Categories
Drama Romance

Room at the Top

Room at the Top | The Soul of the Plot

Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy was adapted into a 1951 hit movie called A Place in the Sun directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. The tale of a young man trying to rise from the working class to wealth in both his career and his romantic aspirations was hailed by Charlie Chaplin as “The greatest movie ever made about America”. Yet these sorts of stories are hardly culturally bound, as demonstrated by the groundbreaking 1959 British film Room at the Top.

Neil Paterson’s brilliant, Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation of John Braine’s novel tells the story of working class striver Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey, in a star-making performance). Joe is from such a small, depressing Yorkshire town that moving to the mid-sized Yorkshire city of Warnley (think Bradford, where some exteriors were filmed) feels to him like arriving in cosmopolitan heaven. He works as a humble civil servant, but immediately announces that he intends to woo the lovely, upscale, Susan Brown (Heather Sears), daughter of the richest factory owner in town. Despite the objections of her snobbish parents (Ambrosine Phillpotts and Donald Wolfit) and a romantic rival (John Westbrook, who makes a very effective condescending bastard), Susan takes a shine to Joe, even though he’s N.O.C. But strangely, Joe finds himself more drawn to Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), an older woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering upper-class heel (All Cuthbertson). Sensual desires, painful choices, human ugliness, and class conflict ensue.

Room at the Top (1958) | BFI

A remarkable achievement for first time director Jack Clayton (his next film was another of my recommendations, The Innocents), Room at the Top kicked off the “angry young man” cycle of films that were central to the British New Wave. Signoret instantiates in increased French influence on British cinema in this era, including in the frank portrayal of sex, which at the time earned this film an X rating. Because of its gritty working class settings (strikingly photographed by Freddie Francis), and its blue collar resentments, this film is sometimes said to have kicked off “kitchen sink” drama, but if you have seen my review of It Always Rains on Sunday, you know that tradition was present in British film already.

There are many good performances in the movie, but Simone Signoret towers over all with her Academy Award-winning turn as a woman who met Joe just a bit too late. She was only 7 years older than Harvey, but she was made up to look older (how many famous actresses would have been scared to do this?) and in her attitude, tone, and presence, she makes the audience believe she is the sadder and wiser woman to love and to guide the immature, un-self-aware Joe. The two of them have palpable screen chemistry, both sexually and romantically, which is precisely what gives this shattering story of love versus material ambition so much power.

Room at the Top Review | Movie - Empire
Categories
Comedy Drama

The Front

Front, The (1976) -- (Movie Clip) Make It A Firing Squad

Hollywood has always been fascinated with itself, so it’s not surprising how many movies address the “blacklisting” of suspected communists in the 1950s (Guilty by Suspicion, Trumbo, and Hail, Caesar! to name only a few). Among the best of these is a 1976 film made by a director (Martin Ritt), screenwriter (Walter Bernstein), and actors (Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough) who were blacklisted themselves: The Front.

The plot: An underachieving, improvident, but essentially decent nobody named Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is approached by an old friend (Michael Murphy) who can no longer sell his scripts because he’s been blacklisted. Howard agrees to front the scripts as if they were his own in exchange for a 10% take. Howard gets cockier as “his” scripts are well received and result in romantic attention from a television producer (Andrea Marcovicci). Seeking more glory and more cash, he recklessly volunteers to take on fronting scripts from even more blacklisted writers. Meanwhile, Prince forms a friendship with Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel), a once big star whose career is declining based on some extremely tenuous connections to communists in the past. As the feds start investigating the increasingly famous Howard Prince, lives, careers, and morals, are imperiled.

The film is simultaneously a comedy and a drama. Most of the comedy comes from Allen, who plays within his usual range and is amusing doing so. The drama comes mainly from Zero Mostel, in a performance with psychic weight. Hecky is not a serious man. He likes to make people laugh. He only flirted with communism to impress a woman he was lusting after. Yet the feds treat his alleged subversiveness with deadly seriousness, resulting in him being ground to pieces bit by humiliating bit.

The Front (1976) Martin Ritt | Twenty Four Frames

In a solid supporting cast, I would single Herschel Bernardi out for praise. Bernardi isn’t much-remembered today, but he was a very fine actor who was the best thing about Blake Edwards’ superb television show Peter Gunn (recommended here). He has a lighter role here as the producer of the show for which Prince writes. As a man who wants to stand up for what’s right but can’t quite do it, he’s believable and appealing.

