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.

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).

60 years ago today: Vertigo

Hitchcock’s  Vertigo was first released 60 years ago today; to celebrate this classic here’s an extract from my guide to the film on its expressionist visual style (available here).

 

Expressionist mise en scene seeks to externalise the disturbed state characters’ minds through distorted perspectives created by, for example, settings in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Germany, 1920), the enormous sets of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Germany, 1926) and chiaroscuro lighting in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, (Germany, 1922). Much of Vertigo is edited to be from the perspective of the mentally unstable protagonist so expressionist techniques are ideal to convey his weak grip on reality.

The scene where this is most apparent is when Judy is finally transformed into Madeleine. Judy’s cheap hotel has a green neon sign just outside her window that creates the garish green light that fills the scene. When she finally appears fully as Madeleine we see her, from Scottie’s point of view, suffused (by filters) in green light; she appears ghostlike – see below.  In a way she is a ghost because she is Madeleine returned from the dead and exists only as a creation of Elster and Scottie. Although the neon sign is casting the green hue the scene is not realistically lit; the exaggerated greenness makes it expressionist. The bed, where presumably they are about to have sex, is also in the frame.

The green light on the return of Madeleine makes her ghostlike

When they kiss, a virtuoso shot revolves around the couple and the background fades to black to be replaced by the stable at the Mission when Scottie had last kissed Madeleine. Before Judy was ‘made over’ he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. He looks up and sees the stable, which is obviously not really there; we are seeing what he is thinking (see below). The troubled expression on his face suggests he suspects something’s not right.

The stable appears in Scottie’s memory as he finally gets to kiss Madeleine again but he’s thinking something’s not right

Hitchcock remarked that this scene was linked to an earlier one when Madeleine visited Carlotta’s grave which was also given ‘a dreamlike, mysterious quality by shooting through a fog filter’ (Francois Truffaut Hitchcock, 1978: 306). This link reinforces the idea that the dead have come back to life.

These expressionist moments emphasise that Scottie’s mental state is unbalanced and so his attempt to remake Judy is the product of a disturbed mind. It’s clear from the film that he should have loved her for who she was: as she said when composing her letter of confession, “love me again as I am for myself”. It is rare in Hollywood to find such a tortured protagonist, though these were a feature of film noir, particularly as James Stewart, whose star persona was of an uncomplicated good guy, is playing the part – see chapter five.

In Vertigo expressionist flashing colours are also used to signify mental anguish. For example, throughout Scottie’s nightmare colours flash on and off. At the start of Judy’s flashback, where the truth is revealed, the screen is suffused with red during a close up of her anxious and pained face (see below). The choice of Ernie’s restaurant as a setting was probably due to the décor, which is overwhelmingly red. The meaning of red depends on the context it is used however it is regularly associated with passion and violence and this fits Vertigo perfectly. Hitchcock also used the device in Marnie where flashing colours signified the protagonist’s mental breakdown.

The screen is suffused with red at the start of Judy’s flashback indicating mental anguish

Another expressionist device is the zoom-dolly used to convey Scottie’s acrophobia when he looks down. The camera zooms forward and simultaneously, at the same ‘speed’, dollies backwards so the background seems to fall away even though, because of the dolly, what we can see in the frame remains the same (see below). Camera operator Irwin Roberts is credited with creating this effect for Hitchcock.

The zoom-dolly makes the background appear to fall away while the composition of the frame stays the same

After Madeleine has fallen from the bell tower, the final shot of the scene is a typical Hitchcock high angle shot – see below. This unusual perspective, which has the effect of distorting what we can see hence its expressionist nature, signifies how disturbing the events are.

A typical Hitchcock high angle shot after Madeleine has fallen from the bell tower

A similar high angle shot is used to establish the scene when Scottie’s nightmare, after Madeleine’s death, presages his mental breakdown.

One of striking ways Hitchcock is an auteur is that even the casual filmgoer knew exactly what to expect from his films: he was the ‘master of suspense’. So it wasn’t just critics who were aware of his authorship, audiences knew they were more or less guaranteed to be thrilled by his films hence his box office success.

