Friday, 23 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 31: Lease of Life (1954)

I’ve been excited about watching this film for months now, even before I started this 95-film challenge: it’s one of Ealing’s thirteen colour films (an area of the studio’s production strategy I find endlessly fascinating), it’s photographed by Douglas Slocombe (one of British cinema’s finest cinematographers), it’s Robert Donat’s only Ealing appearance (and his penultimate film), and it’s filmed in the East Riding of Yorkshire, an area that rarely appears in British films. Yet my response on viewing the film was slightly deflated, and I find myself unsure whether that is because I built the film up in advance or if there is some more intrinsic problem with the film.

So, what works? Well, the Eastman Colour cinematography is striking in places, with big blue skies and Adrienne Corri’s auburn hair (and colourful outfits) bursting off screen in various places (there are other, more subtle colour touches here, as well, like the red hymnbook a schoolboy conceals his copy of Alias the Saint in) – but the film lacks the strong colour palette and experimentation with colour composition that can be found in Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) and The Ladykillers (1955) or the thematic use of colour in The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). While Corri’s colourful hair and clothing mark her out from the otherwise grey and pastel tones of her family (and thus support the film’s argument that she needs to leave home behind), it does not seem to resonate with the story as significantly here as in earlier Ealing colour films. Donat is solid throughout, and excels in those scenes where his character rediscovers his zest for life, and moves away from the rather humdrum, small, life he had lead up to that point. And the location filming is, again, one of the film’s strengths, selling the small village community of Halton (shot in Lund) and the larger cathedral town of Gilchester (filmed in Beverly).

Yet, despite those elements, the central narrative never feels coherent, suggesting (but never following through on) what the film could be: an exploration of how a man of faith responds to his impending death, and what changes he could make to his life and relationships. The film starts down this track – Donat plays Reverend William Thorne, a small, quiet man in a small parish church, whose life seems set in certain patterns, routines and habits. His wife Vera (Kay Walsh) has accepted this life, but wants more for their talented pianist daughter, Susan (Adrienne Corri). Like Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) before it, there is a parallel subplot about Susan’s application to a London music school – and the costs that will come with it – but that tends to distract from the Donat plot rather than supplement it (and leads to a ludicrous plot development around theft that I will discuss more below).

When Donat discovers he is dying, he takes the news well, his small man persona more interested in how the doctor feels about giving such news, rather than how he should accept it. Yet over the next few scenes Donat shows this small, contained character changing, tearing up a safe sermon and offering a controversial speech instead (causing him to lose a well-paid job as school chaplain), chastising one parishioner when she complains about the local gravedigger smelling of drink (Donat’s response is that having the occasional drink to make you happy isn’t a bad thing, particularly if you bury bodies all day), and accepting responsibility for a dying man’s money (in order to prevent his younger wife getting her hands on it). The film’s strongest moments are when these scenes are at the centre of the narrative, a story of a religious man addressing his life, and his achievements: or, as Thorne says, ‘the important thing is not just to be good, but to be good human beings.’

And the film does pursue this, offering up a critique of newspaper misreporting and desire to drum up salacious content – while Thorne insists ‘No one takes this sort of newspaper seriously’ the headline (‘Vicar tears up speech! Questions afterlife’) is enough to draw larger crowds to his sermons and is, by a roundabout route, also the solution to the financial problems that clutter up the final half of the film. But it is that narrative move towards money issues where the film stumbles: despite Susan winning a scholarship, it is clear the Thorne’s do not have enough money to support her. So, the film casts a complicated web involving Thorne as executor of Mr Sproatley’s farm estate and will. While some of this plot works (the performance of Vida Hope as Mrs Sproatley, the younger wife, and her twin desires - for her husband’s death and a young farmhand - is delightful) the film veers away from Thorne to Vera, and her sudden decision to take £100 from the Sproatley hoard to fund Susan’s future.

While it is always interesting to see Ealing push female roles beyond simple concepts like housewife and talented daughter, it is unclear why the character of Vera would suddenly change her behaviour in this way. From a declaration that she was following Thorne’s sermon, to Thorne’s accusation that she is obsessed with living vicariously through Susan, to the revelation of Thorne’s illness (something he kept hidden for everyone), and his equally sudden acceptance of money from the newspapers (to cover the money Vera stole), the film’s denouement departs from what made the film stand out in its earlier scenes. This, along with other smaller subplots (notably a relationship between Susan and the cathedral’s organist (and music teacher) Martin (Denholm Elliot) that appears to be based on him being stern and telling her off), means the film takes its eye off Donat’s performance of a decent man suddenly unshackled from life’s concerns, and able to act in a freer, honest, fashion.
A flawed film, then, but no less fascinating for it: as noted, Donat gives a strong performance, although his personal illness is written in Thorne’s lined and weary face, and Kay Walsh and Adrienne Corri give strong support (given underwritten roles). The strengths of the film remain its occasional burst of colour composition (the strong blue under the film’s titles, the close-ups of blue and green-tinged stained glass windows as sun streams through them), the location filming, a subtle sense of humour (the schoolboy hiding the Saint book; a reference to a parishioner who couldn’t get into The 39 Steps (1935), Donat’s early Hitchcock appearance), and sly scene-stealing moments from actors like Vida Hope and Denholm Elliot.
[UPDATED April 2014: Lease of Life is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 11, from Network]
Next time, we start 2012 by going back to the war years in Johnny Frenchman (1945)...

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 30: Return to Yesterday (1940)

A minor entry in the Ealing canon (still technically a CAPAD production), this feels like one of the transitional films that was produced as Michael Balcon (and others) figured out what kind of films Ealing Studios (as a production company) should, and could, produce. Like The Gaunt Stranger (1938), Trouble Brewing (1939) and Saloon Bar (1940), it is mostly studio-based with a few brief location shots of the pier and a remote island, but unlike the latter two films, the plot is rarely strong enough to hold the attention.

Based on a stage play (‘Goodness How Sad,’ by Robert Morley) this is a largely unconvincing and thin slice of romantic drama that features a few interesting character performances, but is dominated by three largely unappealing leads. Despite opening on a young couple (playwright Peter (David Tree) and his girlfriend / actress Carol (Anna Lee) and the play they are about to open at the Pier Theatre, the film is more focused on the nostalgic (and initially incognito) journey of Robert Maine (Clive Brook), a Hollywood star, back to his roots.

What follows is strictly by the numbers: the play’s leading man drops out, Maine (in disguise as ‘Manning’) is convinced to take the role, the producer pulls the funding, the cast decide to put it on themselves, Maine is revealed, and he and Carol fall in love. The play gets a huge opening night, and publicity, and Maine leaves Carol behind, after realising her life is just beginning. While none of this is badly presented, the execution lacks any life or passion: there is no visual flair, the comedy is forced (Captain Angst (Ludwig Stossel), an eccentric Germanic professor type at the lodging house keeps a seal in a bathtub), and the performers appear to be going through the motions (ironic, in a film about doing exactly the opposite and being passionate about the play you are in).

