Categories
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.

Categories
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’Acoynes (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 probably 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 at 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.

Categories
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 it 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.

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 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.

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 more than 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.