Categories
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 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 too 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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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 the hilarious Kind Hearts and Coronets as well as a trend-setting noirish kitchen sink drama I recommended, 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.

Categories
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.

Categories
British Drama Romance Science Fiction / Fantasy

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) | BFI

Many film buffs love to rank order films in best ever lists, straining and debating to argue which is #4 versus #3 or #7. I do not put myself through that agony, but am comfortable with more fungible judgments. In that spirit, I am quite sure than any creditable list of the ten best ever British films would somewhere include A Matter of Life and Death.

As World War II was winding down, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were firmly established as cinematic superstars after turning out one gem after another (including my recommendations 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). The UK Government, recognizing that the two most important things in the world are love and Anglo-American relations, approached The Archers (as the team styled themselves) about making a movie that would diffuse tensions between American and British people. The Archers might have accomplished this with a simple story of international romance, but they went well beyond that modest ambition to create one of the most original and beloved works in cinema history.

The film opens with the camera taking the viewer through the cosmos accompanied with lyrical, wry, narration, setting up a damn-near perfect opening scene down on earth. Piloting a shattered, burning, Lancaster bomber trying to return to England, lone survivor Peter Carter (David Niven) calls out desperately on the radio and reaches a lovely, loving American WAAF named June (An achingly endearing Kim Hunter). Peter has heroically told his crew to bail out without revealing that his own parachute is destroyed. He’s going to die and just wants to say goodbye to someone and to life. Their connection emotionally overwhelms Peter and June (and the audience), and they are spiritually a couple for a precious moment before Peter, not wanting to burn alive, leaps to his death.

Criterion Collection Celebrates Powell & Pressburger's A Matter of Life and  Death | TV/Streaming | Roger Ebert

Or does he? Peter’s assigned heavenly “conductor” (a funny, flamboyant, Marius Goring) misses the lucky Englishman in the heavy fog! Having miraculously survives what seemed certain death, he meets June in person, to their mutual joy. But the lovers face a grave challenge when heaven seeks to correct the procedural irregularity. Peter demands a right to trial for his life, where he is represented by a kindly physician (that charmer Roger Livesey) against an American prosecutor (Raymond Massey, effectively menacing) who has a deep distaste for John Bull (Understandable in a man who was shot to death by Redcoats 175 years ago).

The Archer’s utterly original story is just one virtue of the script, which also includes fulfilling moments of romance, friendship, humor, and meaning. This is combined with gorgeous set design and Jack Cardiff’s unforgettable cinematography. The scenes on earth are a riot of Technicolor, and the scenes in heaven were shot in uncolored Technicolor, producing a stylized look reminiscent of the best of German expressionism.

Michael Powell's A Matter of Life and Death (1946): Criterion Blu-ray  review | Cagey Films

David Niven was not, by his own admission, a great actor, but he was an infinitely charming movie star. He nobly derailed a successful movie career to defend his country during the war; this mega-hit restored his stardom in one go after his years of military service. In the starring role, he’s effective enough and he’s surrounded by a sparkling cast in top form, many of whom were Powell and Pressburger favorites. They sell the fantasy elements credibly while giving the story the emotional weight it deserves.

This whole movie must have sounded utterly crazy in the pitch meeting. Cinema was moving towards the dark, realistic, themes of film noir, and this is an uplifting, heart-warming, fantasy. The otherworldly sets could have been a visual disaster, a mechanical impossibility, or unintentionally farcical. But the magnificence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is inseparable from their artistic risk taking. They never played it safe and never repeated themselves. It is precisely because they made the seemingly impossible possible over and over that masters like Martin Scorsese recognize them as fellow giants. A Matter of Life and Death was Powell’s favorite of his films and it’s easy to see why he was proud of this piece of pure cinematic magic.

p.s. The American distributor was so scared that a film with “death” in the title wouldn’t attract war-weary moviegoers, that the US title was changed to “Stairway to Heaven”.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

49th Parallel

Calling a movie “propaganda” is usually an insult. But making quality propaganda is a skill, and one well worth deploying when you are fighting the Nazis. In 1941, the British War Ministry approached Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for support of the then-failing war effort. Wanting to tempt the neutral U.S. into the fight, the emerging superstar duo of British cinema set the story of a deadly team of Nazi invaders in Canada (The film’s US title was “Invasion”). As it happened, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor before the film opened in The States, so whether it would have helped tipped the balance will never be known. But there’s no doubt that 49th Parallel is a brilliant illustration of how wartime films can persuade even as they entertain.

