British Drama Mystery/Noir

This is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper

It’s challenging to make compelling movies about crimes when almost everyone knows the culprit and many of the facts of the case from the beginning. Yet ITV and producer Jeff Pope took the risk in the aughts to make a trilogy of docudrama miniseries about notorious British murders, with great success. The first has the clunkiest title, but it’s aces in every other respect: This is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.

The plot is based on the multi-year effort to catch Peter Sutcliffe, a serial killer who attacked his female victims with bestial ferocity in the late 1970s. Unlike many movies of this genre, there is almost no focus on the killer. Instead, we see the reaction of the community (including the then-rising women’s movement, the families of victims, and the countless women who lived in fear) and even moreso the political, emotional, and practical demands on the police and how they handled and mishandled them in an environment of institutitional sexism and intense political pressure. And as in the real case, the police have to struggle whether the taunting letters and cassette tapes they keep receiving from “Wearside Jack” are from the killer or are a cruel hoax.

Viewers suckled on Dixon of Dock Green-style cinema and television will find the conduct of the police here unbelievable, but every blunder happened in the real case. Unlike carmelized portrayals of old-style British policing, Neil McKay’s script is unsparing about the lack of professionalism and lack of capacity that was widespread before some major reforms (some of which were inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper case). Most notably, the lack of computerization meant all leads were kept on a mountain of index cards that literally came close to collapsing the floor of the building, and vital connections between pieces of evidence were missed (in real life, Sutcliffe was interviewed by police 9 times before his was caught). Equally disturbing: the police at one point pressure a suspect with such ferocity that he confesses even though he is innocent.

I appreciated the chance to see Alun Armstrong headline a film. A stage trained actor from County Durham who’s augmented the quality of many films I enjoy (e.g., Get Carter, Braveheart, Our Friends Up North) he also had a wonderful late career revival as an extremely eccentric police detective on the TV Series New Tricks. Here he inhabits the role of the hard-smoking, hard-drinking, grief-wracked as Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, whose health and life are consumed by the demands of leading the investigation. As his right hand man, Richard Ridings is also excellent at portraying a mixture of toughness and humanity. Under David Richards direction, the rest of the cast also acquit themselves well.

There are other touches to admire. Rather than show the Ripper’s handiwork, the camera only shows people looking at it and reacting to it. And we don’t see the killer’s face until the very end, where with the banality of evil he has no particular reaction to being confronted by Oldfield. Full marks as well to Peter Greenhalgh for mood appropriate cinematography that accentuates the emotional impact of this grim but engrossing mini-series.

p.s. This 2000 film ends with a post-script noting that while Sutcliffe was sent to prison, “Wearside Jack” was never identified. But thankfully, five years later he was identified, arrested, and sentenced to prison.

British Drama

The Damned United

I’ve only been to a few English football matches in my life, and like most people who didn’t grow up with it, I don’t find it as engaging as do the locals. Yet one of my all-time favorite sports movies is about English football, which is a testament to the skills of everyone involved in The Damned United.

The plot of this fact-based 2009 film: Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) is a cocky, quotable ex-football star who establishes his brilliance as a manager by leading the once pathetic Derby County club to greatness. Throughout his rise he makes no secret of his contempt of mighty Leeds United and of their legendary coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney) whom he believes snubbed him. In a shocking twist of fate, when Revie departs to coach England’s national team, Clough is tapped to manage the squad he has denigrated, and accepts with the goal of remaking the team in his image and proving that he is superior to Levie in every way. But his arrogance leads him to grossly overestimate how easy the task will be.

Frequent Sheen collaborator Peter Morgan was one of the producers and also wrote the script (They also also made another of my recommendations, The Special Relationship). Based on a novel that many people thought was scurrilous (author David Peace was successfully sued for libel), Morgan’s script makes Clough more sympathetic and integrates many choice quotes that Clough and those around him said at the time. Kudos to Morgan and to director Tom Hooper for their skills as storytellers, particularly in going back and forward in time while never losing narrative momentum. Hooper would win the directing Oscar for his next film, The King’s Speech, but he’s in just as fine form here.