Mixing comedy and serious drama effectively takes directorial skill, and Ritt, a real pro, is up to the task. Walter Bernstein’s polished script is an asset in this regard even though his portrayal of blacklisted writers is unrealistically saintly (though one appreciates the origin of his bias!).

The Front was underappreciated by critics at the time and to a lesser extent that’s still true today. Many felt that unrelentingly grim, hard-hitting drama was the only appropriate tone for stories about the blacklist. But if the people who actually went through it can appreciate the absurdity of it, can find black humor in the mockery of it, perhaps these critics can stop getting their undies in a wad over The Front being entertaining, rather than merely earnest, eat your peas moral instruction.

p.s. Look fast for Danny Aiello as a fruit seller who into gambling on the side, or perhaps the other way around.

Categories
Drama

Margin Call

Underrated Masterpieces: Margin Call (2011) – Play it Again, Dan

Of the Wall Street movies made in the wake of the financial crisis, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, drew the most attention, awards, and audience receipts. But I think The Magnificent Martin was outshone by lower budget film made by a first-time writer/director: Margin Call.

Made by J.C. Chandor in 2011, the film documents 24 insane hours at an unnamed Wall Street firm. The story opens with casual brutality: traders and managers being professionally and publicly fired and marched out of the building while their colleagues continue working around them. Revealingly, the only people who are perturbed by the inhumanity are the newer employees; everyone else learned the hard truth a long time ago. But it is a moment of humanity on which the story turns. As long-serving risk management expert Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is cruelly cut loose, a whiz kid analyst named Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) thanks him warmly for his mentorship. Eric is touched, his armor drops for a moment, and he hands Peter a thumb drive and says: “Be careful”. The thumb drive contains a partially completed statistical model which Peter quickly perfects, revealing that the firm has enormous risk exposure that could bankrupt it at any moment. As panic sets in, higher and higher levels of management are brought in to save the firm by any means necessary. High-powered acting and drama ensue.

Margin Call - NYT Watching

The cast is star-studded, with Paul Bettany as a mid-level trading manager who wonders why he never breaks into the higher echelons of the firm, Kevin Spacey as a world-weary survivor of decades on The Street, and Simon Baker as an ice cold executive. The role of the CEO — one of those “let’s write a colorful small part for a prestige actor” roles — is played with just the right touch of theatricality by Jeremy Irons. Irons is particularly effective at conveying one of the script’s principal messages: The higher up you go, the more sociopathic and substantively ignorant people become.

Demi Moore also gives an excellent performance as the one woman in authority within the firm. She projects power laced with the underlying brittleness and fear of someone who is smashed flat against the glass ceiling. The script offers no sentimental dreck about corporate women being nicer the men: She after all is the one who cans the long serving Eric Dale after failing to listen to his warnings. Yet we also feel sorry for her because it’s obvious that when the boys’ club pins the blame on someone for the catastrophe, it will be a fall girl and not a fall guy.

Yet with all that star talent, the real star here is J.C. Chandor, in one of the most promising cinematic debuts in quite some time. His script and direction make for brisk pacing without sacrificing nuance. A story about the corrupting influence of money on both the best and the worst of us could easily have been preachy or heavy-handed, but here it’s artful and wise. Most notably, Chandor humanizes the characters while not forgiving them. A few more lines of quotable dialogue, including a moment or two with some comic relief, might have made it even better, but that’s a small complaint about a polished and multi-layered script. Hats off to Chandor as director as well, for clearly not being intimidated by his stellar cast, and for offering a compelling vision of the people, motives, and actions that wrecked the global economy.

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 to darker fare like Look Back in Anger. In an era when many British films were filled with Earls 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 lovely 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
Drama

To Sleep With Anger

Many films structure their narrative around the power of visitors to disrupt overtly settled lives. Sometimes the results are comic (e.g., The Mating Season), sometimes they are dramatic and heart-warming, (e.g., The Bishop’s Wife) sometimes they are sinister (e.g., The Intruder), and sometimes they are a combination of all these things, as in the superb 1990 film To Sleep With Anger.

The plot: The heads of a multi-generational family, Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice), left The South geographically — but not culturally — decades ago and established themselves in a middle-class Black neighborhood in Los Angeles. Their sons now have families of their own, though Junior (Carl Lumbly) is eminently responsible and “Babe Brother” (Richard Brooks) is immature and selfish. Into this fairly placid picture comes Harry (Danny Glover), a charming acquaintance from back home whom they haven’t seen in 30 years. The trusting, good-hearted Gideon and Suzie invite Harry to stay with them for as long as he wishes. Much like a vampire, once invited over the threshold Harry changes from ingratiating to calculating, undermining the family’s well-being for reasons that remain mysterious.

