Scrooge is deservedly a beloved Christmas movie. Like the not dissimilar It’s a Wonderful Life, it came by its standing as a beloved film democratically: Long after it was released generations of people fell in love with it on television. And with very good reason.
The heart of this film is Alastair Sim, whose lack of a 1951 best actor Oscar nomination should make the Academy hang its head in perdurable shame. More than any other movie adaptation of Dickens’ novella, screenwriter Noel Langley’s treatment gives Scrooge a backstory that explains his nature and outlook, making him a more fully developed character. Sim must therefore portray powerful moments of grief, cruelty, pity, parsimony, regret, remorse and manic joy, and he does so in a profoundly effective way. He was so damn good in everything he did (e.g., Green for Danger, another of my recommendations) that it’s hard to say which is his greatest film performance, but this may well be it.
I stand outside myself, watching myself watching myself. I smile, I smile, I smile.
It takes courage to make a movie that defies all conventions and challenges the audience. Sometimes, indeed most of the time, the filmmakers fall on their faces. But every once in awhile a group of wildly innovative iconoclasts create something that has the right to be called unique, such as this week’s film recommendation: The Ruling Class.
The story begins with the solid, respectable, fiercely pro-Empire 13th Earl of Gurney (The always watchable Harry Andrews, holding nothing back) putting on a tutu and playing an auto-erotic asphyxiation game that goes awry. Enter greedy potential heirs, but the old coot has left his money to his manservant Tuck and his schizophrenic son Jack (Peter O’Toole). Jack currently believes himself to be the risen Christ, though after a dramatic series of events 2/3 of the way into the film he alters his self-identity in a profound fashion, with deadly results. The story barrels along with equally bizarre twists, punctuated by cast members bursting into song and doing Broadway-style dance numbers! It may sounds like an utter mess, but it’s a sublime piece of cinematic art.
As you would guess, there is a good deal of very black humor in the film. There are also many lighter-hearted laughs courtesy of Alastair Sim as a half-baked bishop (Honestly, he could evoke chuckles reading the phone book) and Arthur Lowe as the suddenly rich, alcohol-soaked Trotskyite butler Tuck, who stays on in his servant role while talking relentless smack to his “betters”.
The film is a triumph of three Peters. Peter Barnes wrote the original stage play and the screenplay, Peter Medak directed, and Peter O’Toole leads a champagne cast by giving an all out performance playing a volatile, complicated, exuberant character. Hats must also be doffed to Jack Hawkins, whose acting I have much praised in prior recommendations (e.g., The Long Arm, The Cruel Sea), and who is in the co-producer’s chair here (alongside Jules Buck).
This film did poor box office in 1972 and seemed to get no middling reviews: Critics loved it or hated it. Likewise, today, I can imagine some intelligent people of good will finding this film contrived, overlong, pretentious, and maybe even obnoxious. But in other modern viewers it will evoke wonder and admiration. If you are open to something completely different, please do give it a look, particularly if you can get your hands on the stunning print available from the Criterion Collection.
If Lt. Columbo had been Scottish, he would have born a strong resemblance to Inspector Cockrill, as wonderfully played by Alastair Sim in 1946’s Green for Danger. In the film role that helped make him a huge star, Sim perfectly essays the role of the dowdy looking, socially clumsy police detective who has a razor sharp mind and a relentless desire to snag his prey.
The setting is a wartime British hospital, where doctors and nurses treat the victims of the German doodlebugs that are wreaking havoc throughout the countryside. When an injured local postman mysteriously dies on the operating table, everyone looks like a plausible suspect. Which member of the surgical team did it? Is the killer Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), the lothario head surgeon? Sister Bates (Judy Campbell), the woman he most recently discarded? Or perhaps it’s Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard), the doctor with a stain on his medical record?
Particularly if you have the Criterion Collection version, this film is not just entertaining but very easy on the eyes. Much of it was shot indoors, but Cinematographer Wilkie Cooper makes the most of the exterior scenes to give us eye-catching and haunted-looking backdrops that maximize the tension of the story (He had Oswald Morris and Thelma Connell on the team, whose also collaborated on another of my recommendations). With all the wind, trees and shadows, the mood created is reminiscent of horror films in which a small group of desperate people are locked inside a remote and spooky mansion where violent events unfold.
Despite being a murder mystery, the film has many funny moments (especially Sim’s wry dialogue and voiceovers). Sidney Gilliat had already shown his gift for comic thrillers by co-scripting Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Here he also takes the director’s chair, from which he skillfully keeps the tone right as the story moves from hospital soap opera to murder investigation to amusingly Columbo-esque moments between Cockrill and the suspects. Gilliat gets solid performances from every member of his cast, who do a nice job humanizing characters that might otherwise lapse into stereotype. Gilliat’s script (co-written by Claude Guerney based on Christianna Brand’s novel) invokes a number of coincidences to make everyone look like a suspect and offers a somewhat rococo ultimate explanation for the crimes. But these are time-honored and enjoyable elements of the locked room mystery genre, right down to the climactic re-staging of the crime by Inspector Cockrill.
One of the most memorable adaptations of A Christmas Carol is a short, animated film of the same name. Made in 1971 by animation icons Richard Williams, Ken Harris and Chuck Jones, this is by far the most eerie and dark version of the much-filmed Dickens classic.
Despite being condensed to 25 minutes, this Oscar-winning film’s storytelling will be comprehensible even to people unfamiliar with the original. Adding immeasurably to the production are the voice talents of two actors from the best live action version of the old chestnut (Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern, who reprise their 1951 roles as Scrooge and Marley, respectively).
But the real star here is the animation, which was inspired by illustrations in early editions of the book (especially the Victorian era drawings of John Leech). The images are lugubrious and scary yet hard to look away from, not unlike Goya’s Pinturas Negras. I first saw this film as a child and the visual of “ignorance and want” haunted my imagination for years. The film makers accentuate the power of the animation by employing arresting pan and zoom shots that are extremely effective both as storytelling devices and as setters of mood.
The threnodic tone of the film does not stop the essentially positive message of the story from emerging brightly in the end. Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation to a life of charity and decency remains uplifting, perhaps even moreso for the considerable terrors of the night before.