The Small World of Sammy Lee (UK, 1963)

Run Sammy run

Ken Hughes’ biggest hit was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (UK, 1968) and he seems to have little in common, although he was roughly the same age, with the British ‘new wave’ directors such as Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger. A characteristic of the wave was its northern settings and despite being set in London The Small World of Sammy Lee shares its ‘down at heel’ gloom. Anthony Newley was using the film, he hoped, to prove he could be a serious actor and it was made whilst he was performing in his hit West End show, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off (Newley was a multi-talented superstar of the era). The film covers less than 24 hours of Sammy’s little world which he spends performing as a compere in a strip club whilst trying to find £300 to cover a gambling debt: at 7pm he will be beaten up.

Most of the film is set in Soho, an area Hughes apparently knew well and his script reeks of authenticity. There is certainly a smell about Soho at the time which is explicitly revealed in a climactic moment when Sammy tells his audience, consisting of seedy, middle aged men, the truth. It reminded me of Maureen O’ Hara’s ‘showgirl’ in Dance Girl Dance (US 1940) when she tells her audience ‘home truths’; if memory serves, Hughes isn’t quite as daring as Dorothy Arzner (yes, a woman director in classical Hollywood) who had O’Hara directly address the film’s audience. Soho was known for its sex clubs and, like Expresso Bongo, there is titillation to be had from women in underwear and tassels on their nipples. The women’s matter-of-factness is well conveyed, it is just a job they have to take, and Julia Foster, as the ‘naive northern lass’, portrays her humiliation with pathos. The club owner’s (Robert Stephens) rant about ‘any woman who takes her clothes off is a whore’ emphasises the misogyny of the time.

Hughes’ film not only condemns the treatment of women, Sammy himself is shown to be a pathetic male chasing thrills and ignoring consequences with his gambling. Newell plays him as a schmuck, not a bad guy as such but contemptible. The scene when he taps his brother (Warren Mitchell) for money is, this article suggests, a rare presentation of Jewish life in British film. When his brother berates his wife (Miriam Karlin) for spending money on clothes she looks at him with disdain and reminds him he married her because of her ‘looks and class’. She also has no truck with Sammy’s pleadings.

Despite the fact the ending of the film has a dab of sentiment, it doesn’t ameliorate the desperation of Sammy’s life.

The restored print (shown on Talking Pictures) looks great. Cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who only died two years ago (aged 104 and also shot the classic Get Carter, UK, 1971), worked mostly in documentary and he brings out the grubbiness of Soho well. However the area’s multi cultural vitality isn’t missed; an opening tracking shot along a row of restaurants shows the diversity of cuisine on offer. Sammy chats to Afro Caribbeans in passing as with anyone else. When desperately trying to buy drugs, Sammy asks a black jazz pianist (I haven’t been able to find who is playing the role) and is berated for his racist assumptions that a black person would necessarily have drugs; a progressive representation for its time and now.

Much of the footage of Sammy racing against time through the streets was obviously shot with no cordoning off as the public can be seen watching him which, paradoxically, adds to the authenticity of the film. Neither John Hill’s or Robert Murphy’s books on British cinema of the time mention the film and I think it should be placed alongside ‘new wave’ classics such as A Kind of Loving (1962) and This Sporting Life (1963).

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Disobedience (Ireland-UK-US, 2017)

Love in a cold climate

Two films a year from director Sebastián Lelio, we are spoiled; and he’s completed his English-language remake of Gloria due early next year. A Fantastic Woman was fantastic and I think Disobedience is even better.

I have little time for religion (though I’ve no problem with people being religious as long as it doesn’t impinge upon others) so a film set in an Orthodox Jewish community was not likely to appeal to me. In last month’s Sight & Sound interview Lelio explains how the community decided to cooperate with the film, already having experienced the controversy caused by Naomi Alderman’s novel, to ensure that the representation was as accurate as possible. Such tolerance serves both the film and the community well as the ‘forbidden’ lesbian love that drives the film is a problem for the Jewish tradition. Despite the homophobia, ultimately the film shows the strength of humanity over bigotry.

The film’s set in Hendon, a suburb 11km north west of central London, and its sterile, uniform streets are superbly captured in Danny Cohen’s cinematography: it is a bleak mid winter. Rachel Weisz’s disobedient rebel, Ronit, returns for the funeral of her father and the script brilliant offers a slow reveal of her relationship with Rachel McAdam’s Esti.

Although the image is bleached of colour, this is a full blown melodrama that uses the singing at Jewish ceremonies to great effect; there is also a marvellous use of The Cure’s ‘Lovesong’. Matthew Herbert’s score is extraordinary in ways I’m not quite sure about. It’s symphonic, and lush strings are used to emphasise high emotion, but there’s more going on: woodwind figures give an otherworldly atmosphere. It’s a melodrama where the buttoned-up orthodoxy ensures when emotions escape they are full-blown.

When the lovers journey to the centre of London for some privacy they suddenly realise they can hold hands in public. I’m sure there remain many places in the UK where same-sex hand holding is seen as an invite for derision. Thus the scene reminds us of the battle against homophobia that is still in the process of being won.