Plot: After sinking defenseless cargo ships, a German U-Boat tries to hide in Hudson Bay. But the Canadian military closes in, forcing its resourceful, ruthless, true-believing Lieutenant Ernst Hirth (Eric Portman, convincing as usual) to lead his crew in a desperate dash across Canada. Thrills and human drama ensue, as does effective illustration of what precisely Nazism entailed and why all free peoples had to resist it.

Review: 49th Parallel - Slant Magazine

Pressburger’s story is reminiscent of the legendary western Winchester ’73 with the overarching narrative arc being a cross-country chase involving core characters, but the underlying structure being episodic. In each episode, new characters and settings provide an opportunity for the audience to see some of their favorite stars (e.g., Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey) and to comprehend a different aspect of Nazism, be it racism, religious intolerance, imperialism, contempt for the vulnerable, and even hatred of “decadent” art. It could easily have been heavy-handed but with this filmmaking team and cast, it’s supremely credible and stirring.

My favorite episode is the Nazis hiding out with a German Hutterite community. Its very much to the filmmakers’ credit that in 1941, when German immigrants were objects of suspicion and hostility in North America, the Hutterites are portrayed entirely positively. The scene where Lt. Hirth attempts to rally them to the cause of the Fatherland and the Hutterites reject him is particularly powerful. Subplots about a German crew member (Niall MacGinnis) who is taken by the Hutterite way of life and is punished for it by Hirth, and a Hutterite youth (Glynis Johns) whose faith is tested to the breaking point, are also powerful. The episode involving Howard as (what else?) an eccentric English scholar is nearly as fine. Kudos are also in order for multiple episodes showing First Nations people in a more positive light than was the norm in this era.

I’m not sure any country has had as much cinematic talent as densely packed as did Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. So much so that even after all this writing, I am just now getting around to mentioning how beautifully shot and perfectly edited the movie is, courtesy of Freddie Young and David Lean respectively. Five well-earned lifetime Academy Awards between those chaps; you can see why again here.

All in all, 49th Parallel is both crackerjack entertainment, affecting drama, and a compelling reason to stand up and sing O Canada!

p.s. Leslie Howard, whom the Nazis would murder in 1943, also did excellent work in my recommendation The Scarlet Pimpernel and Pygmalion, as did Niall MacGinnis in another of my recommended movies, Curse of the Demon.

Categories
British Horror/Suspense

The Devil Rides Out

If you have a chance to make a deal with Satan, you might consider asking for Dennis Wheatley’s book sales and film royalties. Among Wheatley’s many best sellers were a series of thrillers featuring the Duke de Richleau and his three loyal friends Simon Aaron, Rex Van Ryn, and Richard Eaton (Wheatley loosely modelled them on Dumas’ Musketeers). In a number of their adventures, the Duke employed his knowledge of the occult to battle diabolical supernatural forces. Fortunately, Hammer Films smelled an opportunity and in 1968 brought together some of its best talent to adapt Wheatley’s chilling and exciting tale The Devil Rides Out.

As I’ve mentioned in many of my recommendations, I like films that get right down to story telling without a lot of needless expository set up and context setting. The Devil Rides Out is a model of the form, opening with The Duke (Christopher Lee) and Rex (Leon Greene, though dubbed by Patrick Allen) dropping by unannounced at the home of their friend Simon (Patrick Mower) and discovering to their alarm that he’s fallen in with a group of Satanists! Investigation soon reveals that the sinister cultists are led by a hypnotic menace named Mocata (Charles Gray) and have designs not only on Simon, but also on a young woman named Tanith (Niké Arrighi) with whom Rex is enamored. The brave heroes seek help from The Eatons (Rosalyn Landor and Paul Eddington) and this redoubtable foursome commit to saving Simon and Tanith in the face of mounting threats summoned from Hell itself. Chills, suspense, and excitement follow.

