlfriend just as she is tiring of him; she does not lose time in telling others of the wealth to be had for a little rough-handed asking.

 

Such is the plot, and it does not lack for gunfire - and quite a climax -, but, as much as anything, here - on a second viewing - is a study in loyalty (it was, predictably, released here as Honour among Thieves). For all the action, this is a reflective story, taken from a novel by Albert Simonin (and there are indeed elements akin to the dur novels by his near-namesake). He wrote two more in this series. Both were filmed, but do not appear to have the réclame of this one, which is so good that one feels inspired to seek them out.

CAFF SOCIETY

 

Suspense can be hampered by relentless action. Assassin for Hire (1951) does not slip into that trap. True to its Soho setting, where a night-time murder sets events in train, there are many scenes in one caff or another set against an almost-Oedipal scenario in which a purported stamp-dealer (Sydney Tafler) in fact earns his money as a killer - not of his mother, but in order to fulfil her dying hopes that her other son would gain recognition as a violinist.

 

To stage a concert (in the Rigmore Hall!) costs several hundred smackers - and, well, there are ways and means of raising the necessary. Trouble is, the Yard has its eyes on Tafler, in particular there are those bright, hunch-backing organs which animate the pipe-smoking face of Ronald Howard (who became a good Sherlock Holmes later in the decade).

 

One would like to know more about its director, Michael McCarthy, who died a few years later at just forty. Any writer would have relished his bringing a script to the screen with the aplomb on display throughout these sixty-five minutes' glimpses of post-war London.

 

A moment to treasure is when a caff owner offers a choice of coffee: “Keynan or Mocca?” “What's the difference?” “There isn't one.” The baristas in modern-day Soho would provide a soliloquy.

A PERCUSSIVE MIRACLE

 

Here is a chance to visit Ukraine. Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera took several years to film, and was released in 1929. It is an unmatched work of editing. Filmed without sound, and variously scored these past nine decades, it moves at an incredible pace by means of such cinematic devices as montage and split screen to create a view of Russian life a decade after the Revolution.

 

Railway trains, baths, bustling streets, an actual birth (perhaps the first on screen), one event follows another, the work gaining a unique logic as people and machinery vie for a place in the current scheme of things (one might think of Chaplin a few years later, but this is more of an Expressionist hue).

 

At seventy minutes, it is fuller than many an epic, and cannot be seen only once. The story is but scant - perhaps a day in the life – but that is not the point of a work which is energy incarnate. Here, too, is something of metafiction, with a cameraman in the frame every now and then, while his wife is seen editing the very film playing on the screen.

 

This is not the world of Five-Year Plans and exhortations to drive tractors across the land but something perennially human.

BUT A CIGAR IS A SMOKE

 

Forster-like, one may as well begin with Spoliansky's music. That is to say, his score for Wanted for Murder (1946) is highly romantic. Did it inspire the choice of Rachmaninov for Brief Encounter a couple of years later? Which said, the two films share a study of passion; this one's theme, though, is strangulation, never a possibility on that railway-station platform.

 

Sometimes deemed a second-string number, Wanted for Murder is in fact a great example of the way in which character actors – even Stanley Holloway (and off-screen wife) - could portray stolid Scotland Yard figures who find themselves caught up in a fatal, even Greek kinkfest.

 

It gives nothing away to say that cigar enthusiast Eric Portman, troubled grandson of a Victorian hangman, is the strangler of women in London nights. The plot turns upon his being tracked, and captured. We can, of course, be sure that he will not escape, but...

 

Here is another glorious portrayal of post-war London, within and without, which transcends the classes not in fact felled by the seemingly seismic 1945 Election.

 

Nothing is ever set in stone, or even wax: a couple of crucial scenes to treasure are a be-whiskered Wilfrid Hyde-White as a sleepy night-guard at the Chamber of Horrors (does anybody still go there?).

 

And, at the same time, across the Atlantic, no less a reviewer than James Agee praised “some beautifully exciting shots of Hyde Park as a police cordon clears away the rattled crowds and closes, through the twilight, for the kill”.

 

Those involved in creating this film are often deemed lesser lights but their efforts brought us a masterpiece.

DORA BRYAN'S KETTLE

 

This is not the only thing likely to blow up in High Treason (1951). Made by John Boulting a year after his splendid Seven Days to Noon, this, too, has an apocalyptic tone as troops mass in Eastern Europe along with fatal sabotage at the Docks.

Many are the settings which play a part in all this, from Kenneth Griffith's electrical-repair shop volubly frequented by Dora Bryan to the very corridors of Parliament – with many an exterior scene of a bustling capital.

 

The suspense is terrific, within each scene and as a whole (a rare achievement in cinema), which makes it as good as Sabotage, perhaps better. Stock figures transcend such types, whether stout detectives, an alluring woman (Mary Morris) or the palpably serious audience at a classical music society (with this a pivotal point of the plot, it is fitting that the film has a fine score by John Addison).

 

Deserving of the term noir, much taking place after dark, it owes much to Gilbert Taylor's cinematography (he had worked on Seven Days to Noon and would make Dr. Strangelove and A Hard Day's Night distinctive).

 

How well known is this film? Nobody should pass up a chance to see it.

THE ESCAPIST CHARACTER

 

My name is Bates.” No, despite the remote location, this is not a member of a motel's staff, but hairy-chested Gary Merrill who has arrived one dark night at an oak-lined, big-gated house on the Moors thirty miles from Harrogate. It is owned by Bette Davis (in life then married to Merrill), a retreat in which she dictates detective novels to her pretty secretary (Barbara Murray) who is engaged to Anthony Steel.

 

Adapted by Val Guest (he of Jigsaw a decade later), the film's cinematographer was Robert Krasker, whose work was guaranteed to silence any creaks in a plot. Another Man's Poison has all the Gothic steam one associates with Bette Davis. What is any film with her but a chance for barbed dialogue? Told that “one sleeps better on one's own”, she replies, “or more often.” There is a thesis, or a self-help book, in “it's a wonder what new clothes do for you, mentally.” When telling Merrill “you've been drinking”, she meets her match with his “to help me think sober.” Is there any more withering remark than “for a man, you have disgracefully long eyelashes”? If her tongue does not kill you, there's always the cocktail bar.

 

Could all this be metafiction, the stuff of a future novel? After all, it gives little away to note that Merrill is fleeing a crime in which his partner, Bette Davis's husband, has died. And the local vet, played well by a suave and irritating Emlyn Williams, brings to bear on all this some amateur studies in (human) psychology (with emphasis on “the escapist character”), as does the daily help (Edna Morris).

 

How on earth does a vet fit into this pleasingly tangled scenario? Well, Bette Davis's passions are here most aroused by her horse Fury, and one has not seen anything until her return in jodphurs while, what's more, cracking a whip. It's almost enough to turn a clergyman into a fetishist if he isn't already (a cleric is the one local functionary not to appear on the scene).

 

There are some curious moments. Why does the vet have a left-hand-drive jeep? And why does he need to borrow a dictionary for some work, “nothing cosmic, just a paper for the Royal Society.” Surely he would have one, unless a patient has eaten it? Still, this allows Bette Davis to say, “it's a new Oxford one” and the vet to reply, “our old friend” (Martin Amis recalls his father patting the Concise Oxford as if it were a pet and saying, “this is the one”).

 

And by way of an ending, a review can add to the sum of human knowledge. Some of this was filmed on Yorkshire location, at a village near a waterfall known as Janet's Foss. Could that first name have inspired the one given to author Bette Davis in this diverting film whose entrances and exits bring it something of a dark farce?

 

 

TIME OUT OF JOINT

 

At first glance, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, released in 1971, appears the very embodiment of the late-Sixties. A smart Victorian terrace house which, inside, is

fashionably decorated in a style akin to the first interior scene of Help!

 

And so it continues with a strange-faced man (Vincent Price) at the keyboard of a theatre organ while the rest of a band turn out to be puppets. Very strange. And even stranger is that all this turns out to be taking place in the later-Twenties, a fact mostly evinced by a few carriage-like motor cars in the exterior scenes which are also graced by Virginia North whose hooded fur-coat could be something sported by Diana Rigg in The Avengers. This film in fact shares a director and writer of that series.

 

Nothing is real, and there is a gloss to the horror as Dr. Phibes sets to work, turn by turn, to enact deadly revenge upon the nine surgeons (Terry-Thomas soon vanishes; Joseph cotton hangs on longer). Phibes deems them all to have conspired in killed his wife upon the operating table when in fact they were battling to save her.

 

His means of now disposing of them is to re-create the series of fatal Biblical curses, such as frogs and locusts. If this sounds familiar, such a method – deaths in Shakespeare – was the inspiration for a film in which Price starred two years later, after a Phibes sequel. Theatre of Blood is far better.

 

More slick than sick, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is diverting enough when the wind is rattling the windows and a glass of wine is to hand.

A SINISTER MOUSTACHE

 

How glossy can a film noir become? Often thought to be the stuff of dark alleyways and hidden rooms whose light bulbs were unlikely to advance climate change, many a film had recourse to swanky premises (think of Double Indemnity) and, of course, the ersatz glamour of many a night club.

 

Such a club – Arnelo's – graces, if that is the verb, The Arnelo Affair (1947). Its eponymous creepily suave proprietor (John Hodiak) uses as a lawyer George Murphy who is married to Frances Gifford who, such is his devotion to work, feels herself increasingly estranged in their smart home. When Hodiak, who has risen from penury to his current dubious wealth, meets her, he is smitten and suggests that she revive her interior-design business by taking him on as the first client.

 

Objects with the insignia A form a macguffin throughout, and there is sharp banter from Anne Woodbury and Eve Arden along the way (in their discourses, men are judged lacking), as well as rancorous demands from nine-year-old Dean Stockwell.

 

If director and screenwriter Arch Oboler could have made it shorter than ninety minutes and gained from a smaller budget and less voiceover, there is still more to enjoy here than one might assume from those who routinely dismiss it.

SHADES OF FREEDOM

 

Basil Dearden was known for addressing social themes. In directing such films, he did not allow thesis to swamp the fact that narrative is essentially provided by well-defined characters. One of his best is Frieda (1947). This opens in war-torn Europe, where in a brief stretch of no man's land in a crumbling city, prisoner-of-war, former schoolmaster David Farrer arrives with the German nurse (Mai Zetterling) who has helped him escape. There they are married in a brief moment before leaping a hay-strewn goods-wagon towards freedom.

 

With which, the scene cuts to a small town somewhere in the South of England, all single-decker 'buses and well-tended verges. The country is still at war, and word has reached his family, which shares a large house, that he is bringing a wife (having failed a few years earlier to win the woman who chose his brother, a fellow since killed in battle).

 

This is strong stuff, their stiff upper lips a contrast with talk beside the billiard table in the pub – where, to complicate matters, discussion turns around the suitability of one of the family (a steely Flora Robson) to continue as Parliamentary candidate in the next Election.

 

No need to anticipate here all the turns taken, including the need for a marriage that will enable the couple to share a bed: the first one was in a Protestant church, and has to be re-done to accommodate her Catholicism, a further element in a fraught situation.

 

Redemption is indeed the theme of this film, for all concerned, and its deus ex machina (if deus is the word) proves something else. What's more, here is a notable fight scene. All too often in such brawls one can hear the splintering of balsa-wood chairs; this appears so much the real thing that one cannot help but grip one's own more comfortable armchair in a 2022 which is proving equally divided.

EYEBALL TO EYEBALL

 

As The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) opens, one scene cuts rapidly to another as people keel over, a train-driver dies at the wheel and the carriages go up in flames as they fall from the track, a plane falls from the sky – and more. All falls quiet after a while, and we infer that others have met the same fate elsewhere, perhaps across the world: a few survivors, who meet by chance in a Surrey village, are unable to get any radio or television signals.

 

Static is everywhere.

 

Some claim that is the very adjective for this film. This is to underestimate its effect. As an American test pilot, Willard Parker, comes to realise, all of them were out of range of whatever gas killed the population (he was high in the air, for example), another was in an oxygen tent; a married couple, on the point of having a baby, had been in an emergency shelter.

 

Panic and resolve are the uneasy partners as the group holes up in an inn, and look through the window as one of them, foolish enough to flee, is greeted and exterminated by a pair of tall, robotic figures.

 

By now the quiet has given way to Elizabeth Lutyens's distinctly effective music while director Terence Fisher keeps a steady hand on the pace of this black-and-white world. Much the best known of the cast is Dennis Price, a tweedily enigmatic figure determined to make a bolt for it while keeping up an air of pompous rectitude.

 

Many a moment springs a surprise, gore is restricted to the eyeballs of the posthumous – say no more. Scoff at one's peril; chances are that any who watch this – it is but an hour – will shudder more than they expected.

CUBAN HEELS

 

Many authors would relish having as many films made from their work as Cornell Woolrich did. Subsequent life in a hillside mansion could be alleviated by retreats to the Riviera. Not that Woolrich favoured anything like this. He continued to live with his mother, as well as in a series of flop 'n' slops from which he emerged after a day at the typewriter to ply the harbourside in quest of dangerous trade. Had he favoured a life of ease and luxury, he would have lost the very stuff of his fiction which, the embodiment of noir, embraces a black panther on the loose and the view of a murder in an apartment across the way.

 

One of the most surprising films made from his work is The Chase (1946). Directed by Arthur Ripley from a screenplay by Philip Yordan, it opens with an amnesiac veteran Robert Cummings who finds a wallet with some money in it on the pavement. He uses a little of this to treat himself to much-needed food, after which he elects to return the rest to its owner, a smoothly evil Steve Cochran whose address inside the wallet proves to be a swanky Miami house, all curved staircase and random statues, complete with a portly manservant as well as a sidekick played by Peter Lorre, whose very looks always denote duplicity.

 

Not to mention an elegant wife, Michele Morgan, esteemed all her long life in her native France.

 

Cummings soon realises that she is a virtual prisoner in the place when he takes up the bemused Cochran's offer as a job there as chauffeur. He does not even appear to rue the fact that he should have kept the eighty-one dollars, for it is chump change to a man who, obviously and viciously enough, uses that palatial home, with real Napoleon brandy in the cellar, as the front for a trade well the other side of the Law.

 

After all, he tests Cummings's driving skills by means of a throttle by the back seat which he himself operates, letting it hit a hundred while the driver is left with only the steering wheel to avert disaster.

 

So far, the stuff of many a noir, one firing on all cylinders, no gaskets blown. And it does not falter when moving into another dimension but has all the logic of the subconscious. To say any more would be unfair. All is carried aloft, and below, by the cinematography which enhances a tale mostly related after dark, the lights of Havana glimpsed across the ocean as waves break on the shore: the work of Frank Planer who did the same for dozens of esteemed movies.

 

Whether running a bar or commanding a horse-and-carriage, here is an array of people as possessed as Woolrich himself. They are stuck with their demons; we can relish them for these eighty minutes.

 

MIRROR IMAGES

 

The double – Dr. Jekyll, Dorian Gray – is a theme upon which many a variant has been made, along with growing conflicts between twin-born children (Elizabethan drama, eighteenth-century novels). The prolific director François Ozon turned to this with L' amant double (2017), adapted at some removes from a novel by the even more prolific Joyce Carol Oates.

 

Slickly filmed, in chic offices and apartments, the plot turns around Marine Vacth who, after a career as a model feels rootless, feels beset by childhood traumas and amatory dissatisfactions; these take her to a psychiatrist, Jérémie Renier; a passion springs up, which means he can no longer treat her, a situation compounded by their moving in together despite his lack of sympathy for her faithful cat, Milo.

 

So far, so much Eric Rohmer, you might think. Early on, in the opening moments, viewers have, though, been greeted by medical close-ups along a vagina which is lit to feel rather like a fairground ride. Mirrors are frequently broken; intimate moments are seemingly attended by others, including Renier's twin brother whom Marine Vacth has sought out as a replacement therapist.

 

This is certainly a new twist on transference.

 

Events long past certainly have a continuing effect on all this, for all concerned (not least Jacqueline Bisset, who has, naturally enough, two smaller rôles, effectively done).

 

Is all this worth one's time? Probably not, but Ozon is an accomplished, if variable director who supplies enough here to hold, if vex, the attention: there is interesting biology to be learned here from the nature of twindom, but, as it turns upon the screen, buy-one-get-one-free is not necessarily the best value for us.

TRUST AND FUNDS

 

There's no rain like movie rain. Untold gallons of it pour upon our screen, and those of, yes, an automobile's in a remote spot where, yes, a tight-shirted woman (sultry Merry Anders) hails the driver (workaday James Brown) after she has found herself marooned there this wild night. What's more, a fallen tree means that there can be no return to her vehicle.

 

And, yes, they chance upon an inn – Cady's Lodge - whose lobby wall sports the garish timepiece which gives When The Clock Strikes (1961) its title. At just over an hour, and made in effective black and white, this was written by the wonderfully-named Dallas Gaultois, a moniker which almost combines Texas and French cigarettes – as befits a work which combines tough talking and a noir aspect.

 

It was directed by the prolific Edward Cahn, who could turn his hand to anything, including Dragstrip Girl. With so much spent upon the opening scene's water bill, the rest of it is based around that inn's lobby and a room or two (with some money to spare for a suitcase). Who would have thought that its proprietor Cady (Henry Corden) is by far the best known of the cast? Come 1963, he would become the second voice for Fred Flintstone.

 

Meanwhile, in that lobby, there are many twists after Brown reveals that he has come all that way because he has doubts, that he had in fact misidentified a man who is about to be hanged - as that clock strikes – for a crime.

 

Will an innocent man become victim of the noose? So tight, so to speak, is the plot that one should not say any more. Trust proves a scarce commodity.

 

Here is a film which, sixty years on, surmounts its humble origins – the very thing for a winter's evening as the rain lashes one's windows.

CORRIDORS OF POWER

 

Brightly lit, in colour or perhaps one should say color, and opening with a high-school bop, The Unguarded Moment (1956) might look at first to be, at most, a diversion. After all, its star – on screen for most of these ninety minutes – is Esther Williams. In fact, no water was injured in the making of this film, but pain is felt by many of those involved as events prove creepily at odds with this small-town setting.

 

After all, a woman's body has been taken away from a pavement after a murder one night. Another surprise is that all this is based upon a story co-written by Rosalind Russell.

 

Esther Williams is a music teacher who has received messages from an infatuated pupil, one whom a detective – George Nader (who appears to own one jacket) – believes could be that murderer. After all, the pupil (John Saxon) has been brought up by a man (Edward Andrews) who is more than embittered after his wife left him when their son was a few years old.

 

All of which, with a duplicitous school Head (Les Tremayne), could have been the stuff of a noir movie a decade earlier (not least a scene filmed from within a wardrobe). Director Harry Keller had by this time become better known for his work on television series. He had, though, made a film, lasting less than an hour, called Red River Shore. That title is now far better known as a song by Bob Dylan. Could Dylan, a great one for watching films and adapting their dialogue, have seen it one some late-night American channel?

 

As it is, with teacher-pupil relations the stuff of life and films the past sixty decades and more, it is well worth looking at this effective take upon that scenario – and the school's separating into brawling gangs was ahead of West Side Story.

THE LONELINESS OF THE MIDDLE-DISTANCE THIEF

 

What pleasure can there be in a criminal life? Any job which has been pulled off soon entails continuing uncertainty, as much from others involved as any pursuers. The task is not something about which one can speak, no chance of adding it to general conversation. It is a solitary pursuit born of social ineptitude.

 

These are but some of thoughts prompted by Bresson's Pickpocket (1959). Of course. to watch a film about criminals can be entertaining; they are a better on-screen presence than the saintly – doing bird rather than feeding them. The technique of lifting wallets from jackets and hiding them in a folded newspaper is as close as Pickpocket comes to any form of heist. Its interest is not so much in suspense as its attempt to enter a criminal mind – that of Martin LaSalle, who appears satisfied, however much he lifts, to eke out life in a scarcely-furnished bedsitter while, elsewhere in Paris, his mother is seriously ailing, not visited by anybody except her young neighbour, Marika Green.

 

Partly inspired by Dostoevsky, all this is redolent of that post-war French thought popularly deemed to consist of sitting in cafés and sporting a black, roll-top jumper.

There are some locations, including streets, a railway station and the glimpse of a race course, but much of the narrative haunts mundane premises in which those involved are more likely to be looking into the distance than at one another.

 

Made in black and white, the film turns around three main actors (including LaSalle's friend Pierre Leymarie) who were all new to acting, their seemingly gauche attitudes no accident but the result of Bresson's insisting upon dozen of takes: LaSalle had to toil up a curving staircase some forty times. This hour and a quarter is no B-feature. It has a studied air, one – as always with Bresson – which sets it apart from, say, the emergent nouvelle vague.

 

Symbolic of all this is the jacket – perhaps fashionably unlined - worn throughout by LaSalle, even when gaoled.

 

The edition of the film issued by Artificial Eye has an extra disc, much of which is a documentary with visits to those three actors for their reminiscences across almost half a century. No easy task, for one part of this involved a visit to somebody who had taken up a medical career; another who, via New York, now lives in a remote corner of Mexico City: twists and turns as fascinating as any in Pickpocket, and an aside which prompts one to seek out Bresson's book Notes on Cinematography, which is not, apparently, as dry as its title might suggest.

THE CENTS OF AN ENDING

 

I don't usually read private cigarette cases.”

 

Quote this line and anybody within earshot might say that it is from The Importance of Being Earnest. It is not Wilde but... Wilder. Had things gone differently, it is possible that the playwright could have made it to close on a hundred – and savoured the part played by cigarette cases in Sunset Blvd.- a work which surely owes something to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

 

No need here to say too much about this mid-century Gothic which finds a struggling screenwriter (William Holden) lured into a fading, deep-focus mansion where Valentino once danced on the tiles and which is now a living shrine to Gloria Swanson, a silent star so devoted to the image of her youth that she is under the delusion that her own voluminous script will see her return to the screen as, in an another Wildean echo, Salomé.

 

She derides contemporary automobiles as being made from “chromium and spit”. When asked, “what's wrong with this shirt?”, she replies, “it's all right if you work in a filling-station.”

 

This is a film preoccupied by time, both in its current linear form (including a brilliant scene in which she returns to Paramount while Cecil B. DeMille is at work on the pell-mell set of a new film) and those in which figures from the past make a Proustian, bridge-playing re-appearance (“funny how gentle people get with you once you're dead,” as Holden's voice-over has it when his corpse is brought from the swimming pool).

 

Passing time and Wilde make one think of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas who was forever trapped by his youthful image while holed up in a basement flat opposite Hove's St. Ann's Well Gardens during the Second World War. Even the brilliant Wilder, in his last years, had unfulfilled hopes of one more movie (the penultimate one Fedora is indeed a wonderful variant on this theme).

 

The internal exile of a California mansion can indeed be tragic: one thinks of that Saturday night when Phil Spector who had often been driven downtown by somebody who, like Erich von Stroheim, was an immigrant - and was put in a similar position by the police after that bullet went off.

 

Were Norma Desmond and Phil Spector ghosts of a past technology?

 

As James Agee said in his review of the movie when first shown, “it is one of those rare movies which are so full of exactness, cleverness, mastery, pleasure, and arguable and unarguable choice and judgment, that they can be talked about, almost shot for shot and line for line for hours on end”.

 

Meanwhile, Gloria Swanson - a silent-era star so spirited in taking on the rôle of Norma Desmond - would have twice as many husbands as this on-screen trio, but kept her dignity. The last was William Dufty, who had worked with Billie Holiday on her memoir Lady Sings the Blues. He and Gloria Swanson met through his campaign to fend off food polluted by sugar, something which had led her to support John and Yoko's bid to remain in America.

 

Meanwhile, of course, Norma Desmond made that celebrated remark about pictures getting smaller (another variant on Dorian Gray?). Something all the more piquant in this streaming era. And so I am glad to say how all the more focussed one becomes, as I was this afternoon, when watching Sunset Blvd. projected upon a large screen.

 

And, of course, next time I got out, I shall say to myself: “check those shirts and get those cuff-links.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DEEP AND CRISP AND HEATHEN

 

A killer who doesn't kill get killed.” Not exactly a Christmas sentiment, unless of course you are King Herod. In the case of Blast of Silence (1961), the sentence is uttered by a third-person voice-over about the attempt to kill off an almost-suave suburban hoodlum. The man hired for the task is Allen Baron who also wrote and directed this most bleak realisation of New York at the end of December.

 

There are glimpses of such places as the smart facades of Fifth-Avenue department stores but the abiding images are those of the rundown tenement visited by Baron in hopes that he can buy a “piece” (that is, a gun) for the commissioned task. Little did he expect that the clutter would include a collection of caged rats.

 

Nothing can surprise the viewer of this film. After all, it began with a mere flicker of light at the end of a long tube, an image which is redolent of birth. As it turns out, the emergence into life is of Baron on a subway platform as “Silent Night” plays.

 

In an hour and a quarter, the scene traverses Staten Island, Harlem, the riverside, rooftops, fire escapes – and several bars, in one of which there is a thunderously modern jazz group whose work is part of a terrific score by Meyer Kupferman (a match for that of Odds Against Tomorrow).

 

Although murder might be touted as “an exclusive line at Christmas”, there are the inevitable pitfalls (a chance encounter; a woman from the past). No need to dwell on these, one is carried along by the matchless black and white of Merrill Brody's cinematography as in the here and now Baron is dogged by memories of life in an orphanage. Man hands on misery to man.

A NIGHT'S DARKNESS, A DAY'S SALE

 

And so this is Christmas. And what have the cast of The Crowded Day done? Quite a lot.

 

Written by Talbot Rothwell (best known for Carry On scripts) and directed by John Guillermin (who was to make many a big-budget number), this modest, eighty-minute 1954 film turns around the staff of an Oxford Street department store. Some of it was filmed outside, and in, Bourne and Hollingsworth, which was especially sporting of the company as part of the plot turns around such matters as an unexpected pregnancy, errant lovers, salty remarks – and neat revenge upon demanding customers.

 

The film opens and closes, like the store itself, with Sid James whistling as he goes about his night-watch man tasks while festivities are on the horizon. Surreal is the sequence in which the shop staff, who live in a hostel, jostle for a place outside the communal bathrooms – and, what's more, talk with one another while languishing beneath the suds, if languish is quite the term for so pell-mell a life.

 

Time has had an effect upon all this that none involved could have dared to expect. One now yelps at seeing brief turns by those who will become better known – Thora Hird, Prunella Scales, Dora Bryan, Joan Hickson, Dandy Nichols, Rachel Roberts – and, above all, one regrets that Vera Day did not join that varied pantheon (although she has recently appeared again on the screen). No blushing violet, here and elsewhere (the very incarnation of Chuck Berry's “tight dresses and lipstick”), her immodesty is rivalled only by the naked mannequin carried to and fro, horizontally, by ever-bespectacled Richard Wattis (who plays, er, Mr. Christopher).

 

Does anybody now watch that Seventies outing, The Towering Inferno​? Why ask this? Well, that was another portmanteau film made by John Guillermin. The decades have surely shown that The Crowded Day is a better use of our time.

 

And, this being Christmas, I shall now be so generous as to reveal that my title for this piece adapts a phrase from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

 

 

THE COFFIN FITS

 

A brick viaduct, rain, a wandering cat, noisy pubs, backstage dressing rooms, scant furniture in tiny lodging-house rooms. This is the stuff of noir - and a great English use of these, and more, is Cavalcanti's They Made Me a Fugitive (1947). This Brazilian-born director has become better known in recent years for the films he made here, such as Went the Day Well?, although his French works are harder to find (there was once a National Film Theatre season). And now, such is the circle of death, it coincides with renewed interest in the novels of Jackson Budd, some of which have been reissued in the British Library's crime series.

 

One of these, yet to appear again, was adapted for the screen by Noel Langley for this film, and perhaps he hit upon the surreal turns which this seemingly gritty work takes. Here are many scenes with notices on doors, and framed sentiments on walls, including Auden's “It's Later than You Think”. All of which pale beside the opening scene which finds some functionaries who sigh and sweat as their overcoated shoulders bear a coffin into the, yes, Valhalla Undertakers; its rooftop surely defies all Planning laws, for upon it there are the huge, vertical letters R I P.

 

One does not give away much by saying that this coffin will cause many more deaths; it conceals contraband cigarettes; in a variant on those who carry violin cases, the top-hatted men are part of a gang headed by Griffith Jones who announces that the operation needs the added class which will be provided by an RAF veteran down on his luck after escaping from a Prisoner of War camp: Trevor Howard.

 

As with all gangs (and much of human society), factions emerge, partly fostered by rivalry for the women in their midst. Howard's end is precipitated by his balking at a coffinload of drugs. A stint in a misty West Country gaol only determines him to prove his innocence.

 

Everything – dialogue, pace, light and shade – coheres, including a scene in a house on the Moors which could be a film in itself. If one had to sum up the theme of this remarkable film in a phrase, it is that in this world and the next it is hard for all concerned to rest in peace.

OUR CYLINDERS ARE CLICKIN'!

 

The credits take some while to roll at the end of the new version of West Side Story, and one learns that many digital artists had been involved in its creation. This, though, has been not at all akin to dinosaurs who purport to traverse craggy mountains which, for all the technology, so often seems more risible than suspension of disbelief.

 

First filmed sixty years ago, that version remains in the mind as rather too clean-looking for a gritty tale of gang warfare. Steven Spielberg, with screenwriter Tony Kushner, has brought a darker hue to this tale of young love traversing racial boundaries, creating an almost-Shakespearean power for its ending. While, rest assured, never losing the brio of the music, lyrics and dance which made this a feat of collaboration by Bernstein, Sondheim and Robbins.

 

The time goes by swiftly (two hours and forty minutes, with the closing credits, which, happily, have orchestral variations upon the score). Nothing is out of step. The undubbed singing is excellent, and a great move was to have a cast unknown to most of us – except, of course, for Rita Moreno, who, at almost ninety, brings a subtly bravura turn to a rôle which, this time around, finds her running a bar where she dispenses beer and advice. It is not for me to reveal the surprise she springs.

 

Hoodlums and police alike are all brilliant turns, from Tony (Ansel Elgort) to Officer Krupke (Brian d'Arcy James), and a continually wistful Maria (Rachel Zegler): one could highlight everybody, but the the real point is that here is ensemble playing: nobody steals a march on the others.

 

It is exhilarating – and resonates over here, in a Britain riven by the street warfare that is Remain and Leave.

 

Meanwhile, do browse Sondheim's first huge volume of lyrics and commentary, Finishing the Hat. Here are lyrics dropped on the road, and a reminder that some of the unused music resurfaced at the beginning an equally engrossing work, the Chichester Psalms.

THE SHORT GOODBYE

 

Directed by Tim Whelan, who was noted for Q Planes, Farewell Again (1937) is a variant upon that familiar form, the portmanteau film. In this case, with a screenplay by Clemence Dane and Ian Hay, there are gathered upon a ship a number of military men who are returning to England after service in India. Naturally, they look forward to shoreside reunions; equally so, there are problems along the way, such as new, intervening romances, severe illness, lax discipline.

 

All of this, with additional direction by Pen Tennyson, who was to die in the war, moves at a clip, sped by an adroit cast which includes Robert Newton and ever-distinctive Flora Robson. Much of it takes place inside, with the cinematography of James Wong Howe who always brought such artistry to his use of lamps and lenses that place becomes as much a character as any human within it.

 

It is also notable for its depiction of crowd scenes, all those gathered to greet a ship which in fact will only be in the quay for six hours before, on sudden Foreign Office orders, all have to return to duty somewhere abroad.

 

Made under the shadow of war, it is suffused with a need to do the right thing but never succumbs to tub-thumping ; here is something of the spirit which Noel Coward brought to his depictions of life at all levels of society.

 

Popular in its era, the film appears to be little known now but is well worth eighty minutes of one's time.

GREAT PRETENDERS

 

Ecology concerns apart, is there any more disagreeable a form of travel than by airplane? The thought comes to mind when when watching again Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). This takes place upon the ground, in the large bedroom of a Bremen flat, one of its walls adorned by a huge, bare-fleshed classical mural. Fassbinder, perhaps inspired by the claustrophobia of an aircraft cabin, wrote this play between one side of the Atlantic and the other, and soon turned it into a film.

 

This makes Coward's writing Private Lives one weekend in a Far-East hotel appear tardy. Both men were prolific, and some of their work can be easily overlooked. How well is this film known five decades on? The two-hour traffic of its stage can bring to mind the threesome which Coward depicted in Design for Living.

 

The eponymous rôle is taken by Margit Cartensen. Much given to lolling upon her big brass bed, this fashion designer continually issues instructions to her forever-silent assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann), which makes one speculate about everything which underlies their relationship in these curiously-appointed premises (Fassbinder and his time make such tremendous use of colour and camera angles that it never stales into a filmed play).

 

Before long, a puzzling situation is complicated. There appears on the scene Hanna Schygulla as Karin, who - as is Petra - proves to be separated from a man. They fall for each other, or so it seems. One of the film's well-nigh invisible act-breaks shows that they have remained together some while, presumably watched all that time by the mute Marlene.

 

It is another taunting relationship, one which provokes Karin to say that – true or not - her overnight absence was owing to the arrival elsewhere of a well-hung black man. Talk, throughout, is not so much dialogue as the declamations of a power struggle, all of which is inflamed by the arrival of Petra's equally vociferous daughter and mother.

 

Everybody is wary of one another, trust is elusive as the room appears to darken, while The Walker Brothers and The Platters rise on the soundtrack. One can well imagine that Scott Walker would have relished the angst of all this if he saw it (and perhaps he did so). What remains of us is hate.

 

To watch this on a cinema screen is to experience that Bremen room as a life-size reflection of the auditorium; oddly enough, at home that effect is lost upon a flatscreen, but the drama is more than sufficient to make one crave to fill one's gaps in viewings of Fassbinder's other work (Hitchcock-fashion, he appears here in a newspaper photograph passed between this otherwise all-female cast).

 

For those who have not seen it, make time for the dozen hours of his version of Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz.

YOUTH UPON HERNIA BAY

 

With such a title as French Dressing, being made in 1963 and set in, er, Gormleigh-on-Sea, one might reasonably assume that this would be a low-grade British farce.

 

It has, thankfully, elements of that, but these are transformed by its being the first feature film directed by Ken Russell, its script tweeted by Johnny Speight (as that verb used to mean) and sporting an array of character actors.

 

Here, for one, is James Bolam who works as a deckchair attendant smitten with local reporter Alita Naughton (who should have appeared on screen more often). He hits on the idea of bringing new vim to bathchair-ridden (as it were) Gormleigh by staging a film festival in which place of honour will be given to a Bardot lookalike (Marissa Mell).

 

All of which meets with the opposition of the Mayor (Bryan Pringle) who continually sports a top hat while his civic dignity crumbles as he duly welcomes the bombshell to his shores (Herne Bay does sterling service throughout, not least its seemingly endless pier), where the rain machine must have added considerably to the budget.

 

To this Russell brings a relish not only of whimsical Tati but all manner of New Wave tropes, such as speeded-up sections, an array of bicycle rides – and even a score provided by the composer favoured by Truffaut: Georges Delarue. And there is even a touch of Bunuel when, at the eventual festival: in front of the screen outraged, rampaging viewers are sucked into Miss Mill's close-up lips. And at the very moment when, backstage, Hitchcock-fashion, a champagne bottle explodes as she asks the Mayor what is on his mind.