Clive Brook is solid, but the film doesn’t give him much to do – and there is little he can do to sell the frankly ludicrous love story between Maine and Carol. Even though the age difference between the characters is a story point, Brook cannot help but look like a leering older man next to Anna Lee, who bounces through the film like a teenager who’s had too much sugar. If it is important that he look old enough to be her father, it is perhaps unfortunate that he acts like that around her too, and never like a potential lover. Anna Lee is stronger bouncing off Tree, suggesting Carol’s passion and optimism, but that may say more about his acting than hers. (she does have a great line about everyone assuming the – platonic – evening spent with Maine alone on an island was some kind of orgy – not a very Ealing word!)

The supporting players are amusing, and offer hints of the ensemble playing that later Ealing films would become known for: the other actors in the play, notably Mrs Truscott (Dame May Whitty), are strong, while Grace and Sambourne provide some comic villainy and pomposity that gives the film some (partial) bite. Yet, ultimately, there is little to recommend here: a thin and unbelievable plot, solid acting and no real visual or aural flair to lift it higher in Ealing’s filmography.
[UPDATED April 2014: Return to Yesterday is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 11, from Network]

Next time, Robert Donat faces the grim reaper in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in Lease of Life (1954)...

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 29: They Came to a City (1944)

Twenty-nine films in, and this is the first film I’ve watched with an audience. A small audience, admittedly: Mark Duguid (from the British Film Institute), and Justin Webb and Caroline (both from Radio 4’s Today Programme). As one of the more obscure Ealing films, it is only available (as far as I could ascertain) via the print held at the National Film and Television Archive. While Mark, Justin and I’s discussion on the film played on Radio 4 this morning (Monday 19th December), the following is a more detailed and expansive look at the film.

They Came to a City is a film that works better as a polemic than a piece of psychologically rich drama; a pitch for a post-Second World War utopian society that could learn from the mistakes of the past and prepare for a (possibly socialist) future. Yet, watching it nearly 70 years after it was produced, there are potent links with the society we live in now (one that has, arguably, abandoned or reduced many socialist-leaning creations of the 1940s), particularly the film’s inherent suspicion of banking and financial institutions. It is also, most curiously for Ealing (in fact, for any mainstream film of the time), a piece of meta-theatre, a commentary on both filmmaking and storytelling that invokes the figure of an author, and the ways in which stories are constructed and told. And it is a fantasy, part of a moment in Ealing history where realism was not the style du jour (and, as such, an interesting companion piece to Dead of Night (1945) and The Halfway House (1944)
But that’s getting ahead of myself. The plot is simple: nine strangers (including a married couple, although they are almost strangers to each other) are mysteriously taken from their everyday lives (a nice effect where they walk ‘into’ darkness and disappear as a gong sounds) and arrive in a misty, twisted forest. Making their way through it to a strange structure (part-castle, part-gateway), they debate their location and the strange city they can see below. After being admitted to the city, they regroup and discuss what they saw, with some disgusted at this new society, others breathless with excitement at the possibility of this new start. Some opt to stay, others to leave, others to return and spread the word of what humanity is capable of if they work together.
In many ways, however, the (thin) plot is the least of the film’s interests. It is a piece of narrative manoeuvring that gets the right character pieces into place for a series of debates and arguments. (it feels appropriate that one of the main locations, a square in front of the massive doorway into the city has a chequered floor like a chess board: the characters resemble pieces that are moved around as part of a bigger game) The characters range from working to upper class, although the film’s interests lie most with rough-and-ready Joe Dinmore (John Clements, who we are introduced to in a gym brawl) and the bittersweet barmaid/waitress Alice (Googie Withers). They form a relationship by the end of the film, pulled together by shared political beliefs, the knowledge that life could – and should – be better, and a desire to move beyond their inherent pessimism (Joe describes himself early on as a revolutionary who doesn’t believe in the revolution).
The characters are broadly but nicely drawn, although certain types lapse into broad cliché: Alice and Joe have rough edges, prone to sniping and disagreement even while falling in love; Mr and Mrs Stritton (Raymond Huntley and Renee Gadd) are a study in unhappy married life, but Mr Stritton reveals a hitherto unseen socialist streak and Mrs Stritton (although she hates the city and would gladly burn it down) admits some of her failings by the end; while Ma / Mrs Barley (Ada Reeve) is an old tired woman who comes alive when she sees the beauty of the city. The broadest stereotypes are the upper class and aristocracy: Sir George Gedney (A. E. Matthews) is an oafish cliché who’d rather be shooting something than be around people; Lady Loxfield (Mabel Terry-Lewis) is an interfering harridan who controls her daughter Philippa (Francis Rowe) to such an extent that she drives her away, into the arms of the city; finally, businessman Mr Cudworth (Norman Shelley) is a fussy, whining sort, who embodies all that is wrong with out-for-number-one capitalism, and whose only interest in the city is if he can exploit it for personal gain.
So, if the narrative isn’t the strongest, and the characters are often types rather than fully-realised, then why would I want to argue that the film still works, and resonates today?
Partly, that is because the film is endlessly fascinating: it is hard to imagine any successful studio in modern times ‘green-lighting’ a film (even one that is an adaptation of a successful play) that is so anti-capitalist and pro-socialism. Obviously the late Second World War-context comes into play – that was a moment where it was felt the world could change, could become a better, fairer place for all – and indeed that period led to many positive changes in British society that are still partially visible today. But it is still unusual to see a film that is so politicised, from a studio that is always claimed to be cosy and safe: things this film most definitely is not.

But the film also looks interesting: some of the aesthetic choices don’t work (a series of quickly-cut close-ups of each actor when something dramatic or mysterious occurs becomes increasingly amusing with each new version), but many of them remain impressive. There is grand set design by Michael Relph, particularly on what looks like a low budget: the use of matte paintings and models to give a sense of scale in some of the effects shots (Ealing’s effects team are unsung heroes in many of the films I’ve viewed to date), but also the scale of the sets that are constructed. These sets go a long way to selling the fantasy of the film: particularly the strange central location that looks like a combination of castle, Mayan pyramid, and shifting modernist labyrinth. Those sets are, quite literally, like nothing else I’ve seen in British cinema in this period: completely different to the futures imagined in earlier fantastic films like High Treason (1929) or Things to Come (1936), and unsettling in its splintering of different architectural styles. As mentioned above, these aspects of set design also colour aspects of the narrative: not just the chess board motif, but the way the sets create vertical space rather than (the more normal) horizontal – characters are constantly moving up and down in this new world, climbing vast staircases, passing through toweringly tall doorways, looking down vertiginous walls. It could be argued that as well as adding fantasy and mystery, such vertical movement also challenges the engrained upper-middle-lower class debates going on in the dialogue.
[there is a great quote on Screen Online from a BECTU interview with Sidney Cole, co-writer on the film with director Basil Dearden, who notes that playwright J.B. Priestly saw the film with only the music track and declared it so much better without the dialogue – which is, frankly, declamatory and overwrought throughout)
All of which doesn’t seem to sit well with critics of Ealing’s work: Charles Barr sees it as a ‘dismal experience... arid, abstract, statuesquely posed and declaimed... it cannot make the leap into showing, or summoning up, the dream city... [the studio] needs to base itself on what is known and familiar.’ (Barr 1980, 52-3)
While, at the end of the day, it may simply not be to your tastes (if you can even get to see it) there is no doubt the film is a potent source of debate and surprise: not least that Ealing made it in the first place. But Barr’s assessment ignores how the film uses the lack of the central city – an absence that is commented on in the film, in a moment that feels both modern and Brechtian. The film is not only bookended by a sequence in our ‘reality’, where a picnicking soldier and his Wren girlfriend debate the future with a passing J.B. Priestly (a fantasy on par with much in the actual fantasy world), but the film returns to this trio in the middle, just as the characters enter the utopian city. In a moment of authorial glee, Priestly and the two picnickers debate whether the film should show the city, or if it is better not to see it. This film-within-a-film moment feels very knowing, a wink to the audience who are expecting to be shown this utopian space, but also a return to the idea of character, and how the story is actually about their reactions to the city, not what the city looks like. To underline this sense of authorial comment and amusement, the final words of the film belong to Priestly who, wandering down a country lane towards the horizon, says to the couple (and the cinema audience) ‘Thanks for listening.’
This may be a polemic, it may lack depth and subtlety, but it remains one of Ealing’s most fascinating films and is a strong example of the kind of thing I hoped to find on this challenge – something different, and something that has forced me to rethink my opinion of this supposedly restrained and realistic British studio.
Next time, the 30th film in the Challenge likes to be beside the seaside, in Return to Yesterday (1940)...