 

Sapphire (UK, 1959)

Passing blonde

This social problem film is fascinating and shocking. It was scripted by Janet Green, who also wrote Victim (UK, 1960), an important film about male homosexuality which was illegal at the time. Both were directed by Basil Dearden. Sapphire’s social problem is race and was released a year after the Notting Hill ‘riots’ caused by white racists and it is framed as a detective story about who murdered the eponymous character. The film starts with a gripping shot, unusual for Dearden whose direction is prosaic, of Sapphire’s body being disposed of so we don’t get to know her other than through other characters. SPOILER ALERT: she is mixed raced but is passing for white and is pregnant by her white boyfriend.

The film is fascinating because it shows us the liberal viewpoint on race at the time; shocking because it is in many ways illiberal. Whilst the protagonist, Nigel Patrick’s investigating officer, Hazard, is shown to be non-racist, in contrast to his assistant (Michael Craig), he still is accepting of racist attitudes. For example, a landlady says she runs a ‘white house and Hazard is shown to be understanding when she explains that for economic reasons as she doesn’t want to get a reputation for housing blacks. Such discrimination was criminalised by the Race Relations Act 1965 and shows how important it is to legislate agains bigoted behaviour. I’m sure one of the reasons the racist right are emboldened is because they can enjoy the ‘echo chamber’ of their own views on social media. The old racist complaint, ‘I’m only saying what you’re all thinking’, probably seems to be true in their filter bubble.

As David Olusoga’s brilliant book Black and British: A Forgotten History shows, during the post-war period black people were increasingly demonised as responsible for economic problems which has more than a few echoes of recent years. Whilst the ruling classes view tended toward the importance of racial purity, hence the fear of miscegenation, the general public were apparently more tolerant. However, scapegoating minorities for the failure of others, fanned by a right wing media, is nothing new.

Sapphire’s problem in representing race is most apparent when Hazard interviews ‘lowlifes’. It is in this scene that the racist tropes, developed by Hollywood, are most evident. The eye-rolling villain, and giggling sidekicks, suggest degenerates and one (black) character states that even though some can pass for white “once they hear the beat of the bongos” they give themselves away.

Racist trope

On the other hand Earl Cameron (the ‘ebony saint’ of British cinema and like Sidney Poitier born in the West Indies), who plays Sapphire’s brother, is represented simply as a grieving brother. He tells Hazard that, “I’m staying at the Dorchester. They take us there.” The line is almost thrown away but is a telling slight on the times.

‘Ebony saint’

Finally a note on the detectives. Patrick’s performance is perfectly one note as he’s meant to play the patriarchal, unruffled copper; there’s one incoherent chase sequence but otherwise it’s the plod of his brain cells. The film suggests we can completely trust the Metropolitan Police to prosecute cases without fear or favour. It was barely 20 years later that the Met’s treatment of black people led to the Brixton riots and so Sapphire stands as an example of propaganda as well as liberal period piece.

Z (France-Algeria, 1969)

Doing the right thing

Z‘s one of those increasingly rare films that I’ve wanted to see for years. I first heard about it around 35 years ago and I’m sure my reaction to it then would have been different to now. Z follows the investigation into a politically motivated murder of an opposition senator in an unnamed country. Costa-Gavras is Greek but as Greece was controlled by a military junta at the time, he made the film in Algeria. Not that the country is meant to be Greece as one of the police chiefs says, we live in a democracy. Costa-Gavras’ film shows democracy is a sham in this place.

I imagine my twentysomething self would have been gripped by the juge‘s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigation as he doggedly resists pressure to arrive at the truth. Challenging ‘authoritative’ voices was the zeitgeist for the young, in particular, in the ’60s but now we are far less likely to believe the official story. Indeed, for some anything that doesn’t follow their ideological preference becomes lies. Trump didn’t create that trend, though he would probably take credit for it, but he is riding the wave of disinformation and propaganda. So now the film doesn’t seem as exciting as I would have (probably) felt if I’d seen in my twenties.

I’m not sure what I would have made of the way the film slides increasingly into farce after Z’s (Yves Montand) death. The serious tone gradually gives way to absurdity that, from 2017, seems perfectly valid. In fact, farce and satire are what constitutes much of political discourse today; a potentially dangerous situation.

Z is (unsurprisingly) also dated in its visual style. The then fashionable use of the telephoto lens is distracting but it remains, nevertheless, a film well worth seeing. Another retro aspect of seeing the film was the sound in Leeds Town Hall, where it was screened as part of the Leeds Film Festival. It’s a long time since I’ve experienced that mono echoey effect of old cinemas; a long way from the focused soundscape we here today.