It was clearly a project close to Weisz’s heart, she optioned the novel, and presumably was involved in the selection of Chilean Lelio as director. It’s not so much a foreigner’s eye view of London, as an outsider’s view of this Jewish community and maybe this distance allowed him to so effectively portray a community that is strange to many of us. I haven’t read Alderman’s novel, there are autobiographical elements to the story, but it is highly likely that the celebration of humanity was in the original material so brilliantly brought to screen.

 

Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants, France-Belguim, 2016)

The professional-personal

Katell Quillévéré (who directed and co-wrote the script based on Maylis de Kerangal’s novel) is a talent new to me and I can’t wait to see more. Heal the Living focuses on a heart transplant: the first half of the film deals with the donor’s death and his family’s reaction; part two is about the recipient. The film manages to represent sublime moments in life: for the donor it is surfing (superbly photographed); for the recipient it is a piano concert played by a former lover. It also has a documentary eye on the actual heart surgery and, more importantly, the way doctors and nurses deal with the extreme emotions involved in the death of a child and the professional necessity of getting on with the job.

Of course such extremes rely on the actors to deliver the director’s vision and the assemble cast deliver with utmost skill. The putative star, Tahir Rahim (above right), has less screen time than some but manages to convey deep humanity from an apparently passive face; Quillévéré gives him time to explain why he loves goldfinches, to the be/amusement of a couple of nurses. The other ‘big name’, Emmanuelle Seigner, is similarly superb as the bereaved mother. However, all the cast hold there own with deeply committed performances.

It may appear a film about organ donation will be a ‘bit grim’, and there is much sadness represented in the film, but ultimately it is life affirming. Quillévéré takes time to dip into the lives of peripheral characters: a nurse has a sexual fantasy in a lift; a son hides his ‘dropping out’ from his mother. Her presentation of the bewilderment and joy of youth, when a boy meets a girl, is affectingly done and I’ve already mentioned the joie de vivre of the surfing sequence.

I read that the heart surgery scene is all special effects: they are as impressive as the film itself. Often cinema is an idea medium to spend some time in the ‘lives of others’. Heal the Living gives us time to understand the pain of the bereaved and at the same time understand the vitality of life.

Expresso Bongo (UK 1959)

Thoroughly modern British

Expresso Bongo was based on a hit stage musical, though BFI Screenonline tells us that only two of the original 17 numbers survived. It takes a while for the numbers to start, it didn’t appear to be a musical at first, and for some the main interest will be the casting of Cliff Richard as a burgeoning pop star wondering what will happen to him when he’s 20 (Richard’s okay in the role). I was surprised by the nudity at the strip club; no doubt the tassles saved the censor’s blushes but the film does strike me as very risqué for its time. Similarly surprising was Sylvia Sims playing the lead stripper (above centre) a year after playing the ‘good girl’ beloved of British cinema at the time, in Ice Cold in Alex.

Although obviously dated now through its music, the film was clearly ‘hep’ at the time with its cynical take on the recording industry; something that hasn’t dated at all. Laurence Harvey plays the unscrupulous agent who ‘discovers’ Richard’s Bongo Herbert. Harvey plays Johnny Jackson as a Jewish shyster and Meier Tzelniker’s record company executive is a similarly unappealing stereotype. The women are passive, sex objects (Sims’ faithful girlfriend is annoying faithful) with the exception of Yolande Donlan’s ‘has been’ American movie star trying to reinvigorate her career on the back of London and Bongo.

Gilbert Harding, a well-known ‘television personality’ of the time, parodies himself examining the ‘teenage phenomenon’ for the BBC. There are uncredited appearances by Kenneth Griffith and Susan Hampshire, two actors that became very well known in the following decade.

The milieux of Soho is well presented, even if studio based. It was still the centre of the London sex industry in the ’70s, when I first visited London, but it has been ‘cleaned up’/’cleansed of character’ now.

In Between (Bar Bahar, Israel-France, 2016)

Stuck in the middle together

Maysaloun Hamoud’s fabulous feature debut (she wrote and directed) pitches three culturally different women into a flat share: Arab-Christian; devout Muslim; secular Muslim. Set in Tel Aviv, the film received some flack for using Israeli money; the director is of Palestinian descent. I like her argument that it is Palestinian money too! I understand the hatred of Israeli institutions, given how Palestinians are oppressed, however as long as the narrative isn’t compromised, such ‘supping with the enemy’ is pragmatic.

Mouna Hawa plays Leila (above right) a lawyer who takes no shit from men; she is a really empowering character. However Hamoud doesn’t downplay the difficulties of going against the grain and the final shot of the film makes it clear that battles will continue. Newcomer Sana Jammelieh is Salma (left) who schleps between jobs to support her DJing and Shaden Kanboura plays Noor, a computer student. Obviously the narrative drama comes from the culture clash between Noor and the ‘modern’ women but all three are embattled by patriarchy.