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 28: West of Zanzibar (1954)

If Where No Vultures Fly (1951) was an attempt to combine documentary, travelogue, action-adventure and colour filmmaking, then West of Zanzibar slims that concoction down by losing most of the documentary approach and focusing on the colonial action-adventure, personified here by stalwart hero Bob Payton (again played by Anthony Steel). The change in emphasis can also be seen in the accompanying poster, with its pirate ships and action scenes.

Like many sequels, this provides audiences with known pleasures – shots of elephants, giraffe, warthogs, rhino and impala – and expanded ones – mainly images of crocodiles and birds; where Payton largely ruled his small fiefdom in the first film, here he is striking out to the Kenyan port of Mombasa and to the island of Zanzibar; rather than simply the adventurous do-gooder, here Payton is an unlikely detective and adventurer taking on gangsters as well as poachers; and, if the first film largely dramatised white issues, the sequel is a more direct attempt to give the black African characters a voice, a perspective, and a range of psychologised characters and roles within the story. Yet the price for this latter development is the more stereotypical role played by the largely villainous Arab sailors and traders who exploit the African tribes.

The film’s shift from the savannahs of the Kenyan game reserve to wider concerns is evident from the opening images of old-fashioned dhows slicing through the deep blue waves of the sea. Over this, a voiceover talks about the dhows of Arabia, the trade routes, the ‘black gold’ of slavery and the ‘white gold’ of ivory that many such ships engage with. At this stage, the feel remains documentary, but that shifts to a more dramatic mode as the action moves to the Galanas tribe who are voting on where to move their village – the safety of the hills or the ‘civilisation’ offered along the coast. Payton is here, advising tribal chief Ushingo (Edric Connor) to (quite literally) head for the hills: but the younger generation, including Ushingo’s sons Bethlehem (Bethlehem Sketch) and Ambrose (David Osielti), are drawn by the opportunities in Mombasa. Ushingo is the only person to vote for the hills.

Five minutes into the film, then, it is clear that West of Zanzibar has a different view on its black characters: there are a range of individuals, they are identified by name, and there is an attempt to draw the audience in to their problems. Payton remains the voice of moral certainty, however: when he speaks against Mombasa, it is clear the tribe has made the wrong choice. But when Payton goes back to the game reserve, the camera stays with the tribe, showing us hut building and food preparation in their new coastal setting, and the problems of selling food at the local markets. Before you know it, several young hunters (including Ushingo’s sons) have met Arab men (signalled by bright red fezzes), been lured in by the dangers of consumerism (and thus, away from their traditions), and are back in the reserve, hunting elephants for ivory. Ushingo tells Payton his people have contracted a ‘sickness’ (desire for money and goods) are ‘simple in the ways of the towns’ and ‘starve in the slums’ – he also challenges Payton’s attempts to help, noting ‘It is always an African who pays... when we yield to temptation, we are always savages.’ This representation of a non-white voice also offers at least a partial challenge to the pro-white civilisation suggested by Payton in the earlier film.

Like Mannering in Where No Vultures Fly, there is a central character whose official public persona masks a villainous ivory smuggler: lawyer Dhofar (Martin Benson) protects the interests of the dhow captain accused of ivory smuggling by Payton, and educates the Payton’s in ‘real world’ politics, accusing them of being no better than missionaries, and comparing the plight of African tribes in slums to the British working classes during the Industrial Revolution. While an educated man, Dhofar’ intelligence (like Mannering’s before him) is no match for Payton’s moral certainty and action-hero credentials: a swift punch to the jaw is Payton’s ultimate riposte to the mannered Arab lawyer.

Payton’s attempts to help Ushingo are aided by his wife Mary (played here by Sheila Sim) and M’Kwongi (Orlando Martins), and include haphazard investigations around Zanzibar, boat chases across the ocean, and gathering help from the Kenyan tribes to track and attack the ivory-smuggling dhow (which, conveniently, has Dhofar on board). Despite the presence here of debates around the future of Africa, tribal issues and at least a hint of the African perspective, this is action-adventure to the core, where problems are solved by a no-nonsense white man, who regularly strips to the waist, gets into scrapes, inspires loyalty from all who work with him, and always gets his man. Steel plays this like a nascent British Indiana Jones, all gung-ho spirit and lantern-jawed heroics, a fantasy of white intervention amid the film’s interests in the African experience.

Like Where No Vultures Fly, the film makes strong use of its colour cinematography, although arguably the main fantasy here is the change seen in Mary Payton. As played by Sheila Sim, she is a glamorous figure, always in a different (and colourful) outfit, and normally in full make-up (a departure from the hardy, bush-living version of the character established by Dinah Sheridan). Here, Mary appears in bottle green dresses, pink and white polka dots, scarlet red blouse, always smart and stylish, even when pursuing her husband across the plains. Sim is not the only colourful element here: like its predecessor, the film knows how to foreground strong colour images – not simply the red and orange tribal outfits, but strong blue-greens in the ocean-going scenes (and some underwater photography), and the bright red sail on the boat Payton commandeers during his dhow-chasing adventure.

The film ends by playing to its strengths: back in the game reserve, with familiar wildlife images (some of which are recycled from Where No Vultures Fly, but most appear new), as Payton and his tribal friends successfully attack the dhow, capture the ivory smugglers and reaffirm Payton’s paternal role to the Galanas (particularly with Ushingo dying during the attack) – as Bethlehem, the new chief notes, Payton was right that the tribe needed to learn to walk before they ran, and that everyone in this big country must learn to live in peace. Payton nods, and sums up the film’s ultimate moral: patience and tolerance is the only way forward for Africa (and, by extension, the world). Despite Ushingo’s earlier complaint that the white man always tells the black ‘where to live, and where not to live, what to think and what not to think,’ the film ends with just that division.