Sheen again shows his facility for playing characters based on real people. He gets Clough’s mannerisms and almost sing-song Northern speech cadence right, and fleshes him out as a rounded person with clear defects and impressive strengths. The supporting performances are excellent, with Timothy Spall being particularly endearing as Assistant Manager Peter Taylor, whom Clough needs to succeed more than his ego can readily concede. Hats off as well to everyone involved in location scouting, set design, costuming, and art direction for visually transporting us convicingly back to the hard-scrabble period that was England in the 1970s.

As I mentioned, you don’t need to know anything about English football in general or the specific events portrayed to appreciate this movie. As long as you appreciate a well-acted, well-told story, with vivid characters, The Damned United is for you.

British Drama

The Deadly Affair

Alec Guinness so inhabited the role of John le Carré’s master spy George Smiley that even the author said he could no longer think of one without the other. But Guinness was not the only fine actor to essay the role. James Mason also had his turn, even though for copyright reasons the character was renamed Charles Dobbs. The resulting 1967 film has been almost completely forgotten, but it more than merits a revival: The Deadly Affair.

The plot: Put-upon and dutiful spook Charles Dobbs is given an assignment that seems a doddle. An anonymous letter has accused a recently promoted Foreign Office official named Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) of being a security risk, based on his long ago flirtation with Communism as a university student. Dobbs’ discussion with Fennan raises no concerns and even seems enjoyable to both men. But Dobbs learns through his “Adviser” (Max Adrian) that Fennan apparently went home and shot himself! When Dobbs interviews Fennan’s widow (Simone Signoret), something strange happens that raises suspicions that things are not so simple, so Dobbs digs deeper with the aid of an aged but reliable copper (Harry Andrews). Meanwhile, on the home front, Dobbs tries to endure the many affairs of his wife Ann (Harriett Andersson), including one with an undercover operative he used to run that he still considers a friend (Maximilian Schell).

As you can gather from the above, there’s a great deal of talent in front of the camera here (And I didn’t even mention Roy Kinnear, who shines here as an underworld figure in a performance with superb physicality). Mason gives more fiery frustration to Smiley than did Guinness, both in his work and in his failing marriage. I also love his artful interactions with Signoret (as good here as I ever seen her) as he steadfastly uncovers the truth. Andrews, a gay man who ironically spent much of his career playing dead butch British military officers and other authority figures, is also terrific in support as a police officer in the twilight of his career but still retaining intelligence and toughness. Because his is probably the most relatable character in the story and his performance of it so assured, the audience is likely to end up caring about him more than anyone else.

The team behind the camera is equally impressive. The superb director Sidney Lumet loved actors and knew what to do with them. The script is by Paul Dehn, who won an Oscar co-writing another of my recommendations, Seven Days to Noon. Dehn made some plot simplifications in adapting le Carre’s novel Call for the Dead, which I imagine makes the film more comprehensible to viewers who haven’t read the novel. Dehn also added in subplots about Ann that make her a much more prominent part of the movie than the book. I thought this worked fairly well but le Carré purists may disagree. The other major virtue of the movie is Freddie Young’s cinematography, which used pre-exposed film to create the drab colors and shadowy streets that reinforce the emotional tone of le Carré’s world.

The only thing about this movie I actively disliked was, surprisingly, the score by the great Quincy Jones. Purely as music, its jazzy and memorable, but as a soundtrack, it simply doesn’t match the downbeat story and meditative visuals. Indeed, the disjunction at times is so jarring that it takes the viewer out of the story.

The Deadly Affair is not in the same league as my other two le Carré based adaptations, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But those are two of the best spy films ever made, and a movie doesn’t need to ascend to such Olympian heights to be watchable and engrossing. The Deadly Affair definitely clears that bar as a grim, effective, translation of the work of a legendary espionage novel writer and a portrayal of his most famous character.

British Comedy

Passport to Pimlico

Ealing Studios produced a broad range of films in its first decade and a half of existence, including a number of respected documentaries as well as the classic horror film Dead of Night and the trendsetting “kitchen sink noir” It Always Rains on Sunday (my recommendation here). But it’s the marvelous comedies Ealing made in the decade after the war that everyone remembers best. In one of most insanely productive period in any studios’ history, in 1949, Ealing released three still-beloved comic films in the span of two months! I have already recommended the best of this troika — Kind Hearts and Coronets — and now wish to endorse the wonderful runner-up: Passport to Pimlico (No disrespect to Whisky Galore! which is a good fun, but comes in third against the stiffest possible competition).

