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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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.

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.

Funny Cow (UK, 2017)

Bad old days

Maxine Peake is the key to the success of Funny Cow as she can embody working class characters with authenticity even if hearing her spouting racist jokes is uncomfortable. As Peake’s politically sound I’m sure she struggled to speak them but this was the state of the UK in the 1970s. Apparently partly based on Marti Caine, Tony Pitts’ script (he also plays the brutal Bob, Funny Cow’s husband) obliquely traces the rise of a female comedian. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the film was about but did enjoy it.

Maybe Pitts was offering a bleak portrait of working class northern England during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Unfortunately I remember it and it is not a time to revisit with affection which the film recognises. The supporting cast is strong; Alun Armstrong’s ‘zombie’ comedian (he’s died on stage many times) is particularly good though I didn’t find Paddy Considine’s aesthete convincing; it was nice, however, to see a middle class character shown to be a pretentious wanker.

Some of it was apparently shot around the corner from where I live (which I didn’t notice)! I did recognise Saltaire made shabby though. The movie has primarily been distributed in the north; I’m not aware that there are any films set in the south that we don’t get to see up here. That harks back to the ‘30s were Gracie Fields audience was primarily northern and suggests that the default culture in English is ‘southern’ (no doubt with a London bias). The north was fashionable as part of the ‘new wave’ films of the early sixities: ‘it’s grim up north’ narratives hit a chord because of their difference and maybe also because of their perceived authenticity. Funny Cow continues the ‘it’s’ grim’ tradition just as did the successful (and brilliant) TV series Happy Valley(2014-). As long as this image discourages southerners from coming up and spoiling our countryside then that’s fine… (joke)

Dark River (UK, 2017)

Outsider trying to get back

Spoilers ahead!

I must admit I had reservations when it became clear that the trauma suffered by Alice (the excellent Ruth Wilson) was being sexually abused by her father when a child. There is a danger that such a horrendous breach of trust will become a cliché if it is wheeled out too often; I first felt this when seeing Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. However, in the film Clio Barnard does manage to add to our (my) understanding of the lingering effects of the abuse.

Ruth returns home after the death of her father, played with brooding presence by Sean Bean in the flashbacks. Her brother, Joe, a slightly unhinged character played by Mark Stanley, is less than welcoming but the film is nuanced in its portrayal of characters that – dad aside – can mostly be seen to also have a ‘good side’. Ruth is a character of immense strength who single-handedly looks to be capable of turning the farm around but the absentee landlords ensure that profit comes before the land.

What makes Barnard’s film interesting is the way the flashbacks are integrated, like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, into the continuity editing so that the past is integral to the present. The scene shifts back many years with an eyeline match editing; Ruth’s memories momentarily seem as if they are happening now. This shows how the abuse Alice suffered 15 years earlier is still ‘present’ in her existence.

Adriano Goldman’s cinematography captures the ‘it’s grim up north’ beauty of the moors more effectively than God’s Own Country (UK, 2017). The farming community is unsentimentally and sympathetically portrayed. In one scene Joe eulogises about the millions of insects that can be hosted on one field in stark contrast to this week’s report that bird populations in France are plunging because of insecticides.

Welcome to Britain (UK, 1943)

A ‘special relationship’ explained

This documentary made to familiarise American troops with British mores is more than an historical curiosity for two reasons. Firstly it’s an example of a ‘self reflexive’ documentary that draws attention to the making of itself. Bill Nichols, who theorised about different modes of documentary, saw this as a late development; for example he cites Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line (US, 1988). So Welcome to Britain was well ahead of its time. In it the narrator, and co-director with Anthony Asquith, Burgess Meredith discusses with two generals, who are greeting arriving troops, what to say in the film. We see Meredith directing the camera and marshalling the sound. It’s works well as a folksy technique that’s designed to get soldiers to listen to friendly advice.

The rest of documentary eschews the self reflexive, though Meredith continues to chat to camera. Suitably enough he starts in the pub, a key location in Britain. What follows is pedestrian by today’s standards though there are some good jokes: Meredith asks a guy if he’s been living in his cottage ‘all his life’? The reply: “Not yet.” Bob Hope has a cameo and his huckster persona is put to good effect.

The second reason this is an interesting document is when a ‘nice old lady’ invites a, what the documentary terms, ‘niggra’ (negro) soldier and Meredith to tea. The latter explains to camera that this sort of thing happens here because the British are less prejudiced. In his excellent Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga relates how a white soldier attacked a black one when he found they’d both been invited to tea. Apparently the British liked black soldiers more because they were polite; no doubt because they had learned to tread on eggshells, particularly when talking to white women. The brazen admittance of prejudice is quite shocking to see but at least it is honest.

Asquith went on to have a long career in film and Meredith became best known as the Penguin in the 1960s Batman television series.