Still, with its strong location filming, exciting narrative pace, and the amusement value of Steel’s (dramatically increased) gung-ho performance, there is a lot to enjoy about West of Zanzibar.

[UPDATED April 2014: West of Zanzibar is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 1, from Network]
Next time, the Great Ealing Film Challenges takes to the airwaves to discuss They Came to a City (1944)...

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 27: Where No Vultures Fly (1951)

Where No Vultures Fly (1951) is, in many ways, an overlooked Ealing film of the early 1950s, being released after the one-two hit of The Lavender Hill Mob (June 1951) and The Man in the White Suit (August 1951), and belonging to a genre – colonial action-adventure – that is less well-covered in histories of the studio. Yet it was an important film in late 1951/early 1952: a huge financial hit for the studio (one of the top performing British films of 1952), screened for the 1951 Royal Command Performance, and a re-assertion that colour cinematography once again had a place within the Ealing production schedule. (three years after initial experiments with colour in the 1948 films Saraband for Dead Lovers and Scott of the Antarctic)

Released as Ivory Hunters in the U.S., the film is a dramatisation of the work of Mervyn Cowie and his colleagues, who fought for the formation of the National Parks of Kenya. The story was developed by director Harry Watt and melds influences from documentary filmmaking (the travelogue-style sequences of animals, landscape and tribal customs) with action-adventure tropes (including a rhino attack, tribal confrontation, and a car chase to the border). Bob Payton (Anthony Steel), his wife Mary (Dinah Sheridan) and son Tim (William Simons) head into the bush when he convinces the government to set up Kenya’s first national game reserve. With a tiny patrol force, Payton struggles to prevent the death of the animals under his care, fighting against native and Western hunters, and ivory poachers.
The film looks amazing, even in the unrestored print available commercially. Like The Love Lottery (1954) before it, a fully restored version of the 3-strip Technicolor would be amazing to see, but even without that, the vibrant blue skies, verdant greenery and the striking array of colours in the tribal outfits pop off the screen. Of course, the danger of the colour cinematography is that it can create a spectacle around the black population, given it is the scenes of native dancing, singing and celebrating that feature the strongest colour imagery: and the film as a whole could be accused of presenting Africa (and Africans) as a spectacle, an ‘other’ place of vast savannahs, waterholes, and exotic animals and peoples. Given the time period, there is no sense that the film explores the black perspective – the central characters are all white (Bob Payton is a third generation East African settler), and it is those colonial interests, hopes, fears and beliefs that the film presents (or challenges). We are presented with cunning (and corrupt) tribal leaders, skilled hunters and trackers, brave patrolmen, and noble savages: not a blanket perspective by any means, but still a limited (and largely visual) point of view of this other culture.
Not that white culture is presented as entirely positive. The convivial photographer Mannering (Harold Warrender) is also the chief villain, the leader of an ivory poaching ring who regards Africa as a country to be stripped of its useful resources, and then abandoned. (this is hardly a spoiler: Mannering’s villainy is telegraphed early on by virtue of being the only other white character with more than three lines). This sets up a rather obvious binary between Payton as the ‘good’ colonial figure, and Mannering as the ‘bad,’ with Payton fighting for a ‘new’ Africa and a new relationship with the black communities (although, with white leadership), while Mannering wants to strip mine the same communities and leave them to it. (for more on the film’s link to colonial issues, I recommend the discussion on, which explores the film in relation to wider social and cultural opinions on colonialism)

I’ve talked many times in this blog about the strength of Ealing’s location filming, and that comes to the fore in this film: shot completely outdoors, with no studio work. As noted above, there is a travelogue quality to the film, but that adds to the sense that the film was physically in these locations, with these animals, rather than simply intercut with scenes shot on Ealing Common a year later. Although other films and television wildlife shows in the six decades since this film was released may have inured audiences to many of the shots achieved here, the images of the elephant stampede (and waterhole bathing), the swift-editing that creates the rhino attack on the Payton’s truck, the cheetah attack on Payton, and the baby giraffe that licks Steel’s face, offer spectacular imagery that underpins the film’s narrative interests.
Produced over the same period as The Man in the White Suit (1951), and released three months later, it is tempting to try and draw parallels with that film, and other Ealing productions: Where No Vultures Fly features a little man tilting at the windmills of big government and shady private enterprise, he has to use cunning and subterfuge to put his plans in motion (and keep them going), and to convince the local population that this is the best route forward. Of course, unlike the Alec Guinness film, Payton is successful in his endeavour, and is a resolutely moral and straight-forward individual throughout, so the parallels are only so compelling. Other critics (notably Charles Barr and George Perry) have noted a connection between Where No Vultures Fly and the classic American western, with Payton bringing civilisation to the wilderness and fighting off (and with) an indigenous population. Yet, even with the wide-open spaces of Africa, tribal face-offs, and Payton’s regular horse-riding skills on display, this comparison feels more tortuous, as what Payton creates is hardly a civilisation – if anything, he is trying to fence off and retain the wilderness, to banish the advances of man (the telescopic rifle and the bulldozer are dismissed as bad technologies in an early montage), rather than engage with them. Payton is hardly your typical loner Western hero, with Mary and Tim’s sub-plots developing ideas around how to survive in the bush.
The trouble with both explanations is that they cannot contain the full range of narrative, thematic, and visual elements of the film. As the New York Times noted in its review, it is ‘both a documentary and an essentially dramatic yarn... the cameras have captured the game and its habitat as befits the "stars" of this adventure.’ (A.W., NYT 19 August 1952) The travelogue and documentary impulse works hand-in-hand with the plot and characterisation, rather than fighting against them, and creates a unique piece of filmmaking that doesn’t resemble any of the Ealing films I’ve watched so far (although I have yet to delve into their Australian productions, which are often lumped in with this one).

In fact, it is so different that the next blog post will jump straight to the film's sequel (also starring Anthony Steel, and directed by Harry Watt), West of Zanzibar (1954)...

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 26: San Demetrio, London (1943)

Back in wartime production mode, this is one of Ealing’s best-known war drama-documentary efforts and, if I’m honest, it was a bit of an effort to sit through. Because, although I understand that it’s a faithful recreation of an actual event, and despite my admiration for some of the performances (even Robert Beatty, although that may be because he is the butt of so many jokes), characters and model work, the film just goes on too long and then fails to illustrate one of the key moments of the narrative. It’s a solid effort, but one that wouldn’t suffer from being five to ten minutes shorter.

