The Night Caller (UK, 1965)

Trouble with blondes

The American title for this low budget SF film was Blood Beast from Outer Space which, while making its exploitation credentials clearer, is more than misleading. Spoiler alert: the beast is kidnapping young women, who aspire to be models, for procreation purposes on Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter). As Steve Chibnall points out in ‘Alien women: The politics of sexual difference in British sf pulp cinema’ (in ed. IQ Hunter British Science Fiction Cinema), the British at the time were worried about young women, not aliens.

Although the beginning of The Night Caller suggests Cold War paranoia, Patricia Haynes’ blonde scientist is soon portrayed as rebuffing John Saxon’s advances. No doubt at the time his double entendre (about beds) would be seen as flirting; now, hopefully, we realise that this behaviour isn’t appropriate in a work situation. So she is characterised, despite being blonde, as somewhat frigid. On the  other hand, female scientists are thin on the ground in film (and life) and she is a particularly dynamic character and takes it on herself to act as a bait by replying to the ‘beast’s’ advert in Bikini Times to be a model. During this confrontation the beast explains:

‘I fear what I cannot control, and I cannot control an intelligence which is almost equal to mine. A mind such as your searches and destroys’.

Clearly young ’60s women were giving men some problems and, of course, she is punished for her ‘uppityness’.

As you may have gathered, The Night Caller is more interesting as symptom of the mores of the time than drama. It has the production values of early Doctor Who though cheapie specialist John Gilling does direct with some vigour. The best scene is when a victim’s parents explain their bewilderment about their young daughter: Warren Mitchell and Marianne Stone are hilariously deadpan culminating in the moment when the former produces a requested copy of Bikini Time from beneath a sofa cushion.

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Deadfall (UK, 1968)

Not quite as bad as its tagline
This is an interesting period piece: a genre movie with pretensions of art. That’s not to say I believe genre texts are not art, of course they are, but writer–director Bryan Forbes was obviously trying to channel the French ‘new wave’; with a dash of existentialism, and the shadow of the Nazis, to spice up the narrative. Michael Caine plays his laconic protagonist as a cat burglar drawn into a sort of menage a trois with Eric Portman’s gay patriarch who has Giovanna Ralli playing his wife. Stylistically Forbes tries to enliven the material with distinctive compositions and often uses a zoom lens to pick out details; a technique fashionable at the time. One burglary is cross-cut with a performance of a guitar concerto (which the owners of house are attending) directed by the film’s composer John Barry. The sequence lasts about 15 minutes and I’ve no idea what the purpose of the cross-cutting was as it can’t be ‘will he crack the safe before the concert ends?’ could it…? If so it is a perfect example of how not to generate tension. Another ‘arty’ technique is the extended lap dissolves during a post-coital conversation with a crossed 180-degree line. The credit sequence, with animated graphics, was graced by a belter by Shirley Bassey and seemed to suggest a Bond-type film. Caine had just come off the third and final Harry Palmer film, Billion Dollar Brain (UK, 1967), and I’m guessing audiences didn’t get what they expected from Deadfall. Another eccentricity is the casting of Nanette Newman as – in ‘swinging ’60s parlance – ‘the girl’. Apart from a brief early appearance, the film’s well into its second half before she gets much screen time and she’s listed fourth in the credits (being the director’s wife may have helped). The eccentricity is not the casting as such, Newman does ditzy well (another ’60s characteristic of attractive young women) but she is entirely unimportant to the narrative. Maybe that’s the point and Forbes was playing with filmic convention. Deadfall may not have seemed good when it was released, Roger Ebert was not impressed, and it certainly hasn’t dated well.

Hombre (US 1966)

Soulful eyes

Hombre is a revisionist western where the ‘savage Indian’ is shown to actually have been the victims of rapacious white men. I was slightly worried at the start of the film where we see Paul Newman as an Apache (above) but we find he was merely adopted by the Native Americans and it’s not a case of ‘whitewash’ casting. The ‘good but indecisive’ Mexican stereotype, however, is embodied by Martin Balsam; we shouldn’t go too far in condemning racist conventions of the time (though we can condemn the practice now – see Emma Stone in Aloha, 2015, and others) particularly in a film that is trying to be progressive. It should be noted, however, that there are no speaking parts for Native Americans; as is often the case with liberalism, ‘white man speak for all’!

The narrative is driven by Richard Boone’s brilliant bad guy chasing down a disparate group on a stagecoach who defer to ‘hombre’s’ (Newman) expertise in survival. Blessed by James Wong Howe’s widescreen cinematography (the western landscape looks tough), and Martin Ritt’s (the sixth and final film he made with Newman) careful compositions, the film’s modernity stands up well 50 years later, not least in the ending. It presaged ‘New Hollywood’ – heralded by Easy Rider – by a couple of years but probably would sit comfortably alongside Little Big Man (‘probably’ because I haven’t seen it for a long time). According to Wikipedia (citing Variety – behind a paywall) Hombre took $6.5m in rentals at the domestic box office, it was the 14th top film of the year, though well behind Bonnie and Clyde, another movie that showed the type of films made by the Hollywood studio system were about to be consigned to the past.

One link to the past, in the film, is the casting of Frederic March, one of Hollywood’s heart-throbs of the 1930s. Diane Cilento, an Australian who spent most of her career in Britain, is excellent as a ‘moral conscience’ despite her admission that, even though she is unmarried, she shares her bed with the local sheriff. It was unusual for such a ‘loose woman’ to be presented as such; she’s not a victim like many ‘tarts with a heart’ played by, for example, Claire Trevor in Stagecoach. I liked the line when she is – for purely practical reasons – trying to persuade the sheriff to marry her: “I don’t say ‘no’ when you wake me up in the middle of the night”. She’s rebuffed but she’s not bothered; the character is a strikingly modern woman for the time (sexual emancipation in the 1960s framed women as sexual active at the service of men). The screenplay’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel so sparkling dialogue is to be expected.