 

And if this is not surreal enough, the turbulent festival is chronicled by a television reporter: a wonderfully droll cameo by eternal quizmaster Robert Robinson.

 

This being Ken Russell, there is even nudity - at the opening of a beach, a decade before Brighton did so, Miss Naughton's bottom proves as sporting as those of Mayor's office staff.

 

A final twist. Ken Russell turned down the offer of Cliff's Summer Holiday to make this – and the credits show that, none the less, one of the Shadows, Brian Bennett, was prevailed upon to add a foot-tappin' instrumental to it.

 

Here is something which anticipates A Hard Day's Night and Monty Python.

 

The higher frippery rarely reaches such levels. One to watch again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FACE TO FACE

 

How does one judge the success of a film? Mention Hester Street (1975) now and, chances are, it will not bring widespread recognition. In fact, it was made – by Joan Micklin Silver from Abraham Cahan's novella - for a modest cost which was recouped many times over. Many others' work should be so lucky. Filmed in black and white, it almost appears to have been made at the very time it depicts: the 1890s Lower East Side, a haunt of those immigrants from Eastern Europe, many Jewish, who had put pogroms behind them to seek a new life.

 

This was no simple matter. Steven Keats, as an immigrant a few years earlier, has adapted to American life under a new name, found work in the sewing district, and, as such, sent for his wife (Carol Kane) and young son (Paul Freedman) to join him in a modest boarding house.

 

He has been for dancing lessons, and, one infers, enjoyed dalliances, all of which is a shock to his wife who is an adherent of Jewish traditions, such as a need for wigs to obscure hair, and, failing that, a hat at all times. Here is a film of fraught interiors (along with some well-realised street scenes), many of which take place upon staircases between these modest apartments (which, in the twenty-first century, command a fortune).

 

For all that, there is a comedy to these dilemmas, not least in the surreal sequence which depicts in some detail the long-bearded deliberations which comprise a Jewish divorce (after which the husband is free to re-marry immediately while his ex-wife has to wait ninety-two days).

 

Awards ceremonies are not usually something to be mentioned in film reviews, but Carol Kane was up against Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. No need to remind you who won, and all praise to her – but it could have been shared with Carol Kane, who brought as wonderfully a stoney face to her rôle.

COULD I HAVE A WORD?

 

A week is ninety minutes in politics. The thought comes to mind when thinking of Wilfred Fienburgh MP. What course would his life have taken? On the left of the Labour Party, he rose through adversity and world war but died in 1958 when his motor-car hit a lamp-post in London. He left behind a novel, No Love for Johnnie. That posthumous publication was soon followed by a swift-moving film (1960) - and one can reasonably speculate that these inspired all the incarnations of Michael Dobbs's House of Cards.

 

Not to give away too much (writing and politics share something with the bridge or, better, the chess table). Although, in reality, that was the era of Macmillan's “you've never had it so good”, the film (directed by Ralph Thomas and co-written by Mordecai Richler) finds an alternative reality in which Labour is in charge between that end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP. The focus is upon an MP from the North (Peter Finch, on screen almost all of the time). He has to temper what one might call his New Labour ambitions with his constituents' (or, at any rate, the local Party's) views - which are, shall we say, of a Corbynite persuasion.

 

Nothing changes, all that much. Even as I write this, there are doubtless voices which hush on the Terrace as somebody goes by who is not part of an intra-Party plot being hatched beside that eternal river.

 

And, of course, there is always the human factor to undermine the design of politics by numbers. In this case, Finch's marriage has staled, if it ever had brio; he is bruised, vulnerable to passing fancy (played both by the wonderfully-named Mary Peach, still with us, and Billie Whitelaw who, alas, is not). All of which appears to anticipate those events which, a couple of years later, brought down a Conservative government (“well, he would say that, wouldn't he?”).

 

As for this film itself, it moves at a pace, with a cast which comprises so many of those whom politicians would call “a dream team” - from Mervyn Johns to Mona
Washbourne by way of Dennis Price as an acerbic, low-camp photographer who, wise to model Miss Peach's ad hoc political involvement, tells her to pretend that the saucepan handle in her grasp “is the whole Front Bench”. How did that get past the Censor?

 

Here is a film whose ensemble playing is something of which politicians themselves can only dream. Although Peter Finch is to the fore with a bravura performance – which makes something charming of the charmless -, this is a film in which everybody, from a stationmaster to a Commons clerk, has a well-deployed line or two. Democracy in action.

 

Not to mention a party in a basement flat, that disc-driven staple of early-Sixties films. In this case, a few seconds find Oliver Reed contending with a cardboard box over his head. Quite why is not clear. Could he have inspired Lord Buckethead?

 

Another puzzle is that it was filmed in cinemascope, for the bulk of it – from bed to bar and back again – is a matter of smoke-filled interiors. Still, the eyes adjust to the shehanigans.

 

High time the novel were re-issued.

 

And would that there had been seat-belts and air-bags in 1958.

 

 

 

 

WHISKY MEETS WHISKEY

 

How well is René Clair's mid-Thirties film The Ghost Goes West now known?

 

In order to make it, Clair himself went northwards, as well as westwards, from France to direct this Anglo-American production. It opens in eighteenth-century Scotland where a feud between two Clans duly reverberates in a (then) present day which finds the descendant (Robert Donat) hard pressed to maintain a castle which survived a family honour lost upon the battlefield all those decades ago.

 

This might sound a working definition of hokum. Far from it. Of course, it is preposterous, and all the more so when an American millionaire is prevailed upon by his charming daughter to buy the castle (and attendant ghost) in order to pay off the chorus of debts which Donat has entailed upon it.

 

Little do those Scotsmen realise that their paying off will necessitate the transporting of the castle brick by brick across the Atlantic – and, as for what happens after, it is not the place of this piece to say any more.

 

Except that the enjoyment to be had from all this was highlighted at the time by Graham Greene (a film reviewer who was not easily pleased).

 

Did he but know it, Greene's review (with its cogent echoes of Elsinore) anticipated Ealing. “I have never believed more firmly in Clair's genius than I did during this film. The silly story, the gross misuse of Clair's peculiar qualities, were forgotten in my admiration for his camera sense. In no other film this year has there been the same feeling of mobility, of visual freedom. And the actors responded with unforced lightheartedness.”

 

In our digital age, the flickerings which are the stuff of the ghost's arrival and departure might seem small beer (perhaps one should say whisky, a commodity which finds a natural place in the narrative); and yet these draw one into – yes – what amounts to a transatlantic take upon that endlessly re-weavable plot which is Romeo and Juliet, here given a tartan hue.

A GHOST OF A CHANCE

 

It is 1937, and while strolling along the cliffs of the English coast brother and sister Ray Milland (he a composer) Ruth Hussey become enchanted by a large empty house into which their dog has chased a squirrel.

 

From such a small event (momentous if you are the squirrel) springs a tale which transcends time and space as a ghost brings tidings from two decades earlier.

 

All of which is a far cry from Milland's bravura spirit when first moving in. He thinks twice about sliding down the curving banister - “I don't want to damage the landing gear.” A new phrase on me. And, indeed, the film suggests a Lesbian relationship between a teacher and the dead woman whose portrait hangs on her wall.

 

When reviewing the film on its 1944 release, James Agee said that it transformed a mediocre story (the screenplay from an obscure novel was co-written by Dodie Smith, whose way with dogs is of course well known). “Ot seems to me harder to get a fright than a laugh, and I experienced thirty-five first-class jolts, not to mention a well-calculated texture of minor frissons.”

 

That electrical rate might not be as high eighty years on but – more mystery than Gothic – it has an atmosphere of civilised malevolence, not least the performances by Donald Crisp who forbids his grand-daughter Stella (the tragic Gail Russell) to visit the house, and Cornelis Otis Skinner as that teacher, her facial movements a masterclass in seething contempt.

 

And if this were not enough, there is Victor Young's theme music for the grand-daughter, which, a few years later, would have Ned Washington's words added to create “Stella by Starlight” - and, simultaneously, staying with the music alone for numerous versions by such jazz artists as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

 

 

THE PLUNGE OF LIFE

 

How does one depict writing on the screen. At several points in Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003) a crime novelist (Charlotte Rampling) reaches for her laptop to add to the word count of the latest case for her Inspector. This can hardly be something to engross the viewer; in fact, it provides a space in which to ponder everything that we have seen happen around her.

 

On the gace of it, this is not much. Weary of her series, she has been persuaded by her publisher (Charles Dance) to retreat to his poolside villa in the Luberon and let inspiration flow. As is the way of sunny idylls, there is an incursion.

 

Crashing through the door one day is Ludivine Sangier, the wild and beautiful daughter of Dance by a dead lover, neither of whom was known to Charlotte Rampling (something which upsets her notion that in life one should have a novelist's omniscience). Ludivine lives for drink and men; there seems to be as many of the later as there are bottles; flesh and glass alike are thrown out when used up.

 

All this disturbs a writer's peace – and provides a variant upon the Inspector's increasingly routine investigations.

 

Beautifully made, in and out of the water, the film does not shy from lingering, and takes on a dreamlike quality. As the minutes go by, one wonders what is really happening to all these people. Are they a part of life itself or the imagination? And, for all of us, do these overlap?

 

See it on one's own with please; and with others, it brings debate that could see off another bottle or more. And express surprise that Charlotte Rampling writes directly upon the screen.

OF HARM AND A HARMONICA

 

Exactly what makes a film a screwball cannot be precisely defined. Certainly these are rooted in misunderstanding and mayhem, but, then, nobody calls the Marx Brothers' work screwball. At two hours, You Can't Take It With You is longer than most, and it starts slowly. Put simply, there are two households, one presided over by financier Edward Arnold and the other a bunch of madcap inventors indulged by Lionel Barrymore who has long since thrown in capitalism and taken his winnings so that he can enjoy life itself – in a prime piece of real estate upon which Arnold has his eye as a crucial part of a complex deal. As in the board game Monopoly, one can only build hotels when one has all of that colour group of properties.

 

To all this there is a Romeo and Juliet element, for Barrymore's daughter (the ever-delightful Jean Arthur) works in the Barrymore building and has fallen in love with his son (James Stewart). All this sprang from one of the Broadway successes by Moss Hart and George Kaufman, augmented in some ways for the film by Robert Riskin – and seen through the eyes of director Frank Capra. He has often been deemed sentimental. Among those to do so was Graham Greene, who began his contemporary article about it with “as for the reviewer, he can only raise his hands in a kind of despair” and appears to deem it a variant upon A Christmas Carol. Two paragraphs on, Greene takes an about-turn. “It sounds awful, but it isn't as awful as all that, for Capra has a touch of genius with a camera: his screen always seems twice as big as other people's, and he cuts as brilliantly as Eisenstein (the climax when the big bad magnate takes up his harmonica is so exhilarating in its movement that you forget its absurdity). Humour and not wit is his line, a humour which shades off into whimsicality. We may groan and blush as he cuts his way remorselessly through all finer values to the fallible human heart, but infallibly he makes his appeal – to that great soft organ with its unreliable goodness and easy melancholy and baseless optimism. The cinema, a popular craft, can hardly be expected to do more.”

 

In many ways, the film is a series of vignettes, such as the night-time walk through a park by James Stewart and Jean Arthur who are treated to an ad hoc musical dance routine by a group of children who leave a mark upon her which becomes evident when Stewart takes her, in the very next scene, to meet his parents in a smart restaurant. If the film turns upon such contrary encounters, it does not stale, one feels for all those involved as much as one is entertained be their continual mishaps, not the least of which is a huge explosion and its concomitant, a crowded police-station cell. Capra was of course a master of the crowd scene in all its forms (already seen, for example, in Lost Horizon, as it would be in It's a Wonderful Life).

 

Here, eighty years on, is a very good time – and it brings to mind that Punch cartoon in which a solicitor at a desk reads from the will to the assembled company: “he says that he has taken it with him.”

 

 

ALL FALL DOWN

 

We create our buildings and then they create us.” So said Winston Churchill – at the time when Parliament had been bombed and was set to be re-built. As we know, much of this country and others fell to the ground, and rose again in hulking forms which continue to provoke outrage.

 

The process is not restricted to wartime, as shown by a 1963 play shown by ABC Television as part of its Armchair Theatre series, which continues to be available upon DVD. What a delight it must have been to know that one could turn on the television and see something well worth an hour of one's time. This is not to decry

the numerous multi-series, many episodes of our era, but to watch The Snag, made in 1963, is to realise how much can be achieved in an hour.

 

Put simply, this concerns plans by a rotund “developer” (John Goggin) to build a concrete shopping centre. Against this is a canny seamstress (Gwen Nelson) who occupies the building which could put the kibosh on a proposal in which the local Council appears to have a hidden hand.

 

And so there comes into play one of Goggin's staff (Barrie Ingham) making apparently romantic overtures to Gwen Nelson's niece (a spiritedly canny innocent Patsy Rowlands) in the hopes that he can make free with her... inheritance.

 

This is not the place to reveal how such a variant upon Romeo and Juliet turns out. One can ask, reasonably enough, whether, six decades on, it is worth our putting the disc in the player at our leisure rather than making sure, as original viewers did, that the kettle had boiled ahead of the play's one-off transmission.

 

Written by Donal Giltinan, whose scripts fuelled many television series, it was directed by Jonathan Alwyn (now in his nineties); if no masterpiece, it contains enough to keep us involved – especially as key rôles are given to Arthur Lowe (as a tailor) and the redoubtable Judith Furse whose freeholder status brings another dimension to the moral entanglements of property ownership.

 

The Snag resonates, and the title of this piece about it echoes the Lindisfarne song “All Fall Down” which was a protest about the shenanigans in Newcastle and elsewhere by such people as T. Dan Smith.

SPLENDID POTATOES. ALL FLOURY. EXCELLENT BOILERS.

 

Such was late-Forties Soho when greengrocers favoured as elaborate a sign as that. It is glimpsed towards the end of Dancing with Crime (1947). Set by night throughout, here is opportunity for many a neon-light commentary upon events as they unfurl

in spiv-laden territory. One can never forget the moment, when, chased by bullets, the associate of a Mr. Big collapses in an alley at the end of which, across the road, flashes the title of a musical: SPREAD A LITTLE HAPPINESS.

 

Directed by John Paddy Carstairs from a Brock Williams screenplay, the story is a broad-brush one but sports many such details. Former soldier Richard Attenborough is now a taxi driver and engaged to Shelia Sim (off screen, they had recently married) who hankers for a stage career but, like so many, has to settle for what she can get in these austerity years. As chance has it, such is the taxi life, he encounters an Army friend who seems to be living well on nothing a year (as that memorable Thackeray chapter title once had it). Of course the Army man is mixed up with the black market whose front, naturally, is a night club with rather a good jazz orchestra

whose work is the background to many “ladies, excuse me” dance.

 

These ladies know what is good, if potentially dangerous, for them. As one of them remarks, “Men! They all want to take you to Brighton. What's so special about Brighton?” Unlike his subsequent appearance in Brighton Rock, Attenborough is here on the right side of the Law, if maverick in the way that he and Shelia Sim set about enacting revenge upon a Mr. Big given to such lines as “don't get too close – I'm fastidious.” What's more, he tells those he does not trust that they deserve a rest on his farm; needless to say, they meet a sorry end before reaching any such pastoral tranquility.

 

Here, again, we see how much a film gains by ensemble playing. Nobody is expected to “carry” it. A bartender can be as crucial in a few seconds as anybody else. And space must be found to mention Judy Kelly, who plays a nightclub singer on the slide (the lyrics were written by somebody with the unlikely-but-true surname of Purcell). A shame that she made only one more film after this.

 

With so much in these eighty minutes, one has to watch it again before long – and keep an eye out for more of those signs.

 

 

 

 

KIND OF BLUE

 

In a review of the Marx Brothers' glossy production A Day at the Races, Graham Greene looked back in preference at their earlier work: “these revellers of the higher idiocy should not mingle with real people nor play before lavish scenery and an arty camera. Like the Elizabethans, they need only a chair, a painted tree”.

 

Paradoxically enough, Greene's remark came to mind while watching Allied (2016) which is set in the Europe of World War Two with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard to the fore – against many an impressive background.

 

In the opening moments a parachute opens, and Pitt lands upon the desert somewhere in the vicinity of Casablanca, to which he is spirited in an automobile rather cleaner than one would expect amidst those swirling sands. Come the arrival in that fabled city, he – a Canadian agent – is embroiled in drama and romance akin to that for which the place supplied the title of a film eighty years ago.

 

No more than Bogart's joint was filmed in situ, Pitt did not descend from the clouds in this one. To say that this, and much of Allied, is a digital re-creation can miss the point (whether the scenes be there or Hampstead). One only needs to think of the many scenes in films across the decades in which people drive an automobile while it is clear that the twists and turns of the road are a back-projection. Good acting, and lighting, can carry aloft such a simulacrum: suspension of disbelief.

 

Directed by Robert Zemeckis (who began his career with Spielberg) from a script by Steven Knight, Allied draws upon many a wartime trope: eternal suspicions of a double-cross amidst a sexual free-for-all (at a party, as an air-raid siren goes off, a door opens beneath the stairs, whence naked breasts tumble forth, swiftly followed by a soldier on leave).

 

If the story sometimes appears about to clunk, Zemeckis's sense of pace carries it along, scant time to question its international logistics. The two-hour traffic of the screen is swift – and equally absorbing are the DVD's extras which a cinema audience would not have seen. As is often the case with such mini-documentaries, we are told that all concerned are geniuses to whom Leonardo would pay homage if he had anticipated cinema.

 

What becomes more interesting, in these brisk depictions of collaboration, is the way in which digital techniques can become the contemporary equivalent of the Elizabethan methods to which Greene alluded. A replica Lysander aeroplane was built when it became apparent that the necessity for rain would wreck the one surviving example – and the rest of that airfield's squadron was replicated upon a keyboard. Time and again, Brad Pitt and the others acted their scenes before a sheer-blue background: this would become the place in which Casablanca or Hampstead would be projected before our eyes.

 

Strange to think that Hollywood actors now find themselves working upon the equivalent of a bare-bones village-hall stage.

 

The ultimate judge is the retina - upon which Allied leaves a good impression. Even so the brain might question whether those agonies should become entertainment here and now. Perhaps that was the reaction to Casablanca.

NICK'S BAR

 

How can one of Humphrey Bogart's best performances be in the shadow of others that are more widely known? Such is the fate of the prolific. He appeared in many a routine work for Warner Brothers during the Thirties, but Black Legion (1937) is in a class apart. Bogart, who works in an engineering factory, hankers for promotion so that, in the suburbs, he can treat wife and son to more (even a vacuum cleaner) – and himself to a smart automobile whose salesman, typically, tells him that this is the only one in that colour at the moment.

 

What Bogart – that voice! - takes for a natural progression falters when the foreman's job is given to a Pole who has made much of studying, on the job and a night school. Sour, Bogart becomes so embittered, the voice heard through booze, that he is a prey, via a weasely chemist, for a hooded Klan-like bunch whose campaigning method is, in effect, Put America First: it signs up adherents beside an open-air fire upon which they will be roasted if they do not fork out for cut-price revolvers.

 

All this has transatlantic, indeed worldwide resonances now. What one should stress is that its effect not only derives from those night-time scenes (so well caught by director Archie Mayo with the help of Michael Curtiz, himself an immigrant), but the many domestic ones. The kitchen sink is as prominent, with radio broadcasts providing some relief, as do excursions to the movies (the posters seem, at a glimpse, to be parodies of Warner titles). What's more, after one film, another couple go for a drink nearby. This is, in effect, Nick's Bar. The eponymous Nick Strumpas is played by Pat C. Flick, who wields the most extraordinary eyebrows this side of Groucho (he wrote screenplays as well as making such appearances).

 

Graham Greene reviewed this film, prominently, in the second issue of Night and Day magazine. Unlike me, he could not then have punned upon the Rick's Bar of a few year hence, but Greene knew where “the real horror lies: the real horror is not in the black robes and skull emblems, but in the knowledge that these hide the weak and commonplace faces you have met over the counter and minding the next machine”.

 

He was then at work upon Brighton Rock. One cannot help but feel that films such as this had an effect upon his Pinkie. He also remarks upon its ending, which remains an equal point of discussion about his novel, in print and on screen.

A SPECIAL PRICE FOR YOU, SQUIRE

 

Jonathon Green's huge three-volume Dictionary of Slang dates the term “spiv” to 1929, with possible origins in the Romany for sparrow, a creature whom they deem to live on others' leavings. One certainly recognises the puffed-chest type, and they are abundant in Ken Hughes's first film, Wide Boy (1952): the title is a synonym, the geezer in question a lodging-house denizen played – jaunty hat, and all – by Sydney Tafler who, to continue the avian theme, hawks dodgy goods from a pavement suitcase while forever being moved on by the Law.

 

From a story by Rex Rienits, all this runs at just over an hour – and is better packed than any such suitcase. In an instant we learn that Tafler's girlfriend (the glamorous and tragic Susan Shaw) has tastes way beyond the proceeds of what one might call his day-job. A sequence of events in this brilliant encapsulation of post-war London – high and low – leads to a series of night-time encounters in a bombed-out Paddington house.

 

It does not give away too much to say that this is the classic case of a blackmailer who cannot take his winnings and walk away. After all, having been given a bottle of champagne in a smart joint, Susan Shaw naturally expects many more where that came from.

 

Tafler's performance captures exactly the bluff of the vulnerable at heart; those who, lacking the graft to fulfil their dreams, snarl when put on the spot. That is his tragedy, so well caught is this terrible descent (as it would also be in Rienits's screenplay Noose for a Lady). Ken Hughes had a fine sense of English noir: light and shade of course, train whistles and all, but also funds kept in a shoe and concealed by a sock in a wardrobe which also houses the whisky reserved for celebrations and commiserations.

 

Never over-doing it, Hughes puts the dram into dramatic.

 

To call something a small triumph is unfair. To adapt Gertrude Stein: a triumph is a triumph is a triumph.

CHEKHOV UNDER FIRE

 

This 1957 film's title denotes the V-shaped flight by a flock of birds on their way to another life. It could equally apply to the very filming of this by Mikhail Kalatozov who animates a simple tale by much use of overhead cameras. Here, in the brief political spring after Stalin's death, he was able to fashion something poetic – from Viktor Rozov's play – about Moscow in the war rather than merely trumpeting the glories of the Fatherland.

 

The young Tatyana Samoylova is to be married to Aleksey Batalova. Theirs is a joyful romance which finds him rushing up a curving staircase to be with her. The camera is forever moving in these ninety minutes. Indeed, the cameras. Events are seen from many angles, sometimes with scenes superimposed upon each other in the reverie of memory.

 

And memory is the dominating force. All too soon, before any nuptials, the Pact has broken down, Russia and Germany are at war, and he is called away to serve at the Front. Typical of Kalatozov's blending of the crowd and the personal is her rushing to be there to see him off at the railway station. Heartache, on all sides, is palpable.

 

The way in which events turn out is typical of life for many – around the world – in wartime. Loneliness, anxiety, treachery. To say any more of the plot would reduce it to the nuts and bolts of tank; is is far more smoothly done than that. An air raid or a woodland death with a last glimpse of trees, is caught in an ever-swirling manner, in quest of a still centre amidst tumult: in effect, a drowning scene above ground.

 

Acclaimed at the time, a prize-winner in Cannes, sixty-four years on the film is as fresh as ever. How well is it known now? Nobody should miss this, as if Chekhov had lived decades longer into a very different world and caught it as exactly as he always did.

 

 

 

 

LIFE AT A JUNCTION

 

A twenty-minute movie which lasts rather longer. Portmanteau, circular plots have long appeared on the screen and in recent times given a vogue by Pulp Fiction. With Bound(also known as The Power of Few, 2013) director Leone Marucci traverses a dramatic New Orleans automobile smash five times, victims and witnesses' lives overlapping.

 

Among these is somebody holding up a shop counter, a stolen Vatican shroud, an attempt to find illegal goods, a break-out upon a terrifying motorcycle - and two Beckettian hobos (including a very hairy Christopher Walken) who guy a police officer much as the felines did the one in Top Cat. All this takes place to a soundtrack so pulsing that it appears on the point of bursting its artery (blood is a familiar commodity throughout).

 

Any film could look far different if its camera angles had been differently chosen. The effect of Bound coming at the incident time and again is much like a butterfly's wings causing a typhoon somewhere else on the planet. One small act of kindness could have prevented all this from happening, which leaves on wondering whether that would necessarily have been for the best.

 

Top Cat was a cartoon, and, in many ways, so is Bound. The characters, including Christian Slater, do not have much opportunity to be anything than, at most two dimensional but the way in which a simple story becomes a plot brings them all a greater interest than would otherwise be the case. Whether it would stand up to a second viewing – let alone five of them – remains to be seen.

MATTHAU IN MANHATTAN

 

Half a decade before Annie Hall there was Henrietta Lowell. Who? She was played by Elaine May in a A New Leaf (1971), a film which she also directed and wrote its screenplay from a short story by Jack Ritchie.

 

If anything, here is a woman even more ditzy than Annie. As such, she falls prey to the ever-brilliant Walter Matthau, a man who had twice as many facial muscles as most of us. He is Henry Graham (is this an in-joke about Graham Greene's first names?), a man so improvident that, despite an apartment which seems to sport a Rothko, he has used up the capital and income of his trust fund. His attorney (a brilliant turn by William Redfield who died far too young after coming to wider attention a few year later in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is less forgiving than his man-servant. Here, then, is a Jeeves-and Wooster set-up. Except that Wodehouse's prose could never find a counterpart on screen. Here, though, George Rose (an English actor who should have been better known) is as adept as Matthau at facial expressions which say so much more than words as his employer's follies continue to land them in it.

 

Elaine May is a rich, naïve botanist whom Matthau hopes will be his salvation, especially if he can bump her off a discreet while after the wedding has taken place. An old plot, of course, but given such fresh momentum here that one so wishes she had directed more than four films.

 

(Of course she was clobbered by Ishtar, which is in fact very watchable.)

 

There is not a moment wasted in A New Leaf, its visual gags matched by the verbal ones (a fern plant deserves a credit of its own, as do Elaine May's Hockneyesque spectacles).

 

How to convey the spirit of this terrific film without giving too much away? Well, the opening scene finds Matthau looking anxious, close up, while a screen appears to beep at a hospital bedside. The news turns out to be good, and the camera pulls back to reveal that the patient is... his much-troubled sports car.

 

That sets the tone for a film which should not be missed. It bears out Edmund Wilson's journal entry about seeing her on stage in a famed cabaret turn with Mike Nichols. “She is extremely handsome, with powerful black eyes – probably passionate and strongwilled.”

 

As for Matthau, it is a sign of his brilliance, he would soon after appear in a very different take upon Manhattan: The Taking of Pelham 123.

BRING OUT YOUR BEDHEADS

 

Vera Lynn and espionage are not subjects often thought to go flag-wavingly hand in hand. That is to reckon without her third, and final, film One Exciting Night (1944). This was directed by Walter Forde, whose skills often turned around both comedy and thrillers - and, what's more, given his music-hall upbringing, he had a relish of the stage.

 

All of these elements come together in the seventy minutes of this wartime yarn. It finds her caught up in a plot by which an English government official (Donald Stewart) has brought back to London from Lisbon a rolled-up Rembrandt drawing sent there for safe keeping but now sought after by a bunch of well-heeled thieves whose base is a Piccadilly apartment knee-knockingly high above a night club.

 

The light and shadow of the film's cinematography, whether beside a railway station's cloakroom or beneath a theatre's stage, is a model of effective contrast. Here is no White Cliffs propaganda but entertainment of sufficiently high order to remind viewers that central to civilization is a relish of all its variety.

 

As such, the film's military nurse Vera Lynn finds herself given songs suited to a small club's audience – and she handles them so well. She has panache, she has humour – and there are moments when it reminds us of those well-staged situations in which Jessie Matthews had found herself.

 

If no masterpiece, One Exciting Night remains a joy eighty years on. And it has an undoubted classic scene in which Vera Lynn sings through a truck's megaphone to urge one and all – above and below stairs – to bring forth their earthly goods for recycling. The proffered goods make the charity shops of our era appear a model of restraint.

A TEENAGE NIGHTMARE

 

Somewhere, in another Dimension, Cecil Day Lewis must feel rueful every time that, across the Universe, he hears himself described as Daniel Day Lewis's father. And there were perhaps times, on this soil, when he felt similar chagrin at his thrillers and detective stories, published under the name of Nicholas Blake, being preferred to the work which would, none the less, bring him four years as the job of Poet Laureate.

 

These novels, which began with the mid-Thirties prep.-school setting of A Question of Proof, invariably turned around the sleuthing skills of Nigel Strangeways, inspired by the crumpled figure of that decade's dominant poet W.H. Auden (himself an enthusiast for detective fiction, as was another, older poet Herbert Read). One might have thought that these novels could have been filmed as they appeared. Perhaps his affair with, and marriage to, Jill Balcon upset that influential cinema family. At any rate, the film industry is always fickle. Only one of the novels has appeared upon the screen: The Beast Must Die, a title of Classical precedent. As a film, it first surfaced in, of all places, early-Fifties Argentina and most recently, this year, in an English television series (yet to appear on disc).

 

Over fifty years ago, and towards the end of Day Lewis's lifetime, it became a notable work by Claude Chabrol as Que la bete meure (1969). We are in provincial France, where a young boy is walking home from a fishing expedition to his widowed father (Michel Duchaussoy) only to be killed by an automobile whose crass driver (Jean Lanne), while shouting at the glamorous woman (Caroline Cellier) at his side, speeds away without any witnesses to the bloodied corpse.

 

The father is left in a void of diary-keeping grief which sets him upon a trail serendipitously aided by a nearby farmer. Much ensues from that. By way of almost-Bunelian social satire (a fraught household whose country-house fortune turns around a huge automobile repair workshop) we are drawn into cliff-edge and ocean-bound revenge drama.

 

Here is not the stuff of rapid editing (although one ducks when watching the yacht's sails head this way); Chabrol, as so often, is alert to the well-nigh sedentary way in which horror reveals itself.

 

For all its antecedent life in print, this is a film which exists in its own right – and keeps one guessing long after the end. We must hope for more Blake on screen – including the back-stabbing world of publishing that is End of Chapter.

 

 

SECRET FORMULAS

 

Graham Greene consistently praised James Cagney as “one of the most reliable actors on the screen; his vigour, speed and humour are just as apparent in The Irish in Us, a film to discourage a less hard-working and conscientious actor, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream”. Come The Sequel to Second Bureau, he lauded “the lightweight hands held a little away from the body ready for someone else's punch: the quick nervous step of a man whose footwork is good: the extreme virtuosity of the muted sentiment”. And in The Oklahoma Kid there is “nothing Mr. Cagney can do which is not worth watching. On his light hoofer's feet, with his quick nervous hands and his magnificent unconsciousness of the camera, he can pluck distinction out of the least promising part – and this part has plenty of meat”.

 

Again, of Each Dawn I Die, Greene lighted upon that nervous quality, and it is writ foot-tappingly large in the very title of Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961), a two-hour film carried by Cagney's increasingly manic performance as a harrassed Coca-Cola executive who has holed up in the West Berlin office while harbouring hopes of the plum London job.

 

Adapted, very loosely and yet tightly, by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond from a Molnar play of three decades earlier (and with a dash of Wilder's own 1939 screenplay for Ninotchka), here is another instance of life catching up with art. While Wilder was directing it in Berlin - Brandenburg Gate and all - the Wall sprang up suddenly and some scenes then had to be shot in Munich. Could word of this film-in-progress have brought orders from Moscow to erect that concrete hulk?

 

Cagney has his eye on the Russian market, negotiations begin with three stooges redolent of those in Ninotchka while he contends with German staff who insist upon clicking their heels at every turn while the deskbound staff rise to their feet at his every entrance. This is office life rather different from that of The Apartment, although there is a winningly-done affair with a secretary (the fetchingly comic Liselotte Pulver) while his wife (Arlene Francis who blends politeness with well-judged jaundice) hankers for the family's return to suburban Arkansas.

 

With material enough already for a farce which verges on the screwball, it goes up several notches when the family is asked by the company's Chairman to look after his teenage daughter (Pamela Tiffin) who has been sent on a European tour after striking up four engagements within a few months - and proves to rank midnight encounters higher than, well, tiffin.

 

Wilder and Diamond wanted to make the fastest-paced film ever. Laugh at one joke, and you might miss the next one as the bizarre logic of it all traverses the borders of a divided city. Coca-Cola appears to have acquiesed in the use of their name as an emblem of corporate ambition and internal tyranny – trumped by the publishers of “Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Polka-Dot Bikini” sanctioning the repeated use of that disc by Communist police to break down the spirit of one of their own whom they take to be a spy (one suspects that André Previn, who adapts classical music throughout, did not have a hand in that).

 

Difficult to pluck lines from it out of context; one reinforces the other while there are visual gags galore (with an interesting emphasis upon balloons and an adroit instance of table-dancing with flares which a violinist does his best to ignore). Cagney's footwork is again good (and be sure not to miss him in Yankee Doodle Dandy, a title echoed many times by the office wall's cuckoo clock, which becomes a significant part in the plot's twist).

 

In these long months when the world's borders have presented other challenges, here is diversion which has one hooting in delight. One wonders whether Graham Greene, with his well-known wariness of America, saw it. Cagney would again have won him over.

GINGER – AND A DASH OF CHILLI

 

People like that don't commit suicide – they're far too busy.” The title Black Widow might lead one to expect a square screen framing black-and-white scenes most of which take place after dark. This 1954 film is in Cinemascope, the camera panning from side to side of large swanky Manhattan apartments whose furnishings are offset by copious sunlight. From one of Hugh Wheeler's mysteries (written as Patrick Quentin), this is a well-upholstered whodunit with no sign of a holster, just the shadow of a body hanging from a bathroom ceiling.

 

Van Heflin, a Broadway producer, is married to Gene Tierney who leaves town for a while to look after her ailing mother. Reluctantly, he goes to a party given by a neighbour in the block, none other than a Ginger Rogers who is currently in one of his productions and given to greeting many with an insult while her bag-carrier of a husband (Reginald Gardiner) looks on despairingly. Seeking fresher air, van Heflin goes on the balcony (some of the backdrops do not travel that well to Hollywood), and there encounters Peggy Ann Garner, a leopardess who, at twenty, hides her spots while going in for the kill while climbing the ladder of ambition with her typewriter (a sentence which could need editing but that might risk giving too much away).

 

And so he takes her out for some food more fortifying than Ginger Rogers's things on toothpicks, and, before long, suggests she can use his apartment by day as a writing retreat while his wife is away.

 

An innocent mid-life crisis?

 

Detective George Raft has his doubts. Some might call all this stagey, though it might not work on stage. Whichever, it is entertaining, not least with the brief turn of a cleaning lady played – almost Monty Python-fashion - by Cathleen Nesbitt who, some four decades earlier, had been in love with Rupert Brooke.

ALL CHANGE

 

Think of John Wayne and there come to mind a big gun, an even larger hat and quite possibly a horse. So how, in Without Reservations (1946), does Claudette Colbert fit into such a scenario? Dodge City is hardly the place for a best-selling author. No, this is only a Western in the sense that she is heading West, to Hollywood, upon a sleeper train to discuss the filming, with Clark Gable and Lana Turner, of her highly-regarded book which turns around new hopes for human society.

 

As the title suggests, she has to make do with lesser sleeping quarters upon a crowded train, which brings her into the company of Wayne, a no-holds-barred, plain-speaking kinda guy whom, despite initial, er, reservations, she realises would be perfect to portray her novel's hero on screen.

