The Criminal (UK, 1960)

Superb prison film

Like Cy Endfield, who directed The Sound of Fury, Joseph Losey found himself in Britain after being blacklisted by HUAC. That Losey fell foul of McCarthy’s witch hunts wasn’t surprising as he’d collaborated with, amongst others, Bertolt Brecht in America and he brings a Brechtian sensibility to this superb prison film. The most striking instance is when one of the inmates, who is on the verge of insanity, starts rambling on incoherently and the men stand still behind as the light dips. This is Brechtian as it draws attention to itself as a film and eschews the ‘invisible’ fourth wall. Another technique is a calypso singer, also a prisoner, commenting on the action a couple of times.

Losey’s superb direction isn’t the only reason this is a gripping film. Stanley Baker’s criminal finds himself ‘out of time’ as the crime business becomes just that: a corporate way to make money rather than individual mavericks who make it up as they go along. Baker’s trademark ‘bubbling volcano’, he seems about to blow but just restrains himself, is perfect for the role of Bannion who resigns himself to 10 years in prison in return for his pension (which he has buried) of £40,000.

Losey apparently wanted to whole film set ‘inside’ however the producers wished otherwise and the scenes outside are excellent. Robert Krasker’s (he also shot The Third Man, 1948) cinematography is brilliant giving a hard, cold edge to the exteriors that are perfect for, in particular, the snow-bound field of the climax. Women are pretty much sidelined, but then it was a macho world; Margit Saad is convincing as the ‘tart with a heart’ who almost melts Bannion’s steel-encased exterior. The shot of her naked bum must have been risqué for the time. Saad was German and I guess, like Simone Signoret, in Room At the Top (1959), is was deemed okay to portray ‘loose’ women as long as they were foreign. There is a small role for Dorothy Bromiley (I think) – she seems never to have had anything other than small roles in cinema – who is brilliant as a gobby friend of Bannion’s ex; shame there isn’t much more of her to see.

Jimmy Sangster’s script was rewritten by Alun Owen (his first feature); Losey wanted a social critique and Owen’s TV work suggested, accurately, that he could deliver. Although the prison scenes are fairly clichéd, Patrick Magee’s sadistic warder and the disinterested warden, at the time – in British cinema at least – such a portrayal of dysfunctional prison life was unusual. In fact the representation of prison life does go beyond generic convention: Magee, like Baker, suggests there’s more beneath the surface and it wouldn’t be pretty if it broke out. He’s clearly unhinged but just about holds it together. Kenneth J Warren’s Clobber, a ‘useful idiot’, scarily shows how simple it is to manipulate someone whose IQ is on the low side.

The Criminal wasn’t a box office hit as it had the bad luck to be released at the same time as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, a zeitgeist film if ever there was one. It also struggled to gain critical attention as the snobbery of British film criticism regarded crime thrillers as ‘cheap’ American imitations, especially when placed against New Wave films such as Saturday Night. However the French saw its quality, via Losey as an auteur, and they were right.

 

 

 

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McMafia (UK-US, 2018)

Victim of circumstance?

This is another series that has benefited from the globalisation of the television industry that has seen an increasing number of co-productions meaning bigger budgets. A few years ago if a TV drama needed the American market the narrative would likely have been compromised to suit its apparent needs. However, since the growth of cable, which unlike the Networks will run ‘adult’ drama in terms of content and concept, this is no longer the case. McMafia is a BBC-AMC production with an international cast; the main creative personnel, with the exception of Hossein Amini, are British. Amini is Iranian but has lived in the Britain since he was 11. The director of all eight episodes, James Watkins (of the excellent The Woman in Black), and Amini are credited as ‘creators’ of the series based on Misha Glenny’s brilliant nonfiction account of the globalisation of gangster capitalism; it was published 2008.

McMafia was broadcast on the BBC at the start of the year in the prestige Sunday evening slot (actually New Year’s Day) and then ran the next two episodes on following days before the last five ran weekly. Ratings were high at the start (7.5 million) but had fallen by two million a week later. This isn’t surprisingly given the relatively complex and ‘unsexy’ subject matter of money laundering which requires the drama-sapping image of the protagonist staring at a computer screen. Credit to the BBC for giving the star treatment to a drama that does show the realities of 21stcentury crime that, in Russia, is state-condoned. In the west, the corruption of power is less obvious (unless you’re the Tory party of 2018 or in Trump’s America) because the sham of democracy is an effective smokescreen; in Russia Putin’s one party rule is too obvious.

The big budget allows location shooting in around the world and key locations include Mumbai, Moscow, Prague, Tel Aviv and London. Hence an international cast is needed and the quality is high: plaudits to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Merab Ninidze, Karel Benes and David Strathairn. Women are unsurprisingly sidelined but there is a distressing subplot featuring Sofya Lebedeva as a teenager kidnapped into prostitution and the attempts of a bodyguard, played with steely intensity by Oshri Cohen, to help her.