Terence Fisher was Hammer’s best director, and he’s on his usual crisp and intelligent form here. Some horror directors accentuate supernatural goings on with melodrama and splatter. Fisher had an opposing, more British style: his characters are thoughtful, their relationships nuanced, and the demeanor remarkably restrained given the proceedings around them (down to all of them wearing suits and ties in virtually every scene even as they battle Satanists with fist and cross). Fisher had a fine script with which to work, by the great Richard Matheson, whose work I have touted in a half dozen other movie recommendations. He paces the story masterfully, doling out action sequences and character development at just the right rate. Matheson throws together Druidic, Pagan, Egyptian, Christian, and Masonic traditions fairly haphazardly along the way, but this is entertainment, not a theology course.

Image for post

This movie gave Christopher Lee a rare chance to anchor a picture in a thoroughly heroic role. Hammer Studios would normally have cast his friend Peter Cushing in role like the Duke. Cushing was always good, but Lee surely deserved this role after being wrapped in mummy bandages, sucking blood, shambling around with bolts in his neck, and all the rest of it in all those Hammer monster movies. He’s appropriately commanding as an aristocratic do-gooder, while also conveying enough humanity to make his character likable and the core relationships in the movie believable.

In a sturdy cast, Charles Gray makes a strong, frightening, impression as Mocata (which allegedly landed him the subsequent role of James Bond’s enemy, Ernst Bloefeld, in Diamonds are Forever). Patrick Mower, who had a recurring part in the Callan series (my recommendation here) is solid in his debut role, and Paul Eddington shows the developing talent that would later make him such a joy in Yes, Minister. Rosalyn Landor also registers as the brave Peggy Eaton, including through some unusual character developments that I won’t spoil.

Modern viewers may find the special effects cheap and unconvincing by today’s standards, which they are. I found the dated effects kind of charming (much as I do the sets in classic Universal monster pictures), and their limitations in no way reduced the tension during the heroes’ extended face off with the enemy in a Satanic circle. Overall, The Devil Rides Out is one of Hammer’s best movies in the horror/thriller vein, and that’s definitely saying something.

p.s. I suppose one could say this about many British films, but I couldn’t help noticing how many people associated with this film ended up in Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Christopher Lee played Sherlock Holmes multiple times, including under Fisher’s direction, and played Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s magnificent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Charles Gray played Mycroft both in The Seven Percent Solution and Granada’s television series starring Jeremy Brett. The Granada series also featured Patrick Allen as Professor Moriarty’s right-hand man, Rosalyn Landor as the heroine of The Speckled Band, and, at the age I believe of 100, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, who has a small part as a Satanist here.

Categories
British Drama Mystery/Noir Romance

It Always Rains on Sunday

There’s a special joy that comes when you watch an old movie with no preconceptions because you’ve never heard of it and come away loving it. That’s the lucky experience I had some years ago with It Always Rains on Sunday. A big hit for Ealing Studios in 1947, it was forgotten in the ensuing decades. But thanks mainly to restoration and promotion by the cinematic angels at BFI, many modern viewers have had the wonderful experience I did with a film that is both enthralling and culturally significant.

The movie’s plot is two-fold. On the one hand, It Always Rains on Sunday is a romantic drama somewhat like one of my other recommendations, Brief Encounter, but for the working classes. On the other hand, the movie is like a gazillion of my other recommendations in being a film noir. These two genres come together as follows:

In a cramped, dingy house in the East End, a once carefee ex-barmaid named Rosie Sandigate (Googie Withers) is chafing under dreary post-war British domesticity. Her husband George (Edward Chapman) is older, decent, and dull, and her step-daughters get on her nerves, particularly the free spirited Vi (Susan Shaw) who is stepping out with a flashy, married man (Sydney Tafler). Rosie’s drab world is upended one Sunday morning when she goes out to her Anderson shelter and is startled to discover a handsome criminal on the run: her former lover, Tommy Swann (John McCallum)! Tommy begs Rosie to help him, and amidst a tumble of emotions, she agrees, leading to a life changing Sunday indeed.