 

She cannot pitch this notion to him directly as she is keeping herself incognito. Much, but not all, of the film takes place aboard the train – one with a dining carriage, a far cry from today's forlorn trolleys (where even those still exist). Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, long adept at fast-moving movies, the dialogue is snappy, with frequent reference to a matter of concern to one and all; that is, “bananas”: no, this is not a health matter but slang for dollars.

 

Banana can have another slang meaning, if you get my drift – and perhaps that is hinted at it the film's final, lingering screen-filling shot; but this is not the place to reveal that; watch this is, and enjoy the good time with which Claudette Colbert is synonymous, in the nicest possible sense of the phrase.

 

Oh, and do not blink or you will miss Cary Grant showing that is is a thoroughly good sport. He was born with the twinkle in his eye which he deploys to good effect here. A gentleman can be judged by his eyebrows.

PITTSBURGH AS WILLIAMSTOWN

 

The past eighteen months have taken us back ninety years. That is to say, it quickly became clear that to set up one camera in front of a stage production was as uninvolving for the audience as the sluggard nature of early talkies whose directors could not move microphones swiftly lest there be untoward wind effects. The thought comes to mind while watching Denzel Washington's 2016 film of August Wilson's Eighties play Fences in a revival of which he and many of the cast had appeared on Broadway a few years earlier.

 

Some have said that this film shows its theatrical origins. It does so, but also, by dextrous means, transcends them – and, in its two-and-a-quarter hours is a joy for those of us who did not get to see it on stage (let alone the other nine plays in Wilson's century-spanning Pittsburgh series).

 

Fences chronicles a few years around the Fifties halfway mark. Denzel Washington plays a garbage collector given to philosophical and social reflections not often associated with such a job (although one might recall the crew in Jack Rosenthal's television series The Dustbinmen). His home life is the focus of the film, whether within the building or on its street and back garden, where the eponymous and symbolic fence-building task is a prolonged one. All this is complex. Much of it is galvanised by his heroic wife, played by Viola Davis, and fraught dealings with a son (Joven Adopa) whose adolescent yearnings remind Washington of failure to make more of himself. “Man hands on misery to man...”, in Larkin's lines.

 

The film's structure turns upon monologues without lessening its dramatic surprises (not to be hinted at here). It has the spirit of Tennessee Williams, but one might also wonder whether Wilson knew D. H. Lawrence's plays (and indeed Williams adapted one of his short stories You Touched Me!).

 

Commercial imperatives mean that the film is in colour but, in one's memory, it has an almost sepia quality. One can but lament that Wilson died at sixty, a decade before the film appeared – but glad that he had created this screenplay, and he would be sure that to relish the result.

TOCCATA AND REFUGE

 

These old houses creak as much as my knees.” So a landlady tells a young and fetching church organist (Candace Hilligoss) who has rented a room in a small town after, apparently, surviving a crowded automobile's plunge from a bridge into a river at the beginning of Carnival of Souls (1962).

 

Created and directed by Herk Harvey, who appears throughout as a ghostly figure, this film, rendered in effective black and white, does not succumb to gore but is continually unnerving, not least with the man (Sidney Berger) across the landing, a warehouse functionary creepily set upon deflowering her: he arrives at breakfast time with a jug of coffee laced with spirits (as it were): for which she supplies the wonderful term of “germkiller” (all this,after a classic bathtub scene).

 

Within and without, the film is stark, scantly populated. How many people know of it? How did it come to be made? Little funding was available, and yet it echoes across six decades, partly driven by music which riffs upon that modest church organ to summon the stuff of nightmare.

ANOTHER SPIRAL STAIRCASE

 

Some titles cannot be euphoniously translated. And so they remain La Traviata and Cosi fan tutti. This thought comes to mind when watch Max Ophuls's Everybody's Woman (1934), a coarser title than La signora di tutti.

 

With the advent of the Nazis, Ophuls sought refuge in Italy before a move to Hollywood. This stay yielded one film, from a cliff-hanging serialised story by Salvatore Gotta. On screen, it opens with film star Isa Miranda's suicide attempt upon a smart bathroom floor and, as the gas mask lowers upon her head in the operating theatre, all dissolves into the sequence of events which brought her to this sorry pass.

 

The first of the men to fall for her was a married teacher, whose declaration of love is such that he cannot live without her, and dies by his own hand – a scandal which obliges her to leave and spend a year cooped up at her parents' home. Pressure is brought for her to attend a dance in a large, grand house, and there she dances with the son (Freidrich Benfer) who appears to spurn her but she takes on a job as assistant to his well-nigh bed-bound mother (Russian-born Tatyana Pavlova - and to say any more would rob viewers of the suspense of a melodrama whose continual movement owes so much to everything which Ophuls had learned in Germany.

 

Here, in light and shade, often in deep focus, are dances, a boat upon a lake, many a wide, twisting staircase, glimpses of transcontinental railway trains as one and all – even the servants – are caught up in a drama whose coils appear driven by fate itself.

For all that glamorous Isa manipulates the situations, hauling herself from one situation to the next, it is as if she is trying to make up for that initial adversity of the schoolroom. A pattern is set. As she moves forward she is continually stumbling over herself.

 

Such is Ophuls's skill that one never pauses to deem it an outlandish scenario. It is ravishing, and should be more widely known.

 

 

PAPA LIKED THE ROSES

 

Chances are that a disc of Let's Make it Legal (1951) will have Marilyn Monroe on its cover. She is only in it for a few minutes, some of which linger upon her swimming costume. One should not feel short-changed. Here is a drama to whose proceedings screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond brings quite a bit of his natural wit (whether the scene involves a baby or outraged policemen).

 

Proceedings is an apt word, for the plot turns around the imminent divorce of Claudette Colbert and plant-loving, gambling addict Macdonald Carey, whose daughter, Barbara Bates, is keen to prevent this: self-interest is that motive, for she enjoys an easy living at home with her infant daughter, a situation which infuriates husband Robert Wagner. A further complication is the return to the town of Zachary Scott whose sinister moustache is an emblem of his business success and political aspirations in Washington, all of which pale beside his renewed hopes of wooing and marrying Claudette Colbert (hopes from which he is not deflected by a gold-digging Marilyn).

 

Directed by Richard Sale, things move at a pace – often inside the house itself - in this hour and a quarter, and one can only marvel at clothes which would now fetch a fortune on the vintage racks.

 

We should be grateful that Matilyn's prescence has kept this film in sight. Of course, she would soon be famous, and, within a decade was dead. Another book has just asserted that she was murdered. Be that as it may, her tragic end has overshadowed that of Barbara Bates who gassed herself in 1969. Bright lights have dark shadows.

POE-TRY IN TERROR

 

As films swell in length, it is always heartening to return to those portmanteau items where so much is brought within linked works, each of which fills some twenty minutes. Such is Torture Garden (1967) directed by Freddie Francis who had made Paranoiac a few years earlier. This time, now working in colour, he turns to good effect a script by Robert Bloch (best known for the novel upon which Psycho was based). This takes as its linking theme a fairground sideshow where a barker invites people to part with a fiver, in exchange for which Dr. Diabilo will reveal to them true horror.

 

And so some, confident of getting their money back if not satisfied, go inside. Beneath the canvas, the Doctor, wonderfully played by the versatile Burgess Meredith, invites each in turn to look at the open blades of shears in front of a still woman upon a throne. With which, the screen dissolves into a story which draws out their malevolent ambitions, none of which involve torture as such, let alone gardening.

 

The first and fourth are the best. In the first one a starring rôle is taken by a cat who has power over both Michael Bryant who is after the money which his uncle (Maurice Denham) has evidently concealed in a tumbledown house, complete – of course - with basement and all that entails (to make a double pun). That course to madness is captured convincingly. And the fourth segment is a lesson to anybody who has harboured thoughts of collecting things, on however modest a scale: that way madness again lies, as Jack Palance finds when his enthusiasm for Poe takes him to the house of Peter Cushing who has, somehow, amassed unknown treasures from the pen of an author who met a wretched end.

 

And it not all over yet.

 

A film which, if you are a holding a glass of wine, is enough to have you running to the bathroom, pulling off clothing and dousing it in cold water before the stain sets in.

AN EYEFUL VIEW

 

If that's love, I'm a pig's grandfather.” A terrific line but not one uttered by Jessie Matthews herself in Head over Heels (1937). By dint of some back projections, she is living humbly in Paris while performing at night in an open-air café which can run to an orchestra and an array of dancers.

 

Here she is in a love triangle, torn between Victor Flemying (an inventor who is ahead of the technological game) and actor Louis Borel who could be on the way to Hollywood. The film which falls into two parts, several times over. One could say something similar of Cabaret, in which the stage scenes out-do most of the rest; as Christopher Isherwood himself often observed, if Sally had been as good as Liza, she would have been the sensation of Europe; equally, Jessie Matthews's performances are magical while the scenes in in a rough apartment and elsewhere are lumpen.

 

The first of her films to be directed by Sonnie Hale, it appears to bear the scars of their fraught marriage. Still there are the songs, by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel. Not only only the title number but “There's That Look in Your Eyes Again” and “Looking around Corners for You”: this last is perhaps the film's high spot: while thinking that all is lost, that Jessie is lost, Fleming walks around a back-projected Paris and chances upon couples in cafés and elsewhere, each time thinking that the woman is Jessie, but she isn't: she herself is superimposed upon the screen as she sings that song, making for adroit montage which could have a claim to be the first pop video.

 

Jessie Matthews was terrific: play one of her discs with relish: she did not need that winsome appearance to succeed but she is always enjoyable to watch, that flutter of the eyelids which are the mark of an all-knowing spirit staking out the innocent territory.

THE FLAMES OF HEAVEN

 

Pagan. The word derives from the Latin for country. That is, those of such a disposition hail from unsophisticated parts, even villages. So we are reminded by John Atkinson who, looking like a cross between Derek Nimmo and Jeremy Irons, plays a rector in a pleasant house in the Malvern Hills. This etymological point is not part of the sermons which he types on what, even in 1974, was an antique machine, but an observation made while walking across a nearby field with his son, Spencer Banks, who is about to turn eighteen.

 

Banks is an unusual schoolboy, immersed in Elgar, in particular to spiritual voyage he created from Newman's The Dream of Gerontius. Banks has politics of a country-loving Tory hue, at odds with his time and fellow pupils who, dressed at times in Army uniform, are much given to ragging him (there are moments when one thinks of If...).

 

Penda's Fen was written by David Rudkin, and to his surprise Alan Clarke agreed to direct it. Clarke was known for gritty films of social realism. Although billed, in some quarters, as a work of horror, it is not exactly that. Rudkin has said that the idea came to him from a road sign in the area which pointed to a village. Its name haunted him, and he looked into its origins: it derives from Penda's Fen, name in honour of a King.

 

Banks himself is on a quest, a direction in life which, for all its ease and good fortune, is troubled. This will involve him in many strange encounters as angels descend and strange rituals are enacted as reality and dream merge to create a new dimension to existence.

 

Rudkin has recalled that, at times, Clarke was not sure what was happening. He told him simply to follow the script that it was all in there, it was the only book he need to read about all the myths and psychology – and the life of Elgar – which he had drawn upon in writing it.

 

And so here it is, a mélange – with many a descending Sun – which carries us along, the dialogue taken at a slightly slower than natural pace, as if all concerned are out of synchronisation with the world around them.

 

What's more, one learns that part of Gerontius was inspired by one of Elgar's dogs.

 

There is nothing quite like Penda's Fen, too little known since its first showing in the BBC's Play for Today series.

 

 

PULLING OUT THE STOPS

 

How can a film as good as Paranoiac (1963) slip from general notice? Rarely has there been one which, in ninety minutes, takes so many turns and brings so many gasps. It was directed, for Hammer, by Freddie Francis, whose earlier career as a cinematographer proves a great force in the shades of black and white in a film set in the vicinity of the Dorset coast.

 

Working from a script by Jimmy Sangster, which derived from Josephine Tey's novel Brat Farrar, he fashioned a near-Gothic set-up which opens with shots of two sides of a tombstone: the deaths of two wealthy parents followed by the drowning of one of their sons.

 

Inside the church, as the vicar intones about those events a decade ago, the other son – Oliver Reed – sits at the organ and, as the music swells, his sister (Janette Scott) looks up and faints at the sight of somebody. To the fore comes their aunt (a formidable Sheila Burrell) who took charge of the children in tandem with the local accountant (Maurice Denham) as the day looms when sports car-driving, heavy-drinking Reed is set to come into half a million.

 

As one can imagine, the atmosphere in the rambling family house is fraught. Is the sister mad? Who is in league with whom?

 

And what can any of them make of a startling arrival?

 

Surprises are sprung in the first fifteen minutes, but it would be unfair to reveal even these, for they are the foundation upon which the rest is built. Surprise follows surprise, all of which make the very film a great surprise. Nobody with a relish of the resources shown by modestly-funded British films should miss it. Oak-lined rooms lit by candles bring as much a cliff-edge atmosphere as the sunlit chalk of the cliffs themselves.

 

There is more to be written about the use of organs in film. What is is about such a great instrument that the very press of its keyboard harbingers the sinister? Talking of which, one should not overlook the subtly effective score by Elizabeth Lutyens, who, perhaps unexpectedly, had quite a period of supplying music for Hammer.

SQUEALS AND SQUEALERS

 

What will happen to Hollywood when automobiles are not only driverless but guided by pavement devices which limit speed? Such tyre-squealing chases - often after the real owner has mysteriously left the keys in the ignition – are familiar, and can be enjoyed by those happier with pedals of a bicycle. The thought comes to mind during The Driver (1978). The cars have names (a Mercedes is notably roughed up) but the actors simply go by the task allotted them in a series of heists throughout a raw Los Angeles. The eponymous man at the wheel is Ryan O'Neal, a professional hired for his skill at making a getaway which leaves others standing – or lying on their sides as their car takes a tumble.

 

This is all too much for Bruce Dern, a decidedly weird detective whose hair aspires to an Art Garfunkel cut. He is determined to bring in O'Neal, even if it means that he has to depute a particularly unsavoury gang to act as go-betweens. Add Isabelle Adjani – well, love interest is pitching it a bit high – and here is something that, on the streets, is indeed explosive; elsewhere, in seedy rooms, it is, as written and directed by Walter Hill, close to the existential. Here are people with chasms between them, listlessness alleviated only by breaking the speed limit and turning the wheel just in time to avoid something coming from another direction at the lights.

 

Meditative it isn't, but its sparse dialogue is sharp – and one cannot help recall that scene in Truffaut's La Nuit Américaine where a stunt driver wears a long wig so that, on screen, a woman appears to be at the wheel. And one wonders whether Hill had to use day-for-night techniques to bring in all this more safely.

COMPLETION

 

A mystery that The Chain (1984) should be little known, for it addresses two perennial themes: the seven deadly sins and the fraught business, in Britain, of moving house.

With a script by Jack Rosenthal who otherwise wrote, memorably so, for television, this is a portmanteau film in which seven couples get up early, this the day of their moving a rung up a property ladder which can often feel more like a rope turning into a noose. None of them has Ealing in their sights, but the spirit of those social comedies pervades this one.

 

Not least in its ensemble cast. With no member of it out to hog it, all get to give their best, part of it propelled by the removal firm which is lugging the belongings of a young couple whose bigger place is funded by giving the basement to her widowed, dictatorial father, Maurice Denham whose delaying obstructions will bring him grief.

 

As happens to a penny-pinching, well-heeled man (Nigel Hawthorne in a horrendous blazer) whose wife (an ever-pained Anna Massey) despairs of him as he unscrews door plates and even reaches for their light bulbs. He is an emblem of Avarice.

 

The Sins, though, are not laboured. Here, with a suggestion of La Ronde, is pre-AIDS London in the Eighties, a city which embraces white vans and limousines. And, all the while, aboard the removal van there are, among its aching-back crew, Bernard Hill who is asked to test colleague Warren Mitchell about the philosophers upon whom he will be examined during the evening, after this gruelling day, at what appears to be a night school (whatever happened to night school?).

 

Spinoza and others might appear remote from this daily life but, without over-doing it, Mitchell manages to bring words of wisdom to those in the throes of uprooting themselves. Billie Whitelaw is well known for her work with Samuel Beckett, and here, as a widow who hankers for her native Mediterranean island, she has an accent far from her stage work – but conveys a similar spirit of somebody caught in a bewildering world.

 

A film to relish – and wish there were more of its kind.

FINAL EDITION?

 

Time was when Fleet Street was in Fleet Street and newspapers dealt in news. True to such cinematic form, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) has several scenes of the latest issue clattering through the presses and the front page filling the screen with a thud as events unfurl. In this case, with an original script by Wolf Mankowitz and director Val Guest, it turns around the contemporary fear of the Bomb. It has not killed anybody recently but, as two Daily Express reporters discover, several tests of it have tipped the planet off the axis which brought and sustained life up and under these shores.

 

This is no science-fiction extravaganza. The effects are minimal but well used, and, as is the newspaper, all is in black and white. Except the characters. Here are people, in all their variety, each containing multitudes.

 

Leo McKern (who recalls that it was all made in an astonishing five weeks) is the newspaper's science correspondent and Edward Judd a reporter forever on the trail of stories while brooding on the divorce which means he rarely sees his son. Guest re-created the Express offices – and used the real-life staff member Arthur Christiansen to the play the Editor (as he does capably enough). Along the way Judd meets Janet Munro, a Government source, who also provides him with sultry distraction in her small flat and at the funfair in Battersea Park. Guest was always very good at making use of locations, and here all the more so as that tilt in the axis brings floods and cyclones while the Prime Minister intones from Downing Street – and, for a few seconds, a helmeted Michael Caine attempts to direct panicking drivers.

 

All of which means that it has as much contemporary relevance as it did in that period when Bertrand Russell addressed crowds in Trafalgar Square. With the climate emergency sending the planet out of kilter by other means, here is a drama as troubling, and involving, as ever. A gem which gleams from its sepia-toned opening and for the following ninety minutes.

FLUBBED NOTES

 

Shall we go?” How often did one whisper that in a cinema? Perhaps fewer times than there were films that did not merit sitting through. Now, though, there is the stop button, time regained. And so it was that, twenty minutes in, Waltzes from Vienna (1933) came to an end. Now, Hitchcock's English work is often under-rated, and there is always delight in watching Jessie Matthews – and, what's more, I have several dozen discs of the Strauss family's music (a happy job-lot but not something to play in succession).

 

Musical biography on film is hard work, a man trying out chords at a piano as dramatically unsatisfying as the “love interest” used to leaven proceedings. One can see where it is all going, and matters are not helped by the opening scene of a fire engine clanging on its way to a bakery fire (little of which is seen). Hitchcock had to take the job as there was nothing else around, and comedy was not his forté (comic moments are something else). Guy Bolton's hand was much surer in the sea-going scenario he created for Cole Porter's Anything Goes than in this show, which, on stage, had filled Drury Lane for a year.

 

The Blue Danube would have to wait over three decades for Stanley Kubrick to come along, heralded by Bernard Lee's great line in that sewer in The Third Man.

A GUEST OF HONOUR

 

How many times can one watch a film? I have seen Jigsaw (1962) half a dozen times, and never tired of it. This is one of several noirish film written and directed by Val Guest at this time in towns and cities around England. What's more, this one takes a novel by Hillary Waugh, who set it in Vermont, and Guest effortlessly re-creates it in Brighton and Saltdean.

 

It opens with a murder, and, as the title suggests, the placing of the pieces fills a suspense-filled hundred minutes as the local police get on the case (or, indeed, the trunk where the body has been hidden). With Jack Warner as an avuncular Superintendent, the film has an array of characters, all of whom, however small their part, play it to the full (including the hapless Evening Argus reporter whose shortcomings form a running gag).

 

With adroit location work, including the Town Hall, this is the best Brighton-set film. After first seeing it on Channel Four (in the days – or nights – when it showed such films), I urged that it be shown at a local cinema. This sold out – and to sit with hundreds of people and hear them gasp was a delight.

 

Watch this – and seek out Guest's autobiography. There had been hopes that he would come to Brighton for a showing of the film, but he had to stay in Los Angeles. Still, there is his book. And one should also explore Hillary Waugh's thrillers.

A BARGAIN-BASEMENT SEABED

 

Strange, the way the mind works. While watching Monsoon (1943) there came to mind Robert Ballard's book about his voyage in a submersible to look at the wreck of the Titanic. He remarked of a grand piano that it was now out of tune, which is a masterclass in understatement. The cost of Ballard's journey doubtless cost a sum which would boggle Edgar Ulmer. Born in Germany, where he worked with Billy Wilder on People on Sunday (1929), necessary exile brought him to Hollywood and a by-word for low-budget acumen, displayed so well in Détour and Ruthless.

 

Less well known is Monsoon, sometimes called – fittingly – Isle of Forgotten Sin. How to describe it? It opens, as dawn breaks, with the female owner of some premises tapping upon slatted doors, the other side of which slumber sultry women. They have to get up, a ship has docked and business is likely to be brisk.

 

Naturally, one wonders what this might entail. It emerges that downstairs is a casino, although as events unfold, that first suspicion of journeys upstairs are not dissolved.

 

And one has to question the competence of the carpenters who built those banisters. Fights break out, and the handrails collapse at the first grasp. Even at eighty minutes, the plot is convoluted, and can sometimes slow down things. Roughly speaking, two sailors are on the track of hidden treasure, and neither can trust the other, especially with others getting wind of its seabed location. All of which entails some of the casino's scantily-dressed women joining a voyage to the island where three-million in gold languishes offshore.

 

Those dresses survive a midnight swim to a cave, during which the soundtrack sports something which sounds as though Wagner had scored the cheesy opening music of The Simpsons.

 

There are enough slugfests in all this to ruin a lettuce patch. Nobody's passions are going to be turned upside-down, but it is very entertaining, with some surreal lines, such as the one in which a man comes round from being knocked out to exclaim, “well, I'm a horned toad!” And, when one of the women learns of the money at stake, she observes, “that's not hay!”

 

This film throve upon a hay diet.

PASS THE PORT

 

The double is a familiar form in films – and Marlene Dietrich was given to guises several times in her work. Those shall not be revealed here but it gives away little of The Flame of New Orleans (1941) to say that this features another one. How well known is the film now? Written by the ever-adroit Norman Krasna, one of those who mysteriously attract the word professional as a near-insult, it is a diverting entertainment with many of those touches that distinguished René Clair (here in wartime exile).

 

In the middle of the nineteenth century Marlene Dietrich has arrived in town (with her wise maid Theresa Harris), and sings less than one could wish. She is a woman of mystery, necessarily so. She has plied her wooing ways elsewhere, and here is duly rewarded with a necklace by stolid banker Roland Young. Money can't buy him love, though, especially when Marlene hankers for impecunious Bruce Cabot, a man as rugged as the vessel he captains.

 

For which of these men will it be a case of the gal that got away?

 

Around this scenario are turned many scenes which culminate in a bravura barroom scene which contrasts with many high-born interiors (if so young a place really has old money). However small a part, each member of the cast plays it to the full (such as the matronly figures who tacitly inform Marlene about the rigours of the bedroom, to which she gives an eyebrow and twinkle unrivalled in film history).

 

Here is abundant fun.

PUMPING IRONY

 

In this era when so much is available and the chasing down of an old film does not involve several changes of 'bus to an outlying repertory house, how does one discover a film and decide to watch it?

 

Serendipity is a part of the process, fuelled by flicking through the contending guides. Leonard Maltin is dismissive of Station Six-Sahara (1962) and so there perhaps some might leave it, unseen; then again, the Radio Times guide enthuses, and so it proves that this is a film well worth watching.

 

Written by Bryan Forbes and Brian Clemens (perhaps best known for television series The Avengers) from a play by Jean Martel, it was directed by Seth Holt with much of the dramatic effect provided by cinematographer Gerald Gibbs. The shades of black and white make this desert outpost more sultry than colour perhaps would have done. The camera hones in repeatedly upon a ceiling fan while other machinery pumps up and down in what appears to be a staging post in the subterranean transmission of oil across the continent while radio contact is fitful.

 

In its time, the film was advertised with the erotically-charged Carroll Baker to the fore. In fact, she appears halfway through. By this time, the real attention and interest have been provided by the five men palpably going to seed in this outlandish setting, where monotony so inflames petty rivalries and jealousies that one of them offers to give Denholm Elliott a month's pay if he can choose and keep one of the many letters he receives each month.

 

This might sound preposterous as the mainspring of a plot, but it works, bringing so much with it, tension already heightened when Carroll Baker, literally, crashes into the place with a man badly injured in the offending automobile (“he's not a friend, he's my ex-husband”).

 

Anybody at the time who had sought out this too-little-known film by travelling across London and holding an umbrella against the wind-driven rain would not have regretted the expedition. To find oneself in this parched, malevolent location (in fact it was made in Shepperton) becomes all absorbing. The pause button is not needed.

A HOOD AND HOODS

 

A prison escape is always risky. Life outside brings perils worse than the monotony of the cell. So Dennis O'Keefe finds in Raw Deal (1948). Written by Leopold Atlas and John Higgins, from a story by others, this strong script was bolstered by Anthony Mann's directing which, in turn, owed so much to the cinematography of John Alton: he, literally, brought out the best in a cast whose features glow and fade in scenes which range from automobiles to forests - and that essential part of almost any noir: a dubious night club.

 

The curved hood of the automobile which, variously pursued, is as much a star of all this as those within. Alongside O'Keefe are not only his erstwhile, dodgy girlfriend Claire Trevor but also a woman from the legal firm which is certain that he has been framed: Marsha Hunt. He is smitten with both, that is clear. All of which brings a further frisson – female lips' edge sparring – to a situation which has a towering Mr. Big, Raymond Burr, who is as determined to see off O'Keefe as the police, for he is unwilling to give the fugitive the $50,000 which he is owed for taking the rap.

 

That is, as it were, the sum of it, and one almost suspects that the film were made for less. No matter. Such privation had all those as much on their toes as those depeicted within. One scene flows into the next – and, as for the final ones, I am too much of a gentleman to say more. Treat yourself to a great night in.

HANDS CLASPED

 

It is a familiar story. A daughter is obliged to return to the family home after the break-up of a romance. Such is the case in Kenji Mizoguchi's A Woman of Rumour (1954).

 

What's more, though, the daughter (played by Yoshiko Kuba) had attempted suicide in Tokyo because her lover had ditched her after learning that her studies were funded by her mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) who... presides over a geisha premises in Kyoto.

 

For all the fine costumes, elaborate hair and ceremonial bows before the clientele, this amounts to a brothel. And, in her fraught state, the daughter is aghast at witnessing the spectacle of these deep-focus premises filmed in grey shades of black and white which somehow possess an inner colour. Further drama is provided not only by the daughter's growing appreciation of the women's need to avail themselves of this work but her shock at finding that her mother is in thrall to a visiting doctor (Tomoemon Otani) who duly augments his lust by hankering after both of them.

 

This is not to give away too much, for all becomes apparent a short way into a drama which makes the most of its ninety minutes. In a sense, the denizens of the geisha house realise that they are performing upon a stage, presenting a persona, part of an age-old ritual – as if the Bombs had not fallen upon the country some eight years earlier.

 

Melodrama, essentially, but with a heart which supplants the other, equally vital organs which we do not see, but in Leonard Cohen's phrase – new skin for the old ceremony – foment a film which startles and haunts us almost seventy years later.

 

And makes me recall that, around this time, Graham Greene wrote a play about a brothel – The House of Reputation – which is still unpublished but has been performed in, of all places, the Festival held annually in his honour at... Berkhamsted School.

 

KNOTTED SHEETS

 

A hostage drama always has a built-in advantage. Will they escape? That is, both the kidnappers and their victims. From a novel by Robert Westerby, whose work one feels a need to explore, The Small Voice (1948) finds Valerie Hobson unhappily married to James Donald who has become successful as a playwright with a knack for exploring the criminal mind. Even so, they are taken by surprise when offering a lift to some men who have had an accident at the roadside; these have escaped from Dartmoor and promptly lock the couple in the country house to which they had been returning.

 

What's more, the leader of the gang is none other than Howard Keel (billed under his real name of Harold). All this is directed by Fergus McDonell with a noir turn which generally surmounts the implausible, and much of its brio comes from the couple's redoutable housekeeper Joan Young (her Biblical diversion is a high point). And one cannot overlook a young brother and sister – Glyn Dearman and Angela Foulds – who, well-clipped accents and all, find themselves holed up there. Well worth seeing.

A STILETTO IN THE BACK

 

In recent weeks there has been as much publicity for Promising Young Woman as Blake Bailey's huge biography of Philip Roth. And in the past couple of days, the latter has taken a twist, its distribution halted by the publisher amidst allegations that the author is as prone to the forced seductions favoured by his subject.

 

Which is the very material of Emerald Fennell's first film. To have read or - scanned through – articles, one soon learnt that, in revenge for a friend being raped, Carey Mulligan exchanges a quiet daytime life behind a coffee bar for one of dressing provocatively and affecting drunkenness during a night on the town where she picks up men, and at the moment they are about to take the plunge, she reveals all (as it were): it is as though Philip Roth were kicked in the balls, even - one might infer - killed.

 

Having read of this, one might fear that the film itself could prove repetitive – one incident the same as another. The twist in all this is that it proves to be ingeniously varied. Without giving away too much, there is a moment when it appears about to mutate – happily ever after - into a romantic comedy.

 

The other surprise is that it turns out to be set in America, which makes sense: the country's turbulence is at the heart (if that's the word) of events here, although, of course, such self-styled lotharios populate the planet. It is a dark film, literally so, its colours, often red, suggest a well-nigh subterranean world of displaced morals: the work of cinematographer Benjamin Kracon while, for my taste, the music (the score by Anthony Willis and the use of songs by Britney Spears among others) is mixed rather too much to the fore of a story which is strong enough to carry itself.

 

Not only Carey Mulligan but many of the other women (of all ages) give terrific performances; by contrast, most of the men, such as potential boyfriend Bo Burnham, appear to have strayed from bachelor-party territory – then again, that is perhaps the point. For all its being rooted in terrible reality, it has appeared to some as unlikely; in fact, it should be regarded as Jacobean, a period when plays took many a savage turn while shifts in mood could include comedy (the Gravedigger being the most obvious). And in that spirit, five centuries on, Emerald Fennell worked swiftly, filming this in three weeks. As a début, it has the brio of Truffaut's one – and brings to mind one which nobody has mentioned: Richard Gere's. He was in the very good film made from Judith Rossner's brilliant novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), whose singles-bar terrain is the mirror-image of all this.

ROGUE HUMAN

 

The same evening that I watched Lost Horizon, I had seen The Roots of Heaven (1958). The latter – despite being directed by John Houston with a notable cast – appears to have slipped from the collective film mind. If not the best work of any of those involved, it is more than a curiosity as, in contemporary French Equatorial Africa, Trevor Howard, with that matchless voice which can bring a moral to a phrase (The Third Man - passim), expresses similar concerns about mankind's fate to those of Ronald Colman in Shangri-la.

 

In particular, and presciently, Howard asserts at the outset that if human beings cannot care for other animals, our own look-out is in peril. The screen has opened with shots of elephants traversing the land, and his concern, with a petition, is to preserve these magnificent creatures from, well, shots by those who think it smart to wield a rifle.

 

He touts his sheets of paper around a bar which has not only sprung up in this remote territory but is staffed by none other than Juliette Gréco, whose outfits and lipstick are never besmirched by the events as she takes his side in this ecological push.

 

There is something to be written about the rôle of the bar in outlandish places. It brings together diverse people amidst social and political dispute. Among those with an interest in opposing or supporting Howard for their own sakes are an ever-sinister Herbert Lom and, in his last film, Errol Flynn. Their appearances, however, are as brief as that by Orson Welles, who brings a surprisingly camp turn – bouffant hair and all – to his part as an American television broadcaster. Such exception is taken to him that, in revenge, he is blasted in the buttocks by a rifle, an act which he takes in good part while the offending items are retrieved while he is prone upon a bench; what's more, back in America, he publicises his support of Howard's cause in front of the nation (and, afterwards, rises from a chair which has also contained an inflatable cushion).

 

All of which is to say that this is an unusual film, and such farce is not typical of it – nor is the scene at a clubhouse redolent of Empire where unseen buttocks are again to the fore, as invaders seize upon a formidable matron and remove her drawers to administer twelve firm slaps as punishment for her gloating murder of an elephant. It is all as if Bunuel had an uncredited part in proceedings.

 

The film derives from a novel written a couple of years earlier by Romain Gary who worked on the screenplay with the help of Patrick Leigh-Fermor (difficult to believe that elegant writer came up with the inflatable cushion). As with so many involved in this film about tangled lives, their own took various bruises: Gary later married Jean Seberg, whose death in a parked automobile he insisted was not probable suicide but an FBI killing, a persistent thought which contributed to his killing himself a few years later – by gunshot.

 

The great survivor was Juliette Gréco, dead last year. Those of us who relish her singing have to be content here with a few hummed bars (as it were).

 

 

A MAGICAL MOUNTAIN

 

How many authors create a word that takes on a life of its own, uttered at any given moment by somebody most likely with no idea of its origins? In 1933 the novelist James Hilton came up with Shangri-la for a remote, peace-loving enclave amidst Tibetan mountains, a place which few seek to leave and are rewarded with a long life.

 

Within four years this had become a film made in Hollywood and thereabouts by Frank Capra, a director noted for his technical skill and a relish of the inspirational. To come to this fresh is to marvel. A diplomat (Ronald Colman) is among half-a-dozen passengers aboard a small aeroplane, one of the last to leave a panicking crowd in war-torn China for Shanghai – except that, with dawn, the sun is in the wrong place, they are heading in the opposite direction while the gun-wielding pilot brooks no discussion as snowy mountains go by.

 

Come the inevitable crash and the pilot's death, the varied passengers, including a geologist, a fraudster and a prostitute with tuberculosis, set off, to be immediately greeted by a troop who had anticipated their arrival and been deputed to bring them back to stay in Shangri-la.

 

More than eight decades on, the settings make one gasp more than any computer-created pixels can do. Whiter than the surrounding snow, the building – Saltdean Lido writ large - opens upon huge, book-lined rooms, the work of two centuries, its humane magnificence down to a High Lama (Sam Jaffe) whose deputy is H.B. Warner who has something of the manner of an unfazed country parson.

 

All of which, when the outer world is turbulent, brings the question: should one leave? Each passenger has a different take upon this, especially Colman who had been due back in Whitehall and is likely to become Foreign Secretary. That is to reckon without somebody already there: the pretty Jane Wyatt whom he follows through meadows upon a horse, loses her – and finds her swimming in a lake (after we have seen her body double dive in naked, and it is well nigh a case of lust horizon.

 

Fantasy, of course, but to a purpose, all of it a debate upon the meaning of life made glorious by the abundance of film techniques whose effect is never overwrought. Since 1937, the film deteriorated into many mutilated reels, some stretches elusive. The recent restoration looks splendid, and comes with well-informed commentaries, especially upon such matters as the lighting and the building of sets.

 

Down the years, some have scoffed, as Graham Greene did at the time; others cannot fail to be charmed, and more.