Passport to Pimlico was scripted by T.E.B. Clarke, who later won an Oscar for writing another Ealing classic, The Lavender Hill Mob. Clarke’s agreeably ridiculous plot runs thus: In a London neighborhood still recovering from Hitler’s remodeling efforts, an unexploded bomb goes boom, revealing a hidden chamber stuffed with gold relics and an ancient royal charter establishing that Pimlico is in fact part of Burgundy! The locals are at first excited to realize that they are legally freed of the hated ration book system, but are soon overrun by spivs from all over London. Meanwhile, negotiations with this new foreign country are bounced between the Home Office and Foreign Office until everything breaks down and Pimlico/Burgundy is blockaded by Her Majesty’s Government. But the English Burgurdians are not about to back down, especially not when the descendant of the Duke of Burgundy shows up to claim his title and lead the resistance.

All the Ealing trademarks are here: Mocking British institutions but loving British people, celebrating those who fight back against toffs, nosy parkers, and The Establishment, throwing a warm glow on small groups of people who bond through common endeavour, and most of all providing laughter, laughter, and more laughter.

As in many other British productions of this period, an ensemble of largely stage-trained actors sparkle here in parts large and small: Stanley Holloway, Dame Margaret Rutherford, Paul DuPuis, Sir Michael Hordern, Basil Radford (who was also in Whisky Galore!), Naunton Wayne and more. I hate to pick out any one performance for praise among such a stellar group, but Hermione Baddelly as a brassy seamstress with ambition in her veins absolutely kills it here. Under the fine direction of Henry Cornelius, the cast delivers a warm, funny and uplifting movie that helped cement Ealing as the kings of post-war British comedy.

p.s. Do everything you can to watch the restored version rather than a battered old print.

British Comedy

Kind Hearts and Coronets

It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.

Black comedy is the only genre of film that rivals my affection for film noir, which helps explain why my favorite of the thousands of movies I’ve seen is Dr. Strangelove. But if I had to choose a British black comedy as my most beloved, it would be Kind Hearts and Coronets.

This Edwardian tale begins with an imprisoned man facing hanging with aplomb. The cultured, impeccably dressed Duke Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price in his role of a lifetime) devotes his final night to writing his memoirs, thereby telling the audience in flashback of his extraordinary rise and impending doom. His mother was a member of the wealthy, aristrocratic D’Ascoyne family, but was cast out after she married a man who was not only a commoner, but Italian to boot (Imagine that — an Ealing Comedy about social class…). Raised in modest circumstances, Louis desired nothing more than to restore his mother — and of course himself — to the lofty social position which he is sure they deserve. The only problem is that a small army of D’Ascoynes (Alec Guinness. Yes, just Alec Guinness) stand in the way of the maternal line of succession to the family’s hereditary title. But if a chap is clever and ruthless enough, surely there’s some path he might cut to the top?

I’ve praised Robert Hamer in several other recommendations (It Always Rains on Sunday and School for Scoundrels) but he arguably never rose to a greater height than in this 1949 gem. As director and co-screenwriter (with John Dighton), he creates one of the drollest, driest, and delightful movies about social climbing by the two sexes (and how they get sex along the way too). In the process, he proves that movie characters do not have to be likable, only interesting. After all, about a third of the way through we are rooting for a serial killer to wipe out a perfectly gentle fellow, and are later pleased when our hero (?) begins courting the grieving widow.

The movie is also famous for Alec Guinness’ legendary turn playing seven male and one female member of the same, relentlessly slaughtered, family. Of course we know it’s him each time, but with alterations in voice and movement, as well as some makeup and limited use of closeups, Sir Alec makes us glad to go along for the ride. Price is just as effective as Louis Mazzini, and while Valerie Hobson gets higher billing, Joan Greenwood as Mazzini’s lifelong friend and secret lover makes the stronger impression playing a woman who is just as committed to raising her station in life by any means necessary.