The story is straightforward: the San Demetrio, a ship in the British Merchant Navy, is attacked when sailing from Texas to Glasgow with a cargo of oil; although most of the crew abandon ship, one lifeboat of sailors are not picked up by a rescue boat, and end up returning to the ship for safety. Led by 2nd officer Hawkins (Ralph Michaels) and Chief Engineer Pollard (Walter Fitzgerald), the small group put out the fires, partially repair the ship, and set out for home, returning triumphantly to the Clyde under their own steam.
As such, there are great moments of ingenuity, drama and comedy: Pollard’s engineer is surely an early inspiration for Star Trek’s Commander Scott with his frequent innovations and inventions – getting the damaged engines running, rigging up a new steering column, finding a way to make the malnourished men hot food and drink, and preventing the ship from sinking. The drama (given the relatively thin story) comes from that now-expected Ealing interplay of characters: the ‘below decks’ men struggling to survive, first in the confines of the lifeboat, and then on the pitching deck of a half-sunk ship; Mervyn Johns (a regular focus in these Ealing columns) is injured and struggles on to complete his work; equally, Gordon Jackson is the eager novice who has to quickly adapt to new circumstances. Yet, as with The Next of Kin, few of the men stand out – really Pollard is the closest thing the film has to a hero or central figure. The comedy, perhaps less obvious, comes from many of the same sources, and at least in part because of their situations – those same men play darts, read magazines (including, strangely, ‘True Romances’) and bet on anything they can find (including, towards the end, which country they’ll reach first); much of the humour also comes from the treatment of Robert Beatty’s character. From an unconvincing drunk routine in his early appearance in Galveston, his character (universally referred to as ‘Yank’) throws in with the men, even if he can’t play darts and doesn’t understand about smoking cigarettes near gallons of oil. Beatty also contributes to that traditional British cinema trope of combining different nationalities and classes: English, Welsh and Scottish are present here, and with Beatty, a token American.
Like The Cruel Sea, with which it shares many thematic concerns (as well as director Charles Frend), this is a story about men; about the bond between shipmates that (occasionally) ignores class and social structures (though sometimes simply replaces them with new ones), and, more noticeably in this film, about a lack of women. Although women are mentioned (most often wives and girlfriends back home; although one of the first lines is comparing a gun is compared to a woman - ‘Guns are like women, you can’t tell until you’re in action, and then it’s too late’), the closest the film gets to showing a real woman is the pin-ups stuck to the men’s locker room (although the credits do note a ‘shopgirl’, I can’t remember her at all). In fact, there are more obvious sightings of Japanese and black extras in the background shots in ‘Texas’ than there are any women. Yet one of the film’s most interesting and complex elements, the soundtrack (a strong layering of effects, dialogue and music featured throughout), is the work of a largely unknown (to me, at least) Ealing employee, Mary Habberfield, the ‘sound cutter.’
One of the other notable elements of the film is the sheer ability of the production to convey the story of this storm-tossed and rickety ship with a degree of verisimilitude. Partly this is due to some sterling special effects model work, several shots of which (most notably an early image of the ship in dock) I had to check were model-based (some of the others are more obvious, but no less impressive for the time); the rest is due to strong set design and editing, particularly after the ship is attacked, where the ravaged nature of the structure becomes clear, flooded incessantly by tonnes of water being thrown at the set and cast. One specific camera angle on the engine room set, looking down from on high past several levels of stairs and gantries, is repeated several times, but really ‘sells’ the change from the outset of the film to the point where it has been gutted by fire.
At heart then, the film is another example of Britain ‘pulling together’ in wartime (even if that version of Britain doesn’t include women). Slow to get going, and then failing to deliver any strong narrative conclusion (they come within sight of Ireland, then the film cuts to their employer talking about salvage rights, and we never see the ship actually arrive on the Clyde), its heart is in the right place, even if its delivery is a little off.
Next time, off on an African adventure Where No Vultures Fly (1951)!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 25: The Gaunt Stranger (1938)

This, the first film (chronologically) on the master list of 95 Ealing films covered on this challenge (although some people have already helpfully pointed out other options, most notably a series of short films made during the war years), fails to really suggest the range of genres, characters and concerns that fuel most descriptions of ‘Ealing Studios’ from the war years on. Not a bad film by any standards, it (like Saloon Bar before it) is a solid piece of genre filmmaking, engaging enough but rarely doing much to stand out from other similar films of the period.

In one sense, The Gaunt Stranger completely fails to live up to its title, not being about a stranger or anyone that could be described as ‘gaunt.’ To be fair, the U.S. title for the film, The Phantom Strikes, is equally misleading, given it features no phantoms or, indeed, a character called ‘The Phantom.’ The film, the first that producer Michael Balcon would make at Ealing Studios (initially through a company called CADAP – Co-operative Association of Producers and Distributors – of which Balcon was a major figure), is an adaptation (by well-known British writer Sidney Gilliat) of an Edgar Wallace story, ‘The Ringer.’ (a story Balcon and director Forde had previously adapted in 1931) The plot concerns a mysterious master of disguise (the ‘Ringer,’ Henry Arthur Milton): assumed dead for two years, it is revealed he has returned to London to kill Maurice Meister, a local crook who murdered his sister, Gwen Milton years before.

An amusing reverse murder-mystery unfolds, as the crime is announced two days before it is committed, everyone knows the Ringer will do it, but no one knows who the Ringer is. The police, represented by Detective Inspector Wembury (Patrick Barr), police surgeon Dr Lomond (Alexander Knox), and Inspector Bliss (John Longdon), team up with petty thief Sam Hackett (Sonnie Hale, the putative star of the film), to try and protect the intended victim Maurice Meister (Wilfred Lawson). Also thrown into the mix are the Ringer’s wife Cora Ann Milton (Louise Henry), recently arrived in the country; Meister’s secretary Mary Lenley (Patricia Roc); and her criminal brother Johnny (Peter Croft).

The film resembles Saloon Bar in other ways than the focus on a murder investigation, not least the attempt to introduce comic elements into an otherwise straight-forward detective story: Hale is the main comedian here, playing the little man reluctantly dragged out of prison by Wembury (‘I’ve come down in the world, I’m helping the police’), and constantly trying to escape his predicament. Yet much of the routine falls flat, at least in part because the film doesn’t seem that interested in his character (he disappears for large stretches at a time, or is used for exposition purposes), and because the narrative is constantly trying to keep the audience guessing as to who might be the Ringer in disguise.

Stylistically, director Forde adds a few subtle touches, notably the opening credits (a shadowy street scene, suddenly illuminated by a policeman’s lamp, which casts around the screen, lighting up the film’s credit slides, arranged as a series of bill posters on the brick walls) and a repeated visual motif where the camera pans slowly right-to-left (and cross-fades between images) across Meister’s largely empty rooms; this happens three times, first to establish the space (and scale) of Meister’s house (as he plays piano); second, to show Hale’s movement through several of the rooms (in his assumed role as butler); and third, near the end, to show the emptiness of the house on the night of Meister’s murder, as a superimposed pendulum ticks away the remaining minutes of his life, building the tension.

Necessarily busy in order to keep viewers guessing, the film suggests other narrative interests that it rarely pursues: the characters of John and Mary Lenley, for example, are ciphers, largely there to add to the list of potential murderers, or suggest unexplored narrative options: it appears important that Meister and Wembury have relationships with both Lenleys (John worked for Meister’s criminal business and Wembury arrested him; both men are romantically interested in Mary), but this (like so much else) proves a red herring. The denouement of who the Ringer is (no spoilers here) is enjoyable, but the film’s real surprise is the post-revelation sequence where the Ringer, rushed to hospital having taken a suicide pill, escapes from the ambulance and, with wife Cora Ann in tow, flies away in a plane.