ANOTHER ANGLE ON INTERIORS

 

The gags do not fly at the earlier rate but the jackets still look like a Ralph Lauren number upon Timothée Chalamet whose voiceover has similar intonations to those delivered in the past by Woody Allen himself. After Allen's long sojourn in Europe, with so many films which looked beholden to local tourist boards, the setting is Manhattan – but it, too, feels as if no longer a place from which creative energy springs, and perhaps that reflects the past two decades' change, one which has made it the preserve of the rich.

 

Well-heeled characters, funded by banking families, are to the fore. Not only Chalamet, a disenchanted student at an upstate college but his often-gauche girlfriend Elle Fanning who has just had her request accepted for an interview in a student paper with a neurotic, designer-bearded film director played by Liev Schriber whose latest work features an elegant hunk (Diego Luna). One can anticipate the entanglements as the rain pours as the young couple arrive at the Pierre (paid for by Chalamet's recent poker winnings) and plans to visit the familiar array of city nightspots such as Bemelman's Bar while the rain pours throughout.

 

Plots have never been Woody Allen's strong point; the films are a series of scenes, helped along by notable cinematographers (here, the work of Vitorrio Storaro brings out the interiors' many dark-hued tones which so often make one feel as is stepping from a hustling sidewalkinto a baronial hall). It could be tighter but there is much to enjoy, especially if one has a soft spot for romantic comedy which is here given an edge by Selena Gomez as the sister of Chalamet's earlier girlfriend and Cherry Jones as his mother.

 

Naturally one looked with curiosity at the credits to be reassured that no water was damaged in this making of this film. Gallons of it must have drained the budget while being sprayed from a series of tanker trucks (real rain, never there when you want it, does not film well). Meanwhile, in a sunnier setting, Woody Allen has returned to Spain for Rifkin's Festival, set at a film festival, where events are interrupted by a director screening in his mind re-makes of celebrated scenes by others. This could be a promising return to Allen's magical turns, such as The Purple Rose of Cairo. We should all be working at such a rate with ninety on the horizon.

A SUITE FOR CELLO, PIANO – AND A TRIANGLE

 

What is it about classical music that brings out the enjoyably preposterous in Hollywood? One might think of John Garfield's beachside violin playing in Humoresque, but even that is restraint beside Deception (1946). Directed by Irving Rapper who, dying in 1999 at almost 102, lived long enough to find – one likes to think - his name the butt of many a musical joke far from the concert halls of this movie. It opens with Paul Henreid playing Haydn's cello concerto to acclaim in post-war America. Among the smartly-dressed audience is pianist Bette Davis, who thought that he, her lover, had died in the war. They are re-united with such passion that they decide to marry the next day. This brings a new turn to the notion that the cello is the musical equivalent of the human heartbeat.

 

All of which would be wonderful but for the fact that her lavish apartment, view and all, has been funded by the conductor and genius composer Hollenious (Claude Rains). Cat-stroking Rains, his hair distinctly bouffant, is outraged by this turn to events, his performance – jealousy incarnate – so much the higher camp that it is well nigh the last staging-post before the summit of Everest.

 

Especially when he finds that Henreid is the necessary cellist for his latest masterpiece (a work created by Korngold, who himself had fled Germany). Rapper, who had worked with all three of them on Now, Voyager, plays the situation – from a play by Louis Verneuil – for all it's (its?) worth, never shying from dramatic montage which plys close to noir inside and out as the torrid comes to the fore.

 

Hokum, of course, but brilliantly done, so much so that one might call it the thinking man's Amadeus.

SOHO – AND THE GREAT BEYOND

 

In certain moods, there can be nothing better than to sit, a glass of beer or wine to hand, and watch one of those many English films, from the Fifties/Sixties, which turn around a large, black squad car which, squealingly, risks a suburban junction on the trail of a Mr. Big who is behind the latest bunch of safecrackers whose fizzling toils have brought the heist of many jewels or unmarked fivers.

 

It was while watching a disc which promised four of these that I was taken by surprise. Among them was Where Has Poor Mickey Gone? (1964).

 

True, this hour-long film opens in a noirish Soho, where three obdurate youths have been ejected for heckling a fine singer. It looks to be familiar stuff. But, from the opening moments, we are in different territory. There are no credits. Instead, in that club, we watch Ottilie Paterson perform the title song, accompanied by, among others, her then-husband, Chris Barber, who died earlier this year, and, on harmonica, Sonny Boy Williamson.

 

There, three yobs, rather than appreciate such talent, find themselves – led by John Malcolm as the eponymous Mick - slung on the street, and chance upon a fellow in a college scarf (Christopher Robbie) who, preferring to go to the cinema, has fallen out with his jazz-hungry girlfriend, who had left him for that basement's delights (and is not seen again).

 

So far, all this might appear routine thuggery. Far from it. One close-up scene leads to another (there are no wide shots that stay in the mind) and into a cash-laden shop which might appear the source of easy money but is lined by masks which are all a part of the retinue deployed by its owner, a magician of Italian origin who startles them by his return in those early hours: this is none other than Warren Mitchell.

 

To say any more of ensuing events, as jeers turn to nerves, would be unfair: those who now watch it might easily find their wine or beer falling from their grasp.

 

Why is this film little known? In some ways, the taunting gang was well ahead of A Clockwork Orange. Written and directed by Gerry Levy, it was made on the hoof in 1963 but languished for three years until brief release as a supporting feature – and then vanished. A full print has only surfaced in the past few years.

 

Watch it and find something which eclipses many a Sixties epic. Is there a moral to it? Is Warren Mitchell's magic curtain mere entertainment or, in effect, a case of reflections upon Until Death Do Us Part?

 

Here is an hour which resonates way beyond its allotted sixty minutes, and lands within the vicinity of an underplayed masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

 

THIS IS NOT DYING

 

Relax your mind and float downstream...”. The words are, of course, John Lennon's, but Wonderwall (1968) is invariably recalled – often just in passing - for its soundtrack by George Harrison. Lennon's phrase, however, from “Tomorrow Never Knows”, is an apt summary of a film invariably deemed very much of its psychedelic time. In fact, it proves to be distinctly enduring, even eternal.

 

Five decades have brought more to it since its circumscribed initial release, and it has been remastered in a way that brings out so much more than was visible to those who saw it at the time. Here is a film with heritage on every front – including its cinematographer, Harry Waxman who had worked on Brighton Rock and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and would bring these skills to The Wicker Man. Much of the film's limited funding was given to him – to our eternal benefit. And the rest of that financial pie was divided between such people as costume designer Jocelyn Rickards (whose lover-strewn memoirs are lively stuff), scriptwriter Guillermo Cabrera Infante (the Cuban novelist who wrote a history of cigars Holy Smoke), all of it brought together by director Joe Massot who had a palpable skill at networking long before the term was created.

 

Consider the cast. Here we encounter that actor much favoured by Beckett, Jack MacGowran; a wonderful turn by an ever-thwarted cleaning lady (Irene Handl); Jane Birkin (who sometimes sheds the costumes given her but, alas, does not mention the film in her recently-published diaries); and Richard Wattis (familiar as many a bespectacled, officious clerk in English films).

 

To what were all these, and more, put in a film whose sets were designed by a collective known as The Fool (mostly remembered for designing the exterior of The Beatles' boutique on Baker Street, to the outrage of the local Council)? As it happens, the opening of the film is now distinctly topical. MacGowran is in a laboratory and looking through a microscope. As George's rock 'n' raga music plays, microbes swarm in all their psychedelic glory, and are later echoed in several animated sections a year before Monty Python reached television screens. Such close-up work has had a troubling effect upon MacGowran, who returns to a flat which bears all the traces, and more, of an obsessive. Even he can find it's all too much (to deploy the title of another George song), and one evening hurls at an exposed-brick wall one of his framed collections of butterflies. These break loose – and, amidst their fluttering animation (very Yellow Submarine), dislodge a brick, which opens up a view of neighbouring Jane Birkin.

 

This is a vision so fascinating that MacGowran, who has quite a taste in hats, removes more bricks to gain a perspective of what he takes to be free-and-easy living. The censorious might say that this is voyeurism. Something more subtle is going on: his neighbour, and her visitors, are equally unsure of themselves, and, such is the turn to events, he proves to be an unexpected hero, a force on behalf of life. This is not dying, as the rest of John's opening line to his terrific song puts it.

 

To convey in prose so very visual a film is not easy, one becomes immersed, even a very part of events in which a fridge can loom larger than it ever does in life (there is a great variant on asking a neighbour to “borrow” milk: Jane Birkin's lover seeks... bananas).

 

This is a film which, having taken one so long to catch up with it, leaves one eager to see it again. If not an unknown masterpiece, it is far more than the curiosity of legend. George Harrison's hunch was correct. This was something to which to give his time amidst the rigours of The White Album. How on earth was he paid? After all, this was a millionaire who had came up with the opening chord for “A Hard Day's Night”, a defining moment in English film. The producers of Wonderwall could not afford the music rights, and so he was able to release the album of it on Apple (as chance has it, a fruit which appears, probably not as product placement, several times in the film), but the music gains so much in its visual context.

 

What's more, room is found for an, er, spot-on poem by none other than John Lennon, about the nature of: lanolin.

 

It is all haunting, wonderfool (to coin an adjective), so unexpected. Come to think more and more about it, this is perhaps a near-masterpiece. The disc, especially on blu-ray, is not only a tribute to its restoration but brings with it a real, 32-page booklet which contains more than any reviewer can incorporate. Time can work miracles.

 

Of course, this was not the first film in which a Beatle branched out into a film score. Paul had been asked to supply one for the excellent The Family Way. As the deadline loomed, he hummed a piece – which anticipates the glorious “Here, There and Everywhere” (his own favourite) – and George Martin worked up the orchestral incarnation. With Wonderwall, the other George was hands on, recording pieces to the exact second in Bombay, and drawing upon the non-Indian help of Eric Clapton and Tony Ashton (who should be better known for his great Seventies hit “Resurrection Shuffle”).

 

Watch Wonderwall, in the 1968 option, rather than the truncated "director's cut", and it takes one in so many directions which perhaps began with Paul's enthusiasm for Magical Mystery Tour, a film which also continues to gain its rightful stature.

HARD TIMES AND SOFT SOFAS

 

The title Mine Own Executioner (1947) is from John Donne, and the rest of the film is scripted by Nigel Balchin from his novel which, like his The Small Back Room (filmed by Powell and Pressburger), was a successful part of the post-war literary landscape: both popular and critically acclaimed.

 

Quite possibly, psychiatry has never been as well depicted on screen as it is in this beautifully filmed work (the director is Anthony Kimmins, the cinematographer Wilkie Cooper). Here, in smart London premises, with an enviable curving staircase, an excellent Burgess Meredith is a psychotherapist with an ability to help young and old through the troubles they present to him – not though that he is able to smooth his own marital situation (his wife is Dulcie Gray). Nobly, he gives his time to those able to pay (some splendid cameos amidst those patients) and those who cannot do so.

 

Meredith is under further pressure as he is not a part of the profession itself but working at a tangent to it, a situation compounded by the arrival of the attractive Barbara White who asks help for her husband (Kieron Moore), whose behaviour has become erratic and dangerous after being taken a prisoner by the Japanese during the war.

 

All this takes many twists, with some noirish interiors, and owes much to Balchin who, in a varied career, had studied psychiatry. He understood the continual battle between elegant settings and tormented minds, what Gerard Manley Hopkins called those mental “cliffs of fall” - and anybody with even a hint of vertigo will cling to the arm of chair while watching some of it, even sliding forwards in terror.

 

Here is one of the best films ever made in England – and it should be better known. As should Balchin, a man whose own demons took him far too young.

A CAFÉ WITHOUT MERCY

 

 

Some might ask why it is that Arsenal football club inspires murder. To watch Jackpot (1960) brings to mind a fine Thirties film The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. It does not give away too much to say that a crowd scene (no seats in those days) – and stock match - provides a notable climax, for the nearby Underground station has been mentioned throughout the few days' length of this thriller as a vital meeting spot.

 

As was the following year's The Third Alibi, this was written by its director Montgomery Tully with Maurice Wilson – and, like that one, is something of a corker. The fall guy (George Mikell) is a robbery has done time and been deported only to sneak back upon a merchant ship to claim his share of proceedings, something which he hopes will impress the wife he left behind.

 

He is set for disappointment, what with the gang leader (Eddie Byrne) unwilling to cough up now that he is pulling in money as the owner of a nightclub: for all his rise, Byrne is one of those who, however fine a suit he sports, cannot disguise sliminess. As for Mikell, he is a man possessed, so much so that, just as he looks to have pulled off effective revenge, he is trigger happy.

 

Here are many low-life settings, a key one being a caff, run by a former villain (Michael Ripper) whose coffee brewing is less trustworthy than his safecracking exploits. Tully keeps up the pace sufficiently, while giving all concerned a moment or more in which to shine, for any viewer's doubts to fade as the police move in and William Hartnell – neater haired than he would soon be as Dr. Who – takes charge.

 

This film is a cracker – with a close-up, Black and Decker view of safecracking techniques, though that is a trade no longer in demand in a digital age.

REEL-TO-REEL DEATH

 

How many perfect murders have there been? The very expressions means that we shall never know. Those that look as though they might come close to it are the very stuff of movies. In the case of The Third Alibi (1961), this is devised by Laurence Payne – who was an equally suave villain in Crosstrap – while sitting at the piano on which he composes popular musicals. By his side is a large tape recorder, which will play its part in deflecting any suspicion that he is about to become a killer.

 

What has driven him to such behaviour? He is unhappily married to Patricia Dainton, a situation doubly compounded by his affair with her half-sister Jane Griffiths who informs him that she is pregnant. This is heady stuff for its time, and all of it caught in little more than an hour, which finds time for Cleo Laine to sing a number from the work in progress – with the pianist none other than Dudley Moore.

 

Inevitably there is trouble ahead, not least because the sisters loathe each other – and all this has started when the lovers were driving fast, hit a pedestrian and didn't stop. From a play by Pip and Jim Baker, the screenplay was the work of Maurice Wilson and Montgomery Tully (who was also its decidedly competent director). A particular delight of the recent disc is an introduction by Patricia Dainton, who is palpably delighted to be back in front of the camera after all this time. The Third Alibi had been her last film, and, unlike her character in it, she was happy to exchange the screen for bringing up a family. That is our loss, for she brings a wonderful edge to this fraught situation.

A SPY IN SHIMMERING BLACK

 

Christopher Isherwood often remarked that if his Sally Bowles had displayed the talent of Liza Minnelli, that small Berlin club would have been the sensation of Europe. Similar suspenders of disbelief are in order at the start of Affair in Trinidad (1952), where, with bongos to the fore, Rita Hayworth performs a dance-and-song number way beyond the means of the premises' dodgy owner.

 

Such is her skill that to watch her from the rear brings a new meaning to the phrase back projection – a phrase which, in its filmic sense, is also apt, for all of this island sojourn was filmed in Hollywood, with automobile excursions palpably faked. No matter. After all, none of Casablanca was shot on location. So what has brought sundry

people to post-war Trinidad? Rita Hayworth is informed by a police inspector and Embassy offical that her impoverished artist husband has died that very day. Such had been their relationship that, when asked what she said to him at breakfast, she replied, “pass the salt”.

 

It becomes clear that foul play rather than suicide was the cause, all the more so when her brother-in-law (Glenn Ford) arrives with a letter from his brother dated the very day of his death. He and Rita Hayworth had appeared together, to great effect, in Gilda. If Affair in Trinidad does not reach that level (or depths), it is adroitly done, not least because the jealousy and confusion is fomented by the elegantly sinister presence of Alexander Scourby, who should have appeared in more films. Palpably rich, he is smitten by Rita Hayworth, an infatuation which proves the tragic flaw in his latest plan to augment a nefarious fortune. The mechanics of that need not detain us, any more than the uranium racket of Beat the Devil. As with that terrific film (in which Bogart encounters Robert Morley), the plot is but a vehicle for the barbed exchanges of the characters caught up in it all. Here is a film in which nobody, however lowly the rôle, is superfluous: to name them would make for a catalogue.

 

Space, though, should be found to mention the effective direction by Vincent Sherman (who almost lived to a hundred) and Oscar Saul who, with James Gunn, worked a story into a screenplay. Watch this on your own and you'll hanker to see it again – with somebody by your side. That somebody will surely say, “you're right – this should be better known.”

 

 

BLUE SKIES NO MORE

 

Time was, when Hollywood studios were not preoccupied by blockbusters, when large studios supported offbeat movies – and often found themselves rewarded with box-office success which kept on going. Would, say, The Last Detail be made now? Even more so, Electra Glide in Blue (1973)?

 

It has reappeared on disc in all its enigmatic glory well matched by Conrad Hall's photography of bright and remote Arizonian territory as well as interiors whose darkness matches the inhabitants' souls. Written by Robert Boris and directed by record producer James Guercio), it turns around a self-consciously short motor-cycle policeman (Robert Blake, who had appeared as the eponymous Tell Them Willie Boy is Here a few years earlier). On those lonely roads, he is able to issue tickets to those caught speeding. (One might recall that Nixon brought in speed limits, not from any environmental concern but for fear that Middle East supplies would dwindle amidst the turmoil there.) His partner in this regards it as a safe job but Blake aspires to more, to become a detective; an ambition fulfilled in an unexpected way which becomes all the more resonant when he takes a contrary view to that of the coroner (Royal Dano, who was to appear in Twin Peaks, as befits a man who, here, smokes while contemplating what the body's innards might tell); Blake believes that a man found dead in one of these remote houses was murdered.

 

Here is something which appears to be another of that era's road movies, mixed with a thriller - but all the while it is a meditation about man's place in an unforgiving landscape, one only complicated by the sultry, hip-swivelling presence of a bar-room's

Jeannine Riley. A significant twist is provided by another familiar scene from movies of that time: the police visit a gathering of harmless hippies and attempt to gain a rapport.

 

Such a film can have a wider effect than it might appear. William Boyd (whom Gore Vidal sometimes addressed as Willie Boy) recalls watching the film at the time: “it was the first film I saw where I began actually to analyse how it worked; the first film I saw where I became excited by the process of movie-making, the manipulation of image and mood, rather than responding to it as a straightforward intellectual and sensual stimulant”. One can perhaps see many reflections of its elliptical method in the short stories he began to publish a few years later – among them “On The Yankee Station”).

 

It is not too much to say that here is a depiction of a national state of mind ravaged by experience, and depiction, of events in Vietnam. One might hanker for a disc of its soundtrack – very Seventies – and even, inspired by its title, wonder how much a Harley-Davidson might now fetch: the model ridden by those two was called an Electra Blue.

LIFE'S LEASEHOLD

 

There could be a term for British incarnations of film noir but film black does not convey the alleyways and nightclubs which have sustained such notable examples as Hell is a City. Less well known is Impulse (1954), directed and co-written by Cy Endfield who had fled America as the Hollywood purges honed in upon him. He was to turn adversity to account over here (Hell Drivers and, better known, Zulu) but one should not overlook this adroit tale of an estate agent getting his come-uppance.

 

Alan Curtis plays that small-town estate agent whose wife (Joy Shelton) is forever visiting her mother and, when at home, insists upon regular gatherings with two of his colleagues. What one might call teadium. Small wonder that, during one of her absences, he becomes charmed in a hotel bar by a woman (Constance Smith) who departs shortly before two burly men ask after her. And, as fate has it, he encounters her beside a broken-down automobile at the roadside. The upshot of which is that they journey, via her turn as singer in a London night club, to her flat, where – a bold stroke for the early-Fifties – she takes to the bath, and it is clear, as dawn breaks, that he has stayed the night.

 

Temporary pleasures can bring enduring problems, especially as she is mixed up with the club's manager, who is part of a diamond heist. This is a familiar story, but done well. And one chokes to learn that fthis ine singer Constance Smith, who makes the film all her own, was to begin a terrible descent - via prison for attempting to murder one husband, that notable documentary maker Paul Rotha - to drunken death upon an Islington street some fifteen years ago.

 

Film noir is not an abstract but is rooted in torrid reality. Diamonds are not a girl's best friend.

DAWN'S EARLY FRIGHT

 

A hostage drama invariably makes for suspense. One thinks of Suddenly or The Taking of Pelham 123(the original one). If Crosstrap is not on their level, it certainly makes one sorry for those who did not live to see the reappearance of what was thought to be a film lost soon after its 1962 release. The first film directed by Robert Hartford-Davis, it was written by Philip Wrestler from a novel by the once-popular John Newton Chance.

 

Married a year, Jill Adams and Gerry Cockrell arrive in an open-top sports car at a remote bungalow so that he can work on a book for which he has a deadline. So much for that when, soup on and three bottle openers at the ready, she gives a scream.

In the bathroom there is a body which had met an unpleasant end. This is followed by the arrival of a gang led by smoothly-dressed Laurence Payne whose tie is neatly knotted throughout. Among his cohorts are his sultry girlfriend Zena Marshall whom one would wish to have seen in more films. Their plan is to await an aeroplane, at dawn in ten hours' time, on the adjacent landing strip and make off for foreign parts in the company of the jewels already aboard. Trouble is that a rival gang has wised up to this – and is now stalking the bungalow.

 

Things move swiftly, that long night caught in an hour upon the screen. A small set, surrounded by convenient trees and shrubbery, brings effective claustrophobia which heightens the pervasive mistrust and sexual charge as there ensues a shoot-out at which Tarantino might blanch – while envying a fine jazz score by Steve Race.

A NEW IMMODEST ARMY

 

Anybody who arrived late for The High Command in 1937 and, in stumbling across others' perhaps entangled, stockinged knees, may have looked up at the screen and - glimpsing the Art Deco furnishings, bobbed hair and smart jackets - assumed that this was an adulterous drama set in Mayfair.

 

Far from it.

 

Outside the clubhouse, as palm trees sway, drums beat to spur on wild dancing (untrammelled black breasts were deemed art by the Censor, who confined those of a white hue to clinging dresses). This is West Africa, where the British Army and Colonial Service are in awkward alliance (the former's territory is an island a mile or so offshore). From a novel by Lionel Robinson, which most likely nobody on earth is reading at this very moment, this was the first film directed by Thorold Dickinson who, alas, in a long life, made only eight more including the English incarnation of Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight and, best of all, Queen of Spades.

 

Thorold had been in films since the late-Twenties, visited America to study the emergent talkies and, on return to England, found himself in demand as an editor. Film is as much a world as any other in obliging one to grasp, or avoid, those opportunities which present themselves. At the time, and subsequently, some commentators have asserted that Dickinson should have given berth, rather than birth, to this project. One of those who understood its great merits was Graham Greene, whose Journey Without Maps showed a firm appreciation of the African landscape. In his review of the film for the magazine Night and Day that hot summer, he castigated the Sunday Times reviewer who had found it an additional soporific. As Greene said, anybody could find things to deride “in this picture, but a film critic should be capable of distinguishing, from the faults due to a poor story, an uncertain script and mere poverty [of funding], the very high promise of the direction”.

 

The story. That late-arriving cinemagoer in 1937 would also have missed the substantial prologue. Set amidst the Irish Rebellion of 1921, the sequence is a taut piece of work whose upshot is that it allowed one English officer, in the twilight, to shoot dead another who had previously made free with, even impregnating the woman now his wife. And so it seems, as the bullet does its job, all things must pass.

 

A doctor at the autopsy had his suspicions, but kept quiet the evidence which he retrieved from that sundered heart - and now finds himself in Africa, and in blackmailing proximity to that officer who is now a General (Lionel Atwill) who appears thankful of the opportunity to endorse at a bewigged Court Martial under the African sun that the murder was committed by another officer, one... James Mason, who, in one of his first rôles, utilises those full, arching eyebrows and burring voice to lifelong effect.

 

This is but part of it; there's no denying, as Greene said, it's script heavy (or, in his phrase, “slow, jerky, and obscure” - which is quite a concession by a novelist who professed to avoid adjectives, let alone laden, late-running 'buses of them, accurate as this one is). Greene highlights “one unfortunate scene of unconscious humour when a villainous trader about to placate his wife with a pearl necklace is interrupted by an unexplained woman in a similar pearl necklace who pops silently through a window, gives a dirty smile and pops out again, like the horse in Mr James Thurber's story which was always putting its head through the drawing-room curtains”. I too puzzled over that, and took her to be one of this husband's, shall we say, parallel amours.

 

There is no doubt that here is a ball of confusion. And yet, time and again, one is pulled away from such puzzlement. How to explain this? Well, the biggest surprise of all is upon the DVD version, where a ten-minute extra finds upon a cinema seat none other than Philip Horne. Who? He became a Professor at University College, London as an expert on the pleasingly labyrinthine sentences of Henry James. Here, he has a cogent grasp of the swift-moving editorial techniques which Dickinson brought to it: a wonderful moment when the General's blowing of his nose is echoed by a ship's foghorn and, inverting Hitchcock, a townscape proves to be a model. Philip Horne also explains very well that Dickinson was given two months to sail to Africa and film the various scenes which, almost a century on, became a natural part of those made here.

 

Scoff at first, if you will, but do stay to cheer a great début (and lament that the unfortunate end, a few years later, of Lionel Atwill).

PERCUSSIVE STRINGS

 

The boarding house appears in many a film. Although the tall London house in Madame Sousatzka (1982) has in fact been divided into flats, it amounts to a boarding house, for the residents are in and out of each others' places much of the time. And what a household it is. At the centre - literally and figuratively - is the eponymous piano teacher (played by Shirley Maclaine); in the mouldering basement is Peggy Ashcroft as Lady Emily, down on her luck - there is even a cardboard box labelled Distressed Gentlefolk); Geoffrey Bayldon, who plies a perilous trade as a masseur, has also known better times while, in a room at the top, Twiggy lives in hopes of them while a music agent played by Leigh Lawson avails himself of her.

 

Richly decorated - a lifetime's souvenirs squeezed into such rooms -, events move at a pace as Shirley Maclaine takes on a promising teenage Indian pupil (Navin Chowdry) whose young single mother (an inspired Shabana Azmi) prepares catering food from their flat in a suburban house. Directed by John Schlesinger from a script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (who adapted Bernice Rubens's novel), it all moves at a pace even when lingering upon the lessons which are as much a performance for the reminiscent teacher as her pupil at the keyboard. Hers is a tragic history, a matter of loss, which includes pupils who do not want to bide their time but succumb to other blandishments - as looks set to be the case when Twiggy's agent chances to scent greater rewards in the pianist than anything offered by her flop single.

 

Here is terrific ensemble playing, down to the small parts taken by a dodgy developer who prevails upon a local official to deem the place uninhabitable. The marauding early Eighties are caught so well, the place festooned with estate-agent boards (the names are invented, as is the firm Bream painted upon the side of the obligatory skip).

 

In fact Bernice Rubens's novel was published twenty years earlier (and drew upon some of her own life as part of a musical family and letting out rooms herself in her London house). High time to catch up with her work.

DAUGHTERS AND LOVERS

 

In some ways, the Sixties were D. H. Lawrence's most successful decade. The end of the Chatterley ban brought a huge readership for the extraordinary amount he had written, against the odds, in the first thirty years of the twentieth century before his death from tuberculosis. Amidst this Sixties boom there were films of Sons and Lovers and Women in Love (a medium which evidently interested him, to judge by his depiction of it in The Lost Girl).

 

Perhaps less remembered is that the Sixties ended with a film of his novella The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970). This film, whose script was an early work by Alan Pater, did well in its time, an image from it appearing upon a slim Penguin edition of the novella. Lawrence, who never saw the story in print, had been inspired to write it after staying in the mid-Twenties Midlands after a return from Taos on the way to Italy. That Derbyshire sojourn brought him in contact with his wife Frieda's children by her first husband: a fraught household which inspired the one in the novella which finds a vicar still embittered by the departure of his wife. Once Lawrence and Frieda reached Italy, they were visited by her daughter Barbara (known as Barby); she and Lawrence got on well, and his story about a frustrated young woman forbidden to meet men took shape.

 

Although circumstances prevented the novella's appearing in Lawrence's lifetime (he was never one to linger but got on with the next work), it was praised on publication soon after his death. Vita Sackville-West wrote of “the extraordinary, sensuous beauty which nobody but Lawrence could quite encompass”; Arnold Bennett saw that “Lawrence is as easily and perfectly at home in an English rectory as in a gypsy encampment. Short the book is; but it has in it fundamental stuff for a novel three times its length. This is a work to keep and read thrice.”

 

A short book can make for a successful film (there being less vexation about a need to discard material by which viewers might set great store). Put simply, Joanna Shimkus, as Yvette (inspired by Frieda's daughter Barby) returns with her sister after a jaunt South to her father (Maurice Denham)'s rectory, where, after his wife's departure and divorce, he is attended by his sour sister (Fay Walsh) and mind-wandering mother (Fay Compton). Not to mention local scandal caused by a marvellous Honor Blackman as one of couple who are, in that great phrase, “living in sin”.

 

This claustrophobia is perfectly caught by director Christopher Miles (a key moment being a row about closing a window).

 

As Lawrence wrote, “they had been to a good girls' school, and had had a finishing year in Lausanne, and were quite the usual thing, tall young creatures with fresh sensitive faces and bobbed hair and young-manly, deuce-take-it manners”. Oddly, in the film, their hair is not bobbed but falls upon the shoulders as if they had just been strolling along the King's Road of Swinging London. No matter, the atmosphere is well sustained as a motor-car jaunt brings them to the fireside gypsy encampment, fortune-telling and all the deep-rooted yearnings which are a far cry from passing the tea cups to visitors at four o'clock by the hearth.

 

The wonder remains is that there is so much more by Lawrence - such as the long story “Daughters of the Vicar” - which has never been filmed. As shown by The Virgin and the Gypsy, his work can give all members of a cast their due rather than being made subservient to those temporarily at the peak of a star-driven system.

 

 

 

 

NEWHAVEN: THE MOVIE

 

You're not my father, you're a public monument!” So shouts Odile Verosis at David Kossoff who is Ambassador in Fifties London for an East European country. Both of them have survived a war in which wife and mother died. The situation remains tense, so much so that she was seen sobbing while going on her own to watch Swan Lake at Covent Garden. That man (David Knight) at her side hastens to catch up with her as she leaves the auditorium.

 

Of course, the title - The Young Lovers (1954) - reveals what swiftly ensues, and it gives little away to reveal that this is another variant on Romeo and Juliet: he works in a coding department at the American Embassy. Directed by Anthony Asquith from a script by George Tabori, this is a curiously little-known film (it does not make it into any film guide I have to hand), and yet it keeps one's attention throughout. Although there are brightly-lit scenes of London thoroughfares, complete with high-platformed taxis, this is mainly a work of interiors: paradoxically, the Eastern European premises are dark and spacious, their high ceilings requiring deep shots which are a contrast with the utilitarian American set-up (where Joan Sims pops up as a switchboard operator, a previously unknown figure at the heart of the Cold War).

 

It is bold stuff for its time. Somehow, in the middle of London waves are seen to crash on a rocky shore between the shot in which they kiss and the one that finds her wearing only a slip upon his bed. Evidently the city moved for them.

 

How will it turn out? These passions can only erupt, unleashing the high drama of the last third. This is edge-of-the-seat, edge-of-the-Coast stuff: well worth your time.

FINAL COLLECTION

 

Let's go to work!” The phrase is of course associated with Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Was he, though, as an assiduous viewer, alluding to Bullets or Ballots (1936)? The phrase is uttered by one of a bunch of gangsters who command numerous rackets, including the pinball machines which they foist upon a café owner as the pupils at the opposite school will not be able to resist it.

 

A politician who vows to stop all this is felled by Humphrey Bogart, whose maverick behaviour shows that the gang is riven while only one of them knows the sleekly respectable-looking Mr. Bigs behind it all.

 

How will Edward G. Robinson be able to enforce the law and prevent the series of front pages which were, of course, such a rapid-fire part of these fast-moving Warner Brothers movies?

 

Capably directed by William Keighley, it is well done, “a good gangster film of the second class”, as Graham Greene said at the time - and added that Robinson's mouth was “more than ever like a long slit in a pillar-box”. One might wonder how much Greene's watching of such films influenced Brighton Rock, a feature of which is those who stand aloof from slugfests while gaining from them.

 

A SHORT TAKE ON A LONG STRETCH

 

There are two musical interludes in San Quentin (1937). One of these finds Ann Sheridan on stage in a night club. Of the other - a rendition of “I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles” -, well, I shall not reveal any more except to say that here is another of those tremendous Warner Brothers movies so hard boiled that one relishes the shell cracking as these sixty-seven minutes move relentlessly to a tragic conclusion.

 

Ann Sheridan is sister of Bogart who, since adolescence, has fallen in with a bad lot and done time in Reformatory and gaol before landing back there for ten years. As chance has it, she finds that in her bar's audience is a man - Pat O'Brien - who becomes smitten by her just as he is about to be seconded from the Army to take charge of the gaol.

 

Which is quite a complication - all the more so as he is decent man who likes to see the best in all but the worst (the latter he reckons to be a distinct minority). Even so, he is up against the inmates' hierarchy, a pecking order way beyond the cage of any henhouse. Alongside many a hemmed-in scene (cell; office) there are several on a parade ground where a careless taunt can bring brawls - including one by a prisoner who has turned, vocally, to the Bible, and snaffles a gun to prove his point (blessed are the rifles, one might almost say).

 

Much of this is owed to a taut screenplay sharpened by another Humphrey: Humphrey Cobb. He died a few years later, and would gain wider recognition when Stanley Kubrick filmed a novel based on his Great War experience: Paths of Glory.

LIVING AGAINST THE CLOCK

 

It had been too long since watching Robert Altman's 3 Women (1977), in which time it does not figure - one finds – in the knowledge of many who try to be sedulous in foraging through ever-proliferating screen fare. It is now, though, on DVD, with different labels offering a variety of extras.

 

How, though, does this film which has shimmered in the memory strike one when shown in its vanilla version? That was the form in which people were first surprised by it over forty years ago when explanatory matter was scant (and this usage of vanilla unknown). Put simply, pig-tailed Sissy Spacek, looking younger than her years, has fled from Texas and arrives for a job helping invalids at a Californian spa on the desert's edge. Here, she is guided by a colleague Shelley Duvall, who shows her such things as the strictly-checked time-clock and gives instructions in the art, or mechanics, of getting wobbly people into the hot pools.

 

It feels a prison from which daily escape is welcome. Altman depicts the Californian exteriors with relish. And yet this corner of the State soon becomes as much a trap. To use a current phrase, it is peopled by weirdos and misfits, some of whom haunt a bar run by Janice Rule, who also owns the poolside apartment block where Shelley Winters has a small place and has offered the extra bed in her room to Sissy Spacek (which the expectation she will adjourn to the rollaway when necessary).

 

These two have, of course, distinctive faces which suit these two hours' heightened reality (Sissy Spacek had been so effective in Badlands and Carrie). Shelley Winters affects bravura, suggesting that men are there for her asking, especially if she has dinners for which she creates some of the grimmest food ever to appear on screen

(cheese was injured by the nozzle of aerosol cans in the making of this film). With Sissy Spacek much put upon, life's shadow darkens in the sunshine; a counterpoint to which is Janice Rule's painting of strange murals upon many a surface.

 

What do all the details mean? Why does Shelley Winters's yellow dress always get trapped by the door of her open-top automobile? There is more happening here than one can take in, and yet it is never frustrating, but tantalising, as events take a tragic parabola, in effect a road movie which stays in one spot.

 

And what a delight to see again Ruth Nelson, who, prominent in New York theatre in the Thirties, had not appeared in films for three decades until the previous year's now-elusive The Late Show with Lily Tomlin. She was to appear again in an Altman film, 1978's glorious ensemble work A Wedding, which has also now escaped general viewing.