As the series progresses the narrative focus switches away from the machinations of high finance, and its brutal global implications, to the moral degradation of its protagonist, Godin, played effectively by James Norton. Although the latter episodes lose something in terms of educating us about ‘how it all works’, in dramatic terms it is very effective with ‘edge-of-the-seat’ chases and clever plot turns. Hopefully those who enjoyed the series will read the book.

McMafia is a superb drama that is both politically aware and honest in its depiction of moral corruption. There will be a sequel and it will be interesting to see how low he can go.

The Good Die Young (UK, 1954)

Was my view of ’50s British cinema formed by the selection of films screened on television during the ’70s? I don’t know obviously but it’s possible that such hard hitting thrillers as The Good Die Young didn’t get the exposure that more insipid films did (the titles of which I don’t remember). Certainly my impression of ‘British cinema’ used to agree with Truffaut’s contention that it was an oxymoron. Maybe films like The Good Die Young were screened but the only place to see them now on TV in the UK is on the Talking Pictures channel.

This was director Lewis Gilbert, who died aged 97 earlier this year, 10th feature film and an efficient job he does; he went on to direct a number of war films in the ’50s and three Bond movies. There’s even an expressionist scene when Stanley Baker’s ex-boxer finds his £1000 savings have been frittered on his feckless brother-in-law. The boxing match is superbly done, particularly in the editing.

The sensationalism (for the time) of the film is evident in the poster as is the excellent cast. The Americans Grahame, Basehart (Joe) and Ireland were no doubt included to try to appeal to the American market but they are seamlessly integrated into the plot where three ‘down on their luck’ ordinary guys are seduced by a Playboy (Laurence Harvey) into a robbery. I’ve never seen Harvey better, he plays the upper class slime ball perfectly and the scene when he asks his estranged father (Robert Morley) for money is brilliantly done. Never have I seen such loathing in a ‘gentleman’s club’ before. And that’s the key to the success of the film: the upper middle class, so often, as I remember, lauded by British cinema are shown for the shallow fakers they are.

Grahame’s role is interesting as although she is once again playing a ‘loose woman’ there’s no sense she’s a ‘tart with a heart’. Her treatment of her husband (Ireland) is entirely heartless. Joan Collins, as Joe’s sweet wife (Mary), was appearing in her 9th feature; 25 years later she was reinvigorating her career as a nymphomaniac in The Stud (UK, 1978) – an analogue for the history of British cinema during this time?

The film has elements of noir, the aforementioned expressionist scene and the grim narrative; the climax goes fully Gothic in a churchyard at night with rats scurrying. Mention also needs making of Freda Jackson playing the clinging mother of Mary. She oozes hatred of husband  Joe and is merciless in her intention to keep Mary to herself.

The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, US, 1950)

The-Sound-of-Fury-1950-1

Katherine Locke as the ‘wallflower’

Blimey!

In my trawl through films noir I haven’t seen The Sound of Fury is a real find. A short Internet search shows me that it is (relatively) well known but there doesn’t seem to be a video copy available (I saw it on FilmFour).

It’s based on Joe Pagano’s novel (and adapted by him) The Condemned which was derived from real events that happened in San Jose in 1933. The film starts off following family man Howard (Frank Lovejoy) who is desperate for work. He falls in with ‘wide boy’ Jerry (played with demented vigour by Lloyd Bridges) who leads him off the ‘straight and narrow’. Some of the early scenes have a documentary feel emphasising that Frank’s predicament was experienced (and still is) by many; even though he is a good guy trying to provide (this was the patriarchal ‘50s) for his wife and kid, society gives him nothing. As things spiral out of control director, Cyril Endfield goes expressionist as guilt, booze and the attentions of a desperate ‘wallflower’ (Hazel) send him over the edge.

Hazel’s played by Katherine Locke who was better known as a stage actor; here she is simply sensational. I mentioned a few posts back the impact Claire Trevor made in a small role in Dead End; Locke is even better. She conveys the desperation of a woman who feels her looks are fading and her chance of ‘love and romance’ hang by a thread. She manages to convey her fears and hopes in her facial expressions with dazzling speed as she tries to believe that Frank (who is only with her for an alibi) might be the ‘one’.

The climax of the film is truly terrifying and brilliantly staged by Endfield who is better known as Cy Endfield the director of Hell Drivers (UK, 1957) and Zulu (UK, 1964). He was blacklisted by HUA, directed under a pseudonym for a number of years and moved to Britain. The mob scene at the end has a newsreel quality that makes it even more effective. It’s rare to see a film that mixes so many visual styles and it works brilliantly.

