MANY A BLUFF

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

SLIGHTLY FIZZING

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

THE GLOSS-ADJUSTERS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 POSTCARDS OF THE HANGING

 

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

 

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

 

Since then it has been performed innumerable times.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

CHILDHOOD GAMES

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

A PRINCE OF DENMARK STREET

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

.

THE RIGHT COMBINATION

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

CHEAP THRILLS AND GREAT HOT DOGS

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

IMPERSONAL BELONGINGS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A branch-line movie on a trunk route.

 

 

 

A DOUBLE BILL

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

AN ICE-CREAM RIDE

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

FAMOUS GREY RAINCOAT

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

SHOWER; RAIN; FLOODS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

DRAW UP THE DURBRIDGE

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

UNLUCKY JIM

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

THE HYPOCRITIC OATH

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

A SIGNAL SUCCESS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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