 

Altman himself was to endure eclipse. Buoyed by the success of Mash, he found himself carried on that wave of a new Hollywood which yielded such things as One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Night Moves and All the President's Men until running into 1978 and the Star Wars buffers. Altman kept working, and was, after a while, to find new general, sleek success with The Player and Gosford Park while Short Cuts and Cookie's Fortune were truer to his earlier spirit.

 

Startling to think that he has now been dead fifteen years. It still feels as he is with us, for his varied approach to film making ensures that he is not stuck in time. Not only is there an urge to watch again the little-known Images but also to seek out the Criterion Collection disc of 3 Women - an American issue - which contains his detailed director's commentary. Nobody, even Altman, ever made a film quite like this, even if - the three women being one - some claim that this is a West Coast Persona.

 

 

A NEST OF INTRIGUE

 

Here is a film with added resonance in our era of savouring the sight and sound of bird life amidst the encircling chaos of pandemic and climate emergency. What's more, if one missed the first few frames of Tawny Pipet (1944) one could easily take this for an Ealing production. Here we are in the wartime countryside, somewhere in Gloucestershire. A fighter pilot (Niall MacGinnis) recovers from injuries, accompanied by his nurse (Rosamund John). They are turning this enforced leisure to account by rambling the hills around the village and taking the opportunity to enjoy a shared hobby of bird-watching.

 

To their delight they chance upon a pair of the eponymous creatures which have not been seen upon these shores for some time. What's more, these ground-nesting birds are protecting some eggs.

 

Such are ornithological circles that news of the discovery spreads within the village and, ominously, beyond. The villagers are united in protecting the avian visitors and their potential offspring. An open-air meeting is addressed to that effect by wheelchair-bound Colonel Barton-Barrington, played by Bernard Miles who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Charles Saunders.

 

With the village setting, and a gathering of such types as a schoolteacher, mischievous but good-hearted children, a vicar, a publican, one is reminded of, among other things, Went the Day Well? a year before. Tawny Pipet is equally well photographed. Some might deem it sentimental but there is a tough edge, it springs surprises (including Julian Huxley in the credits alongside the two birds who did such stirring stuff).

 

Has there ever been quite such a confrontation with a tank? The very vehicle itself appears to back off, such is Rosamund John's passionate reason. And as surreal a moment as a Russian who, on a propaganda mission, regales the villagers from the back of a truck with tales of how she herself felled hundreds of Germans? Far from the hodge-podge this might sound, the film has a compulsive glowing logic which can fell the cynical from forty paces.

 

As indeed it did James Agee when it reached New York a few years later. “It is an almost unimaginably genteel picture, and if you had, as it were, to sit in the same parlor with it, you would probably suffer a good deal. But at this comfortable distance in blood as well as space, I was able, rather to my dismay, to take all this extreme Englishness almost in the spirit in which it was offered...in spite of its profuse cuteness and genteelism, it has a good deal of genuine charm, humor, and sweetness of temper.”

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DISSOLVE TO RED

 

What makes for a cult movie? Some might say that this is one that did not find much of an audience while others deem it a euphemism for superior tosh. Perhaps the most accurate is an acknowledgment that if, at the time of release, it vexed the accountants, it has stayed around when many a widescreen, international epic has shrivelled from sight.

 

Cult is surely the term for a 1971 work by Harry Kumel which goes by several names (it was a French-German-Belgian co-production) and is known here as Daughters of Darkness. It opens with a newly-married couple (Danielle Quimet; John Karlen, who bears a resemblance to Michael York at that time). They are aboard a train and, shall we say, being more than familiar with each other as it rattles across the points. There is the possibility that they will visit his mother but, in the event, they reach a large, empty, out-of-season hotel in Ostend while young women are being killed in Bruges.

 

The place is theirs in which to luxuriate. And yet, from the start, there is an awkwardness in the air: between them and in this surreal, wonderfully decorated place which is of a piece with scenes which regularly to dissolve to the red of dressing gowns and fingernails (Eduard van der Enden's cinematography makes the most of this gift of a setting). Such an edge gains all the more from Francois de Boubaix's music, all of which heralds the arrival of beautifully-dressed Delphine Seyrig who, with her poise and hairstyle, is a distinct echo of Marlene Dietrich while her secretary Andrea Rau sports a hairstyle somewhere between the Beatles' mop-top and Louise Brooks's carefully-cut forehead.

 

Both of these women are enigmatic, quietly sedulous in their pursuit of the newly-weds. The initial pace is slow, a matter of proffered cocktails and flattery, a chamber work on a wide screen as befits the expansive lounges of the hotel. Nothing is what it seems, and if one has a hunch about the general thrust that all this will take somewhere about the halfway mark (a shower scene which is almost a match for the Hitchcock to which it alludes), the surprises accumulate.

 

One might approach Daughters of Darkness in the spirit of checking out a curiosity but one stays to become fascinated - and willing to seek out the version which contains a commentary by a director whose work one must explore.

 

 

SIZZLING STAKES

 

Filmed in what looks to be the hot summer of 1976 and based upon a decades-old story by E.F. Benson, Mrs Amworth opens with the eponymous Glynis Johns at the wheel of an open-top motor-car as she causes many a collision for which she cannot be directly blamed as she arrives in a village dominated by its church and graveyard.

 

With a script by Hugh Whitemore, it proves to be all the more topical, for the villagers are going down with a virus which drains them of their energy. Is indeed wildlife to blame? Why do some refuse to have a necessary blood test? Are those who blame it upon gnat bites on the right track?

 

Made for television, this half-hour yarn has a fair amount of its garish period colour (and appalling taste in men's clothes). And yet, with a bravura performance by Glynis Johns, who appears to have stepped - breast-clinging dresses and all - more from Tennessee Williams than Benson's Mapp and Lucia, it is well worth one's time, as much for the crowded bar-be-que as solitary graveside moments which traverse the centuries.

 

We need more films made from Benson's supernatural tales (meanwhile be sure not to miss the post-war Dead of Night, part of which derives from him).

 

 

THE GLASSHOUSE KEY

 

Lunar journeys are always more enjoyable on the screen than in reality. Who would want to spend long days in claustrophobic confinement only to get there, and find nothing except a good view of the Earth?

 

Sixty-six years before Neil Armstrong took that step, Georges Méliès accomplished the journey - there and back - in sixteen minutes. True, he had the help of hundreds, including a bevy of chorus girls.

 

A well-known stage performer with a sure-handed way of conjuring and sleight of hand, he saw the possibilities of adapting such vanishing-lady stunts to silent film. This was a matter of filming at eleven in the morning for a few hours while the sun was directly above his glass-roofed studio. Other hours were given to the building of sets.

 

And what sets they are! The spacecraft into which half-a-dozen men squeeze (among them, Méliès himself as the leading Professor) is launched through a huge cannon against a background of smoke as the chorus girls bid the intrepid team farewell and the vessel heads towards a beamingly yellow Moon.

 

All this had been inspired by Verne and Wells, and, naturally, there is trouble ahead.

None of this is derivative, however, for it is a creation all its own, heart-stoppingly so as the hunched-over, visibly-ribbed creatures fend off these colonisers.

 

To think that is but one of some six-hundred films Méliès made before the Great War (over half of them now lost) is all the more incredible when when one realises that some were shown in colour. That was a matter of two-hundred women colouring each frame of each print by hand (each woman specialised in a particular colour as they stood side by side in a barn-like premises for weeks at a time).

 

Such was changing society, especially with the advent of a War compounded by the invention of sound recording, that this was one of many films whose survival owed as much to luck as anything. Four times as long as the film itself is a documentary on the DVD which not only neatly summarises his life - with well-chosen scenes from other films - but shows the restoration process.

 

This took far longer than the creation of the film itself. By initial good fortune, a print of the coloured film was found in Span, brought back to France - and then came a gamble: the separation centimetre by centimetre of a reel which was close to coalescing into a useless acidic lump. Literally: knife-edge stuff. And it suddenly seems to belong itself to another era, for each revealed frame was copied and then stored upon one of those Macs which comprised a screen which sprang from what looked like an upturned pudding bowl.

 

There was not the technology to take the task any further at the beginning of this century: a counterpoint to all that had been done on the hoof in 1902. Come 2011 something had been done to improve software, and funding was now available to support a once-quixotic task (the French do not appear to have an equivalent of the word “geek” to which the documentary's sub-titlers have recourse). Things moved as swiftly as frame-by-frame work can do. The restoration is glorious. The film lives again.

 

Such was the dedication of the Mac-bound technicians that, in due course, they showed it a frame at a time on a large, silver screen so that they could check the colours' consistency. There was puzzlement at a silver streak in the edge of some frames: upon closer inspection, this was revealed to be an inadvertent creeping into the shot by a key which hung by the door of Méliès's studio over a century ago.

 

Neil Armstrong would surely agree that the return of this film is un grand pas.



 

FROM PARIS, AVEC AMOUR

 

Before the series of feature films which brought Eric Rohmer an international audience - at any rate, amongst those with a francophile taste for long conversations of a philosophical hue (with an undertow of amorous aspiration) - he made a number of short, black-and-white items in the early-Sixties.

 

These find him experimenting with the methods which would sustain the films he made until his death at a venerable age a decade ago. Two have been issued on a DVD. One is The Bakery Girl of Monceau and the other, Suzanne's Career. What's more, two others are hidden in the “special features” (and one of these has Godard in a rare acting rôle).

 

To focus on the Bakery one. Here is an evocation of Paris in 1963. Yes, those Citroens, cafés, and, of course, the eponymous Boulangerie.

 

In these twenty minutes or so, Barbet Schroeder - he playing a Law student - sees a woman (Michele Giardon) going by several times and, whether by accident of design, they collide - and become due to meet again (a stock situation of many a story or film); that does not come to pass, and Schroeder, morose, finds consolation in the bakery, where he becomes enchanted by the eighteen-year-old girl behind the counter.

 

Simple as the plot might appear, and with scant time for it to evolve far, it is absorbing, everything caught on the hoof.

 

And given plangency by learning that, a decade later, in the mid-Seventies, Michele Giardon killed herself at thirty-six. One should have relished seeing her in much more - but time's ever-rolling credits are a tough ride.

BRAINS BEHIND THE OPERATION

 

Captain Scarlet. He is indestructible. You are not.”

 

That warning comes to mind when watching the opening scenes of Crossroads to Crime (1960). Why on earth should that be the case? This was several years before that puppet series became an international success after Thunderbirds. True, these few minutes feature a Police Constable (Anthony Oliver) who is clinging onto the side of a Ford Zephyr whose driver is making off, somewhere in the vicinity of Slough, with a kidnapped woman (Miriam Karlin) who, a cigarette forever on her lips, works behind the counter of a transport caff which is a front for a racket which takes place out the back as trucks pull up to refill with diesel. And, of course, out of sight, behind all this, there is a smooth Mr. Big in a smart house.

 

To keep you out of suspense any further: this was directed by Gerry Anderson, with uncredited help from his wife Sylvia. At this time, they had achieved some initial success with their puppets when a telephone call came to ask if they would like to take

on a B-film with humans. The budget was minimal, the time available (a fortnight) even less, and, in their view, the proffered script (by Alan Falconer) as wooden as any puppet.

 

Needs must, they set to work and - in a hoot of a ten-minute extra on the DVD – they and others recall those two weeks with incredulous horror (Gerry Anderson is filmed in front of a picture of Captain Scarlet).

 

And yet, sixty years on, these fifty-four minutes pass agreeably enough. After all, any film which turns around trucking heists (think of both versions of They Drive By Night) has an interest, as does the caff (in which Miriam Karlin is as formidable as she was in her fabled part as a bolshie, trade-union worker in The Rag Trade). There is good use of locations (all those near-empty streets), dark nights on the Great North Road, even darker moments in the ad hoc basement warehouse.

 

In its way, all as effective a cover for operations as Tracey Island.

ANOTHER SENSE OF AN ENDING

 

With the advent of the talkies, cinema lost something at first. They were often far too, well, talkative; composition was lost as filmed theatre held sway. In a while the virtue of selective sound was understood - and every now and then such films as Silent Movie and The Artist have shown that there can be a substantial audience for a silent movie. Diamonds of the Night (1964) is unlikely ever to pack 'em in but its influence these past six decades has been has been quietly considerable.

 

It is not exactly silent. There are perhaps a dozen lines of brisk Czech dialogue in its hour, and many a sound of gunfire and other noises on the air (where else are noises?). Directed by Jan Nemec (his first film), it was adapted by him with Arnost Lustig from the latter's novel, which was based upon his own wartime experiences.

 

Two teenagers (Ladislav Jansky, Antonin Kumbera) are heading for the wooded hills, ducking bullets and the usual absurd calls of “halt!”. One is already injured; hobbling, he is aided by the other.

 

It emerges that they have escaped from a wagon train on its way to a concentration camp. The great success of the film is that a chase up a hill becomes something much greater, for it cuts to and fro in time - back to that hellish train and, so it seems, forwards to escape. As with so much of the Czech new wave, there is a blending of reality and fantasy, the wonderful black and white cinematography becomes, every now and then, a bleached-out cityscape suggestive of delusion under fire. Harrowingly real, it is also surreal, with a Bunelesque use of ants consuming a foot.

 

No shot (filmwise, that is) lasts long. Here is a masterclass in editing, partly the work of Miroslav Ondricek who was later to work with, among many others, Lindsay Anderson whose own combining of fantasy with gritty takes on contemporary life owed much to his Czech studies.

 

To say how all this turns out would be unfair - even if one knew. Suffice to say that here is a film whose wartime hillside bears comparison with that familiar from La Grande Illusion.

 

FROM CRADLE TO FLAMES

 

How do people emerge into the world, soon enjoy playground games and encounters, and yet, within two decades, have tossed aside teddy bears and dolls to relish destroying others - and on a large scale?

 

Perhaps the answer rests in those playgrounds. Factions and favourites form, the unfortunate are cast into infant exile. Such thought is prompted by Juraj Herz's The Cremator. Somehow this Czech film was made in 1969 but, inevitably, swiftly vanished, and has only become known again here this century. From a novel by Ladislav Fuks, it depicts the life of a man (Rudolf Hruninsky) who gains control of the crematorium in which he works - premises which inspire in him cod-philosophical notions about restoring the corpses, all ashes being equal, to their place in the Eternal Circle. As one might say, the Lord of the Manor becomes tomato fertiliser, and is none the worse for that.

 

All of this makes carefully combed-over Hruninsky vulnerable when the Nazis arrive and seek his help in disposing of those deemed unhelpful to the cause.

 

Such a summary, accurate as it is, can scarcely do justice to a film which transcends its subject. Many are the film techniques deployed here - voice-over, jump-cuts, montage, swivelling camera to catch a chase in confined quarters. In some ways, with a glimpse through an oven's window (all this is in black and white), this appears realistic but the light and shade form a journey into a man's mind, those cliffs of fall (in Hopkins's phrase) which can infect a nation.

 

As such, this is not a horror film but one redolent of Conrad's phrase about a mental void, “the horror, the horror”.

 

A swift and terrifying ninety minutes in which anybody, without a change of guise, can become a monster.

 

 

PRESS RECORD

 

Many have told Billie Holiday's life, and some have criticised Billie (2020) for not simply doing so again. Its great interest is showing how such a life can, or cannot, come to be chronicled. In 1971, at thirty, a New York journalist, Linda Kuehl, from a Jewish background, decided to set about a biography of her. The process involved tracing and recording many of those who had known the singer.

 

Throughout this film, directed/assembled by James Erskine, the camera closes in for a few minutes upon a cassette recorder while somebody - a musician, a pimp, a producer, a narcotics agent, and more - recalls incidents, warmly, cantankerously. Surprising how well these tapes have endured (there are subtitles throughout for these recollections). Amidst all this is archive film of Billie, including some of that wonderful performance fro Granada television in England soon before she died (one must regret the colourisation as the price to be paid for the documentary being made).

 

Of course, research became Linda Kuehl's master. She was forever on the trail, and in thrall (and more) to some of those whom she found (including Count Basie). These cassettes have been used in biographies of Holiday (those by Donald Clarke and Julia Blackburn) but it is something else to hear them - and to reflect that a biographer has his or her life while giving so much of the day to somebody else's. (Michael Holroyd has said that he saw little of the turbulent Sixties while writing the life of Lytton Strachey.) Here, in Billie, are home-movie glimpses of Linda Kuehl in a bikini on the beach, in the waves, seemingly happy.

 

What happened? Soon after her thirty-eighth birthday she was found dead at night on the pavement outside a Washington hotel. The police deemed it suicide. Her family doubt this. She was found in the night cream which she always applied to her face before sleep. Who would do so before suicide? A noir aspect, akin to the terrible end of Billie herself.

 

We are now much further from her death than she was from Billie's. Time works strangely, and we must be glad that her cassettes - and her time - did not go to waste.

 

 

A RACE TO THE FINISH

 

Women in Love! Sons and Lovers! The Rocking-Horse Winner! In any pub quiz about films and D.H. Lawrence, these are some that might be called out but it would be a bold competitor who volunteered Your Witness (1950). Asked to explain and without giving much away, one could make an impressive case by saying that Lawrence plays a pivotal part in this film. Not he himself, of course, for he had been dead twenty years, but one of his poems is read aloud in court (premises, of course, with which he was familiar). The pub competitor could gain extra points by noting that the book entitled Collected Poems in the film is rather slimmer than the substantial one which gathered the work of that prolific author.

 

Things start at quite a pace - in New York, where Robert Montgomery is a sharp lawyer in the middle of a case which he succeeds in having declared a mistrial with the suggestion of political engineering by the opposing attorney. Meanwhile, his secretary has arrived with a cable, which is from the wife (Jenny Laird) of the Englishman (the unfortunately-named Michael Ripper), whose bravery saved them both at Anzio and is now living at a stables.

 

A taunt about the siring of a child upon Ripper's wife has led to a man being shot. He is in gaol, a trial is imminent and things do not look good.

 

Not only did Montgomery appear in almost every scene of this film but he directed it (dual rôles he had recently managed for Lady in the Lake and Ride the Pink Horse). If this one is not on their level, it is capably done. The fast-paced Manhattan opening serves to show that life moves more slowly in post-war England. He arrives in the village, finds lodgings in a pub, overcomes linguistic confusions, and gets a glimpse of the gradations of society.

 

By contrast with the darts players, there is a straight-backed, stiff-natured widowed Colonel (Leslie Banks), whose substantial house also contains his horse-loving teenage daughter (Ann Stephens) and his sister-in-law (Patricia Cutts) whose husband died in the war.

 

The formal English legal system means that Montgomery has to find oblique means to bear out his certainty that his wartime comrade is innocent. Even with the trial underway, this takes time. Nothing, and nobody, is quite as clear as all this might appear. Alliances are formed, inferences prove as misguided as they are understandable, and there is a curious, indeed sexual undertow - which is where D.H. Lawrence comes in as the expert witness. As St. Mawr shows, he understood more about horses than the rocking variety - and The Lost Girl shows that he was familiar with the movies. What would he have made of the advent of the talkies?

 

 

 

 

 

S'IL VOUS PLAIT, MONSIEUR POSTMAN

 

How can one review Jacques Tati? To watch him is to surrender willingly to a mood which some call slapstick, others the higher whimsy. As with Chaplin and Keaton before him, there is an inner logic to the absurd situations in which he finds himself as a simple man up against the System. In his first feature Jour de Fête (1949) he is a postman in a country town where, for Bastille Day, a flagpole is being erected, at which his assistance is, fortunately for us, inept. Duly plied with alcohol, he is goaded at the showing in a tent of a film about the extraordinary American innovation in delivering mail across that continent - a matter of aeroplanes and helicopters.

 

Inspired, deluded, he feels sure that he and his bicycle can match this locally. No more dawdling, he is determined the next day to ensure that this holiday he will be more hard-working than ever.

 

And so it is that the bicycle, often filmed - somehow - with a phantom life of its own, it traverses the lanes and squares at the mercy of a vacant saddle. Against the odds, the wheels survive many a tumble as the hapless Tati chases after it.

 

As one hoots, mere prose cannot match these visual delights, nor can one rise to the heights of Jean Yatove's jaunty music. The film was made in both colour and, as a safety measure, black and white, but, in the late-Forties, it was impossible to process the former, and so for a long while it was not seen as intended. Restoration of the colour brings a new-dimension to the film: it has a pleasingly bleached quality, one might say the equivalent of sepia; it is perfectly suited to the twin forces of a tranquil town against which Tati's frantic activities take place.

 

In this bleak midwinter, can there be any better way of alleviating the spirits than watching this with some pastis to hand?

 

A TWIST IN THE STAIRS

 

Are boarding-house residents at greater risk of murder than those living elsewhere? Such a statistical possibility is borne out by the cinema. Many are the films set in such places, with their opportunities for dramatic camera angles upon ill-lit staircases and in humble rooms.

 

Some have posited that Marcel Carné's Le Jour se Leve (1939) is a proto-noir film. True, it has such a dark setting and the action turns around a four-way love tangle. A resident Jean Gabin - a factory worker - is at home one evening when he is visited by music-hall performer Jules Berry whose assistant is Arletty. Before long a shot is fired, and Berry is no more: a corpse on the landing while the landlady soothes the cat in her arms.

 

In the space of ninety minutes, as the police attempt to break into the room, the action cuts to and fro in time to show how events took such a turn. While involved with a flower grower Jacqueline Laurent, Gabin met Arletty and his divided affections were dealt a blow or two.

 

Jacques Viot's story, to which Jacques Prévert brought dialogue, is familiar stuff - one thinks of nineteenth-century French novels -, but such is the desperate intensity of Gabin's performance through this long night that one cannot but feel for the previous weeks which have made him vulnerable to Berry's cynical manipulation. This emotional corkscrew is echoed by the terrific pacing of a film whose moments of light (a racey glimpse inside a shower), an easing of the turning hand, can only make the ultimate darkness inevitable as the hand regains its grip and presses on.

 

TABLE MANNERS

 

Dorothy Parker. No, not her, but the name of the character played by Dorothy Mackaill in Kept Husbands. The title of this 1931 film suggests, perhaps, something more torrid than it turns out to be - despite, near the beginning, Dorothy's informing her father, “there isn't a man on this earth a woman cannot land if she really wants to.”

 

An interesting theory. In this case, she is the daughter of a steel magnate who has invited to dinner a humble worker at the factory who had saved several men during an accident - and refused a $1000 reward. Before the dinner there is banter about the prospective guest: the women presume that he will “gargle soup in A-minor”. Come the gathering around the table, Dorothy realises that he (Joel McCrae) had been a College football star whose newspaper photograph she has kept for several years.

 

She has the hots, and a past - in the form of a wonderfully slimey Bryan Washburn, and he is not in the least pleased at being supplanted. Some of the delight of this film is the seemingly effortless staging of extravagant parties at the tail-end of the fabled Twenties and glimpses of a pan-Europe honeymoon during which McCrae is increasingly uneasy at Mr. Parker (a genial Robert McWade) footing bill after bill. (One cannot imagine that Andrew Carnegie would have diverted steel profits to bailing out a daughter's gambling losses.) Naturally, all this becomes something of a morality tale but quite possibly the best moment is an immoral one. After a misunderstanding on both sides, Dorothy goes off to a country club, where, in the early hours she succumbs to Washburn's invitation back to his place. In an echo of their previous dealings, he chases her round the coffee table, they act out brief fantasies (“you're going to get your thrill!”), and, from second to second, one wonders what might happen in this pre-Code era.

 

This is not the place to say anymore, which means that there is no room to mention the respective mothers - and a gloriously dour brother.

 

Many are the ways of spending seventy minutes. True, Kept Husbands might distract one from several essays by Montaigne but it makes a diverting accompaniment to a glass or two of wine in fraught times.

 

 

DULCIE GRAY GARDENS

 

We've just flown in our broomsticks for some blood.” So says Marjorie Fielding in The Franchise Affair (1951) as she and her daughter (Dulcie Gray) turn up in a small-town teashop (the Anne Boelyn Café!) and find that, amidst their pastries, the other customers have swallowed the local assertions that they are witches who have kidnapped a teenager (Ann Stephens) in the fine house which they have inherited and are hard pressed to maintain.

 

From a novel by Josephine Tey which was based on an eighteenth-century case, this becomes a matchless depiction of a bruised post-war England in which, bizarrely, a narrowly-focussed Buckinghamshire newspaper is called The Globe. Its front-page headlines echo through the film - capably directed by Lawrence Huntington - as regularly as trays of teapots are placed upon the desks of such people as local, smart-suited solicitor Michael Denison who takes on a case far removed from his usual province of conveyancing and codicils in what was “a quiet, dignified little place” which duly includes a reference to “the situation at Bourne End”.

 

A resonant time in 2001: somebody says of all this, “they wouldn't put a thing like that in the paper if it wasn't true.”

 

As it happens, wild rumours fly, brought to earth by a case which reaches the Assizes and the Judge is bound to say, “do confine yourself to English - Standard or Basic” - as testimony becomes fraught, and, earlier, one those involved feels compelled to say, “it's like wanting to be sick, and having to postpone it.”

 

A strange aspect of all this is that, fifteen years later, Ann Stephens died in equally mysterious circumstances. All of this is, on screen and life, a case, as Michael Denison says along the way, “you can't go through life with a tin can tied to your tail and pretend it isn't there.”

 

One might wonder whether the surnames “Fielding” and “Gray” inspired Simon Gray's wonderfully immoral character Fielding Gray.

 

 

 

 

 

MAIDEN NO MORE

 

With the continuing revival of Patrick Hamilton's work, it is surprising that Bitter Harvest (1963) should be little known. He had been dead a year before the appearance of this film which was adapted by Willis Hall from the pub-centered novel The Siege of Pleasure. With that pedigree, one might be startled to find that director Peter Graham Scott not only brought the story into the contemporary Sixties but filmed it in bright Eastmancolor.

 

No matter, the eye adjusts - and cannot help but focus upon Janet Munro who is on screen for well nigh every minute, from the opening, clothes-hurling desperation in a London mews flat and back to the rundown Welsh village from which she had escaped life behind the till in a small shop doomed to close with the end of the pits.

 

This film followed her sultry appearance in Val Guest's brilliant The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and she is in a similar mode here from the start when she and a friend look in a Cardiff shop window and exclaim, “look, you can have your name embroidered on your knickers!” “That's vulgar.” “And you've told a bloke your name before you get that far.”

 

Which is prescient, for later the same day they chance upon a visiting man (Terence Alexander) who had called in the shop. And, naturally, they are spirited to a swanky place where the girls ask for champagne and, did they but know, are fobbed off with something cheaper, the label swathed by ice. Whatever, the alcohol has its effect and, after a rip-roaring automobile ride, Janet Munro wakes to find herself in bed, naked - and in London. What's more, as she strokes her thigh, she realizes that she has been deflowered. A maiden no more (to use the phrase which Hardy gave to a section of Tess of the d'Urbervilles), she soon adjusts to this turn to events, despite Alexander being absent from the scene henceforth; at the pub (it promises “lager off the ice”) where he had promised to meet her later that day, she sits morosely, and is soon charmed by barman John Stride who has a room in a boarding house run by (bogglingly, uncredited) widowed, cat-loving Thora Hird who has no objection to their living in sin so long as extra rent is paid (with a smirk she recalls how her husband always insisted upon a big bed “in which to stretch out”).

 

Will this be enough for Janet Munro? Odds are against it, for early on, while baby-sitting in Wales, she had been aroused by luxury compounded by watching a wonderful cod-television advert for the wonders (“the glow of stardom!”) worked by bathtime use of a soap called Rose Petal.

 

We spend out lives drinking tea,” she laments to Stride. No, she hankers to model and more. As chance has it, one of Thora Hird's boarders is Colin Gordon who plays a small-time actor (the film has an array of moustached, smooth-talking slimeballs who attempt to project a life way above their station). One way and another, he provides an entrée to her downfall.

 

To say anymore would be unfair, although it is curious that the film leaps over hopes of screen life becoming one of well-heeled prostitution. If this is not, as it were, a fully-fleshed trajectory, there is so much to enjoy along that parabola as the Swinging Sixties warmed up. Snatches of party talk convey so much. “We were on the road all those weeks in Private Lives and slept together five nights out of seven - and now he can't remember my name.” (An incidental fascination of the film is the location shooting, such as a Piccadilly Circus where an illuminated advertisement proclaims a later work by Coward: Sail Away.) Another man is “a big warm teddy bear with a heart like a cement mixer”. And perhaps the best moment of all is when a woman behind the pub's bar fends off a proposition by ringing up “No Sale” on the till: a clanging effect impossible in the digital age.

 

All this was re-made as part of the 2005 television series which included every novel which formed Hamilton's Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky trilogy. High time to catch up with that.

 

And again to lament that, as did Patrick Hamilton, suffered a mental and physical decline which was to kill her within nine years. We should celebrate all that she left behind.

 

SNITCHES IN TIME

 

Time was when the portmanteau film could command an audience which appreciated that, done well, this amounted to a full meal rather than snacking at a tapas. Perhaps the supreme instance was Dead of Night, although there could be a case for Kind Hearts and Coronets being a turn upon such a set-up, as was, decades later., Jack Rosenthal's The Chain. With Bond Street, a number of writers came together, commissioned to provide the separate stories behind the dress, pearl, veil and flowers acquired in the eponymous thoroughfare for a bride's trousseau.

 

And so we are regaled by a great series of characters, the stories not overlapping. In the first, a haughty woman insists that her dress be altered forthwith so that she can attend what is taken to be a cocktail party that evening. Trouble is, the seamstress (Kathleen Harrison) deputed to do the work is in such a rage (anxious to be at the hospital for her teenage daughter's troubled pregnancy) that she rips the dress. Naturally the customer is livid, but there is a twist which restores faith in humanity. Perhaps this section with its de facto sweatshop atmosphere behind that fine façade is the film's early peak. Strange, though, that the toilers at their sewing machines all speak with the clipped accent of their betters.

 

Similarly, Ronald Howard, a button salesman, speaks with such an accent - but he is a former fighter pilot, an officer down on his luck, so much so that he has ripped the trousers of his only suit, necessary dress in which to ply his trade. He is so glad at Patricia Plunkett's handiwork at a humble invisible mender's that he invites her to lunch, unaware that she is trying to disentangle herself from a low-lifer (Kenneth Griffin) who is trying to pull off a theft. Crime returns, with murder, in the section where a murderer hides at in the small flat occupied by a prostitute (a splendid Jean Kent). Torrid stuff, big brass bed and all, the segment that - of the quartet - one could envisage as a full-length film. As for the wedding, one could do without this farcical turn which requires the father of the bride to woo, and send home, the woman who turns up from Denmark (she helped his son escape after wartime capture). There is a crass tone to this, though one relishes the supercilious cameo by hard-pressed travel agent Colin Gordon. Throughout one can happily spot small parts by those who became better known - and it sits alongside the other work by one of those who handled an episode: Terence Rattigan.

 

A TASTE FOR RAW TURNIPS

 

How widely is Erskine Caldwell read nowadays? He died as recently as 1987 (which is in fact thirty-four years ago) but is fixed in the mind as a chronicler of the Depression with Tobacco Road. Set in the wild country of Georgia, it depicts a family hard pressed to grow anything.

 

The novel soon became a long-running Broadway play and was bought by Twentieth Century-Fox. Anybody coming to the work through this 1941 film could be excused for thinking it an instalment of The Beverley Hillbillies. From the off, we find the indolent, turnip-chewing father Charlie Grapewin at the wheel of a jalopy with a tendency to crash through fences on the journey back to the tumbledown homestead across barren land which has not provided sustenance in a long while. Despite such privation, Gene Tierney, given to crawling across the ground, looks ravishing: she could get up on stage and solve the family's problems with one flicker of the eyelid.

 

In the event, things get even worse. The rent unpaid, the bank wants this woe-begone property. What remains of the family can either go to toil on the poor farm or join the many other children at work in a city mill.

 

Another surprise is to find that all this was directed by John Ford who, two years earlier, had made that supreme Depression film The Grapes of Wrath. Where that was harrowing, this is poor farce, one crack-brained scheme following another - such as filling a woman preacher's new, $800 automobile with logs and driving to sell them.

 

Many the moment when one wants to close one's eyes on this spectacle (in which Gene Tierney appears but briefly as does potential saviour Dana Andrews) - and listen to David Buttolph's fine music which, with many a country jangle, fits the landscape so well.

 

 

 

A TALKING TORSO

 

This is fun - and made in the nick of time. Directed by Frank Tuttle from a Twenties play, This is the Night (1932) would have been scuppered by the arrival of the Hays Code which put the kibosh on exposed flesh and wanton words. It was Cary Grant's first film, and what an entrance he makes. He is first heard singing, and then comes into sight as he takes a turn on the staircase, which is quite a toil as he is weighted by the pack of javelins on his back. This return from the Olympics is earlier than expected, just when his wife (Thelma Todd), frustrated by his absences, is about to take herself off to Venice in the company of a lover (Roland Young).

 

Swift thought is needed, and bachelor Young announces that he is going there with his wife. As such, one needs to be found swiftly, and emerges in the person of Lili Damita; an actress so hard up that she kips in the studio, she is more than happy to be commissioned for this impersonation.

 

Here is the stuff of farce, with a running gag of Thelma Todd losing her dress (for example, it is caught in an automobile door). The plot is not entirely the point. A central delight (as well as some technical sleight of hand including blue-tinted night scenes) is the dialogue.

 

Suppose I started ripping your clothes off.” “You'd be disappointed.”

 

When she walks down the street her torso almost talks.”

 

What are you doing?” “Breathing.” “Well, stop it. It sounds immoral.”

 

Ninety years on, it survives well, higher than the routine item it may have seemed at the time and certainly leavens this grim year as much it did for those who were living through the Depression.

 

 

POTEEN THE VILLAGE TO RIGHTS

 

Whitman-like, each filmgoer can contain multitudes. To watch Saints and Sinners (1949) is to switch many times between exasperation and some delight. Written by its producer and director, Leslie Arliss with Paul Vincent Carroll (from his story), it opens with some fine location work in an Irish village (or one that purports to be) as Kieron Moore returns after two years' absence.

 

He does not find a friendly welcome. After all, he has been in gaol for purloining the funds collected for new bells at the church, the province of the Canon, Michael Dolan. From the start Moore maintains his innocence, all the for so as he now finds himself rebuffed by Sheila Manahan who has taken up instead with a local bank manager and adds to the insult by offering him work as pot-man in the inn owned by her father. He calls her bluff by accepting (as he says of the cellar, “it's an improvement on the suite I've had for the past two years - I can open this door”).

 

So far, something almost gritty, especially as it emerges that many of the villagers are hardly on the level: diluted alcohol, a sharpster of an undertaker whose cunning is prompted by the fact that “people are too healthy round here”, and a general penchant for gambling fuelled by one old woman's ability to name a horse who comes in first at 20-1.

 

Another perspective is provided by the arrival from America of a couple, Tom Dillon and the ever-sultry Christine Norden (as Blanche, a name which often suggests flames leaping from the heart). She has faith in Moore, temptation is aroused (a splendid automobile in which he divests himself of the humiliating chauffeur's outfit as she says “I could make you even more of a human being if you gave me the chance”). It is well lit, the crowd scenes are well arranged, and the landscape (the surrounding hills, the church, a ruined abbey, the waterside) looks splendid. And yet, as the betting predictions signify, there is an Irish whimsy to much of this (mercifully, the appearance of a talking donkey is brief and incomprehensible) which brings fears of the apocalypse at noon in the shadow of which Dolan is in demand on all sides as Hell beckons.