The Dark Time: “It Always Rains on Sunday” Kitchen Sink Noir

From this description, this film may sound like a misbegotten mish-mash but the potentially competing strands are expertly woven together courtesy of screenwriters Angus MacPhail and Henry Cornelius, and, co-writer and director Robert Hamer. When people think of Hamer and Ealing Studios, the peerless black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets and other funny films naturally springs to mind. But Ealing wasn’t yet a comedy powerhouse in 1947, and to the extent Hamer was known at all when he was signed to make It Always Rains on Sunday, it was for directing part of a classic horror film (Dead of Night). Hamer, who died tragically young from alcoholism, was no stranger to turbulent emotions and brings them out on screen here.

Googie Withers really makes the domestic side of this story hit home. She’s downright brilliant at portraying competing emotions: Disapproving of Vi but also envious of her youthful freedom and passion; Barely tolerating George yet also yielding to the virtues of stable commitment; and most of all, being intoxicated by, scared of, and scared for Tommy. Outside of the confines of the Sandigate home, the movie focus more on action than drama, with equally potent results. The thrilling pursuit of Tommy by the police ends with an epic train yard confrontation that was filmed with no stunt people (i.e. those are the real actors dodging and climbing on real trains).

It Always Rains on Sunday. 1947. Directed by Robert Hamer | MoMA

The look of this film is critical to its success. The Sandigate home is the apex of British drear (hat tip to Art Director Duncan Sutherland), from the faded wallpaper to the cracked plaster to the fractured windows to the piled bric-a-brac. Rosie’s frustration at how her life has turned out is accentuated by her surroundings in every cramped, overcrowded scene on that remarkable set. And for the shadowy scenes of action and intrigue, it’s always hard to beat Douglas Slocombe, whose noir camerawork I have praised many times (e.g., Taste of Fear, Robbery).

The film was influential in shaping an emerging genre (Brit Noir) but even moreso in prefiguring the kitchen sink dramas that would become popular a decade later. It Always Rains on Sunday contains the seeds of mega-hit working class soap operas like EastEnders and Coronation Street as well as darker fare like Look Back in Anger. In an era when many British films were filled with earls, viscounts, and people who dress for dinner, It Always Rains on Sunday gave working class people overdue attention.

Withers and McCallum began a 60+ year marriage shortly after making It Always Rains on Sunday. Rather than close with the movie trailer, I will instead share a charming interview with their daughter, Joanna McCallum. An an actress herself, she offers insight into both the movie and the relationship of her remarkable parents.

Categories
British Horror/Suspense

Whistle and I’ll Come to You

In my transatlantic existence, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the differences between British and American culture. One of the smaller ones: only the former have a broadly-shared tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. A Christmas Carol is of course the touchstone of this British pleasure, but it apparently started centuries before Dickens’ classic.

BBC responded to and nurtured this tradition for a number of years by adapting a ghost story for television each yuletide season during the 1970s, reviving the practice a little over a decade ago. Most of them have featured the stories of M.R. James, though Mr. Dickens has also had his turn (An effective adaptation of The Signalman). James was a respected British academic and medieval studies scholar who famously had a sideline in writing chilling tales of the supernatural, most of which featured a central character from James’ world (e.g., a writer, professor, bishop, museum curator) who gets in over his head when encountering malevolent forces he cannot understand.

The BFI has a boxed set available with every BBC ghost story. Here, I am going to recommend the story that kicked it all off: Whistle and I’ll Come to You

Many people incorrectly recall the first BBC ghost story as being a Christmas special like all those that followed, but it was actually a springtime entry in the long-running series Omnibus, which more typically carried art-focused documentaries. But in 1968, legendary director Jonathan Miller gave Omnibus audiences a giant scare instead. The story centers on Professor Parkins, vividly portrayed by Michael Hordern as a near-autistic Cambridge Don who talks to himself more than the people around him. In a remote English seaside town, he checks into a bed and breakfast with a plan to do some reading and some “trudging” along the desolate beaches. His social awkwardness is extreme, positioning him apart from the other guests both figuratively and literally. But in this pivotal scene in which the hyper-rational Parkins puts a fellow guest who believes in ghosts in his place (“There are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth”) we learn that it’s fundamentally smugness and not a sense of inferiority that separates Parkins from the rest of humanity. This is the classic M.R. James set up for a haughty intellectual to get his comeuppance via the world beyond.