Writer/Director Charles Burnett put himself on the map with his cinema vérité film school thesis project Killer of Sheep. That film has been lionized by critics as one of the great movies of the 1970s, but its lack of narrative structure or character development limits its appeal outside cineaste circles. In contrast, To Sleep With Anger is a much more accessible movie. Burnett creates an array of full-blooded characters who evolve in believable ways, and a storyline that is dramatically rich. He also proves an assured director in his first film with professional actors.

Film Scene - TO SLEEP WITH ANGER

The heart of the film is Danny Glover, in a darker role than he typically assays (Indeed, other than on some episodes of Hill Street Blues, this is the only time I can recall him getting to develop a malignant character on screen). He is masterful from the very first scene at appearing straightforward, open-hearted, and uncomplicated, while subtly cueing the audience that Harry is none of these things (Burnett’s script is also a help here, giving us some supernatural tipoffs). Some film reviewers have referred to Harry as a “trickster” character but I don’t think that fits. In Black folklore, the trickster uses his wits to triumph over people with more power (e.g., Whites). Harry instead is a danger to the vulnerable and the weak.

Around the mystery of Harry’s motives and nature are more conventional subplots of family drama: The tensions between adults set in their ways and children who want something more modern, the love and rivalry between siblings, and the way marriages can be strong and frail at the same time. With a big assist from Burnett, the entire cast makes these well-worn themes come alive on screen in an authentic and touching way, with some humorous moments as well. In 2019, To Sleep With Anger was selected for inclusion in the Criterion Collection, a deserved honor for this highly original and engaging movie.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Witness for the Prosecution

The Ace Black Blog: Movie Review: Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

Agatha Christie’s popular blend of mysterious murders, eccentric characters, droll humor, and surprise endings have translated smoothly into many entertaining movies, including some all time-classics. In that glittering club along with another of my recommendation (And Then There Were None) is Billy Wilder’s 1957 gem Witness for the Prosecution.

Plot: While recovering from a heart attack, the brilliant and caustic Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is presented a murder case that tempts him back to the Old Bailey, despite the risks to his health. A charming ne’er do well named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) stands accused of murdering an older, well-heeled, widow named Emily Jane French (Norma Varden), who had fallen under his spell. Vole’s glamorous, enigmatic, German wife (Marlene Dietrich) at first seems willing and able to provide an alibi…but the audience shares Sir Wilfrid’s suspicion that the case will be nowhere near that simple.

Christie was comfortable with liberal adaptations of her work. Indeed, she herself changed the ending of her story Traitor’s Hands when turning into a play called Witness for the Prosecution. And she countenanced a number of further changes in the film version, as scripted by Wilder, Larry Marcus, and Harry Kurnitz. Their most brilliant innovations were enlarging the part of Sir Wilfred to give Laughton a showcase role and inventing outright the character of Miss Plimsoll, his long suffering nurse. Casting Laughton’s real-life wife, that shamelessly funny ham Elsa Lanchester, as Miss Plimsoll was another stroke of genius. The first quarter of the film could have stood on its feet just as a comedy, as Plimsoll mothers and badgers Sir Wilfrid to follow his health regime and he schemes and wheedles to obtain his treasured cigars and brandy.

Reviewing performances: Best Actress in a Supporting Role 1957 ...

But of course it’s not primarily a comedy, but a murder mystery and courtroom drama. It’s very strong on those terms, with articulate jousting in the courtroom and engrossing plot twists outside of it. The ending, which I will not ruin (and the post-credits ask audiences to abide by the same silence), is a bit contrived but still satisfying.

The smaller roles are also very well essayed, include Una O’Connor as the hilariously crotchety maid of the victim and Henry Daniell, whom I loved in multiple Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, as another lawyer. But even in this strong cast, Laughton towers over them all with one of signature performances of his stellar career. His Sir Wilfrid is a complete character: insufferable at times, dazzling at others, and always, at the core, honorable.

Tyrone Power was an intriguing choice as the accused. Entering middle age (and tragically, to die of a heart attack after this picture was released) , his handsomeness is still visible, but at a less godlike level that in the 1940s. He looks, appropriately, like a chancer who knows his looks will fade soon but are still impressive enough to spark fantasies in a lonely older woman. Marlene is as beguiling as ever, and it doesn’t really bother us that despite her penury, she wears a series of smashing outfits designed by Edith Head.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) • Frame Rated

The movie is of course also another triumph for Billy Wilder, and one that at moments echoes some of his other movies. Leonard’s relationship with Mrs. French brings to mind Sunset Boulevard and a scene in post-war Germany with Dietrich and Power recalls A Foreign Affair. Resonant grace notes for fans of the legendary director.