 

When reined in, the ensemble playing does have something of a lesser Ealing about it - and who can ever resist the appearance of a rebarbative Marie O'Neill?

 

 

BLAME THE PIANO PLAYER

 

Such is the renown of Ida Lupino that there is a plaque to her on the wall of a house in Hove's Tennis Road which was once the school she attended. Who could then have predicted that she would become a force in Hollywood? At first she appeared on the screen, and learnt so much that she also turned to writing, producing and directing.

 

Her first work behind the camera was Not Wanted (1949) which she had co-written and was obliged to direct herself when Elmer Clifton had a heart attack. It opens with Susan Forrest walking up a hill. Could this be another noir, a form at which Ida Lupino excelled? No, she pauses outside a shop where a baby waits in a pram. She crouches to make the usual cooing - and steals the child. Not that she gets much further up the hill before she is stopped and hauled in by the police.

 

That is but part of it, for the film returns to her upbringing in a house where, ever forgetful of tasks given her, she continually suffers berating by her mother (well played by apron-bound Dorothy Adams). Weary of this and hankering for luxury, she takes up with an itinerant suave nightclub pianist Leo Penn. We can infer the symbolism of their sitting beside a river while he tosses a cigarette into the swirling water and the shot dissolves into the next. (Ida Lupino always had a command of such effect.) Trouble is, as her landlady points out, “they're all alike, honey - never call when you want them to.”

 

Yes, he has bolted. She is bereft, and hardly aroused, it seems, by the advent of Keefe Brasselle whom she encounters on an interstate 'bus while on the trail of the pianist. In time, though, she takes up the offer of a job at his gasoline station (a familiar locale in films of this era, as were railway bridges). Quite what he had hoped to achieve by inviting her to look at his model-railway layout one can but wonder; more conventionally, he duly observes, “you know the way you go around with a long face, it goes to your feet.” Which he promptly proceeds to massage, and brings a smile which melds into a well-filmed fairground ride.

 

It is not nerves that have her faint but, as the doctor reveals, she is pregnant. That cigarette in the water led to this child and a shame which prevents her from returning home. This was a hot subject for the time, and it is well handled. One might think of Basil Dearden who, in England, set out to address problem subjects by means of films which often had an element of the thriller about them. Ida Lupino was to approach other hot subjects, such as The Bigamist. Never pass up a chance to watch her work. That Hove school stood her in good stead. Curiously, at one moment, there is the question, “fancy grabbing something to eat?” A use of that verb loing before its current pervasiveness.

 

 

 

A COUCH IN THE SHADOWS

 

Is there anything as strangely preoccupied as the novels and stories of Cornell Woolrich? His own life, perhaps, which made him the laureate of loners (including a black panther on the run) and lodging houses. Just when one had thought to have read all his work (and seen the many movies made from it) along comes Hollow Triumph (1948).

 

No, this is not a Woolrich film but, turning upon a world of doubles, it comes close. Written by Daniel Fuchs (himself a fine novelist) from a book by Murray Forbes whose rights Paul Heinred himself has been inspired to buy, it brings something different to that familiar tale of a heist gone awry. He and a partner have made off with the proceeds from a casino job. Naturally the other thieves feel a chagrin which will not balk at murder, something borne in upon Heinred when he hears that the partner has forcibly gasped his last.

 

He is desperate, but cool. And makes his own luck by boning up on psychology textbooks. He has discovered that he bears an uncanny resemblance to a psychiatrist revelling in the name of Dr. Bartok. That is, apart from a scar below one eye.

 

Small hurdles, the removal of the psychiatrist from the scene and, wincing to watch, a necessary adjustment to his own cheek. Preposterous, one might say; but then again, think how many such impersonations would have had swathes of Shakespeare on the Globe's cutting-room floor if he did not have one suspending belief.

 

In all this Heinred is aided by Dr. Bartok's secretary, a smouldering Joan Bennett (“What do I see in you?” “My baby-blue eyes.”). To all this director Steve Sekely (aided by Heinred himself and cinematographer John Alton) brings a sure grasp of noir. Every shot - in both senses of the word - is perfectly framed (a word which also has a double meaning). Here is a world in which trust is the scarcest commodity of all - especially when patients voice their innermost concerns to a man no longer the Dr. Bartok they once knew (did they but know it).

 

Throughout these searing turns to events are matched by Sol Kaplan's music. Whether by accident or design, this brings a third Bartok to mind: Béla. A puzzle that he was never asked to write film music.

 

 

A CLOCKWORK HOROLOGE

 

A bridge in the fog always makes for a good opening. As it does in Escape in the Fog(1945), the deep mists emblematic of the the secrecy and subterfuge used by the Secret Service and Axis agents as the war tacks towards an end with fears of subversive forces in the East. Such a scenario has a different twist here, for soon after a shooting on a San Francisco bridge there is a scream - and Nina Foch, waking from that nightmare, finds that two men were so alarmed that they broke down the door of the lodging-house room to which she has retreated while recoving from arduous nursing work.

 

One of her would-be saviours is Otto Kruger, a Secret Service agent glad of the distraction that is the prospect of an evening out with her. Already he is being followed, and a message informs him that the vital plan is about to go into action - with which he suggests that she join him for the journey along the coast to San Francisco.

 

All this, written by Aubrey Wisberg, and directed at a pace by Budd Boetticher, does not amount to a lost masterpiece but there are plot devices (including several clocks) any writer might wish to have created and it all provides a perspective upon home décor - and clothing, which hangs especially well upon the tall, Dutch-born Nina Foch who brought such steely elegance to a series of Forties films that one must wish that there had been more of them and that she were better known.

 

A WEST-COAST LONDON

 

Who was James Ronald? A writer not on many lips now, but his novel was adapted by Bertram Milhauser for The Suspect (1944). This is one of a series of terrific noir-driven films which Robert Siodmak directed during that decade after returning to America from a Germany which, along with Billy Wilder's friendship, taught him so much about the dramatic possibilities of light and shade.

 

One can readily excuse the curious profusion of American accents which infiltrated this account of hapless and hopeful life in Edwardian London, where Charles Laughton runs a shop which is a welcome retreat from married life with the harridan Rosalind Ivan whose bed he leaves once their son has moved out and left a vacant room.

 

Without, the terraced street appears convivial; behind that door, all is dark, rancour incarnate. Such is Christmas, as Laughton fixes sprays of pine leaves around picture frames, that she snarls, “tack up your greens, that's all you're fit for!”

 

Little wonder that he succumbs to Ella Raines whom he encounters again, on a park bench, after saying that he cannot give her a job as a typist (seems that the clerical work is done by hand - men's work). Little by little, they meet again, stroll, go to theatres - and discover an Italian restaurant where “this is an occasion!” becomes a catchphrase which heralds the ordering of champagne. Her charm is matched by his (“a chap my age has a right to a few peculiarities”).

 

Cats prowl, church bells summon the faithful, gardens are tended: their London is an undercover idyll, the only blight Rosalind Ivan.

 

To say that all this was partly inspired by the Crippen case does not give away too much. Here is a perfectly-pitched film: one which makes us fear the worst while hoping for the best.

 

Time to see what else James Ronald wrote.

 

OF NICE AND MEAN

 

Exterior. Day. A Manhattan skyscraper. Interior. Day. The Second Empire. No, Patterns (1956) is not a science-fiction movie although it was written by Rod Serling who created The Twilight Zone. Here is a corporate headquarters decorated in a style - emphasised by many deep-focus shots - redolent of elegant tyranny. This is encapsulated in Everett Sloane, the Chairman of a corporation for whom thousands toil in factories around the country. Given to such observations as “you can't run a business on thank-you notes”, he brooks nothing less than hard-boiled behaviour, and gives the instruction, “learn to accept success - it's sometimes harder to do than accepting failure”.

 

The thrust of this lean work, directed by Fielder Cook, is that Sloane has hired Van Heflin as part of a process of easing out the humane veteran executive Eg Begley whose continual insistence upon treating workers fairly grates upon a Chairman who cannot grasp the greater good. Such is human nature, however, that Heflin and Begley chime, a situation which also puts Heflin at odds with his ambitious suburban wife Beatrice Straight.

 

In the Fifties there were a number of films set in the business world, and Patterns reflects that era, perhaps never more so than in the forced conviviality of a cocktail party where eyes are always over the shoulder, fixed on the main chance. Naturally, men make such observations as “I didn't get her name - only her dimensions.”

 

Existential has become an overworked word but it could find employment for life during the film's boardroom meetings which, in effect, are an adult revisiting of nursery disputes. And one could evolve a whole philosophy from “it's not grown – it's been added to.”

 

CARRIAGES AND DEPORTMENT

 

Were there ever such a knowing smile and twinkling eyes as those in the last scene of Madeleine (1950)? With a screenplay, based on a real nineteenth-century case, by Stanley Haynes and Nicholas Phipps, here is another instance of David Lean living up to his surname. This is an incisive account of love gone wrong which is far from the epic, even bloated turn which his work took in the later Fifties and ever after.

 

Brought up in Leslie Banks's suffocatingly patriarchal household, Ann Todd is expected to marry a man well-nigh chosen for her (Norman Wooland). This is to reckon without her being in thrall to - and correspondence with - a humbly-born secret French lover (Ivan Denny) who manages to sneak into the basement after lights out and, along the way, take her virginity.

 

So far, so melodramatic, and it is set to become all the more so as the fragrant Ann Todd finds herself in difficulties which she resolves to ease by recourse to poison - or does she?

 

We never exactly know, and that is not the point. Here, in black and white, is a vividly realised Edinburgh inside and out. Whether showing overstuffed drawing rooms, a lodging house and dance halls or ballrooms, Lean bgrings to all this the early skill which he showed as an editor. Light and shade, with ample rain, animate proceedings and, without appearing restless, his camera angles enforce a sense of the social order, high looking down upon low - and of the liberation that is an open-air frolic.

 

All act well, ensemble playing, even by lawyers who, as is their wont, pace the floor to emphasise their case in a courtroom.

 

A TRUNKFUL OF DOLLARS

 

Exchange Clifford Evans for Humphrey Bogart, keep his sister (Patricia Roc) and sweetheart singer (Anne Firth) - if they could both affect an America accent - transplant the action to San Francisco or Chicago, and Suspected Person (1942) could well be something that the French would acclaim as classic noir.

 

As it is, this English-made film is routinely dismissed as a B-venture, which in unfair for all concerned. Written and directed by Lawrence Huntington, it gets much into less than an hour and a quarter. Newspapers' front pages speed events along from the very opening, when a New York paper splashes (as they say) on two gangsters for whom there were insufficient grounds for prosecution after $50,000 was stolen. Others were involved - and did a bunk to London with the proceeds. One is swiftly seen off in front of a Thirties mantlepiece (the whole film is a small study in interior design) but it turns out, dishonour among thieves, that he had been relieved of the greenbacks by Evans who hankers to rescue his sister from capably running the boarding house to which circumstances have reduced her.

 

On his trail also comes Scotland Yard's David Farrer, assisted by a pleasingly bumbling William Hartnell (one might reflect that as the first Dr. Who his hair, what there was of it, was longer than that of The Beatles in 1963). Events traverse the suburbs, a night club (with a fetching dancer and a good song), a hotel lobby, an East End pub beside a viaduct, and a railway train with the inevitable treacherous corridor.

 

No scene lasts too long, there is not a moment to question the logic (what with long journeys to North Wales and back), and one can well imagine that in the midst of war all this was a diversion from whatever might be in the air above – with something of an amoral ending. As such, it is equally entertaining when, eight decades on, we do never know what is in the air a few feet above the ground.

 

BONE AND MUSCLE

 

A remarkable invention, the telephone - it's the perfect instrument for deception.” So observes Hugh Williams in Talk about Jacqueline (1942) after his wife (Carla Lehmann) has been trying to obscure the fact that her caller was an old flame. There were many men, across Europe, in her life before she chanced upon Williams when he was mis-allocated a place in her sleeping-car on the way north to Paris - and she chanced to meet him again at an English country house and goes in such pursuit (“forget the fox!”) that she takes a tumble from the horse and is soothed by his presence at her bedside while two cracked ribs knit themselves together.

 

The ribs' progress could be a metaphor as events ensue.

 

She assures one and all that, despite the doctor's orders, he is perfectly welcome as he is “a second opinion”. Indeed, he does have medical qualification. He is a specialist in snake venom. Presumably, in the laboratory he wears a different outfit. Throughout this film he sports a dinner jacket - except when in a smoking jacket. Hugh Williams - now probably rather less known than his son Simon - was a byword for suave, never more than than in the brilliant Brief Ecstasy (1937).

 

Here he adds a steeliness to a part in which neither a hair nor a word is ever out of place, even when his wife's past inevitably emerges (curiously a copy of Tatler coincides with “back number” as a contemporary phrase for previous lover) . Curiously enough, for a film made in wartime, all this was adapted by Henry Cass from a German film made five years earlier. His distinct touch was to add a comic element, in which Jacqueline's sister Joan (Joyce Howard) recognises the potentially explosive situation and makes bold to pass herself off as the notorious “Miss Marlow” who has ignited the society columns while Williams has been occupied with real vipers in foreign parts.

 

Joyce Howard - calling upon herself, needs must, to surrender her natural refinement to don a slinky dress while she knocks back a martini in one (“here's how!”) - gives a bravura performance which makes one wish that she had appeared in more films.

 

All works towards a country-house gathering in Emsworth, a Hampshire town which inevitably brings Wodehouse to mind (grim though its station is nowadays). There is some of his spirit in all this but its undertow of tragedy makes one keen to seek out the German version which somehow surfaced there in terrible times.

 

I'M A HOG FOR YOU,  BABY

 

Does it rain more often in the movies than elsewhere? The thought comes to mind again with Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937), the second film which he made after arriving in Hollywood from Germany. It is as imbued with his Expressionist angles as Metropolis and others from the Twenties, and rain suits this as well as faces framed by doorways and sunlight making shadows across the floor as it traverses prison cells.

 

Before Bonnie and Clyde there was Gun Crazy and, before that, this. All turn equally enjoyable variants upon those lovers who took to the steering wheel and gun, with the tyres squealing as much as their victims. In Lang's case, he has Sylvia Sidney (she had also been in Fury) who works in a Public Defender's office but is smitten, and more, with a habitual criminal Henry Fonda who is soon to leave gaol for the third time. She sees the good in him, but, inevitably, society does not, things slide from hope to despair - a process which provides plenty of excitement, so much so that one cannot help but feel a voyeur of suffering.

 

The film moves from an unexpectedly comic opening in which a market-stall holder tries to bring a case against a policeman for his daily pilfering of apples while on patrol (nothing comes of that), after which there is a romantic mood as Sylvia Sidney and Fonda light upon a house for sale, complete with garden swing.

 

Lang keeps up a pace, with time for such symbolic moments as two frogs in a garden pool (it turns out that, like penguins, they mate for life). All of this anticipates noir, with such moments, places and people as gasoline stations (one of which has a till whose design would now command a far greater sum than it contained any single day), rebarbative governors, and, of course, a well-meaning priest (William Gargan) with an Irish accent. And any pane of glass which hoves into a close-up is at risk of being smashed.

 

At eighty-two minutes, the script (by Gene Towne) contains a great deal, with room for many who have but a minute or two of screen time - such as the couple who run an inn, the husband duly exclaiming, “well, I'll be hog-tied” (meaning: well, I'll be blowed) when looking through his collection of crime magazines and realizing that his hunch was right: they have a jailbird in the honeymoon room.

 

Despite combing several times through the double columns of Jonathon Green's great three volumes Dictionary of Slang, I cannot find the phrase therein, but I shall make shifts to use it at the first opportunity.

 

 

 

 

GLOWIN' IN THE WIND

 

Towards the end of St. Martin's Lane (1938) Hollywood beckons for Vivien Leigh. As it was, of course, to do in life itself: the following year found her in a far longer film, Gone with the Wind.

 

Could this modest, well-packed English film have helped to propel her westwards? Quite possibly. She gives a magnificent performance, frequently in form-fitting striped trousers, as a small-time thief with acting skills who joins - one might say, muscles in upon - three buskers: a group who eke out a living by entertaining the queues outside theatres in the eponymous London district.

 

And did one of those crowds ever see such a performance as those which Charles Laughton delivers in hopes of some coins in a hat?

 

Always declamatory, he is here as good as in any of the parts for which he is better known (among this film's classic scenes is one in which he tries to entertain a magistrate: to scant avail). What's more, at the other end of the social scale, there is a supremely smooth Rex Harrison who is beguiled by Vivien Leigh, so much so that he invites her to a smart party (at which she is startled by the custom of dipping cocktail sausages in milk), all of which prompts a leap to her career.

 

The dancing and singing is as much a delight as the gritty boarding house in which Laughton is holed up (and it is always a delight to see Marie O'Neill, the landlady, but one should like to know the name of the boy who played her son: he innocently relays the news that Laughton has a young woman in his room, information which has the staircase take a pounding). That boy could, at a pinch, still be with us - but certainly long gone are the dog and the cat who turn in proficient performances outside a pub and upon a window ledge.

 

And when, in such moments, you think that you could not be further surprised, up springs Larry Adler, harmonica and all, to add a Gershwin touch to a tune which Harrison thumps out at the piano in a smart apartment (flat is hardly the word for such rooftop premises).

 

All this owes much to Clemence Dane. In her time, she was well known as a playwright and novelist, now mainly remembered for inspiring Hitchcock's Murder (she also suggested to Graham Greene the phrase from Hamlet which he used as a title for one of the two novels he did not allow to be reprinted: The Name of Action). Her script is imbued with theatrical life, all of it caught so well by director Tim Whelan whose Q-Planes at this time saw Laurence Olivier at a peak.

TIME AND A TIGER

 

Are Vladimir Arseniev's journals widely read here? Certainly in Russia they continue to be popular, and they were even well known in Japan. At the beginning of his career, Akira Kurosawa wanted to make a film from them but soon realised that he would need more experience behind the camera - and to make the film in the wilds of Russia itself.

 

Come the early-Seventies, he was able to set to work. Great good fortune brought him Yurly Solomin to play Captain Arseniev and Maksim Munzuk as Dersu Uzala. The latter is a huntsman, a long-time inhabitant of the forests, whom he and the rest of the surveying force encounter while they seek to find pathways through seemingly inexplicable terrain cut through by a fierce river.

 

Such is Uzala's knowledge - borne of experience and instinct - that he is able to guide and save them through the seasons, especially as the winds get up and snow descends.

 

That is essentially the story, which lasts almost two and a half hours. And rarely has there been anything so gripping, whether time is given to treks beneath the sun or constructing a hut from shrubbery to fend off the imminent hand of Death, which also lurks in a river as it heads towards the torrents - not to mention a tiger with whom Uzala is in as much communion as the rest of us are with a pet cat.

 

Exactly how Kurosawa achieves this is a mystery which might be solved through scene-by-scene analysis but, even on repeated viewings, this is not something to induce one to press the pause button. Such is the photography, one should travel dozens of miles or more to see it upon a large screen.

 

It is one of the best films, and its making must have been as arduous as any of the original expeditions (indeed, Solomin had been in a sanatorium before hearing that Kurosawa was set to make the him, and, in getting to the auditions, was startled to find that he was to have a starring parth father than be one of the foor soldiers). Here is as individual, and as affecting, a study of the noble savage and purported civilization as any to have found a place in our consciousness since Dryden created the phrase 350 years ago.

 

TWO MORE AVENGERS

 

In which film does Diana Rigg play Jeff Lynne? This potential pub-quiz stumper comes to mind while watching Theatre of Blood (1973) in which, equally unlikely, she is the daughter of Vincent Price.

 

This is a cast which includes all manner of British actors - Michael Horden, Coral Browne, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Dennis Price, Arthur Lowe, Diana Dors, among others - in startling variants upon their familiar screen roles (Morley is a startlingly camp, highly-coiffured, blue-rinsed devotee of his two small poodles). Some have smaller appearances than others, for the narrative is such that, in turn, they are bumped off.

 

So far, so very Ten Little Niggers/Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None. The great twist here is that screenwriter Anthony Greville-Bell worked up a brilliant notion that each of these would suffer an end inspired by one of the many gruesome examples that would have obliged Shakespeare's Globe to display an X certificate above its doors.

 

What can be the cause of such an energetic ritual? It does not give too much away to say that Price is a lifelong, prime-ham actor who, after a season of Shakespearean productions, is more than miffed that he has lost a Critics' Circle award to some jumped-up, whippersnapper who belongs to the Mumbling School of acting in an incomprehensible play.

 

Diana Rigg is determined to avenge him. Inevitably, in time, this brings a staging of King Lear in the most unusual, vertigo-inducing of settings. Before then, even while looking away from the screen as the Hammer blows fall, one relishes the unexpected way in which these terrible deaths find a new form (a smart wine-tasting evening anybody?). There is no need for a coastal excursion when all eyes are on Gloucester. Everything takes place in early-Seventies London - and how fascinating, half a century on, to glimpse those still-devastated spaces.

 

Director Douglas Hickox handles all this with as much aplomb as the gore allows (sang froid, one might say). Great use is made of a redundant theatre commandeered for several of these ignominious deaths. One might wonder how much all this cost to make, and the fees that such a cast could command. Then again, they may have agreed to work for scale, such was the satisfaction of bloody revenge upon critics' reviling of their efforts.

 

And, if you might puzzle over the assertion about Diana Rigg playing Jeff Lynne, wait until Vincent Price himself - as a hairdresser! - displays a family resemblance to her/him.

 

Such are all the gender-defying twists that this takes that - along with the presence of Dennis Price - here is fitting heir to Kind Hearts and Coronets.

 

 

 

 

CARRY ON NOIR

 

It is a familiar scenario in films made during the post-war years. A man travels abroad set upon seemingly simple task only to find himself caught up in such intrigue that he meets further opposition every time he thinks that the way ahead is clear.

 

Venetian Bird (1952) is a few years, and some way, after The Third Man. In this case, Richard Todd arrives in Venice - Nino Rota music playing as he does so - to carry out the instructions of a now-millionaire whose life was saved in the war by a brave Italian whom he now wishes to give a reward. The only thing is that, apparently dead, he is even harder to find than Harry Lime. All this is taken from a novel by Victor Canning - a familiar name upon spinning bookracks in his time: his The Rainbird Pattern was the basis for Hitchcock's last film, Family Plot (1976). Where Greene's script for events in Vienna had been memorable in its economy, Venetian Bird, adapted by Canning himself, is cumbersome with dialogue as exposition (and not always clear at that).

 

There is, though, much going for it, with the title referring to a painting in one of many well-photographed interiors, and the well-nigh obligatory sultry woman whose lips prove a distraction. These scenes were filmed in England but Venice is as much the star as any who cross its squares, bridges and, crucially, rooftops. The director, Ralph Thomas, comes into his own with these - and is also able to handle a British cast who have to turn their hand to playing Italians. Most startling of these is Sid James. He makes a good show with the accent, a far cry from the throaty chuckle he was wont to give in those films directed by Thomas's brother Gerald. Venetian Bird - foolishly re-named The Assassin in America – is a whole darker angle upon Carry On Abroad.

 

NYLONS WITH VIOLENCE

 

I've brought an embrocation. This will take the sting out of it.” Embrocation is a word to locate Nightbeat in a time -1947 - and place: a would-be smart night-club off Piccadilly. Its owner, who has done time, is Maxwell Reed, and his offer of a bottle of soothing champagne on a sofa in his flat is designed to ease one of many complications in the amatory involvements which propel this film through an engrossing crew of spivs, wide-boys - and a fair spectrum of the police force.

 

Developed from a story by Guy Morgan, and directed by the versatile journeyman Harold Huth, it has much more going for it than was perhaps apparent at the time. A lorryload of soldiers are dropped off near Parliament Square on their return from the Far East - and before long a brawl breaks out in a pub after one of them (Ronald Howard, whose face later brought him a television role as Sherlock Holmes) has palmed off somebody with shoddy black-market clothes. He is saved from greater damage by fellow wartime soldier Hector Ross, who is in love with Howard's sister, the ever-prim Anne Crawford (who was to die a few years later from cancer). Trouble is that, during the war, Anne Crawford was lent a flat for little by Reed; Ross's hackles rise as much as his suspicions.

 

For lack of any other work, both men join the police force and there are interesting scenes of their training. Some of this is directed and edited at too slow a pace, but one's interest is quickly re-engaged, not least because this includes the most unlikely Sid James pairing before his appearance in the terrific Hell Drivers with Sean Connery a decade later. Here, he plays a pianist in the club's band - and accompanies Christine Norden during some sultry singing which makes demands not only upon her tonsils but the rest of her anatomy as she swivels in the spotlight.

 

Who was she? Here she plays a good-time gal, and her own life appears to have been wild (she left some memoirs still too torrid to publish). In the film she recalls wartime experience with a GI (“nylons dripped off him like sweat”) and, on a sofa, when told, “no! don't you know the meaning of no?”, she replies, “it wasn't in any book I read at school.”

 

The plot has many turns, it is good value, with quayside glimpses after dark. If neither Hector Ross nor Ronald Howard shine in their leading roles, there is so much else here. Maxwell Reed is just right for the club owner with hopes of a better life thwarted by old associates and the temptations of Christine Norden's flesh. He offers her a key to a flat, and she asks, “where's the catch?” “On the front door.”

 

For all that, it is a shame that, in general, Reed did not take the advice of Joan Collins (he was her first husband) and loosen up in his acting style. He could have become better known.

 

Meanwhile, one is left to wonder whether Sid James could play the piano - and to recall Samuel Johnson's definition of “embrocation”: “the act of rubbing any part diseased with medicinal liquors or spirits.” Such a waste of champagne, even while Reed subjects Christine Norden's calf to close attention.

 

FEAT IN THE CLOUDS

 

Four decades after Airplane!, it can still seem hard to take disaster movies seriously. That is to reckon without Jet Storm (1959) which itself was a decade after Brighton Rock. What is the connection between a film about a transatlantic airliner bound for New York, a bomb somewhere aboard, and one set amidst race-track gangs? In both Richard Attenborough is a troubled villain. He has planted the bomb in hopes of killing the man who escaped a hit-and-run charge after killing his daughter - and among the passengers is Hermione Baddeley, who had also been set against Attenborough in that film set on the South Coast.

 

These are but two of an array of passengers who board the aeroplane at Heathrow in those days when there were stairs to its entrance, with a chance for photographers to do their stuff rather than be thwarted by the hidden tubes and travelators of nowadays. Their object of attention is Marty Wilde. As the plot unfurls, there is no chance for him to anticipate the guitar-playing nun in Airport and Airplane!, for his instrument has been stowed in the hold.

 

As a film, this is a lesser one than Brighton Rock but it can equally be said that Richard Attenborough gives a more subtle performance here. To say any more would give away too much (the end has echoes of the earlier film). Within the confines of cabin and cockpit, not to mention another deck which sports, below a spiral staircase, a curved - and crucial - cocktail bar, there is a gathering of people which includes a pleasingly comic turn by Harry Secombe and Sybil Thorndike who find themselves side by side, each urging the other to accept the free champagne offered to one and all by the Captain - a great turn by Stanley Baker who tries to calm the situation while some passengers form a cabal to taken matters into their own hands. (Curiously enough, there is reference to an earlier flight with trouble caused by two Zulus, an unwitting anticipation of Baker's film Zulu five years later.) One might even detect a touch of Coward as a couple, destined for the divorce court in America, bet upon their sharing of assets while playing cards.

 

If you're making a peace overture, dear, I wish you'd do it more subtly.”

 

That's the thing about a divorce case, it's the only time if they find you guilty, they set you free.”

 

Meanwhile one woman snarls at another, “yes, just keep on being wise - it will get you a good pew in Heaven!”

 

And another troubled couple exchange sharp words: “I'm not an angel yet.” “There can be no doubt about that.”

 

Curiously, one passenger goes by the Wodehouse name of Mr. Mulliner. Was this an in-joke by its writer and director Cy Endfield? Who knows? There is so much in this film to savour, and one has not even mentioned the budding romance between the co-pilot and a stewardess on her first voyage as turbulence lands a kiss in the vicinity of a breast.

 

Oh, and there is an early appearance by Paul Eddington. And a touching one by David Kossoff. And one would like to hear the memories of Jeremy Judge, who was nine while asleep during these ninety minutes above an Atlantic which lose nothing for remaining in Shepperton.

 

 

 

 

SET IN THEIR WAYS

 

Elizabeth Taylor could be very good - especially when she was badly behaved. Such is the case in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) which was adapted by its director Richard Brooks from Tennessee Williams's play. Her performance as Maggie, married unsatisfactorily to Brick (Paul Newman), is coruscating as she contends with a man, a former sportsman turned commentator and drunkard, his problems further complicated by foolishly breaking a leg just when his father is due to arrive for a birthday gathering. What with this and Rear Window, one might start to think about legs in plaster as a film setting (so to speak).

 

Such family strife is a frequent spur to film, but this is Williams - and the South. And so the heat is on, all the more so when the father arrives. Known to them all as Big Daddy, he is played superbly by Burl Ives, one of many to pace out the revelations (it is clear that he understands the relations between Brick and a man who jumped from a window).

 

The film was made at a time when Technicolor was to the fore, but the striking thing is that it is outpaced by the blue eyes. Newman is, of course, famed for these, but many of the cast have them (and one thinks of Jane Birkin's description of meeting Graham Greene: to look at his blue eyes, she felt as though looking through his head to the sky). Williams purists decry the film as a toned-down one, but this was a time and a place on screen. How often does one get the chance to see a top-notch performance of him on stage? And how can one summon the accents when reading him on the page?

 

One must be thankful for everything that this film supplies - including an array of loathsome children - and thankful to look in rather than be amidst them as the sun goes down.

 

Two stray thoughts. Did Big Daddy inspire the name of a wrestler? And when will John Lennon's song about Williams “Tennessee” be released? He used the melody for “Watching the Wheels”.

 

 

SUCH A NIGHT

 

Gosh! The New Yorker! Unusual reading for somebody living in this dump!”

You'd be surprised at the people living in Soho.”

 

Such is an exchange in East of Piccadilly (1941) between a Scotland Yard Inspector and one of his staff when they inspect a boarding house at 175 Greek Street after a body has been reported to them by a crime reporter (Judy Campbell) and a detective novelist (Sebastian Shaw) who had received a mysterious telephone tip-off when they meet at a party for the publication of his umpteenth thriller.

 

Unaware of who he is, she has derided the novel after a quick glimpse at its closing pages. By contrast, they duly find themselves embroiled in a case which takes many turns through a dark night with a sojourn in a club and then a café with checker-covered tables.

 

A year after His Girl Friday, Judy Campbell's sassy, even outré performance here surely owes something to Rosalind Russell's, especially when it seems she might be demoted to reporting a flower show.

 

A brilliant bedding pansy.” “Is that a plant?”

 

An upright sweet william.” “Sounds like a boy I knew.”

 

With scenes in the boarding house that turn around a gramophone, and at the Old Bailey, with a montage of Judge and Jury, here is a film which leaps beyond its modest boundaries - and all the more so when one of the habitués of the boarding house includes an embittered actor who keeps in his wardrobe hanged waxworks of such critics as Ivor Brown and James Agate who had given him bad reviews - something compounded when, in those confines, he blacks up to play Othello and reaches for a handkerchief.

 

Such moments are worthy of Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets. And these are but a few of the surreal turns in a film - adapted by J. Lee Thompson, who laterr directed the terrific Yield to the Night with Diana Dors - which must have appeared all the more unusual when that London district was under bombardment. Directed by all-rounder Harold Huth, it melds shots of Piccadilly Circus with interiors and a re-created Greek Street to great effect.

 

Five years later, Judy Campbell gave birth to Jane Birkin, who was to become an emblem of a very different, Swinging London - strange to think that was a place far closer in time to the Blitz than it is to this decade.

 

 

 

 

LIGHTS, CAMERA, MADNESS

 

So-called minor British films of the Fifties often prove more than nostalgic diversion. Lo and behold, The Intimate Stranger (1956), which was renamed Finger of Guilt in America, was directed by Joseph Losey when exiled by the blacklisting, along with its writer Howard Koch (one of those with a hand in Casablanca). It opens, rewardingly, in an English film studio, which has been joined by Richard Basehart after a different sort of scandal in Hollywood. Among those in this swirl of passion and intrigue is a former lover Constance Cummings (herself born in America) who plays a fading actress whose insecurity is continually made manifest upon her tongue. Which is a lesser concern in comparison with the numerous letters Basehart receives from Newcastle, sent by a woman (Mary Murphy) who claims to have had an affair with him - an assertion seemingly confirmed by her recalling many small details about his life.

 

The situation - which one might call Shepperton Babylon - becomes intolerable. Basehart's work suffers, so much so that he is ordered from the set and departs with his wife (Faith Brook), his boss's daughter, in a splendid sports car to confront the glamorous Mary in the boarding house in which she has holed up during a stint on the Tyneside city's repertory stage.

 

All of which might sound preposterous, but, then, the same could be said of Casablanca. Losey brings to it a noir sensibility (he never quite lost that, thank goodness), even if there is less of this in the middle section. A brisk pace, continually interesting shots - with an array of such more-than-reliable players as Mervyn Johns and Roger Livesey - make for something which deserves higher credit than even Losey gave it. Sometimes it is a very good thing when the pictures get smaller.

 

SLIGHTLY LATER THE SAME NIGHT

 

Soon after 10 pm, Robert Ryan is in a downtown hotel room and thinking about time. That is, at thirty-five, he is approaching the end as a boxer - especially as he is due to face a man a dozen years younger (Hal Baylor) when it is his turn to enter the ring, unaware that he is part - literally the fall-guy - of the eponymous set-up.

 

In all this, he is urged to chuck it in by his girlfriend, the brilliant Audrey Totter, and take up a new life, however humble. Directed by the ever-adaptable Roberty Wise, The Set-Up (1949) is a far cry from the film for which he is best known, The Sound of Music. Its seventy minutes are the exact time of events between that room and the end of events across the road in a ring whose audience is the frequent object of leaping and murderous yelling montage (women in particular). Here are all the tropes of classic noir, including a dodgy manager (George Tobias) and vulgarly-besuited mobster (a splendid Alan Baxter). The lighting, the pace are managed wonderfully, with sufficient shots of timepieces to keep one aware as Audrey walks the town - a moment on a railway bridge is matched by every moment of all this, inside and out.

 

The wonder is that it was adapted by Art Cohn from Joseph Moncure March's verse novel, one which is now harder to find than The Wild Party, which was itself filmed in the mid-Seventies. There are signs that verse novels are making a return. Is it too late for a film version of Vikram Seth's wonderful depiction of San Francisco in The Golden Gate?

 

THE NOIR SIDE OF THE MOON

 

Strange to think that we are now further in time from the 1969 Moon landing than it was from Frau im Mond (1929) - often translated as Woman in the Moon. This was a seemingly unlikely work for Fritz Lang, his last silent film. In fact, he had a penchant for the idea of space travel, and in working upon it (from a script and novel by his then-wife Thea von Harbou), he also drew upon scientific advice prescient of the actual Moonshot (a series of rockets, each separating from the rest of the craft). What's more, it so much anticipated German rocket work that, later in the Thirties, Hitler banned its showing.