And so it comes to pass. Professor Parkins comes across a grave that has been eroded by the sea and wind. Unwisely, he sorts through the bones to find a whistle with a Latin inscription meaning “Who is this who is coming?”. Of course the poor sod can’t resist blowing the whistle. Something awakens, glimpsed first as a distant, shrouded, figure silhouetted by the fading sun, then taking more form in pursuit during the Professor’s nightmares, and far too closer for comfort soon after that.

Like all of M.R. James’ stories, Whistle and I’ll Come to You is not a blood-spattered terror ride, but an eerie tale of foreboding, in which evil is often only glimpsed out of the corner of our eye. This is the artiest of BBC’s many adaptations of James’ stories, probably because of Miller’s presence and because the Omnibus audience would have expected nothing less (This also may account for the opening documentary-like narration by Miller, which might better have been dropped). Dick Bush does a tremendous job with single black and white camera set ups and long takes, including some effective low-angle and deep focus shots. He uses very few mid-range shots, mainly relying on distant, lonely, camera placement interspersed with a few well-chosen extreme closeups. The whole effect is admirably unnerving.

Were this constructed as a pure suspenser, the 40 minute running time would have been too long, but that’s why Hordern is such a treasure here. About half the story is a character study of an odd and indeed not particularly likable man, and Sir Michael carries that off in a compelling way until we get to the truly scary bits.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a worthy start to what became a beloved Christmas tradition in the UK (of the ones that followed, A View from the Hill is my favorite). Although the same story was re-adapted in 2010 by BBC with a bigger budget, the original is still I think the stronger piece of television and very much worth your attention this wintry season.

Categories
British Drama

The Shooting Party

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Shooting Party – The Reality ...

I have a weakness for British art that echoes French art, such as Anthony Powell’s Proust-esque Dance to the Music of Time. In a similar vein, allow me to recommend a British film that recalls Renoir’s Rules of the Game: 1985’s The Shooting Party.

The plot: Not long before The Great War will descend upon Europe, the kindly, idealistic, yet somewhat world-weary Sir Randolph Nettleby (James Mason, in his final cinematic performance) hosts a weekend shooting party at his arcadian estate. The guests include the competitive and cold Lord Gilbert Hartlip (Edward Fox, as watchable as ever) and his amorous and unfaithful wife Lady Aline Hartlip (Cheryl Campbell, whose performance stands out even among all this talent). Another unfulfilled but better-behaved noble couple (Lord and Lady Liburn, well-played by Robert Hardy and Judi Bowker) join them, as do a number of not-quite-that-loftily-titled but still upper class types from England and abroad. Gossip, affairs, and philosophical discussions upstairs and downstairs ensue as countless pheasants and grouse meet their end.

The main pleasure here is seeing a large number of outstanding actors work their magic under the eye of a solid director (Alan Bridges). Julian Bond’s adaptation of Isabel Colegate’s novel includes many subplots involving the marriages and friendships of the characters, the dynamics between and among servants and gentry, and observations on how children interact with and understand adults. Some of these are amusing and heartwarming. But this is no comedy: the film has an undertone of violence which the shooting scenes symbolize. By the end the viewer appreciates the violence some upper class people are willing to casually commit against lower class people and also the mix of self-regard and misplaced romanticism that will facilitate much of the aristocracy of Europe wiping each other out in World War I.

Some of the dialogue is heavy-handed, as if Bond doesn’t trust the audience enough to understand the themes of the film unless he has a character state them explicitly. But the experienced cast is skillful enough to sell these awkward moments and make even more of the (thankfully more numerous) authentic exchanges in the film. As for the look of the movie, anyone who has seen an episode of Masterpiece Theater knows that the Brits can do the country house with wood-paneled rooms and roaring fireplaces stuff as well as anyone, and they don’t disappoint here, including Fred Tammes’ autumnal cinematography.

My favorite scene in the movie is I suspect almost everyone’s favorite scene in the movie because it brings together two British acting giants to play off each other beautifully. John Gielgud is an animal rights protester who disrupts one of the shoots, bringing him into Sir Randolph’s presence for an exchange that dissolves the tension between them. I close the recommendation with a clip (which will not spoil the film’s plot at all) to highlight the stellar acting you will see if you watch this fine drama.