The murderer not only gets away with his plan, he gets the girl, and suffers no punishment for the crime whatsoever. While there is some justification for this – Meister is a crook that the police have been unable to catch or convict, the Ringer is avenging his sister’s death – the fact remains that the ostensible bad guy of the film beats all the supposed representatives of law and order, and flies off into the sunset with his wife. It turns out that, all along, the film was rooting for the Ringer. Given the later morality on display in Ealing films such as Pink String and Sealing Wax or The Long Arm, this resolution felt surprisingly modern and open-ended.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Gaunt Stranger is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 7, from Network]
Next time: back to the war onboard San Demetrio, London (1943)...

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 24: The Next of Kin (1942)

Charles Barr suggests that many of Ealing’s war films can be usefully grouped together as representing particular themes or interests: he places Next of Kin (a regular shortening of the title, although the on-screen credit keeps the definite article The Next of Kin) alongside The Foremen Went to France (1942) and Went the Day Well? (1943) as films that deal with ‘battles of wits’ which ‘enforces resource and alertness, and penalises complacency and amateurism.’ (Barr 1980, 33) While the Tommy Trinder film has yet to make an appearance in this challenge, it is useful to consider the relationship of The Next of Kin to Went the Day Well? and Ealing’s other war films. (it is also fair to note the film bears little resemblance to the U.S. film poster seen here!)

The theme of The Next of Kin can be summed up by many of the wartime posters that make up important background elements of its mise-en-scene: ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ or ‘Telling a friend may mean telling The Enemy.’ This is effectively a dramatisation of those sentiments and the general sense of ‘loose lips sink ships’ that was present during the Second World War. The film began as a production for the military, to educate and remind soldiers of this issue – producer Michael Balcon and director Thorold Dickinson saw it as a chance to convey that message to a wider public, and expanded the initial budget (and running time) to produce this final version.
Caught between propaganda and drama, the film struggles to find a suitable balance: and one of the most obvious differences with Went the Day Well? is that there are few characters in The Next of Kin that are developed enough to care about. In the later film, the well-drawn characters create interest and drama (and shock, when they are often killed); here, one of the ironies of the film is that the most interesting characters are the German spies, not the British soldiers who inadvertently reveal information on troop movements and plans. Mervyn Johns as Davis (or ‘Number 23’), remains a fascinating chameleonic figure, easily moving between the different British classes on display, able to make friends, yet also retaining a slightly whiny, put-upon figure whenever he meets up with his German handler, Barratt (Stephen Murray). The standout sequence is one between him and an ATS driver (Thora Hird) where, in the space of two scenes, he has charmed her by helping fix a tyre, been invited into the bosom of a military dance, and discovered vital information via a pompous male sergeant. Well-played by Hird and Johns, it shows his character’s skill and demonstrates how Davis remains the most multi-faceted character within the film.

The only other characters who make an impact are Miss Clare (Phyllis Stanley), a drug-addicted performer who tours around army camps, and her dresser, Ma / Mrs Webster (Mary Clare). Ma is revealed early on as a German spy, using Clare’s cocaine addiction to force her to pump young squaddies for information to relay back to Berlin. (the film does not, however, suggest that it is simply young women who can entice military secrets out of men, as the example of Johns’ character shows) Equally compelling is bookshop owner Barratt who blackmails his Dutch refugee employee Beppie (Nora Pilbeam) by threatening that the Gestapo will take her Rotterdam-based parents into protective custody unless she gets information from her soldier boyfriend. The fact that these characters are the source of most of the actual dramatic elements of the film is most notable when Beppie kills Barratt, and is then killed by Davis: without those figures to focus on, the film abandons character-based drama in favour of the action footage of largely faceless battalions landing at the port of Norville, and their battles with the (pre-warned) German troops. While this is well-shot and tense in places, there is very little at stake in terms of individuals – again, the comparison with the final fight sequence in Went the Day Well? favours the later film, because there is more engagement with the characters.
So where are the British characters in all this? They are largely forgettable vanilla privates, majors and lieutenants, who tend to merge together, pawns in the spies’ webs and schemes. The main British character, security officer Richards (Reginald Tate), has to handle the brunt of the propaganda, often spouting slogans and warnings rather than anything that would endear us to him as a character.
You could argue that this was the point of the film, that normal, uneventful British types were being duped into giving away pieces of information by talented, colourful, German spies, and that everyone should be wary. The opening titles exclaim ‘This is the story of how YOU unwittingly worked for the Enemy’ – and it is possible the association with the Directorate of Army Kinematography reduced the ability of Ealing to effectively dramatise or introduce stronger British characters (something the studio was noted for, and which is visible in earlier films like Saloon Bar). As noted above, the reliance on British soldiers as a mass – obeying orders, rushing a beach, training together – does work to overwhelm the few individuals we see. The British soldiers are successful in their mission, but the revelation of secret plans means more men are killed – and ‘the next of kin casualties have been informed’ – allowing the film to (rather ponderously) reiterate to its central message at the end.
Visually, there are elements of later Ealing concerns (the location work is strong, the cast is diverse and interesting), there are nice comic touches (Johns, in the bookshop, leafs through a book titled ‘I Am A Nazi Agent’), while the film’s emphasis on sexuality does tend towards the limited view of women seen in some Ealing films: Clare’s exotic dancer, Beppie’s shop worker, Ma’s German spy and Hird’s female van driver. While Clare and Hird are unwilling dupes, there is no sense that the film presents women as the only source of secret information, it leaks just as easily in conversations between men: as seen in the appealing final sequence where those recurring upper class twit characters of 1930s/40s British films (played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) chat about a munitions factory. Yet as the camera reveals in a sly pan to the right, sat next to them (and lighting their cigarettes) is Davis, revelling in the detail they are giving. If there is any doubt that his character dominates the film, this final return and centrality appears to confirm it.
Next time, back to the earlier Ealing film on the list with The Gaunt Stranger (1938)...

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 23: Saloon Bar (1940)

Bouncing back to an earlier point in Ealing’s filmography, Saloon Bar can also be seen as a throwback to lower budget British filmmaking of the 1930s with its reliance on studio-based production, limited sets, small cast and reliance on genre. The film, with its script written by Angus Macphail and John Dighton (regular Ealing contributors, who also worked on The Black Sheep of Whitehall, The Ghost of St Michaels and The Next of Kin; while Dighton contributed stories to Dead of Night) and direction from Walter Forde, fits the mould of those early Ealing efforts. However, the film also links to broader ideas of what Ealing films encapsulated, with its emphasis on a small community fighting against larger bureaucracy (here, attempting to acquit a wrongly convicted man), some strongly drawn characters, and a strong combination of elements from crime, detective and comedy genres.

Set among the regulars who inhabit the saloon bar of the Cap and Bells, the film follows Joe Harris (Gordon Harker), a bookie who returns to the bar on Christmas Eve after months away and decides to investigate the murder of Mrs Truscott, for which Eddie Graves (Alec Clunes), a regular at the bar, and boyfriend of barmaid Queenie (Elizabeth Allan), is about to hang. Joe, with help from bar staff Ivy (Anna Konstam) and Fred (Al Millen) and customers Charlie Wickers (Ealing stalwart Mervyn Johns, as stoic and logical as ever) and Sally (Joyce Barbour), investigate various clues and ultimately uncover a story of bigamy, blackmail and intrigue. Meanwhile, there is a thin subplot involving the bar owner’s wife, who is about to give birth in an upstairs room.