The film is brilliantly comic in its spree of absurd murders, juxtaposition of violent and sexual impulses with quintessentially British manners, and quotably humorous lines (I suspect we owe Hamer and Dighton for most of those, but I can’t say for sure because I haven’t read the Roy Horniman novel upon which the script is loosely based). The combined result is arguably one of the best films in British history, and is certainly the summit of black comedy cinema.

p.s. There is only one thing I would change in this film if I could, which is the reference made to the children’s rhyme, “Eeeny meeny miney moe”, which in the era included a racial slur.

p.p.s. Sadly, both Hamer and Price were addicted to alcohol, which led their careers go into premature decline before they died in their early 50s.

British Drama

Chariots of Fire

In Chariots They Ran

Some Best Picture Oscar winner selections are immediately recognized as mistakes by discerning viewers (American Beauty, Crash, Forrest Gump, Gladiator), others seem plausible contemporaneously but the bloom fades from their rose over time (Around the World in 80 Days, Dances with Wolves, Gigi). What a pleasure and a relief it is to revisit a Academy Award winner from 40 years ago and find that it hasn’t (ahem) lost a step: Chariots of Fire.

The plot: In the 1920s, two markedly different British men share a love of running and a desire to make a mark upon the world. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Scottish Protestant who “feels God’s pleasure” when he runs whereas Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is an English Jew striving to be accepted by the Establishment. Both are seen as misfits in elite circles and struggle to balance their fierce athletic commitment with the rest of their lives and loves, yet both are talented, determined, and full of competitive fire. As opponents and teammates, they bring themselves and their nation to the pinnacle of tension and opportunity at the 1924 Olympics.

REVIEW: Chariots of Fire | The Viewer's Commentary

There are many ways to understand what Colin Welland’s skillfully crafted story is “really about”. Is this film about how sports can ennoble individuals and forge deep friendships? Is it about the changing nature of post-World War I Britain? Is it about how outsiders crave acceptance so strongly that they are driven to magnificent achievements? Is it about how young people find their purpose in life? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. This is a rare film that different viewers can appreciate — even be deeply moved by — for entirely different reasons.

Chariots of Fire is also a notable example of how even a little-known director can have at least one great movie in him. Hugh Hudson has been making documentaries and television commercials for years when he was tapped for Chariots of Fire, his first feature film. That doesn’t sound like a promising backstory, but Hudson proves a masterful storyteller, particularly in how he focuses more heavily on the human experience of athletes than on the races themselves (There is a limit to how intrigued most film goers can be by people running in a circle). Also to Hudson’s credit: There isn’t a bad performance or bad shot in the whole film.

The lead actors make a strong impression, as do the supporting players, including Ian Holm as Abrahams’ coach, Alice Krige as his lover, and Nigel Havers (who anchored another of my recommendations, The Charmer) and Nicholas Farrell as his Cambridge University friends and fellow athletes. The film is also famous for its innovative score by Vangelis…I am probably alone in not caring for it that much, but there is so much else to savor in this remarkable film that this in no way diminishes my admiration for Chariots of Fire.

The film takes some liberties with historical facts: Liddell’s refusal to run heats on Sundays did not create a last-second crisis for the British team at the Olympics because he had months of advance notice in which to prepare for a different event, and Abrahams’ family finding the Establishment impenetrable is hard to square with both of his brothers being knighted in real life. But the film isn’t a documentary, it’s a drama based on real events, and every scene is utterly true in psychological and emotional terms. Sometimes Oscar gets things exactly right.

British Drama

Last Orders

Last Orders (2001) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

How many movies have featured a group of old friends coming together and reflecting on their lives because one of their circle has died (e.g., The Big Chill, Husbands)? And how many times have Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins, and David Hemmings portrayed British blokes like themselves who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths? And how many times has Hellen Mirren played an intelligent, sensual woman with a mixture of strength and vulnerability? Did writer/director Fred Schepisi really think audiences would fall for a movie that recycles all that for the umpteenth time? Bless his cotton socks, he did, and the result is a quiet cinematic gem from 2001 that deserved a bigger audience than it got: Last Orders.