 

Some say that, in the fullest restoration, at over three hours, it is too long. In fact it goes by at a clip. Everything begins with Klaus Pohl who, in the 1890s, had put forward proposals for space flight, only to be met with such derision by his peers that he became a wild-haired outcast; in this bedsitter state, he meets and collaborates with Willy Fritsch upon such a flight, which the young Gerda Maurus, caught in a love triangle, insists upon joining.

 

That is the barest outline of a film which, for the most part takes place on Earth and with many a smoking jacket on display, so much so that one wonders why Noel Coward did not think of an inter-galactic play. Even when not much is happening, one's attention is gripped by the cinematography, Lang's mastery of angle and focus - and the way in which straps hang from the rocket's ceiling, as redolent of nooses as they are those which keep passengers upright on a hurtling Underground train.

 

As for the lunar surface, the film's title means that one gives nothing away by saying that the craft lands there. What's more, no creatures leap from the darkness but something far worse: gold, showing all those miles away that indeed the love of money is the root of all evil.

 

While watching this, you find yourself holding on tight.

 

 

 

 

THE FULL MONTAGE

 

If you don't have a dream, / How can you have a dream come true?” Those lines, from South Pacific, come to mind while watching a film contemporary with it - though its composers, including John Cage, are a far stave from that musical. Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947) was produced and directed by Dadist Hans Richter who also drew upon contributions by fellow surrealists, including Ernst, Duchamp, Ray, for a series of seven short episodes which turn around a man who has landed a small flat but, being an artist, lacks the wherewithal to pay the rent.

 

He receives wise advice. As somebody who can look into his own mirrored eyes and see all manner of unlikely images, he realises that he should indeed set up in trade as somebody who can supply the dreamless with all manner of fantasical images to leaven their dull existence.

 

And so it is that they come through his door in turn (including a hapless accountant and blind man led by his grand-daughter). Many film techniques are used, including stop-go animation put to such use as the romance between a pair of mannequins which was the work of Léger, with lyrics by John LaTouche who was esteemed by Gore Vidal.

 

It is a rich brew on top of a rich diet, images tumbling upon images in a way that prose can but stumble in an attempt to catch up. Filmed in a wonderfully muted colour, with some voice-over redolent of film noir, this makes for a diverting eighty minutes which one might happily re-run now and then - along with the bonus shorts on the British Film Institute's disc: three Richter works from the Twenties, with such delights as bowler hats moving across a sunny lawn while some men stroll into shot, and disappear behind a tall, narrow streetlamp which just happens to be there. That puts digital trickery to shame.

 

If you are one of those whom this might make exclaim, “that's barking mad!” then this is not for you. Others, especially in this bizarre year of 2020, when many say that they have had epic surreal dreams night after night, this could be just the thing to soothe the soul.

 

This film outlives the contemporary dismissal of it by James Agee (a great on-the-hoof film reviewer) who, among other things, said, “I rather liked the only music by John Cage that I've heard, to date, though it doesn't sound as original as often advertised; more like Japanese court music simplified for an appreciation class.” One so enjoys reading Agee that one is happy to disagree with him.

 

 

SILK AND SANDPAPER

 

Many assume that a film brings a novelist fame, even fortune. Who now, though, finds Charlotte Armstrong's name springing to the lips? That said, it could be well worth seeking out her books, for one of these was the basis for Don't Bother to Knock (1952) - its script the work of Daniel Taradash - and a high point is the entrance in a Manhattan hotel doorway of... Marilyn Monroe.

 

Astonishing to think, this was her eighteenth appearance on screen, and she was yet to make the films for which she is best known (one thinks also of Bogart's numerous early rôles). And it remains one of her best, and should be better known.

 

Hotels, like boarding houses, are invariably a good basis for a film. This opens with another bonus, the first appearance on screen of Anne Bancroft who sits on a stool and confides in the ever-wise barman: she laments that her man, a commercial pilot, is one of those who, in current parlance, refuses to “commit”; with which, the light goes low, she spins round, and takes to the stage for the first in a series of standards (such as “Where or When?”) which appear throughout the film, sometimes heard on the radio system in the building's bedrooms and suites.

 

Particularly vexed by this sound is her unsatisfactory lover, Richard Widmark who, aghast at being well-nigh dumped, has taken to his room with a bottle of rye. Through a slatted blind he sees Marilyn Monroe in a room across the courtyard, and, brazenly, assumes that she might be up to providing him with a little consolation.

 

She, though, has problems of her own - to say any more would detract from the turns taken by this film. Directed by Roy Baker, an Englishman, it opens, searing Lionel Newman music and all, in a way that suggests film noir but it incorporates melodrama, comedy, some Hitchcockian touches (rope, windows) - with more than a hint of tragic-toned farce as doors open and close in the nick of time. Marilyn's performance shows what how good she could be; she brings out that “silk and sandpaper” quality of which Widmark accuses her during that evening/night (the film lasts some seventy-five minutes).

 

Still with us, as they say, is Donna Corcoran, the young girl whom Marilyn was hired to babysit that evening. Little did she realise in 1952 that, ever after, she would be in the slipstream of legend. As the surviving fragments of Marilyn's last film show, she was good with children, she could make them laugh - though, in this case, Donna screams magnificently

 

SOUND WORK

 

Claude!” This is perhaps the most-uttered word in Black Christmas (1974), and a sign of the wit which underlies this pioneer of what became known as slasher movies. The name belongs to a large, furry white cat who is the one male living in a Canadian sorority house.

 

Among the students is Olivia Hussey, her boyfriend aspirant classical pianist Kier Dullea. Seemingly proper - the opposite Margot Kidder who is so drunk that she assails a desk-sergeant -, Olivia Hussey is pregnant. This is but one situation in a plot which moves apace as one student disappears and obscene telephone calls continue (with some notable scenes in a pre-digital exchange). Written by Roy Moore and directed by Bob Clark, this was made on the hoof, with none of those involved aware that it would - after a while - gain a status which duly shifted from cult to popular.

 

There is no time to linger but everything is properly filled out, and a good deal of the effect comes from adroit use of sound (including Carl Zittrer's music). In particular there is a montage of carol singers on the doorstep while a dagger plunges into flesh upstairs. Had this scene been filmed in black and white, a clip could be mistaken for a prime piece of German Expressionism.

 

Here is something for more than horror fanatics, although piano lovers might shudder.

 

 

 

OF BEDS AND BARS

 

RINSO SAVES COAL EVERY WASH DAY. To watch such a film as West 11 (1963) six decades on is to be struck by such advertising signs, and pervasive Ascot water-heaters as well as huge prams,. These would have simply been a part of daily life for contemporary audiences. This film, though, remains far more than one of period interest.

 

Directed by Michael Winner, from a script by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, it springs from the familiar world of boarding-house life (complete with severe landlady, Kathleen Harrison) as Alfred Lynch throws in his job at a men's outfitter on the Strand, and hangs out in the tall, terraced building where he has a room at the top - all filmed in excellent black and white.

 

This was a time when it was well-nigh shameful to admit to living in Notting Hill, and to smuggle Kathleen Breck into one's bed needed all the skill of a wartime operation - not mention recourse to the communal bathroom. Talking of wartime, Lynch is followed from the outfitter's by Eric Portman, a palpable spiv whose war service one might doubt, and so ensues a scheme which brings the element of a thriller to all this.

 

Along the way, there is many a scene in cafés and bars, not to mention crowded parties in small rooms (Diana Dors settles for anybody who offers a ride home in a taxi), and there is a strong showing for jazz. The music by Stanley Black features Ken Colyer and Acker Bilk. And one is unnerved by the chance appearance of a demonstration by the Britain First Party, whose speaker inveighs again immigration before violence erupts: there was another, troubling world beyond what one of jazz crowd calls “the same old bars and the same old beds”.

 

A shame that Alfred Lynch, whose character has a veritably misplaced energy throughout all this, did not appear in more films (he made notable stage appearances at the Royal Court). This is one to watch again - and to reflect that, early on, Michael Winner had a subtler hand on the camera than was to become the case. Among the extras, though, is a scene that was pruned for the released version: and perhaps it was better to leave to the staircase shadows and one's imagination the spectacle of a naked Kathleen Breck taking a tumble. When a landlady's ire is aroused there is no time to put back on what seem to be extraordinarily large bra and knickers.

 

Reference is made to “crispies”: fresh paper money, a term which goes back to Wodehouse and before, but not like to survive the contactless era.

 

CHROMIUM CONCUBINAGE

 

That phrase is Graham Greene's, from his 1937 review of Pépé le Moko to describe a woman (Mireille Balin) who has been drawn to a man for his money but on their arrival in Algiers chances into the Casbah, where she becomes in thrall to a hoodlum (Jean Gabin) who cannot leave those tight and twisted streets, those plentiful nooks, as he will be picked up by the police for his part in a Parisian heist.

 

Gabin already has a woman (Line Noro) who has much with which to put up, such is the violence of his hands and mouth, but he becomes smitten by Mireille Balin, who in Greene's full phrase, is “acquisitive, prehensile, risen from the ranks, and groomed for chromium concubinage”. Equally, she looks set to change (something which Greene said elsewhere is the hardest thing for a writer to describe).

 

Greene called this film - adapted by Henri La Bathe from his novel with its director Julien Duvivier - “one of the most exciting and moving films I can remember seeing”. What's more, as Gabin succumbs to fatal allure, “we do not forget the real subject in a mass of detail: the freedom-loving human spirit trapped and pulled at the chain. A simple subject, but fiction does not demand complex themes, and the story of a man at liberty to move only in one shabby, alien quarter when his heart is another place widens out to touch the experience of exile common to everyone”.

 

That should surely inspire you to read all of Greene's film writings (collected in Mornings in the Dark). What's more, some have suggested that all this - along with a police go-between - may have suggested to him some of the plot of The Third Man. And one could add that the treatment handed out to the hapless informer amidst Gabin's gang inspired some of Brighton Rock, on which Greene was working at that time.

 

There is so much more to be said about Pépé le moko, not least that its cinematography is as much a character as that in The Third Man - and that its ending is as heartbreaking as the one upon which Carol Reed insisted for Greene's script, and indeed the one eventually chosen for the on-the-hoof making of Casablanca.

 

And, of course, those British and American films turn around music - as does Pépé le moko: quite a moment when now-swollen Fréhel puts a 78 on the turntable and listens to her youthful voice emerge from the horn. That is something at which a modern-day actor might balk. One can only admire Fréher for doing so - and seek out more of her discs.

 

A BLACK-AND-WHITE KEYBOARD - WITH GREY NOTES

 

British noir remains in the shadow, as it were, of its American and French relations but should have more light shone upon it own ancestry. How can such a good film as Take My Life (1947) be out of general circulation? The first film to be directed by cinematographer Ronald Neame, it was adapted from a story by Winston Graham (not only the original creator of Poldark but also of Marnie) and was photographed by another future director, Guy Green.

 

Their talents were put to the service of a tale which turns around the ever-suave Hugh Williams, who manages his opera-singing wife Greta Gynt and chances to meet an old flame, a musician Rosalie Crutchley, during a performance. Greta Gynt's jealousy and insecurity are aroused - only to be confounded when Miss Crutchley is found dead and Hugh Williams is deemed prime suspect, with prosecuting barrister Francis Sullivan, thumbs on his gown's lapels, resounding throughout these seventy-five minutes while, in a parallel time sequence, efforts are made to prove Williams innocent.

 

This brings many a night-time scene, a railway journey to the North, such stray clues as a piano piece (to add to this vintage brew, the music is by William Alwyn). There is no time to pause, but many a moment must be savoured. One can spend time well by watching it twice in an evening.

 

 

 

A STINGER - WITH STINGERS

 

There is something to be written about a husky voice in the movies. Naturally, it sums up many a dame in a bar, but there is also Marlon Brando's struggle with his tonsils in The Godfather. Some, though, might make the case for Charles Laughton who plays a tyrannical magazine publisher in The Big Clock (1948) where every dip in the circulation brings explosions to those troubled lips as they order firings.

 

He has an obsession with time and money, so much so that the smart lobby of the Manhattan building features a near-atomic clock which links to many places around the world - and fuels those clocks within all the offices - while his ravaged-voice soliloquy during a meeting lists the exact number of seconds, each one a heartbeat, in the average human lifespan.

 

This is strange, driven territory, buttressed by daily life in a skyscraper. One of the staff, a crime expert, is Ray Milland, whose wife (Maureen O'Sullivan) is more than miffed that, after seven years' marriage, they have still not had a honeymoon, such is his misplaced devotion to work. Their delayed honeymoon/vacation is due to start the very evening of the film (with a young son along for the ride).

 

Things do not turn out that way, for a glance at the clock tells Milland that he has missed the train on which they were due to meet. Clocks, and other timepieces, recur in the film, as they do in the well-nigh real time of The Set-Up. Symbolism does not obtrude, though, while the pace increases to great effect. It was directed by John Farrow, from a script by Jonathan Latimer, himself a fine thriller writer, who worked from a novel by Kenneth Fearing (a great name for a noir writer, and one must seek out the poems by which he set greater store).

 

And, of course, there is a dame. Rita Johnson. Not perhaps a name known to many. She plays a mistress to Laughton, and Milland becomes smitten with her when, in a bar, she hints at all the torrid behaviour she has endured at the hands of that corrupt figure. They have a wild night, after that missed train, and encounter, along the way, a glorious Elsa Lanchester in an after-hours antique shop.

 

To mention these few scenes is but to hint at so much going on in this film. It has a huge cast of extras, such as those who fill the elevators and those who operate its buttons while fending off flirtations from those with palpably bursting buttons.

 

To say any more about the plot, which combines claustrophobia with depth of field shots which rival those in the similarly tyrannical Citizen Kane, would spoil it. Worth saying, though, that the film lifts off with the arrival of Rita Johnson, who, it seems, may have had some real-life experience of dodgy men leaving her bruised. And, in a turn to events the very stuff of noir itself, she suffered a brain injury when one of those now-vanished, head-encasing hair-dryers collapsed upon her, and she could not work again: a situation which brought on the alcoholism which duly killed her.

 

She was terrific. She is not in The Big Clock for long - but she makes it all her own, especially in the bar scene when the waiter almost chokes at what he is asked to add to a stinger. As for Ray Milland, one must wonder whether he will fulfil that promise to his wife that, after all this, he will return to small-town journalism to “report church fairs, write obituaries, and set type.”

 

 

A SNOWBOUND BRAWL

 

Opening out.” How often the phrase is used to describe the way in which a play becomes a full-blown film. One thinks, perhaps, of the way in which a half-hour play by Noel Coward transcended that railway-platform café to emerge on screen as Brief Encounter. Has there, though, been so dramatic a transformation as the leap from the confines of a diner which was William Inge's play Bus Stop to a Cinemascope film which included a protracted, open-air scene at a much-bucking rodeo for which there would certainly have been no room in that original halt somewhere in the wilds of Montana?

 

The difference is that the wide-screen film contains Marilyn Monroe who, like Sally Bowles in Cabaret, cuts a wow (“That Old Black Magic”) on a hick stage that would have been an international sensation in real life. The thrust of all this is that naïve cowboy Don Murray, no woman having passed through his arms, becomes in thrall to her, so much so that he cannot grasp that she has her eyes on Hollywood rather than getting on the 'bus with him and being taken back to the farm.

 

Preposterous as the film is, often feeling longer than its ninety minutes, and outlandish as Marilyn's accent sounds, there is so much to engage one's attention - her instinctive grasp of comedy and sharp retort - that one can suspend disbelief now and then.

 

And, one might surmise that the children with whom Marilyn banters in that snowbound diner are probably still with us – and, even now, reminiscing about her instinctive way with them.

 

NIGHT AND DAZE

 

I was a passionate reader of Close-Up which was edited by Kenneth Macpherson and Bryher and published from a chateau in Switzerland. Marc Allégret was the Paris Correspondent and Pudovkin contributed articles on montage.” So Graham Greene recalled of his time at Oxford in the Twenties, where his enthusiasm for film - necessarily silent film - increased, and was an influence upon his writing of fiction.

 

One would like to know if he saw Borderline (1930). This was a silent film written and directed by that editor Macpherson himself, and, along with Bryher, it featured her close friend the poet known as HD (Hilda Doolittle) - as well as Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda.

 

This is set in a Swiss village, where Eslanda has not only caused outrage by having an affair with a white man but brought marital difficulties for all concerned. That is the broadest outline of a film which turns less upon narrative - with scant inter-titles - than an abundance of montage, of dissolves from one image to another, faces caught in half-shadow as revenge and despair work alongside each other, with a knife to the fore at one moment. Close-up is indeed the term which it brings to mind throughout its seventy minutes.

 

One surrenders to it, is caught up by the pacing, and watches it a second time (it gains from knowing the outline the next time around). For the current DVD issue, there is a modern-jazz soundtrack by Courtney Pine, who talks very interestingly about his work on this during an “extra” item on the disc, and the excellent music works to best effect with the volume lowered: its switches of pace are of a piece with the fast editing of the film itself.

 

Pine remarks that he saw the film “about thirty-seven times” (a curious mixture of the general and the specific) while writing the music. A contrast with Miles Davis, one reflects, who improvised his score for Lift to the Scaffold while watching it screened for him.

 

A film, then, in which to lose and find oneself - and perhaps explore the Bohemian lives of those involved in its making (Bryher's novel about a teashop in the Blitz has just been reissued).

 

SEX AND THE COUNTRY

 

We are so used to seeing films set in the past that it is salutary to see one made in 1930 itself: a cloche hat and bobbed hair were a simple fashion item of rather than the work of a research team. The thought comes to mind while watching Mary Duncan, who works in a small but crowded Chicago diner, all steaming urns and jostling elbows at the counter. This is a far cry from a wheat farm in Minnesota whence Charles Farrell has been sent by his fierce patriarchal father to sell the imminent harvest on the volatile market.

 

Farrell is a man, in thrall to his mother, who is not cut out for that harsh world, and - as he orders a meal, over which he utters a silent blessing - he enters into talk with Mary Duncan, to the chortling badinage of the stranger who sits beside him.

 

They are smitten, so much so that, within a day, he suggests that she quit her bedsit beside a railtrack (where a plant is ailing from the soot and a caged bird is forlorn), and marry him there and then - before the next train leaves.

 

Whirlwind is the word for this romance - and, before long, literally for the wild landscape of the farm which she has pictured as a pastoral idlyll rather than the seething atmosphere she duly encounters.

 

Farrell's father - played by David Torrence - makes his displeasure known, even slapping Mary Duncan (a contrast with his gently brushing wheat dust from a large bible). Inside and out, in city and country, every scene is wonderfully filmed by Murnau, whether surging thunder, railroad wheels, a crowded attic. A team of itinerant harvesters is holed up in that room, among them Richard Alexander (as Mac): he is a dead ringer for Jack Nicholson, salacious look and all, as he suggests that he can take Mary Duncan away from the unfortunate situation in which she has found herself.

 

How will it turn out? That is not for me to say. These ninety minutes go by swiftly, the cinematography transcends melodrama, so much so that one is involved at every moment.

 

Did I say that it is silent? If you are one of those bothered on that front, set aside such thoughts, and revel in this delight.

 

 

 

 

THE BED-PAN TELEGRAPH

 

The phrase is coined by one of the staff in a Bath hospital, where - between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP - news has gone round the premises that a patient has arrived with a virus caught from her son who had returned a fortnight ago as steward on a Merchant Navy ship which set sail somewhere in the East.

 

Earlier that day, in the heavy snow of January 1st, 1963 (the Beatles duly recorded their LP on February 11th), a doctor, Richard Johnson, had been at a New Year's Eve party with his wife, a former nurse (Claire Bloom): the atmosphere was taunt with the presence of flighty Yvonne Dolan with whom Johnson had succumbed to a fling a while ago - as her husband, another colleague, suspected. Should ancient flings be forgot.

 

This was one of several early-Sixties films made by Val Guest in English towns and cities. There was Hell is a City (Manchester), Jigsaw (Brighton) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (London), all of which were thrillers with a noir tinge and a domestic undertow. Despite the dramatic subject, a virus which puts at risk of death the eponymous 80,000 Suspects (the number of Bath residents who have to be tracked and traced), the domestic angle in this film is more to the fore. That said, there is many a shot of those residents queuing by night and day for, well, a shot - often referred to as a scratch. Among them is a fat man who, as the needle descends, faints into Claire Bloom's arms, which is a leap, or rather a collapse, across time, for he was Graham Moffatt, a familiar stooge from Will Hay films in the Thirties (on which Val Guest had first worked).

 

A curious sight throughout the film is a huge device (the “Big Beast”) in which hospital staff have to put their clothes and possessions for decontamination. It resembles a cremator,; indeed, towards the end, Richard Johnson lists the professions (including prostitute) of those who have died and remarks, “the urn's always the same shape”, a phrase which has something of Sir Thomas Browne about it. In that end a fat man and a thin one wildly signal the same curves.

 

Happily, though, Claire Bloom is still with us, and soon after the appearance of the Beatles' LP and this film, one suspects that there was many a frisson as audiences saw that she was slightly slow to pull a towel around her curves when surprised during a necessary shower in the room next to the Big Beast. Those split-seconds must have compensated for the all-too-understanding soliloquies by Cyril Cusack as a Catholic priest.

 

 

 

ENGINE AND WOMAN TROUBLE

 

For some people it's liquor, for me it's always been women.” So says an American writer (Alex Nicol) in the opening voiceover of The House Across the Lake (1954) as, sitting at a bar, he recalls his first encounter with Hillary Brooke and all that followed upon land and water.

 

People at the time may have been tempted to see it by a fast-paced trailer which gives away too much of the plot - and focusses upon those partners in crime while making no mention of their victim, a certain... Sid James.

 

He plays well as an ailing millionaire whose efforts have yielded a lakeside house with a glamorous second wife at whom his daughter looks askance, every look in her eyes saying “golddigger”. Money is a theme of this engaging film, made by Hammer before it turned to gore-in-the-crypt productions, and there is a wonderful cameo by Keith Illing as a heavily-moustached literary agent (with a glass of milk on his desk) who has the hapless task of trying to extract money from a publisher for the desultory chapters which Nicol has so far typed while trying to buckle down in modest premises from which, with binoculars, he can ssee Hillary Brooke's poolside disportions.

 

Here are all the familiar tropes of film noir (not forgetting a conversation over a billiard table and a sedulous detective) but it is managed with brio. It was directed by Ken Hughes, from his own novel, and has been overshadowed by his diverse later work such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. One to see - and to read.

 

 

 

ANOTHER ASP-ECT

 

With Cleopatra (1934) we are neither in the territory of Shakespeare nor Carry On Cleo. It is, though, as highly enjoyable as those two works. Made at a time when the Hollywood Code loomed, it manages, with Claudette Colbert and the women around her, to provide a louche atmosphere amidst the seemingly extravagant sets for which director Cecil B. DeMille was famed.

 

The dialogue owes little to history, and rather more to those contemporary comedies in which Graham Greene preferred to this one. He called her “badly miscast”, which is harsh. Watch this and whenever one thinks of Cleopatra, her face will come to mind, seduction itself, and - for all the humorously flirtatious dialogue, notably upon her barge - the well-known story is moving.

 

And it bring to mind another tomb, one in Hove, where former cricketer C. Aubrey Smith died. Amongst a fine supporting cast, he is a notable Enobarbus, beard and all.

 

 

 

FROM ROMANCE TO RITUAL

 

Critics are in the habit of affecting omniscience. Better, though, to say that one is coming to something fresh (“admit” would denote needless shame: none of us can claim to have seen everything: life lays tosh across one's path as well as masterpieces). This is the first film by Sergei Parajanov that I have seen (he died, at sixty-six, three decades ago), and it is one which brings immersion from the opening moments.

 

We are in nineteenth-century Ukraine, in the countryside, against the Carpathian mountains, where folk song is to the fore on the soundtrack and animals stroll to and fro, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the director must be hoping they do not lurch out of shot. The thrust of the story is that Ivan Mikolaychuk is in love with the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, a man of dubious worth, and the tragedy is that she dies, her spirit suffusing everything which happens afterwards.

 

This, though, is not a film which one watches for that drama as such; it is suffused with the spirit of place, a way of filming which it would be lazy to call “painterly”; in traversing folklore, ritual - the very facts of life and death -. it says something, while switching between colour and black and white, about human survival. As such, in these times, it invites, even obliges one to watch it again before saying any more.

 

MONEY TO BURNS

 

Don't you wear anything under your dress?” “Don't be old-fashioned, dearie!” It is the early morning in the skyscraper of Manhattan Tower (1932) where Noel Francis has arrived at work without time to go home to Brooklyn for her day clothes after an all-night party (which is continuing).

 

She is talking with a colleague, Mary Brian who is engaged to James Hall (in his last film), one of the building's technical staff who toil in the basement while these women sit outside the art-deco office door of Kenneth Burns (an effectively slimey Clay Clement) whose wife is in the process of trying to divorce him (“when it came to the point that he didn't bother to lie to me anymore, my pride was gone”). True to form, he tries it one with gold-digging Noel Francis (his advice: “why go to Brooklyn when you can go to Park Avenue?”). With which promise she falls into his arms.

 

Directed by Frank Strayer, this was evidently a low-budget film but he brings sufficient neo-Expressionist touches to it (bustling crowds, the light of the elevator moving between floors, arm-wrenching switchboard operators) to create an image of the metropolis in miniature.

 

As for that trip to Park Avenue for another dress, it is not going to happen. Mr. Burns - a name which brings to mind the equally creepy owner of the nuclear-power plant in The Simpsons - has not only fleeced his wife of her inheritance but taken money off such staff as Mary Brian with the promise that he will invest it well. This, though, is the early-Thirties, times are volatile, the thin ice of the banking business proves perilous when word gets out that this one is in trouble. Small wonder that one man says of Burns, “I'd like to get him in an alley for five minutes.”

 

At little more than an hour, all this passes swiftly, and does not eschew multiple heartache with a run on the bank (a fine montage of screaming faces), and there are more salty moments, such as Noel Francis, sat behind her desk, complaining of another colleague, “that guy must think I'm a bareback rider.” “Well, if you ever stood up, he'd know you are.”

 

The only awkward note is a top-hatted, tottering drunk – Noel Francis's companion of the night before - toiling up the building floor by floor to bring her the office dress which she had sent him to retrieve from Brooklyn. As somebody informs him several floors down, “I haven't seen your crazy bimbo!” A reminder that the noun was around long before the Eighties - in fact it appeared in America as early as 1919.

 

 

THE DAME OF THE LAKE

 

Don't ever change, Tiger - I couldn't take it if you had a heart.” So says Dan Dureya who, while living in a torrid bedsit, has pulled off a $60,000 blackmail case after learning of a local corruption racket. Trouble is that, in the opening moments of this 1949 film, that briefcase of greenbacks landed in another open-top car, one being driven through the hills outside Los Angeles by Arthur Kennedy - alongside is his sharp-tongued wife Lisabeth Scott.

 

She had not wanted to visit their smart friends who make her feel low at heel. And now, after their turning back and a chase by the money's “rightful” owner, the marriage is even edgier, she urging him not to hand over the money to the police. And striking up that necessary friendship which leads to the affectionate name of Tiger.

 

As if this were not enough, Kennedy's sister (Kristine Miller) lives across the hallway, and it is clear from the start that she, an equal tiger, does not approve of this wife, whose first husband had killed himself.

 

To get its main stars cost the studio a significant chunk of the budget, which meant that when it came time for the cameras to roll, much use was made of the same interiors; this adds to the intensity of a drama, which often has only two characters in a scene; even when others come along, the continued circling of one another takes, shall we say, interesting turns. Quite a lot happens by daylight but this is quintessential noir.

 

It is a surprise that neither its writer (Roy Huggins, from his novel) nor director (Byron Haskin) liked the finished film: each blamed the other, and they cannot have been pleased that, despite some good reviews, it did not get wide distribution. For many years it was out of circulation, available only in roughly-copied versions. Happily, it has recently been restored to decidedly smart effect - and, on disc, it comes with an extra which includes some comments by Dan Dureya's son, who recalls that, although he played an array of villains, off-screen he never shouted at anybody, “except his agent”.

 

 

A GOOD MAN IN SCOTLAND

 

The camera moves quickly across dense mid-African jungle, shots ring out, a trap falls from the branches - and it is not an animal hoisted upwards but a human being, or, as the term was in 1870, a pygmy.

 

Two (Lomama Boseki; Cécile Bayiha) have been caught, escape is attempted, a small boat capsizes along the river, the air echoes to shouts and argument as anguish mutates into fear. The explorer, with his prize, is Joseph Fiennes, working with Kristin Scott Thomas who acts on behalf of European zoos to capture wild animals, some of whom also find a caged, below-decks place on the long voyage back to Britain - in particular Scotland. There, in a country house, Fiennes is working with two other scientists (Iain Glen; Hugh Bonneville) to present a paper/lecture in Edinburgh which will prove that they have discovered “the Missing Link”.

 

As we have seen in L'Enfant sauvage and The Elephant Man, there were many who regarded these as a freak show; what's more, as here, the locals are up in arms/bayonets, to fend off the pair who have arrived in their midst.

 

Can one say that one enjoys such a film? Throughout, and these two hours go by swiftly, one feels a tension between the shoulder blades which compounds anticipation of whatever might happen next and anxiety about all that has befallen these innocents.

 

Written by William Boyd, from a scenario by XX, the film was directed by Régis Wargnier (best known for Indochine) who knows how to keep a drama moving, whether by day or night, inside or without, and he works with sufficient subtlety - as Fiennes has a change of heart, a recognition of the human spirits in his charge - that one must regret the insistent music which breaks out in jungle, woodland and after-dark Edinburgh.

 

Such are the vagaries of the film industry that Man to Man, which opened the Berlin Film Festival in 2005, ran into unfathomable distribution problems, and was not shown in Britain or America. This is our loss, all the more so as it is as resonant in our times as 1870 (one thinks, for example, of Christopher Hampton's early-Seventies play Savages about cultural conflict in South America). It is, though, available on DVD from France, complete with the English-language version in which it was filmed. Along with it is a fifty-five-minute disc about its making - with a poignant final few minutes in which Lomama Boseki, after the shooting (Cornwall partly stands in for Scotland), returns to his village and shows to the others a magazine in which he had featured with everybody else, alongside adverts for automobiles beyond all their reckoning. One cherishes the moment in a hotel lounge when he and Kristin Scott Thomas saw the rushes - and he had badinage with those deputed to look after him.

A great spirit.

 

 

LOW FARCE; HIGH FUN

 

During the Second World War there was a public taste for succour and solace in Classical works, whether in bomb-shelter sanctuary or during duty as a rooftop warden. The thought comes to mind while watching a lesser-known Ealing film Fiddlers Three (1944).

 

This springs many a surprise, not least that it is directed by Harry Watt, who had made many a notably serious documentary. This could hardly be called one of those. It opens with Tommy Trinder (a music-hall veteran) and Sonnie Hale on their way by tandem to join the Navy at Portsmouth, before which they chance upon a WREN in need of a lift. She (the pretty Diana Decker, who died last year) perches on front while the weather turns rough, and they try to take a short cut via Stonehenge, where they seek sanctuary beneath a tomb. That is not enough. Lightning strikes - and they find themselves not only back in Roman times but at the mercy of... James Robertson Justice, who, living up to the surname, sentences them to a year-long voyage to a Italy ruled by Nero (Francis Sullivan, a swollen dead-ringer for Zero Mostel), whose sultry wife (Frances Day) strokes a breast in a way to suggest that she is not averse to rival offers.

 

All of which leads to the time-travellers not only becoming part of various song-and-dance routines (with lyrics by future, brilliant, sadly-doomed director Robert Hamer) but seemingly on the point of being chomped upon by snarling lions who, one might surmise, were not fooled by Sonnie Hale's bravura turn in a Carmen Miranda outfit complete with puns about Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals.

 

Naturally enough, and in the nick of time, all turns out well - but anybody who watches this might prefer not to return with the three of them to Stonehenge but to stay in Rome and risk the lions in hopes of watching again a wonderful turn - perhaps the film's best few minutes - by singer Elisabeth Welch who found such renewed fame decades later.

 

Meanwhile, how much did all this influence, in the mid-Sixties, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? Among its cast was... Zero Mostel.

 

 

 

 

 

FREE AND NOT SO EASY

 

The orthodox view is that Laurence Olivier, a notable stage actor, was slow to adapt to the screen (the late-Thirties Q-Planes was splendid) and that he ended in in a similar, Seventies slough of such things as The Boys from Brazil and other lumbering villains. That can be modified by Perfect Understanding. This appeared in 1933, its credits including the story and dialogue being by Miles Malleson and its editing the work of Thorold Dickinson - oh, and Oliver's co-star was Gloria Swanson, long familiar in silent movies (and living long enough to campaign against the adulteration of food with sugar and to support John Lennon's campaign to remain in America when Nixon tried to throw him out).

 

One's hopes for the film could, reasonably enough, falter in the opening fifteen minutes, when it looks as though we are in for a country-house comedy/drama so lumpen it appears to have emerged from the cook's pot - indeed the cook uses a kitchen implement to stab a maid whom she glimpses in the embrace of a previous lover.

 

So much for downstairs. Upstairs, well-heeled Olivier (with a neat moustache) and heiress Swanson meet, passion inspiring them to pledge marital vows that they will be adult and understanding in the face of the world's take on marital behaviour. And so ensues the best, middle part of the film. From low farce, we are now in pleasingly brittle comedy with more than a hint of Coward as the couple's honeymoon duly dissolves into his going to Cannes while she stays in London to supervise the decoration of their flat (there are some good shots of Piccadilly Circus by night).

 

And so it is that, in the bright day of Cannes, we find coastal vistas, art-deco interiors - and a parade of poolside women in one-piece bathing outfits redolent of those surviving scenes from the lost, Twenties incarnation of The Great Gatsby, their eyes fixed upon the trunks of well-chested men who dive from on high fearless of the waters which will greet them seconds later. The atmosphere, which includes a near-fatal, cocktail-driven speedboat race, is louche. There is no doubt that, off-screen, bathing costumes will be cast aside as soon as sundown permits, and, what's more, Olivier does not resist another's allure.

 

All this is stylishly filmed, with some sharp cutting from sea to shore and back again, as it is when Oliver returns to London and, inside that flat, he confesses all; with which Gloria Swanson, initially forgiving, has a fling - to his obsessive chagrin.

 

There is more to it than this, but the pace slackens when matters turn to the Courts, although there is some sport to be found in watching nineteenth-century stage veterans surface as bufferish barristers.

 

A curiosity, perhaps, but one which snuck past a Censor who grew stricter in the next year or so. Easy as it is to dismiss as a whole, as Olivier himself did, Perfect Understanding has quite a bit with which to reward those who resist the eject-button (the modern-day equivalent of a 1933 whisper in the dark, “shall we go and have a drink instead?”)

 

 

 

THE LESSER ESCAPE

 

Before his film career began, Dirk Bogarde appeared on stage. Boys in Brown (1949) gives one a glimpse of that - after a fashion. He is one of a group of young men joined in Borstal by well-meaning but weak Knowles (Richard Attenborough) who is invidiously persuaded against his better judgment to join in a pointless break-out. Part of their cover is a production of a scene from Julius Caesar which is shown in gym-room rehearsal and upon the stage - where the Ides echo to Bogarde's reasonable attempt at a Welsh accent (which makes one wonder how Shakespeare sounds with an all-Welsh cast).