Where the film works is in drawing out the different characters that make up the bar’s staff and customers. Broadly drawn in places (notably Queenie and Harry Small), the actors are able to give these characters life, particularly Harker as Joe and Barbour as Sally. Most of these performances contribute to the film’s ability to suggest camaraderie among the characters, and a reason why they would band together in this way. Even characters like Sally and Doris, who only appear in a handful of scenes, contribute to the working class milieu and focus of the film, and show how the film rarely takes sides on what is acceptable and what is not. For example, Harry Small’s bigamy is a problem, but Doris’ paying ‘gentlemen friends’ are less so: when she asks ‘Are you saying I take money from men?’ Joe replies ‘It doesn’t matter to me what you do in your spare time.’ Equally, Sally’s job managing a chorus of dancing girls is barely commented on, just another job. It is obviously too much to suggest the film is celebrating female independence here (Doris may have more than ‘one umbrella in her hatstand’ but she also works in the rival bar, the Shakespeare, and blocks Joe’s investigation) but it appears to lack any strict moral perspective on those professions.

The film is obviously shot on a tight budget: much of the film’s narrative takes place in the saloon bar of the title, with only five or six other locations being used through the film. There is little real tension built up: the film makes it clear Eddie is innocent, most obviously through a subjective flashback sequence that shows Eddie packing a case while the murder is committed. While this could be seen as unreliable narration, given it is Queenie’s retelling of Eddie’s story, the film constantly refers to his appeal, and the bar regulars (whom the audience get to know best) stress their belief in his innocence. The film’s pleasures largely comes from their attempts to solve the mystery, particularly the haphazard investigative style (Joe pretending to be a psychic researcher to check a man’s alibi; Sally discovering a relevant scrapbook in the theatre’s prop room) and Wickers’ continual rejection of each new clue (there is a brief moment where the film suggests Wickers could be the murderer, but his character is obviously too gloomy and despondent to ever commit anything)

The film’s comedy stems from some off-beat humour – for example, a young couple sit in the corner of the bar, largely oblivious to the whole investigation. The film occasionally eavesdrops on the (largely one-sided) conversation where the girl, a wannabe starlet with brash (and misplaced) confidence, offers increasingly bizarre stories about her attempts to break into show business: starting with worrying that a strange man wanted to take advantage to her, through having her skirts gathered around her neck, to being naked and performing a fan dance. These snatches of conversation build to the girl exclaiming that she’s shocked that the regulars are discussing murder in front of her! However, there is also a recurring joke around a group of young lads singing / ruining Christmas carols outside the bar that is painful first time round (and does not improve with repetition) and very broad comedy around a series of drunken toffs unable to start their cars. There are also some obvious gags around sandwiches past their sell-by date, a blind man beating Joe at pinball, the maid mishearing Joe and claiming he was from the Bicycle Institute (rather than the Psychical Institute) etc.

The film has some interesting visual tics: the bar itself is a blandly lit area, but when the film ventures outside (notably to scenes set in Gabbot’s garage, or the final chase through the shadowy, but studio-bound, streets), there are more interesting visual compositions. This sequence – like the introductory scenes that play up the importance of Graves about to hang –uses a faster-paced editing style than the more casual approach found throughout. The camera also prowls around various scenes, framing and reframing characters or aspects of set design (the frosted windows of the bar, Joe’s car). Set design also works to confirm audience understanding of class difference in the film: the saloon bar is old fashioned and snug, while The Shakespeare public house is a modern, brightly lit and fashionably designed area with (modernist) ideas above its station (possibly signalled by Joe’s treatment by the bouncers, or the fact that Doris – the main barmaid – is revealed to be a working girl on the side)
In a nice moment, the epilogue of the film returns to the idea of community: the young starlet appears to have mislaid her date (she is now regaling Wickers with her stories), but she has joined the cast of bar regulars just as Charlie announces the birth of his baby boy, and a ‘lock in’ for everyone – including the local policeman on the beat, who turns up just as the doors are being closed. It is a moment of reunification – the small community has identified and got rid of the unwelcome elements (mainly Harry Small, but Doris is also absent), and is now reassembled around traditional patriarchal and gender roles of marriage, children, domesticity and Christianity, as Christmas music plays over the credits. While not perhaps a classic, Saloon Bar offers an early sense of Ealing community and genre-hybridity that would inform some of their later comedies.

[UPDATED April 2014: Saloon Bar is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 10, from Network]
Next time: wartime propaganda with The Next of Kin (1942)...

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 22: Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

At some point during this Challenge, I knew I would find an Ealing film I just didn’t like, and which I might struggle to find anything interesting to write about. While that isn’t quite the case with Pink String and Sealing Wax, this is the film that has most tested my patience while watching it, partly because of the film it is, and partly because of the film it could have been. My main knowledge of the film was that it starred Googie Withers, whose Ealing appearances I’ve only yet scratched the surface of (the female lead in Trouble Brewing (1939), a small appearance in Dead of Night (1945). Yet while Withers gives a strong performance around which much of the film revolves, she is also frustratingly sidelined for increasingly tangential subplots.

Withers plays Pearl Bond, a fascinating and flawed portrait of a character whose desires and mistakes set the plot in motion yet ultimately doom her: a working class woman in Victorian times, working in the Brighton pub owned by her drunken husband Joe (Garry Marsh), her infidelity a constant source of gossip among the pub regulars. From the moment Withers sashays onto screen, with an array of low-cut tops, bushy black hair, quick put-downs and an eye for Dan Powell (John Carol), it is clear this is a character the film will struggle to contain.

But perhaps this entrance is so compelling because it comes after ten minutes spent in the company of the Sutton family, led by stern patriarch Edward (Mervyn Johns), with his wife Ellen (Mary Merrall), eldest son David (Gordon Jackson), and daughters Victoria (Jean Ireland) and Peggy (Sally Ann Howes). The Suttons are (some might say unfortunately) the focus of the film, its alleged moral centre, and the pivot around which most of the narrative revolves. While it often appears the film is mocking the family (most notably the moral binaries expressed by the father), it also celebrates them by showing their successes and their ability to overcome problems – problems like Pearl Bond.

The Suttons run a chemists, although Edward also serves as ‘public analyst’ (equivalent of a forensic expert) for the local courts. He is a proud, religious and unwavering man, whose children largely live in fear of him, while his wife appears to suffer him. He mocks David’s love poetry, chastises his son for writing letters to a girl he is not engaged to, forces his daughters to recite scripture, dismisses Victoria’s hopes of being a singer, and punishes Peggy when she feeds the guinea pigs he plans to experiment on. In any other film, Edward would be an ogre – and at times the film delights in showing how his children misbehave and ignore his strictures. David gets drunk in the local pub (where he meets Pearl); Victoria performs for a famous singer and gets an audition in London; Peggy steals money from the church collection plate to fund Victoria’s train ticket.