Categories
Drama Featured Film Mystery/Noir

Nightmare Alley

Tyrone Power was one of most dashing leading men in Hollywood history and was a massive box office draw beginning in the mid-1930s. However, after many swashbuckling Saturday matinees, musicals, and romantic dramas, he longed to do something more weighty. He used his star power to convince a skeptical Daryl Zanuck to produce a film based on a dark, disturbing debut novel by a dark, disturbing guy named William Lindsay Gresham. The resulting film was a most atypical one both from the point of view of Power’s career and the film noir genre: 1947’s Nightmare Alley.

The plot is long and twisty, but Jules Furthman of The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not fame knew as well as screenwriter how to keep an audience from becoming lost. Stanton Carlisle (Power) works at a carnival, assisting a couple with their low rent mind-reading act. Zeena (Joan Blondell, whose performance stands out even in this strong cast) has become the brains of the outfit due to her husband Pete’s decline into alcoholism (A sympathetic Ian Keith). Once they were the toast of high society, due to a sophisticated code they developed to create the illusion of extra-sensory perception. Stanton turns his magnetic charm towards getting Zeena to teach him the code and simultaneously seducing a young beauty named Molly who also works at the carnival (Coleen Gray). He gets what he wants from both women, and he and Molly flee to the big city. They revive Zeena and Pete’s old act with tremendous success. But soon an alluring and devious psychiatrist (a delicious part deliciously played by Helen Walker) tempts Stanton into an even bigger con, which leads him to places many a film noir protagonist knows far too well.

Tyrone Power and Helen Walker in Nightmare Alley (1947)

Nightmare Alley is a punchy exploration of how ambition and greed translate into cruelty and deceit. Although not generally known as a noir director, Edmund Goulding has firm grasp of the material, and deserves credit for the uniformly strong acting. He and Power had just collaborated on the excellent The Razor’s Edge and they continue to thrive together here, making Stanton appealing and vulnerable enough that we keep caring about him even as his morality corrodes. The film also offers an unusually large array of complex, strong, women characters, all of which are well-played.

Nightmare Alley is unlike most noirs of the period, for two reasons. First, Power just doesn’t look the part of the noir protagonist: he’s too handsome, too smooth, and too poised. He looks out of place in the carny scenes, but at home in the swanky scenes where he wears a tuxedo in a plush hotel ballroom. And yet, it works, because this is perhaps the best performance of Power’s career, stretching his range unlike anything he’d been in before. The fall of his character is that much more devastating precisely because he starts out looking like he has success screaming out of every pore.

The other atypical aspect of the film is that it’s one of very few big budget noirs of the period (Leave Her To Heaven being a better known example) Noirs were usually cheaply made, and indeed many of their conventions (e.g., minimal lighting) emerged in part to hide their low budgets. In contrast, this is a gorgeous looking film shot by Lee Garmes and stuffed with authentic sets, varied locations, and perfect outfits for the characters.

Tyrone Power and Taylor Holmes in Nightmare Alley (1947)

The only thing that bothered me about the film is that the perfect, sock you in the gut final scene became the penultimate one when Zanuck saw the rushes. The film closes instead on a more hopeful (though still dark) scene that has less psychic weight. Studio-imposed, punch pulling, final scene are commercially understandable but artistically barren (I had the same complaint about 99 River Street), particularly here when “I was made for it” is an all time noir classic line that should have closed out the story. But that’s a small complaint to have about such an accomplished piece of cinema.

Nightmare Alley didn’t do good business at release because Zanuck didn’t believe in it and because it violated audience expectations for Power and for noir. But in the years since, it has been deservedly rediscovered as a classic of the genre and a high point of the tragically short career of Tyrone Power.

Categories
Documentaries and Books Drama Mystery/Noir

In a Lonely Place

To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget.

Dorothy Hughes’ bewitching and disturbing novel In a Lonely Place was thankfully re-issued by New York Review of Books in 2017. It very much recalls some of Jim Thompson’s darkest works, though she’s arguably an even better writer than he was. Hughes’ stylish evocation of a psychopathic psychology is like one of those sweetened Russian cocktails that tastes wonderful going down even though you know it’s burning out your insides and will leave you full of the blackest regret in the morning. I can’t recommend the book strongly enough, though not for the faint-hearted.