The plot: Three long-time friends gather in their Bermondsey pub with the cremated ashes of their mutual friend Jack (Michael Caine). Jack was a butcher and the son of a butcher, who leaves behind his wife Amy (Helen Mirren) and his adopted son Vince (Ray Winstone), who refused to follow Jack into the family business and instead opened a car dealership. Amy and Jack’s also have another child, June (Laura Morelli), who was born with profound intellectual disabilities. Jack refused contact with her, but Amy has been dutifully visiting her daughter at a group home once a week for 50 years. Jack left instructions for his ashes to be scattered into the ocean at Margate. Amy doesn’t wish to go, so his four friends set off without her, with Vince driving them in a Mercedes from his lot. The friends are Ray (Bob Hoskins) who served with Jack in World War II and has a talent for picking horses, Vic (Tom Courtenay) who runs a funeral home with his sons, and Lenny (David Hemmings) a boozy and somewhat irascible ex-boxer whose daughter Sally (Claire Harman) was long ago wooed and then abandoned by Vince. As the men travel to fill Jack’s last request, we learn about their lives through their interchanges at various stops along their journey as well as from flashback scenes of their younger selves.

Schepisi did a remarkable job fashioning this script from Graham Swift’s novel, incorporating just enough remembered and experienced action and conflict to keep this from becoming dull and overly talky. He was aided immeasurably by his experienced acting ensemble, who evidence that characteristic British willingness to share the stage that American movie stars often lack. Each uses the time Schepisi gives them to create a believable character with defects and virtues. The younger performers in the flashback scenes are also fine; casting director Patsy Pollock deserves credit for finding newcomers who look remarkably like the older stars. Brian Tufano’s cinematography and Paul Grabowsky’s music are also significant assets.

Last Orders (2002) - Rotten Tomatoes

Schepisi delves into existential questions about love, family, trust, betrayal, grief, and friendship but to his credit he doesn’t offer pat answers. Some people’s lives (e.g. Vic’s) work out pretty well for them and theirs, others (e.g., Lenny’s) far less so, and in the end we don’t really know why. Marriages can be terribly disappointing in some ways and extremely enriching in others. People can love each sincerely yet also let each other down. And through it all, we have to keep buggering on.

I appreciated this movie as an affecting drama, but also admired it as a piece of sociological history: it’s a vivid adumbration of how a particular generation of British men of a particular social class travelled through life. And who better to bring this across than Caine, Courtenay, Hemmings, and Hoskins, who opened up British acting to lads who weren’t born to the purple?

p.s. Some Americans to whom I have recommended this film struggled to make out some of the accented dialogue, so if that’s likely to be a challenge for you, you may wish to stream it with English subtitles.

Action/Adventure British Horror/Suspense

Seven Days to Noon

I make no secret of my disdain for flabby filmmaking. Many modern movies (e.g., almost every superhero movie of recent years) would be significantly better with a merciless edit of tiresome exposition, distracting subplots, saggy scenes, wordy dialogue, soulless CGI, and other forms of artistic bloat. I can hear the whines already “But I need that 30 minutes to show how the hero’s motivation goes back to his childhood trauma, to explain that his energy blaster works on the principle of microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, and to have the authority figure character explain what the film is really about in his closing speech”. Stuff and nonsense. When films had smaller budgets and shorter shooting schedules, their makers were more economical in their storytelling by necessity, but the result was better rather than worse cinema. If you want a demonstration of that principle as well as an utterly gripping cinematic experience, check out the 94 thrilling minutes of fat-free brilliance in Seven Days to Noon.

Based on an Oscar-winning story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard, this 1950 film has a simple and terrifyingly realistic premise: a once-reliable military scientist could lose his head and decide to steal a powerful weapon. Said scientist, Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones, offering a compelling mix of threat and vulnerability), believes he can promote world peace by threatening to set off a powerful bomb in the heart of London in seven days if the government doesn’t renounce weapon building. A dedicated member of Special Branch (the ever sturdy Andre Morell) recruits Willingdon’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) to aid him as he coordinates a national manhunt. But Willingdon is a crafty adversary, and hides in plain sight by taking rooms under an assumed name with a brassy London actress (a terrific Olive Sloane). Nail biting suspense and existential themes follow.