The film was produced by Hombre Productions; presumably created to produce this one film. It was distributed by 20th Century Fox.

The Big Trail (US, 1930)

A very big trail

This is a fascinating ‘prestige picture’ from the early days of Hollywood cinema. The fascination comes from John Wayne’s first lead, though his breakthrough Stagecoach is nine years in the future, and the staging of the wagon train trek west. Director Raoul Walsh and his crew go to extraordinary lengths for authenticity including wagons, and oxen, being lowered down cliffs, and crossing extremely fast rivers. The sense of threat to the settlers is palpable.

In the opening scene a montage of preparations at the start of the trail includes women washing their hair. However, this is ameliorated soon after when we see a woman wielding an axe. Unsurprisingly the narrative is dominated by men with a revenge sub plot not unlike that of Stagecoach, however it is the spectacle that is the most important element of the film.

It was shot in what was a new process, Fox Grandeur, a 70mm format that proved the film’s commercial undoing as few theatres could screen it as the studio wanted. The sound’s not bad but it’s clear the silent era isn’t far away from Tyrone Power’s (Sr.) execrable performance: he mugs and can’t speak a line.

Street Corner (UK, 1953)

Lurid for its time

During the 1930s Warner Bros.’s used the topicality of gangsters to market their films; Street Corner, which as the poster above says is ‘torn from the records’, has a much more genteel approach to the social problems of the time. Scripted by wife and husband team, Muriel and Sydney Box (brother of Betty), Street Corner is both (slightly) radical and suffocatingly conservative. Muriel also directed though on the Talking Pictures print I saw producer William MacQuitty is credited as being at the helm (was this for the American distributors that maybe wouldn’t accept a film directed by a woman?). The film’s progressive drift is the focus on policewomen, there are three unconnected narrative strands and the intention is we get a sense of what it’s like working as a policewoman, complete with sexist Scottish copper.

The gentility comes from the middle class benevolence of the police force (as it was known at the time before it was changed to ‘service’) shown dealing with wholly working class crime and social problems. The social problems aren’t poverty, though that is represented well enough in the slums and scratty kids, but disintegrating families with neglected children. Women, of course, are much better suited to dealing with these sorts of issues! However, despite the film’s conservatism, there’s no doubting its intention was feminist and Muriel Box was no doubt a formidable filmmaker as Rachel Cook describes. It’s sometimes described as a ‘semi-documentary’ but the film style is wholly that of fiction but some location shooting and the split narratives do give it a realist tinge.

The cast is interesting, this is the first time I’ve heard Peggy Cummins use her native Irish accent and in one startling moment, when she sports a beret and sunglasses, she looks like Annie Starr from the great Gun Crazy (1950). Terence Morgan is suitably charismatic as the homme fatale but Dora Bryan’s one scene as a prostitute protesting that she didn’t mind being arrested but not by a woman is almost the film’s highlight.

Christine Geraghty’s summary is spot on: “The policewomen do not so much solve crimes as resolve family disorder, making sure that husbands, wives and childre are in the right place by the end.” (British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, Genre and the ‘New Look’, 2000: p148).

 

Hue and Cry (UK, 1947)

A romp with kids

This reminded me of the Children’s Film Foundation films that littered the 1970s (in my memory) as B features. Although it stars Alistair Sim he hardly features and Jack Warner takes the role of the spiv-heavy (far from his Dixon persona). The focus is on the kids including one lass, Peggy Dowling (above right), who has great presence but sadly committed suicide eight years later. It was written by TEB Clarke, a stalwart of Ealing studios, and the sense of community, characteristic of the studio, is palpable in the spirited ending where a fair proportion of London’s kids rush to the rescue.

It was Charles Crichton’s third feature and there are some great expressionist moments, particularly when Warner threatens the hero (Harry Fowler), and the bomb sites are evocative of the time. It’s very much a period piece that just about doesn’t linger too long throughout its 80 minute length.

The Damned (UK, 1962)

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Couldn’t make it up

Director Joseph Losey is sometimes lauded as Brechtian, he drew attention to the artifice of film in order to estrange the audience and get them thinking, however the fractured (and somewhat estranging) narrative of The Damned comes from the messy way it was scripted. Losey didn’t like the original script, an adaptation of The Children of Light by H.L. Lawrence, and he brought in Evan Jones to rewrite, with Losey, which went on throughout the production. So it’s not surprising the film’s narratively disjointed. The children, who are being experimented upon by the British government and so are the centre of the narrative, don’t appear until around half way through. The first part of the narrative focuses on Teddy Boys terrorising Weymouth with Oliver Reed relishing the role of the deranged delinquent not unlike Malcolm Mcdowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange (UK-US, 1971) a decade later.

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Brooding doesn’t cover it

A rather insipid Macdonald Carey plays a middle aged American living out a mid-life crisis before being entrapped by an unlikely femme fatale (Shirley Ann Field), sister of Reed’s thug. Swedish actor Viveca Lindfors plays the free-spirited (she’s foreign) sculptor in contrast to Alexander Knox’s deranged civil servant who’s administering the tests on the children.

It is a strange film but that’s perfect for world at the time where nuclear war seemed, to some, inevitable. It’s certainly worth watching for Reed’s turn alone and I’m surprised it took so long for him to become a leading man after it but that probably reflects the lack of box office success of the film.

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In America it was marketed as These Are the Damned and the poster is a compete misrepresentation of the children; the tagline more describes the British civil servant played by Knox. The uncompromising ending is excellent.