Once you have read it, consider watching the unforgettable film adaptation, which I review below.

I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

Amazingly, there are people who consider themselves Humphrey Bogart fans who have never seen the brooding, powerful 1950 film In a Lonely Place. In one of his greatest roles, Bogart plays bitter, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele, whose best days seem to be behind him. After being tasked with adapting a dreadful novel for the silver screen, he asks a ditzy hat check girl who loves the book to come to his apartment and tell him the plot. The next morning, the police inform Dix that the girl has been murdered and dumped by the side of the road. As the audience, we do not know what really happened. Steele is initially alibied by sultry neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, all eyebrows, curves and nimbly masked emotional turmoil), who promptly yields to his romantic advances. They fall in love and Dix is able to regain his gifts as a writer. But as Laurel sees Dix continue to be volatile and aggressive, she begins to wonder, Suspicion-style, whether Dix is a murderer after all.

This movie is cynical about fame, Hollywood, and human relationships, but tantalizes us with the possibility that new love can redeem it all. The suspense emerges less from the murder mystery than from the warring internal emotions of the characters. Director Nicholas Ray knew life’s dark places and how to get actors to go there. His marriage to the volatile Grahame ended in the most sordid way imaginable while they were making this movie, and the anguish and anger on the set comes out in the electric performances of the cast. The film is also remarkable for its opening five minutes, which are a clinic in how a great director and actor can establish a character with ruthless economy (incidentally, the bar in the opening scene was modeled after Romanoff’s, Bogart’s favorite watering hole).

There are countless movies told from the man’s point of view in which a beautiful, younger woman falls in love with the protagonist (indeed, Bogart himself made a number of such films). The women in those movies are flat characters and we aren’t told why they go for the hero. He wants her, the story needs them to fall in love, so they do. What is truly remarkable about this movie’s structure is that it follows this formula about half-way through and then flips the perspective to the woman’s point of view.

Categories
Drama

To Serve Them All My Days

The classic Dickens novels usually end with the central character finally finding a proper place in the world after years of hardship and misadventures. R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days takes the opposite approach of having a character with a tragic backstory find his proper place on the very first page, and spend the rest of his life realizing it. In 1980, BBC tapped Andrew Davies (later to pen another of my recommendations, House of Cards) to adapt the novel to the small screen, and the result is a fine 13 part miniseries that I recommend to you this week.

The series opens with shell-shocked, limping, wan, Welshman David Powlett-Jones (John Duttine) returning from the horrors of the trenches to apply for a teaching post at Bamfylde boarding school in Devon. The wily, gentle, headmaster Algy Herries (endearingly played by Frank Middlemass) sees potential in the traumatized young man and hires him as a teacher. Surrounded by better educated, better born, men, David initially struggles with that peculiarly Welsh working class admixture of pride and insecurity. But he slowly begins to find his footing, largely because he develops positive relationships with Algy as well as with a lonely, cynical, yet also compassionate senior housemaster (Alan MacNaughtan). He also grows to understand and be respected by the boys, despite not sharing their class background nor their politics.

David’s life is also shaped profoundly by three women he loves over the years, each of whom is emblematic of a different historical age. Beth Marwood is the perfect Victorian helpmate (indeed too perfect, she is the most flat character in the series unfortunately for Belinda Lang, who does her best). She is followed by the sexually liberated Julia, who has a flapper sensibility even though her horizons are limited by the social and occupational constraints placed on women in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Christine Forster arrives in a David’s life as a powerful person in her own right both psychologically and politically, facing down sexism while running for Parliament.

This series really grew on me episode by episode. In part that was due to Duttine’s layered performance as a lost, angry, and tentative person becoming over many years completely at home at Bamflyde, invested in life, and deservedly confident of his abilities. I also appreciated that some characters who started out as stereotypes, like Carter the failed soldier turned teacher (Neil Stacy) and the icy martinet headmaster Alcock (Charles Kay) became better-rounded over time. But the most rewarding feature of the series — as in virtually all drama — were the rich human relationships brought alive by a worthy script, directors, and cast.

The series isn’t perfect. The 12th episode features a subplot about anti-Semitism that is disappointingly carmelized and should have been dropped, one of the revelations in the final episode isn’t set up well enough in earlier episodes to have the desired impact, and throughout the series isn’t much to look at in terms of sets or camerawork. But it’s almost impossible to put 11 hours of film together and not have some weak spots.

To Serve Them All My Days is the sort of literate, solid entertainment upon which the BBC’s reputation for high quality drama rests. Make yourself a pot of tea and get watching.

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.