Seven Days to Noon (1950) - Cinema Cats

Roy Boulting and Frank Harvey’s tight script combined with the Brothers’ Hitchcock-level use of pure cinema, make this a truly breathless thriller, one of many that would channel post-war nuclear anxieties. The hero has no backstory because he doesn’t need one. The precise mechanics of the McGuffin are never laid out – it’s a bomb and we all know what a bomb is, so why bother? Willingdon doesn’t really explicit his motives until 75 minutes in, and even then there’s not an excess word in them. And many plot developments unfold entirely through a series of images or through effective quoting of superstar composer-to-be John Addison’s first score. At times it feels like watching the best of the silents, and I mean that as the highest of compliments.

The Boultings avoided casting big stars, used some real locations, included colorful snippets of Londoners, and did not tart up the sets to look like anything more than battered, post-war London (Similar to what Sir Carol Reed had done the year before in Vienna while making The Third Man). This at times gives the movie, particularly the daytime scenes, the feel of Italian neorealism or an American police docudrama. But with its air of impending doom and Gilbert Taylor’s night time cinematography, it at other times has a more stylized, film noir feel. Of Taylor’s many arresting visuals, I will not forget any time soon the shots of Willingdon praying alone on his knees in a bomb-shattered cathedral. The realistic and stylized elements work together beautifully, recalling another brilliant “dangerous man on the run” movie from this period, He Walked by Night (recommended here).

I have recommended the Boulting Brothers’ tough film noir Brighton Rock and their sidesplitting I’m All Right Jack, but for me, their most remarkable achievement remains Seven Days to Noon. This film riveted me and at other times made me say “Wow” out loud. That the Boultings could make such different movies so skillfully is why they, while less famous than the legendary Powell and Pressburger, rank among the best British filmmaking partnerships of the 20th century.

Seven Days to Noon Blu-ray Release Date November 5, 2019

p.s. Gilbert Taylor lived to be nearly 100 and nearly three decades after this, was the cinematographer for Star Wars.

British Comedy

School for Scoundrels

Film - School For Scoundrels - Into Film

As an ex-academic, BBC comedy writer, and member of The Savile Club, Stephen Potter had ample opportunity to observe all the ways British culture provided to “win without cheating”: the perfectly timed cough when your golf opponent is about to tee off, the lightly dismissive remark that flusters a fellow diner in the midst of his lengthy anecdote, the artful humblebrag that reduces listeners to simpering admiration. It’s all part of what we now call “gamesmanship”, a neologism Potter popularized in 1947 in the first of several best-selling parodies of self-help books. In 1960, Hal Chester, Patricia Moyes, Frank Tarloff, and Peter Ustinov (the latter two uncredited) fashioned Potter’s works into the script for a quintessentially British comedy: School for Scoundrels.

The plot: Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael, made for these sorts of roles) is the ineffectual inheritor of his father’s company. Though Henry is ostensibly the boss, his employees do not respect him, and neither for that matter does anyone else. His life as a polite doormat takes a sudden turn when something very good literally falls into his path: the utterly lovely and charming April Smith (a winsome Janette Scott). But he soon has a romantic rival in the form of ultra-smooth cad Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas, made for those sorts of roles), who dazzles April and consistently gets the better of Henry. In desperation, Henry enrolls in a “School of Lifemanship” overseen by Headmaster S. Potter (ahem). This cynical, crafty instructor (Alastair Sim, always a joy) teaches Henry gamesmanship, oneupmanship, and woomanship. Thus fortified, he returns to seek revenge on Raymond and win April’s heart.

A British Cinema Blog | William hartnell, Sims, Scoundrel

The director’s credit for this little comic gem reads Robert Hamer, who made two of my other recommendations, the hilarious dark comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets and the trend-setting noirish kitchen sink drama It Always Rains on Sunday. Unfortunately, by 1960 his alcoholism was out of control and he was fired in the middle of this film. He never directed again and died a few years later. Hal Chester and Cyril Frankel are said to have to directed the remaining scenes.