 

Written and directed by Montgomery Tully, who soon became a prolific director of B-movies, this is in something of the manner of those made by Basil Dearden who treated social issues in a liberal, sometimes wooden manner. Here is a Governor (Jack Warner) who is at pains to emphasise that he has his charges' best interests at heart but, when trying to inspire them to look ahead, finds himself forever up against spirits soured by upbringing and experience (there is an interestingly brief sub-plot - potentially a film in itself - about his attempt to persuade a now well-married, clip-voiced woman, with a child glimpsed upon a garden swing, to give a home to a son whom she last glimpsed as an illegitimate infant sent out for what proved to be drunken fostering).

 

Well-filmed, whether in close up (the inevitable telephone) or long shots of the prisonesque establishment, with some fine night-time moments when a raid upon a wardrobe goes horribly wrong (watch it to see what that phrase means), here are eighty minutes which transcend their origins as a play (which had also been shown on television). Other well-known figures provide a turn, including a brief one by Thora Hird as Attenborough's mother - and one of the opening moments' hoodlums who landed getaway driver Attenborough in it was... Clive Dunn, he of that number-one song “Grandpa” which should have brought him, the children's chorus and all who purchased it a long stretch with no remission.

 

 

 

 

 

READY MONEY, SIR

 

What is it that makes one return to familiar tales? Time and again, a book appears about, say, The Beatles; one knows that it will probably not add much, if anything, to all those chronicles that have previously sat upon one's lap, and yet, and yet. Perhaps it is a return to childhood, when repeated readings of a book were demanded of one's parents. That is an apt observation to make, as it happens, of The Happy Prince (2018), for it opens by turning a variation upon the equally much-told life of Oscar Wilde.

 

He is sitting beside a bed in a Chelsea house and reading the eponymous fairy tale to his two young sons (they straddled an era: one died in the Great War, the other lived until 1967: “All You Need is the Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name”).

 

With which, its cuts away to a cross-Channel ferry at Dieppe in 1897, two years after the author had been consigned to two years' hard labour in Reading Gaol, a glittering career snuffed. Here, in a film written and directed by Rupert Everett, as well as featuring him as Wilde, one finds him during the two years before he expired in a cheap Paris hotel.

 

This is promising. So many accounts of Wilde pall after his three Trials and his incarceration. They were certainly dramatic. And yet so much happened afterwards. His eagerness to meet again his wife Constance (well depicted here by Emily Watson), his fatally succumbing again to Lord Alfred Douglas, the allure, in free-and-easy Naples, of youths whose trousers could fall to their ankles for a consideration.

 

What is so often overlooked is that Wilde could have been on the cusp of a return to creative fervour. Not only was there his great Ballad, but he sold the outline for a play which one wished that he had written himself - and he set about crucial additional dialogue for the first published edition of The Importance of Being Earnest.

 

Naturally, textual emendations - a man sitting at desk with a pen - would hardly be the stuff of a gripping film, but this one lurches far, far, too far in the opposite direction. Blink, and the scene has shifted several times, which would surely be to the bewilderment of those who have no idea who Robbie Ross might be.

 

Here, amidst contemporary techno music, with suffocatingly dramatic lighting - whether in seedy hotel or music hall -, is Wilde as pop video. One would not be surprised if Elton John's “I'm Still Standing” blasted from the soundtrack (and one suspects that Wilde would have enjoyed its heaving-buttocks video).

 

For all this, we could yet find a sequel. There is no doubt that Rupert Everett makes a great Wilde, the best on screen. One should like to see him directed by somebody else: as the Wilde who, in Worthing during the summer and autumn of 1894, was at work on Earnest in the company of his family while trying to accommodate visits from Douglas - and enjoying trysts on the seashore which, observed by agents acting for Douglas's father, would be re-played in the High Court soon after that play had been briefly acclaimed as the masterly depiction of the subterfuge to which Wilde awoke day after day.

 

PRESSING CHARGES

 

How many people on Earth at any one time might be watching The Counterfeit Plan (1957)? Perhaps few, but, as is the way with such films, it has stayed around. Sixty-three years on, it keeps one's attention from the start as a horse and wagon block a French country road as part of a plot to spirit condemned murderer Zachary Scott by aeroplane to the Sussex countryside, where former forger Mervyn Johns has a startlingly large country home in grounds large enough for that 'plane to land.

 

Scott wants more than a bolt-hole. He is keen to pull a new, huge scam. This was not the time of izettle and contactless cards. And fivers were large, with only somebody of Johns's skill able to match the devices by which the Bank of England tried to stay ahead of the hoodlums.

 

Ably directed by the wonderfully-named Montgomery Tully, who was adept at making a small budget look bigger, the machinations are followed in close detail as the network of “associates” takes in the whole country, with the camera focussing on the area around Brighton station as spivs convene as well as such fronts as poolhall premises for other discussions.

 

All of which is to reckon without a pretty woman, and the return of Scott's distracting desires. No time to pause, everything runs more smoothly for the viewer than those hurtling about the country under the delusion that they would never have it so good.

 

ONE STEP AT A TIME

 

What is is that makes a staircase so good a setting for scenes in a film? The thought comes to mind during The Man Upstairs, made in 1958 by a British company set up to give technical teams regular work - and what a marvellous job they did of lighting and staging the many scenes, from various distances and angles, upon the twisting staircase which links the several floors of a boarding house run by Patricia Jessel who has either lost her husband to death or other circumstances but has not yet given up those carnal hopes fortified by medicine which comes in a Dewars bottle.

 

After touching up her eyebrows, she even proffers it in the middle of the night when woken by Kenneth Griffith as a quiveringly aggressive clerk Mr. Pollen (not exactly an apt name, for his bald head is unlikely to contain any dandruff). His spectacles have been broken by fellow lodger John Wilson (Richard Attenborough who has been knocking on some of the various doors after, this cold night, being able to get his gas fire working, however much he wrenches the slot into which coins must drop.

 

His first hopeless call had been upon Charles Houston, a suave artist whose wariness at this disturbance is increased lest it be known that the model for his easel's latest work is staying the night “after missing the last 'bus home”. The boarding house has always been a good setting for novels and films (London Belongs to Me was a fine example of one working well in both forms - and, on the screen, it had also found a part for Richard Attenborough). The Man Upstairs was written by Alun Falconer and directed by Dan Chaffey, both of whom were mostly known for television work (although the latter made an enjoyable film The Girl in the Picture).

 

A notable feature of The Man Upstairs is that it takes place in real time, something which dawns, as it were, during a crucial three minutes which cut to and from a police inspector's wrist-watch. He is played by ever-stolid Bernard Lee, who has no truck with the circumstances which have led Attenborough to hole up in this place. All he knows is that Attenborough has a gun but is unaware that also on the lodger's chest of drawers is a vital bottle of pills. To say any more about the way in which the residents turn from warring with one another - while a crowd gathers outside around the Fire Brigade's long ladder and a Police searchlight - would miss the point of this fine film. Splendid though Attenborough's turn is as a haunted man forced into the - literally - shadows (the black-and-white cinematography is perfectly judged), he does not dominate events.

 

The eighty-five-minutes' traffic of our screen gives equal room to all the residents (we need more films which do so), though, of course, there are supporting parts, one of them taken by John Charlesworth. He plays a man from the Army who will not allow tear gas to be used - and looks as though he has just stepped from the Sixth Form common room. In fact, he had made two-score films as a child, and, two years after the problematic heater of The Man Within, he gassed himself at twenty-four. Which bears out the theme of this fine film: one never knows what lies behind others' lives.

 

A FAREWELL TO CHARMS

 

Eight decades after an aeroplane crashed and killed all of its two-dozen passengers, one feels grief, for among them was Carole Lombard on her way home to husband Clark Gable after speaking on behalf of the war effort. Yet to appear was the glorious take on Hamlet as To Be or Not To Be, one of a series of classic comedies she had made during the Thirties.

 

There were many other appearances - and, as did Gable, she had already gained numerous small parts in the silent era (it is startling to think she was only thirty-three at her death). When chancing upon Man of the World (1931), one's eyes might light up as much as hers invariably did when a camera was turned upon her. After all, it was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, he of Citizen Kane, and also finds her in the company of William Powell, to whom she would become briefly married.

 

If this is not top-notch film-making, it certainly shows that the early days of the talkies were not as stilted as some might claim. Here is late-Twenties Paris, where Powell, in the shadow of Hemingway, is trying to make it as a novelist, his smart suit a cover for hardship eased by the racket of running a handprinted scandal sheet with a sharp-talking old flame (Wynne Gibson): stories can be pulled at the last minute if their subjects come up with the readies.

 

And along comes the very stout Guy Kibbee, who has fallen for the city's nefarious charms. In offering him “help” to escape exposure that would not go down well in the mid-West, Powell not only meets him but also his niece (Carole Lombard) and her uninspiring fiancé.

 

One can imagine the rest, what with the fiancé needing to make a trip to London on business. This is a film which owes less to plot than to performance, and much of it is carried by Powell who - in such films as The Thin Man - would embody that suave and charm already to the fore here. Take it for what it is, the start of a beautiful friendship, and here is an hour and quarter which embraces the races, many a bar, and - rarer upon the screen - boxes of metal type, each letter awaiting its being slotted into place to subversively mercenary effect. Man of the World is worth you time: you will not feel fleeced.

 

REGISTERING GUILT

 

Why aren't you a man?” “The usual reasons.” So Constance Cummings replies to Edmund Lowe a few minutes into Seven Sinners (1936) when he encounters her in the lift of a smartly contemporary Nice hotel, and learns that she is the New York insurance agent deputed to retrieve him, a private detective, from his holiday and set about a loss-adjusting case in Scotland.

 

Will they get there? After all, she has arrived while a masked ball is in full swing, all rousing music and dancing inside and out. If that were not enough, Lowe, still sporting a Wagnerian outfit, informs her that he has just gone for a late-night snifter with a fellow guest whose avian mask has slipped from his face to reveal that he is in fact bearded - and dead.

 

We have witnessed the scene, unlike Miss Cummings, who has her doubts, such is the tang of alcohol on Lowe's breath - and these are confirmed when Lowe takes her to the room, where it turns out that the corpse has done a bunk.

 

Which prompts her to insist that they catch the train due to leave in fifteen minutes' time. She says that she will pack his things while he freshens up in a quick shower. For the time, all this is surprisingly frisky: she asks whether he has any spare underwear (“it's in the top drawer”) - and gives a discreet smirk when finding, and leaving, a woman's abandoned nightdress beneath the bedcovers as she hefts the suitcase.

 

All of which means that we are in the shadow of The Thin Man (1935), whose first sequel did not appear until 1937. Here is plenty of such banter, and Edmund Lowe has all of the easy-going charm which was displayed by William Powell. For all that, Seven Sinners has another strand to its ancestry: the story is adapted from one by Arnold Ridley who not only wrote The Ghost Train but also The Wrecker, that 1929 silent pioneer of the Thirties' penchant for train movies. What's more, the screenplay is by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Laudner who would work with Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes.

 

Suffice to say that, in Seven Sinners, Lowe and Miss Cummings make the train, just - and it comes as much a cropper as those in The Wrecker. Some of that film's footage was re-used for this one, and Southern Railways was willing to lend another train for the making of this one on that perilous stretch of out-of-service line.

 

Not that Seven Sinners takes place entirely upon trains, not by any means. The international machinations, very much a part of the mid-Thirties, entail the pair putting together clues from such things as a visit to the Guild Hall and, via a dress shop, to a Dorset whist drive whose climax is worthy of Bunuel as a splendid harridan protests to the vicar that Lowe's innocent sleight of hand has denied her winning a sucking pig. This is a film in which, naturally, a meeting of the Pilgrims for Peace ends with its chairs being smashed upon heads.

 

Three years before the outbreak of War, the lesson is that nobody can be trusted - except for the Registrar. One might have thought the previous scene, which anticipates Orson Welles, was a fitting climax to the film but, no, the Registrar duly steals the scene, and leaves us to give a whoop of delight at his being unfazed by - no, watch it yourself. It is one of the great endings to a film.

 

TOKEN AT THE FLOOD

 

From the very first moment, this thriller - set upon the mid-Sixties New York subway - makes one gasp.

 

Having fully expected it to be in that era's garish colour, one thrills to find that it turns out to be in wonderful shades of noirish black and white as, gone midnight, sundry people - mostly couples - head towards stations to coincide upon a train which is bound for 42nd Street.

 

Among these are a pair of low-life pool-hall jerks ( Martin Sheen, Tony Musante) who have, after hours, stabbed a man in an alley after finding that he has only eight dollars upon him. As they now see it, their task is to taunt those among whom they find themselves in the carriage as it hurtles, clangingly, onwards while a supine drunk is as oblivious to it all as the infant clutched by a couple who have fretted over the likelihood of their being able to afford the upbringing of another one. Meanwhile, mindful of such a turn-up to events, Donna Mills has been fearful of surrendering her virginity to the self-styled alpha male who, strapped for cash, has tried to take her on a station bridge; and it's not all youth, for here one finds the glorious Thelma Ritter who gives her weedy husband a hard time, as does Jan Sterling who - in long legs upon perilous heels - is equally disappointed in hers; and Brock Peters, part of a Black couple, has a chippy attitude, first seen when trying to buy a twenty-cent token, which had dismayed his pragmatic social-worker wife (who endeavours to read a History of Western Art during this fraught journey). Also present is a gay man who appears to have propositioned a doctor - also aboard - whom he had encountered in a late-night bar's lavatory. And, as if this were not enough, here are two Army men, one of whom, from Oklahoma (Beau Bridges), has a month's sick-leave as an arm is in plaster.

 

This might bring to mind The Taking of Pelham 123 a few years later. The difference is that those above ground have no idea of what is happening as the carriage clatters along while the two thugs, one equipped with a knife-blade, pounce upon the passengers in turn and, in effect, call upon them to address their own inadequacies (one should not reveal too much, but nobody can be surprised when Thelma Ritter lets face-slappingly rip at her husband's cowardice).

 

All this was brilliantly realised by director Larry Peerce who had worked on a minimal budget from Nicholas Beer's script which had first been aired as a television play. Although those origins are evident, here is a film whose hurtling, close-packed second half is well anticipated by its depiction of the varied places whence all these people find so hard a perch upon a subway's metal bench, so curiously overlooked by a poster which proclaims, “Work With The Mentally Retarded. The Pay is Great”.

 

How does one gauge a film's renown? Well, I have never heard anybody mention it, but I shall urge it upon one and all. Here is as much a sleeper as that sozzled fellow (who gets the closing shot) and the child: in a fascinating thirty-minute extra, Peerce reveals that, understandably enough, she was kept from much of the filming - and reveals that Thelma Ritter, not somebody given to improvisation, was inspired to do brilliantly within that carriage. What's more, Peerce's confidence was shaken at a preview when, behind him, a couple saw that the film would be in black and white - and left there and then. They missed a treat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CORRIDORS OF EVIL

 

Journeyman. The word is often used disparagingly, when in fact it denotes adapability and skill. Such was the case with Walter Forde, who began his career on the music-hall stage, turned to acting in silent movies during the Twenties before becoming a scriptwriter in Hollywood and returning to England to make two decades' worth of films which catch so much of the country's spirit through tumultuous times while never being less than entertaining.

 

Signs are that people are waking up now to the tremendous achievement of Rome Express (1932). This has a fair claim to be the first of the train movies (although Forde had made a now-lost 1931 version of The Ghost Train, to which he returned at the end of the decade). A huge set was constructed, in England, to resemble the Gare de Lyon, where the events begin but most of it takes place upon the train, through whose windows one glimpses the passing European countryside by night and day. This was film from a compartment on the actual train and then projected beside the suitably claustrophobic stage set, all locked compartments and bustling corridors, with the enviably well-appointed dining car offering scant relief from the diverse machinations of those aboard.

 

Here is a film driven as much by character as steam engine. From a story by Clifford Grey, the script was developed by Sidney Gilliatt, soon to become a great force in British film-making. The mainspring of the plot is that a gloriously evil Conrad Veight knows that somewhere aboard the train somebody else has concealed a stolen van Dyck - and he wants it, so much so that human life is a side issue in that quest. For all that, one's unslackening interest is maintained by those who, unwittingly, become entangled by this. Here, for example, are an adulterous couple chanced upon by a golf-club bore known to the husband, who has to fake a passion-quelling excuse; a philanthropist businessman travels with a male assistant upon whom he lavishes nothing, a penny-pinching nature at odds with the headline-seeking reasons for his donations; there is a silent actress - all tight dress and long cigarette-holder - and her cigar-chomping publicist who promises that arrival in Rome will bring her career new directions; and more, these carriages populated by Cedric Hardwicke, Joan Barry, Hugh Williams, Esther Ralston. Gordon Harker, Finlay Currie. The smallest part fits into a well-meshed whole, all of it caught so well by Gunter Krampf's cinematography which owes something, but not too much, to German films of the previous decade. As Graham Greene noted when watching a revival of it three years later, “Mr. Conrad Veight and Mr. Donald Calthrop brought to the screen a devilish ruthlessness and a mean cowardice which even the trivial plot about a stolen picture couldn't cramp”.

 

Extraordinary to think it was made ninety years ago (Forde lived until 1984). One can imagine the gasps from those who filled a cinema - though we have something they never imagined: not only a DVD but a splendid booklet by Neil Sinyard about the film's creation. Buy the disc, and invite people round: they will not be disappointed.

 

 

 

WHEN YOU'RE GOOD TO MAMA...

 

One might well imagine that, after the midwife slapped Clark Gable into life, he did not cry but had that twinkle in his eye which he so often did in films where a woman takes his charm amiss - as happens in The King and Four Queens (1956). Directed by Raoul Walsh, this Western sticks to one location, Wagon Mound, a compound near a small, remote town, but it has all the pace for Walsh is renowned, as well as his sense of place and subtle cinematography, here realised in beautifully bright colour, whether this be the landscape or an array of dresses.

 

Fine dresses - and, indeed, tresses - in such a spot? The script is by Margaret Fitts, from her own story, and a far cry from her lumpen adaptation of John Meade Falkner's Moonfleet the previous year. When fetching up in town (the start of so many a Western and a thriller), Gable heads to a bar and, on emerging, encounters a man who is delivering a gravestone to Wagon Mound. It is the latest one for which a widowed mother has saved up, her funds derived from hens and their fitful laying of eggs.

 

Ma (Jan Van Fleet) had four sons, three of whom died while stealing $100,000. Another survived, and she lives in hopes of his returning to claim the hidden loot. Also on the premises are the men's four wives/widows, all under the thumb of Jan Van Fleet - her thumb beside the trigger to ward off anybody who comes close to this run-down house, and its tower is home to a warning bell.

 

In the years since the robbery, the widows, among them Eleanor Parker, have become - how can one put this? - frustrated. Their craving for flesh is only kept in check by the thought that chastity could be rewarded with cash when the survivor returns. When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you...

 

An inch the other way, and Gable would not have made it to the front door. As it is, he is patched up, a matter of a bare chest for a while, and even the rifle-packin' Mama is not immune to his blandishments. As moonlight works its wonders, Gable switches from a hymn upon the organ - in an opulently run-down sitting-room - to a hoe-down and, as the sultry turns salty, the air is rife with innuendo which could have sprung from the other side of the Hays Code (I shall not quote any of it - this is all the better in context, and sure to bring a smirk even to the po-faced).

 

A new angle, perhaps, on something which was called a women's picture. They certainly hold the fort, literally and metaphorically.

 

STARS IN THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE

 

Sparkle, Shirley, sparkle!” With those three words, Mrs. Temple successfully encouraged her daughter to do her best in front of the cameras. This is a world away from Coward's Mrs. Worthington who is advised that her offspring has “a loud voice, and though it's not exactly flat, / She'll need a little more than that / To earn a living wage” (in cabaret versions, he sometimes added a final, salty verse). Both come to mind in watching Visconti's Bellissima (1951), which followed Obsessione and La Terra Trema in his early Neo-Realist phase.

 

It opens, however, in the full-operatic mode with which he is often associated. A radio broadcast is underway of Donizetti when it is interrupted with the announcement that a film studio is seeking a young girl, around the age of seven, to appear in a film. Auditions are being held and some will then have a screen test.

 

Small surprise that the scene cuts to the outside of these Roman studios, and, as the camera pans across the hordes of children (none of whom look into it), the noise level grows, and does not cease for another couple of hours. Upon the screen for most of the time is Anna Magnani, forever in black, as, ever excitable, she scrimps to provide her daughter (Tina Appicella, in her only film) with a dress, haircut, photograph to boost her chances, all this kept from her husband (Gastone Renzelli) who sits around, Kowalski-fasion, in a gross vest while dreaming of building a house far from this tenement whose balconies echo with the cries and calls of so many frustrated housewives while films are sometimes shown in the garden to the delight of star-fixated Anna (who is smitten with Burt Lancaster).

 

All moves at a pace, its script by the prolific Suso Cecci D'Amico (she also worked on Bicycle Thieves and The Leopard), with enough detail of film-making not to distract from such things as a spiv (box-office star, Walter Chiari) who fleeces Anna Magnani of savings garnered through her rest-of-the-day job which finds her traversing the city to plunge a hypodermic into male and female buttocks to ease diabetes - a process which finds yelps scarcely muffled by pillows.

 

Perhaps only Rocco and His Brothers would come close to the bravura style of this Visconti film, in which he was aided by the young Rosi and Zefferelli (both of whom recollect its making in a half-hour documentary on the DVD, along with Suso Cecci D'Amico, who was to die at close on a hundred). Visconti, with The Damned and Death in Venice, is often described as “painterly” in his use of colour. Here, though, as in his other early films, the black-and-white cinematography catches the diverse locations in a way that feels more accurate than colour would have been. A sign, perhaps, that here is something which draws you in, the pause-button redundant.

 

 

THE WHITE SHOES

 

Yes, they are men - and you're not the only woman!”

 

Juliette Gréco has reason on her side. Aboard a large freight barge - the Clementine - upon the Rhine, she upbraids the Captain's needlessly jealous wife (Muriel Pavlow).

 

That said, the Captain's wife, did she but know it, has equal reason to be suspicious, for Juliette Gréco is on the run from a criminal, money-laundering lover (William Silvester) who, in the meanwhile, has shot dead another man while trying to find her. A sign of his callous nature is when, along the way, a waitress, says to him, eyelids fluttering, “I am going off at eleven” and he replies, “you've been going off since you were eleven.”

 

Adept as all the cast might be (including the Captain, Marius Goring whose wild hair has something of the Gene Wilder about it), it is Juliette Gréco who tops the bill (and sings, in English, over the opening credits). One might more readily picture her holding a microphone in a boite than a ship's wheel at the blaze of noon; moreover, her only black clothes are a briefly-glimpsed nightdress - for the rest of the time, though she does hangs a black bra on a washing line, which must have set many a 1959 heart aflutter, her long legs are encased by blue jeans in a film whose shifting river background is filmed in Eastmancolor. And yet it works, she carries a film whose ninety minutes are rarely without her on screen.

 

The opening moments are the classic stuff of fast-paced shoot-out but, upon the water, the pace slows without one's interest ebbing, and, indeed, gasping at the very end - even after the river has turned briefly red. As for the shoes which herald this piece, they are in fact clogs, which are quite possibly the last garment on earth in which one would have imagined Juliette Gréco. How that comes to be – well, see for yourself. And if its director Lewis Allen is not a name on many lips (he worked mostly in television), never forget that he had made one of the paciest thrillers, Suddenly (1954) in which another singer, Frank Sinatra delivered another surprising on-screen appearance.

 

 

 

LIFE AND PLASTER

 

There have been surprisingly few films about building work. Even if there had been more, it is likely that Moonlighting would still rank highly among them – indeed, as one of the best depictions of life's undertow in the flashy Eighties. Written and directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, who had also, a decade earlier, depicted a rundown London in Deep End, here is a claustrophobic take upon the white stucco of South Kensington.

 

Led by Jeremy Irons - in a far cry from the previous year's Brideshead Revisited -, a gaggle of Polish workers have arrived to work at a cut-price rate on a flat, that pay set to go much further when they return home.

 

That is the sum of it. Much of the dusty proceedings - the collapse of lath-and-plaster walls – are accompanied by the voiceover of Irons's internal monologue (he is the only one who can speak English) as the schedule slips and funds go so short that, in order to afford materials, he has to shoplift their food. Many a scene takes place in a small-scale supermarket (tills upon which the price of every item has to be tapped in by a weary cashier), and never does the suspense weaken as one wonders whether he will outwit the polyester-suited manager and his assistant whose very birth probably saw a crease of disdain upon her face.

 

Here is a film which holds the attention, with Irons - the thinking man's Nigel Havers - as good as he was in Reversal of Fortune. Little recalled is that an early appearance by him was in Simon Gray's play The Rear Column, which has rather fallen from sight but could have the makings of a fine film as intense as this one.

 

Fitting, all the more so now, to think how much British film has owed to Europeans.

 

TRY THE IGNITION

Curiously enough, anybody who now comes to the one-hour One Way Out (1955) is more likely to be more familiar with Sam Kydd and Arthur Lowe who make far briefer appearances than its two “stars”: Eddie Byrne plays a soon-to-retire Police Superintendent, father of widowed, alluring Jill Adams who lives in his suburban house with her infant son.

Fascinating to glimpse her day-job in a St. John's Wood record shop complete with listening booths, such as those frequented by the teenage Beatles who, did they but know it, would find their ascent crucially aided by the manager of such a shop. As they often did, two customers here leave without buying anything.

Any second-string British film from this period that opens with a scene in a bar or club, even a café, is likely to herald a criminal element with a suave Mr. Big ensconced in a swank office and in need of a diet plan. One Way Out does so, and, what's more, Jill Adams finds herself caught up in the criminal mesh after accepting a “spin” in a sports-car which takes in a visit to a riverside restaurant at Maidenhead.

This makes one wonder whether, in 2020, the female of the species finds the prospect of a jaunt to Maidenhead is still an arousing prospect - perhaps entailing a surrender of maidenhood (a dalliance at Skindles features in a poem by Betjeman).

There is so much to this film that it could have had a longer running time. That would probably not have ranked it higher in the cinematic scheme of things, and we have to live with it as it is - and it is worth a whirl for the sharply-lit moral conundrum it presents of a time when spark-plugs and filling-stations were more familiar a component of the scene than today.

 

DICE AND TEARS

 

Strange to say, I have never seen Gertrude Lawrence. Of course, I have looked upon photographs and have heard discs of her surviving performances with Noel Coward. She made few appearances upon film, and I have just caught up with Mimi (1935).

 

This is a version of Henri Murger's La Vie de Boheme, those stories about nineteenth-century Parisian boarding-house life and love which yielded so much, including Puccini's opera. The film, in which she sings but once, lasts ninety minutes but seems longer, and that is no bad thing as one becomes immersed in a place where aspirant writers and a painter eke out the weekly rent. All is galvanised by the arrival of Mimi (Gertrude Lawrence) who was due to share another woman's room but, on the way up the stairs, found herself beguiled by another lodger, one Douglas Fairbanks.

 

So much so that she lingers within his room - and pushes from under his door the key to her erstwhile flatmate's room.There is a feminine smile of understanding on the landing as the key glistens, suggestively - and one might marvel that this is a British film in 1935, sex unabashed.

 

As such, it won applause from Graham Greene, who often looked askance at British film. In one of his earliest reviews, he wrote in praise of Fairbanks in this film, placing him above “Miss Gertrude Lawrence's pinched out-of-place charm, but even without them I would have enjoyed the sense of period when you had to load your dice to win your tears, when the heroine must die quite fortuitously of consumption on the night of her lover's success. What safety, prosperity, happiness must have been theirs, one exclaims, for them to have taken such innocent delight in turning the screw of human misery”.

 

As for me, I should at least seek out, if one can, Miss Lawrence in a Thirties film Men Are Not Gods and, shortly before her death, a version of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie.

 

 

WILL SHE, WON'T SHE?

 

Made at either end of the Sixties, Sparrows Can't Sing (1963) and Deep End (1970) are rooted in the East End and yet make something fantastic of its changing landscape: a background against which two women (Barbara Windsor; Jane Asher), living with the threat of violence, keep one guessing about the fate of the men currently in their lives.

 

Neither film is widely known, alas: pedigree creatures in the pound. Curiously enough, Sparrows Can't Sing was written by Stephen Lewis, he of the Hitlerian moustache and mien as the Inspector in On the Buse. Along with that 'bus's conductor (Bob Grant), he also appears in the film which was first staged by Joan Littlewood who is its director in a version which widens to take in many buildings and the Thames.

 

It opens as James Booth steps from the ship upon which he has served these past two years and soon returns to what he thought was his terraced home. Now a pile a rubble, it is surrounded by tower blocks. Also vanished is his wife, Barbara Windsor. His quest for her takes in many who are keen to duck out of his way, such as Roy Kinnear who, pulling shut the outside lavatory's wonky door, calls out, “I'm in the music room!” (a new phrase on me). Needless to say, Barbara is with another man - and a child of uncertain provenance.

 

Will she go back to him? That is the essence of a film which is a series of episodes in which talk never eases up. These take in a pub (where a gaudily-jacketed Murray Melvin sings to a small-group accompaniment), empty streets, cafés - all of these with nary a teenager in sight - as one and all, such as Victor Spinetti, attempt to stake out their territory in uncertain times. Aptly, for a film rooted in property, Barbara declares of her body to a lover, “you don't own the freehold!”

 

That is something which could also be uttered by Jane Asher who loses her Harley Street accent in Deep End to play a white-jacketed attendant in an East End swimming pool which also has baths for those without one at home - and, for those that do, this one tacitly offers both men and women extra services, as bicycling John Moulder Brown discovers when, fresh from school, he joins the staff and promptly, during a tumultuous week, finds that Diana Dors, in a cameo that gets her a star billing, is hot for him. Has there been another film scene which combines sex with soccer? Torrid, yes, but shot through with Polish writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski's great humour as Brown becomes fixated upon Jane who, turn by turn, leads him on only to rebuff him.

 

Where Sparrows Can't Sing made good use of black and white, Skolomowski's sense of colour heightens the surreal nature of the establishment - and a night-time Soho in which a hot-dog stand does a brisk trade in its items at 1/9 a time, accompanied by a long piece by German rock group Can. Against the baths' pervasive green interior, red items show up time and again, a heralding of blood. Naturally, there is Jane's hair - and, against protocol, she sports a red bra with black knickers. As with Sparrows Can't Sing, it comprises episodes which fit together adroitly to form a perhaps inadvertent revenge drama (say no more).

 

All this comes with extras on the BFI disc which are uncommonly interesting. Not only is there an unabashed 2010 reunion between Jane Asher and John Moulder Brown for the first time since the film's making but there is also terrific talk with, among others, director Skolimowski and editor Barrie Vince who makes the point that an editor's job is not - as widely assumed - to shorten a film but to establish its right length. In this case it meant the loss of some scenes, including one that had a great joke; so great in fact that, at test showings, the laughter swamped the next scene, and it had to go. Seek out the re-telling of it in these extras: I am chuckling to think of it, and that is even with the loss of the film scene itself.

 

 

A POSTMAN'S ROUND

 

“He's on a bicycle - you've got a Vauxhall Astra!” So a Police inspector (Jim Carter) is told irritably by a superior, several days into a case in which the eponymous The Missing Postman (1997) has pedalled into the sunset - and been sighted in far-flung spots.

 

A theme of this film, made for television by BBC Scotland, is that everybody is at the mercy of somebody above them, each level of employment as insecure as the others: people are always looking over their shoulders, fearful.

 

Matters come to a head for the postman, wonderfully played by James Bolam (who looks rather different in spectacles). He learns from a man in a middle-management suit that he is not being fired but should take early retirement: OCR scanning is being installed for sorting, despite its inability to cope with enclosed paperclips while, surreally, lights flash as the machinery stops when encountering anything addressed to Peterborough (to sort this out requires a visit by a specialist from Swindon).

 

Bicycling postman are no longer wanted either.

 

At news of this, his wife (Alison Steadman), seen from behind, leaps forward in the bath as she wonders how they will cope. She is a nurse, but is first glimpsed as her legs straddle the eaves of their house while busy with a re-tiling job, enviably undaunted by the scaffolding at her side.

 

This is rich stuff, no scene lasting long, a world so much encapsulated in eighty minutes that one might take it for Alan Bennett in an Ealing mode. In fact, it was adapted by Mark Wallington from his novel, and it has something in common with his popular accounts of travelling through England with his dog. The postman, on his last day, finds that - by some fluke of new technology - his bag contains letters destined for other parts of the country. Perhaps inspired by borrowing a book about the Pony Express from the local branch library, he decides not to return to the sorting office but to hand them over in person.

 

And so it comes to pass that he misses out on the formal farewell (a strippergram, Nicola Burbridge announces that he if he is not back in the next five minutes, she is off as she has to collect a child from school: that is contemporary England in a sentence). As it is, he discovers a bucolic England when truck-dominated roundabouts give way to Gloucestershire's country lanes - all of it gaining from Debbie Wiseman's music which is redolent of Meoran and Vaughan Williams, with sojourns in pubs bringing new meaning to a postman's round.

 

Farce is balanced by the poignant, with a wild turn as the Daily Mail takes an interest in the fugitive (just as it later did in those two Tamworth pigs who made a bolt for it). And one hoots with joy as a young girl informs the police inspector in no uncertain terms that his crass arrival has ruined her open-air birthday party.

 

In these uncertain times, here is something to restore faith in the human spirit; it is as fresh as it was almost a quarter of a century ago, when cellphones were distinctly larger.

 

How I wish that I had seen it before now, and so could have told James Bolam how much I enjoyed it when I met him during a gathering at Petworth House about climate change. A good man, much more than a likely lad.

 

 

LIFE REGAINED

 

The other day I lamented here that the 1932 film Broken Lullaby which inspired the recent Frantz is unavailable. That is surprising as it was directed by Lubitsch who was often praised by Graham Greene as a “witty playboy”, his touch perhaps at its very best in Ninotchka.

 

Broken Lullaby turns out to be available, after a fashion, as on a print-on-demand DVD issued in Universal's Vault series and playable upon machines that are able to take region-one discs (but not upon Apple macs which can do so with regularly-issued region-one discs).

 

What a treat this turns out to be, almost ninety years on. The first surprise is that this film, set in a small German town, is far from the glamorous run of Lubitsch films. It also differs from Frantz in opening with the scene in the Great War trenches where Phillips Holmes shoots dead the German fiancé of Nancy Carroll. Haunted by this, and not reassured by a priest's bland words in the 1919 Paris confessional, he seeks out the dead man's parents (Lionel Barrymore, Louise Carter) with whom Nancy Carroll lives in as much grief as them.

 

Here is a film more akin to the staging of Maurice Rostand's play, with less opening out into the town - let alone retrospective scenes of the two men's purported meeting in pre-War Paris. For all that, Lubitsch keeps the camera moving, not only in the bravura opening scene of a post-War march through Paris but within such rooms as the father's surgery, where the dead man's photograph takes a tumble in one vexed moment.

 

All the players (as a cast was once known) are accomplished, but it is carried by Barrymore, a man whose demeanour shifts from accusatory grief (he winds the clock in his dead son's darkened room) to an understanding which is far from the continuing rancour of the townsfolk (both films have a notable scene in a bar). One infers that he knows more than he says about the situation, but nothing is made explicit in a film which is more compact than Frantz.

 

Such is one's involvement that the curiously American accents on some lips do not jar.

How fortunate to track down something which belongs on a shelf in the vicinity of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front.

 

 

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