Truly terrifying

The only false note the film strikes is through the character of a visiting lecturer who mouths the social message. However, maybe Pagano was right that the audience for the film at the time needed to be explicitly told that mob rule is wrong. Richard Carlson plays the newspaper man guilty of whipping up the violent fervour and he does well even though the role is slightly underwritten; his sensationalism could have been made clearer.

That said, The Sound of Fury is a great film. Fritz Lang’s 1936 Fury was based on the same events and it would be interesting to compare them. I haven’t seen the Lang for nearly 40 years; I doubt it’s better than this. Further reading here.

Lady of Deceit (US, 1947)

aka ‘Lady of Deceit’ and ‘Deadlier Than the Male’

This deft thriller, with film noir morality, was directed by Robert Wise with a (I think) rare lead for Claire Trevor and sleazy support from Walter Slezak. I found Laurence Tierney a little wooden but then his character does epitomise blockhead male stupidity. The plot swings from murder in Reno to high class San Francisco where the ‘blockhead’ manages to marry a newspaper heiress (Audrey Long). What’s most interesting is Trevor’s character who takes the femme fatale role however Tierney’ s Sam doesn’t need to be seduced to destruction. The nihilism is piled up and topped by Slezak’s private eye who points out that subverting justice is expensive when taking a bribe.

As ever Elisha Cook Jr. manages to be disconcerting even when he’s being reasonable and Esther Howard does the lush old lady with telling pride.

It’s another gem unearthed watching the Talking Pictures channel (Freeview UK).

Youth (Italy-France-UK-Switzerland, 2015) and 45 Years (UK, 2015)

It was a coincidence that I saw these two films about aging close to one another. The timing was apposite as I’m at the time of life where there’s a definite sense of ‘before and after’, like being a parent, but now it’s to do with the ending of a career.

 

Not getting any younger

Youth is Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘laddish’ take on old age; Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel play characters in their eighties. While Caine, a composer, has retired, Keitel is a director and is trying to script his ‘greatest film’. They have been friends for 60 years and cantankerously deal with failing memories with some very droll lines: “Remember yesterday we were talking about children?” “No”.

Caine is particularly good, his large glasses evoking his ‘60s persona when he was British cinema’s ‘dish’. The pair rattle around a luxurious Swiss spar – cue beautiful landscape – observing bodies both youthful and decrepit. The pleasure in the film is in the dry comedy and the performances including a great cameo from Jane Fonda. Sorrentino directs with panache, some of his compositions are magical.

‘Who are we?’

45 Years, on the other hand, is more philosophical. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney’s couple are about to celebrate 45 years of marriage when the latter receives news that the body of a former love has been found preserved in a Swiss glacier. The corpse, Katya, predates Rampling’s Kate but the letter catapult’s Geoffrey into his past and his wife is unsure suddenly about her status in their relationship. If Youth focuses on thinking about the past then 45 Years drags the past into the present.

Haigh, whose debut Weekend was impressive, keeps the camera mostly on Kate as she struggles to deal with the secrets she finds after 45 years of marriage. The final shot, a long dolly into her amongst a crowd of people, is a brilliant ending.

I can’t say I’m any wiser having enjoyed both films. As a youngster film was so vital because it could teach me so much however, having watched several thousand films, not to mention the other art I have consumed, it becomes harder to find the insight art can provide. The protagonists of both films are much older than I but they do give me a glimpse of what may be ahead of me.

On Chesil Beach (UK, 2017)

Beach to nowhere

I loved Ian McEwan’s novel and he’s adapted it for screen apparently having to add several hundred lines of dialogue. I can’t remember the novel well enough to compare but the film seemed different and might be an interesting case study on adaptation. Although I enjoyed it, particularly the devastating final scenes, I wasn’t particularly gripped. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle are both excellent as the leads either of whom may have become the narrator of Larkin’s ‘Annus Mirabilis’ a few years after the 1962 setting of the film.

I’ve noticed a couple of reviews complaining about the ending; no doubt the ‘over-the-top’ melodrama was too much for them. However it is essential as the final scene, set in 2007, gives perspective to the events of 45 years earlier. At the end of the film the present defines the past, opposite to the film 45 Years (post to follow) where (the time span is coincidental) the past erupts into the present.

The class divide of the time is well sketched and snobbery was more obvious in those days. After the allegedly egalitarian (allegedly) ‘swinging’ ’60s the barriers to ‘success’ no longer seen to be insurmountable for those with a working class background. It’s clear the Right want them back, hence the Tory government’s insistence on boosting the class-divisive Grammar schools; they lie when they claim selection at 11 improves social mobility. On Chelsil Beach is a reminder of how terrible sex education was and its events are highly unlikely to happen today although we can see some of the repressed values, that so crippled the characters in the film, in the shape of William Rees-Mog, darling of the unreconstructed right.