I try and check in my white male privilege in life but know that I’m forever tainted by self-serving ideology and I would appreciate Hamoud’s film even if all it did is present the lives of others who are strangers to me; it does more than that as it’s a thoroughly gripping film. Occasionally the narrative seems a little fragmented, as the film switches between the three lives on show, leaving ‘enigmas’ dangling maybe a little too long before being resolved. In addition, for one narrative strand, the resolution seems a little forced even if it is emotionally satisfying. These could be the peccadilloes of a neophyte filmmaker and shouldn’t get in the way of the fabulous achievement.

The performances are convincing and the direction never distracting. One particularly disturbing scene is superbly done as is its aftermath. Like Mustang and Our Little SisterIn Between is a celebration of sisterhood in the face of male stupidity.

The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci), Turkey-Republic of Macedonia-France-Germany-Bosnia and Herzegovina-Bulgaria-Sweden, 2018)

Wrapped up in yourself

I’m totally out of step with the critical consensus on this one, although I don’t resent the 188 minutes I spent watching it, the overall affect upon me was one of torpor. That wasn’t a result of the film’s slow pace but by the long conversations that pepper the film and the suspicion that Nuri Blige Ceylan thinks the positive outweighs the negative in the self-serving male characters.

There are three ‘set piece’ long conversations that the protagonist, Sinan, has when he returns to a rural backwater after graduation. They are with: a female friend from school; a successful writer who Sinan apparently hopes to emulate; two imams. It’s difficult to make long conversations visually interesting and for the religious discussion (apparently this lasts 20 minutes) Ceylan resorts to a walk down a hill with numerous long shots and I often didn’t know which of the three was speaking. In addition, subtitles are a huge disadvantage in a wordy film as too long is spent looking at the bottom of the screen. The discussions were interesting but maybe they better belong in a novel.

Thematically the film’s similar to, Geoff Andrew tells us in Sight & Sound, Ceylan’s early films; I certainly recognised the protagonist’s alienation from Uzak (Turkey, 2002). Initially I was sympathetic to the student returning home to Çan, a place that has little for him, from Çanakkale, where he studied. It’s clear he hadn’t been home for some time which was somewhat puzzling as the journey time was only 90 minutes; presumably this emphasised how much he hated Çan (I don’t know how long it takes to graduate in Turkey). Solipsism in youth is to be forgiven but not in Sinan’s dad who spends his family’s money gambling. He’s meant to be a ‘loveable rogue’ though he’s merely contemptible. Ceylan states he likes complex characters, who have good and bad points; I could only see the negative in the dad.

Some of the cinematography is beautiful, however the director stated he was less interested in beauty and often used a small Osmo camera for portability, sacrificing image quality. There are a fair number of shots were we plod behind the protagonist; this seems to me to be lazy filmmaking. The Dardennes brothers used it throughout (as I remember) Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999) where it had cumulative power. Presumably the device is intended to aid identification with the protagonist but looking at his back and glimpsing surroundings is not particularly cinematic.

I loved Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and have yet to see Winter Sleep (Turkey-France-Germany, 2014), so The Wild Pear Tree seems to me to be a step back rather than a development in Ceylan’s filmmaking. It must be hard continuing to make ‘deeply personal’ filmmaking which focuses on the merely autobiographical (the character of the dad is based on co-scriptwriter’s Akin Aksu’s). Occasionally the political inserts its head into the film, a local major’s paean to democracy is clearly a dig at Erdoğan and Sinan chats to a friend who is a riot cop; they are the most interesting scenes.

A plea to cinemas screening extremely long films: reduce the puffs, trailers and adverts. The extra 25 minutes added greatly to the pain in my arse.

The Final Hour (La Hora Final, Peru, 2017)

Political-personal civil war

Spain has numerous films that deal with the psychological aftermath of Franco’s fascist state (such as the recently blogged Marshland) and Peru, too, is trying to come to terms with what was effectively a civil war between authoritarian government and Maoist guerillas. The Final Hour refers to the endgame when the terrorists’ (the ‘Shining Path’) leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Afterwards, the revolutionary movement started to splinter and fade.

Writer-director Eduardo Mendoza de Echave has used the tropes of the detective genre to investigate both the political machinations of the time, and the impact the war had on individuals. Generically it’s conventional (the maverick detective, an under-resourced unit, office politics getting in the way, dysfunctional families etc.), however by placing it in the context of Peru in 1992, we get a fascinating insight into the reality of that time and place.

I was particularly taken by the performance of Nidia Bermejo (above right) as a nurse-turned-cop; the career switch was in response to the indiscriminate bombings of the terrorists. She’s indigenous and her brother is involved with the ‘Shining Path’ and so her loyalties are severely torn. Although the film is clear about who the good guys are (the detectives), the state is shown to be as bad as the rebels.

The film’s based on fact and it is interesting to see how Guzmán was finally captured but it is the personal costs involved in living in a state of civil war that are the most important aspect of the film. Apparently it was a hit in Peru, suggesting a hunger to deal with the past. Imdb lists its budget as a barely credible $30,000; for that it is an astounding achievement. (Netflix)