Having three directors would ruin most movies. But the professionalism and experience of the cast shines through despite at all, with all the leads doing well, especially Terry-Thomas in perhaps the best performance of his career. The talented supporting players include many staples of British comedy such as John Le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques, Irene Handl, Dennis Price, and Peter Jones.

The other enormous virtue is the mordant script which sets up numerous funny scenes in which characters find ingenious ways to get the edge on each other. The humor is sometimes farcical and at other times subtle, a mix that may not be to all tastes but that I found most pleasing. If not at the level of the most lauded British post-war comedies, School for Scoundrels still delivers many laughs as well as a surprisingly sweet romantic resolution.

p.s. Janette Scott is the daughter of British television legend Dame Thora Hird.

British Comedy

I’m All Right Jack

I'm All Right Jack (1959) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

The hit British comedies of the 1950s and 1960s don’t age consistently well. Just about everything from Ealing Studios holds up today, but outside of that, it’s hit or miss. I don’t doubt that the The Knack…and How to Get it and the comedy-drama Billy Liar made audiences roar with laughter at the time (at least to the extent British audiences ever roar with laughter), but for me at least, they don’t generate more than the occasional smile. In contrast, I laughed out loud repeatedly while watching the film that was number one at the British box office in 1959: I’m All Right Jack.

Based on Alan Hackney’s comic novel, the film stars Ian Carmichael effectively playing (what else?) a well-meaning innocent baffled by the people and world around him. His Stanley Windrush is a kind but rather useless upper-class chap who longs for a meaningful job after his father (Miles Malleson) retires to a nudist colony. Following a series of amusingly disastrous job enquiries, Stanley’s uncle and two old army friends (Charming rogues Dennis Price, Richard Attenborough, and Terry-Thomas) get him a factory job. His Aunt Dolly (that acting treasure, Dame Margaret Rutherford) is none too keen on Stanley mingling with the working class, but he enthusiastically plows forward nonetheless. His work ethic at the factory, far from being appreciated, generates a furious reaction from shop steward Fred Kite (Peter Sellers) and his fellow work-to-rule layabouts. Stanley is not sure he’s cut out for life in a unionized workplace, until he meets Fred’s curvaceous daughter Cynthia (Liz Fraser) who toils in the plant as (cough) a spindle polisher. Hilarious machinations by slimy corporate executives, soft-headed labor activists, and a romantically inclined Stanley ensue.

Carry On Blogging!: Carry On Faces in Different Places: I'm All Right Jack

In the 1950s, Peter Sellers was a radio star from The Goon Show, but had only played small parts in movies (e.g., The Lavender Hill Mob). At the decade’s close his cinematic career suddenly went into orbit with the release of The Mouse That Roared and I’m All Right Jack. Verbally and visually, he’s as funny as you would expect here, but he also creates a complete character. His Fred Kite is forceful and confident outside the home but lost and helpless within it, with a wife (Irene Handl) and daughter who run rings around him. Sellers also appears as Sir John in a funny opening bit unrelated to the main story, presaging a number of other films in which he skillfully played multiple parts.

I'm All Right Jack review – Philip French on the Boulting brothers' biting  state-of-the-nation satire | DVD and video reviews | The Guardian

This light-hearted film was made by the Boulton Brothers, and is a million miles from their famously nasty 1947 noir Brighton Rock (my recommendation here). Beginning in the 1950s, they made a series of popular comedies lampooning the British Establishment (e.g., academia, the military, the legal profession). The brothers were committed socialists, but clearly not of the pious and scowling sort: I’m All Right Jack satirizes trade unions as effectively as any movie in British cinema history (not that management is spared a skewering). With lines like “We can’t concede the principal that a worker should be fired for incompetence, that’s victimization” this film feels a bit like a precursor to Monty Python’s immortal People’s Front of Judea. The Boultons were particularly gifted at overtly lionizing institutions while implicitly making them ridiculous, as in the sequences here that mime the self-serious “British industry leads the way!” style narration used in newsreels of the period.

p.s. This is actually a sort of sequel to Private’s Progress, a prior Boulton Brothers adaptation of Alan Hackney’s writings in which Carmichael, Price, Thomas, Malleson, and Attenborough all played the same characters. It’s an entertaining flick, but I’m All Right Jack surpasses it.