The Wild Goose Lake (Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui, China-France, 2019) – LIFF3

Straining to be arty

Writer-director  Diao Yi’nan won the Berlinale with Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai ri yan huo, China, 2014), but it failed to win me over and The Wild Goose Lake suffers similarly because it fails to get beneath its often wildly engaging surface. I’m not criticising films for emphasising entertainment over profundity but when the spectator suspects the film’s author is striving for more than ‘mere entertainment’ then the film needs to be judged as such. There’s no doubt that Diao is a virtuoso filmmaker and there’s dazzling cinematography from Dong Jingsong (who also did Black Coal) but when you get to the end of a film not caring about the protagonist who we are meant to empathise with there is a problem. Maybe I’m wrong and Diao doesn’t care either.

Hu Ge (Zhou Zenong) is a classic noir protagonist: the police are after him; a gang is after him; a woman he probably shouldn’t trust offers to help him. I agree with the Variety reviewer when she says Zhou channels Robert Mitchum, he has a looming, self-contained presence. We know he’s a noir protagonist from the first shot where he lurks beneath an underpass at night and a woman in a red dress meets him. The stylisation makes for an absolute visual treat and the, at first, convoluted narrative means you have to be alert. A conclave of gangsters meet to learn about stealing mopeds and divvy up territory in a basement of a hotel; violence ensues. The absurdity of the situation suggests the influence of Tarantino but apparently Diao based the events of the film on news stories. Despite this, the ghost of the American director haunts the film, for me, whereas Diao would have been better channeling the aesthetic of Wong Kar-wai: there are some quite long sequences of Hu on a motorcycle with the woman that reminded me of Fallen Angels.

For a Chinese film The Wild Goose Lake does push boundaries of representing sexual behaviour (although I may have missed other boundary-pushing films): the woman, Liu Aiai (played by Taiwanese Kwei Lun-Mei), is a ‘bathing beauty’ on the titular lake, a euphemism for prostitute and she services Hu in an entirely unambiguous fashion. Whether, of course, this scene is actually seen in China (it opens in December) is open to question.

I will bother with Diao’s next film but it would be great if he shot a script that says something rather than just parade genre tropes albeit in an interesting way. The standfirst of Sight and Sound‘s review nailed it as an ‘exhilarating if skin-deep experience’.

Violent Playground (UK, 1958)

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Young people today!

Basil Dearden is renowned as a director of ‘social problem’ films (see his Sapphire); though I remember the late Victor Perkins complaining about his abilities as a director. Violent Playground focuses on juvenile delinquents (what’s happened to them?) and draws upon Liverpool police force’s pioneering use of a ‘juvenile liaison officer’. That’s the reluctant Stanley Baker who, of course, falls for the sister of prime delinquent (David McCallum).

The location shooting is effective but it’s striking that there’s only one Scouse accent on show (a very young Freddie Starr) though the focus is on an Irish family. The staging of the siege at a primary school at the film’s climax, though, is farcical. The high drama of the scene is constantly undermined by PC Plod behaviour and John Slater’s weatherworn face, for example, never changes expression whether he’s facing a crazed gunman or asking for a cup of tea. Peter Cushing appears as a priest casting reassurance about him even as he’s been pushed off a ladder.

Baker’s his usual intense self but his modernity, as a male role model of the era, is strikingly compromised in a scene where the youngsters are driven into a trance like state by the ‘moronic’ rock ‘n’ roll music of the time. Rarely has a scene encapsulated the older generation’s inability to understand the zeitgeist; the transformation of youth into zombies, complete with violent tendencies, dramatises the filmmakers’ incomprehension of what we now to be one of the most significant cultural influences of the 20th century. Baker’s as dumbfounded as the filmmakers but his desire for the sister makes him an understanding character.

As in Sapphire, the film is an excellent example of the mores of the time. It includes named ‘Chinese’ characters and black faces are purposely included to show the multicultural basis of the community. This shows Dearden and his filmmakers to be more in tune with the zeitgeist than the current Conservative candidate for the major of London who thinks multiculturalism is a bad thing. Fancy being more outdated than a middle-aged ’50s filmmaker!

Noose (UK, 1948)

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A melange of tones: Landis, Patrick and Calleia

This is a strange film that veers from expressionist noir to knockabout comedy throughout. The noir is brilliantly done but the ‘comedy’ distracts. Part of the post-war ‘spiv’ cycle were the bad guys are those who had a ‘good’ war economically by running the ‘black’ market, Noose doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in its material. Maybe the director decided to have some fun by messing about with camera angles and lighting whilst indulging in occasional slapstick. Edward T Greville’s direction veers between the brilliant and daft. At times it seemed like a bargain basement Citizen Kane: when a character looks at a dance floor through cut glass we see the fragmented images. The opening is a bravura shot of Bar (Nigel Patrick) arriving at work (it’s not quite one take but that was clearly the intention) and, to indicate the inebriation of a character who hiccoughs, the camera tilts left-right-left-right.

This film’s also interesting for the female protagonist played by Carole Landis in her last film before committing suicide. She’s a feisty American fashion reporter in London who decides to expose Joseph Calleia’s black market racket. She’s somewhat blasé about what’s she’s doing and BFI’s Screenonline piece is worth reading as it points out the narrative’s opposition between the ‘bad’ foreigners and the ‘good’ British criminal fraternity. I disagree about Nigel Patrick, however, who the piece suggests is over-theatrical; I found his performance entirely engaging. It was one of his first films and he became a stalwart of British cinema.

Noose (The Silk Noose in America) is an unusual example of a film that mixes its styles in a rather haphazard way which is a pity as many of the noir scenes are compelling.

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).

 

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.