The film constantly underlines how awful Edward’s behaviour is, and how his children have to deceive him to move on in life. When he states that if Victoria accepts the scholarship from the music school, she won’t be allowed to stay in ‘his house,’ his wife (for the first time in the film) stands up to him, threatening to leave (there is a bald statement she stays for the children, not for him), unless Edward relents.

But if we are supposed to hate Edward, or reject his view of the world, how does that sit with the film’s ultimate vindication of him, as the man who saves David and sends Googie Withers to her death?

Because Pearl, while the Suttons were bickering over music schools and guinea pigs, has been cultivating David’s friendship, largely to make her lover Dan jealous. When David explains about the qualities of strychnine poisoning (obviously an appropriate romantic chat-up technique when you are the son of a pharmacist), Pearl sees a way to use him as an unwitting accomplice (she manoeuvres him out of the pharmacy after establishing where the poisons are kept) to get rid of Joe. The film thrives on this melodrama and, as already noted, Googie Withers plays Pearl as a force of nature: fun, conniving, and a survivor. With Joe dead, and her plans unravelling, Pearl goes to Edward and threatens to implicate David: and here, despite the unbending portrayal to this point of Edward as a figure to be mocked, the film celebrates him. Confronting Pearl, he becomes a minor-key Sherlock Holmes, stripping away all the elements of her story, revealing her lies, and laying out what he will tell the police. Johns comes into his own here – so often the film has forced him to play Edward stiffly, all crisp dialogue and doubting frowns. Here, although those traits are still visible, the challenge of duelling with Pearl makes those qualities heroic – because he finally comes to the aid of one of his children.

Despite this last minute denouement, however, the film has made it impossible to accept Edward as a hero. The performances point to this (Johns is uptight and repressed; Withers is cocky and full of life) and even though they are both cruel and unforgiving at points in the narrative, Pearl’s sequences are dramatic and broadly comic, where Edward is monotone and stoic. The film ends with Pearl dead (having thrown herself into the sea), David married to a suitable girl (his letter-writing sweetheart), Victoria an acceptable singing star, and Edward’s view of the world at least partially confirmed. David and Victoria have had minor rebellions, but Edward’s patriarchal view of the world has been reaffirmed. (there is also an unmotivated narrative framework of a stuffy newspaperman at the Brighton Herald and Southern Weekly News – the title is emphasised in both the opening and closing shots of the film – reciting the ‘official’ version of Edward’s life as pillar of the community to his secretary)

Narratively, the film eventually promotes Edward. But visually and thematically, Pearl is the heart of the film. If Pearl and Edward are competing forces in David’s life, then they are also involved in a tug-of-war over the film’s purpose and interests. What remains unknown is whether there was a similar struggle between writer Diana Morgan and director Robert Hamer (who is also credited with ‘script contributions’) as they adapted this play for the screen...

Coming Soon: get your drinks order in for Saloon Bar (1940)...

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 21: The Gentle Gunman (1952)

Another minor revelation when approaching my survey of Ealing films: they made this film about ‘the Troubles’ that included an attempt to present both sides of the conflict, and which cast cherub-faced John Mills as an IRA terrorist! Despite the odds (and there are several, including the presence of my Ealing bête noire, Robert Beatty), the film is a fascinating and enjoyable piece of thriller fiction that rarely lets its politics get in the way of the more genre-based pleasures. Based on a play (that had previously been produced for the BBC in 1950), the story’s stage roots are quite obvious at points in the film: most notably in several long scenes set in an Irish garage. Yet the film also expands out into tube station bombings, night-time shootings, and rooftop chases that give the film a fluidity and tension beyond what a theatrical production would (likely) have been able to convey.

The film is focused on Terry (Mills) and Matt Sullivan (Dirk Bogarde), both members of the IRA, and both involved with the same woman, Maureen Fagan (Elizabeth Sellars). The film opens with Matt arriving at a republican cell in London, looking for Terry, whose behaviour has aroused suspicion among their brethren. The London sequences are really strong, mostly filmed on location, with the darkened wartime lighting, wet streets, and people huddled in houses and in tube stations. Matt is tasked with placing a bomb on Camden Town tube platform, before catching the last tube. Despite the presence of women and children sheltering from an air raid, Matt places the bomb and is about to get on the tube – when a group of kids notice his abandoned case is ticking. Matt freezes, misses the train, then panics – running off the platform. Terry, who has been watching him, throws the bomb into the tunnel, and heads after Matt.

This tube station sequence (and the following arrests of the Irish cell, and Matt and Terry’s rooftop confrontation where Terry confirms he’s been working with the English, doubting his role as ‘an anarchist in the middle of an air-raid’) is suitably tense, and strikingly shot and edited. There are nice compositions – Matt and Terry sit in adjacent phone booths, talking on the phone to avoid being spotted; Bogarde in the background spots Mills, lighting up a cigarette in the extreme left of frame; the two actors on the roof, faces obscured by hats, occasional bursts of light from below illuminating them – and the editing, particularly in the tube sequence, builds to the explosion through quick cuts to Bogarde’s face and the playing children. This opening really sets the tone for the film, and I felt a tinge of disappointment when it became clear the bulk of the film would actually be set in a garage in Ireland rather than in this shady and dangerous wartime London.

The plot becomes a little tortuous here, as Matt reports Terry as a traitor, we learn he is now sleeping with Terry’s old girlfriend Maureen, meet local republicans Shinto (Beatty) and Murphy (Michael Golden), as well as Maureen’s mother Molly (Barbara Mullen) and brother Johnny (James Kennedy), and a plot is set in motion to recapture the men captured in the London raid. Most of this, as I said above, takes place in the garage – with occasional cuts to Belfast docks, where Johnny works. The night-time city scenes are more atmospheric (the garage is largely shot during the day, or on well-lit studio sets) and play to the film’s generic interests in the shadowy world of crime thrillers. Johnny is shot, Matt tries to get him back over the border, Terry returns, and the three of them are captured by Shinto. The denouement of the film returns to similar issues from the tube station: a tense ambush at the docks (in daytime), innocent people under threat of guns and grenades, and Matt forced to choose his path. Although not as successful a sequence as the opening, it is brutal in its dispatching of minor characters and does set up a nice double-cross from Terry that ends the film.

Despite its narrative content – and even with the wartime setting allowing some distance – the film does go to some lengths to avoid taking sides in the Troubles (or, at least, to avoid being seen to take sides). Despite the criminal and terrorist past of the two brothers, who in most films would have to be caught, killed or morally rebuked, Matt and Terry wander away at the end, with no sense of punishment, and with their fraternal bond stronger than ever. Terry, of course, has represented a dispassionate logical view throughout (his riposte to Shinto’s statement that a man had died for Ireland is ‘better had he lived for it.’): the film obviously shares this sentiment, and Matt’s realisation of this truth is likely what ensures he survives to the end.

Yet despite Terry’s centrality here, there is an issue over the casting of John Mills. Given his other appearances for Ealing (The Big Blockade and The Black Sheep of Whitehall in wartime, playing Captain Scott in Scott of the Antarctic, then returning for a late Ealing appearance in Dunkirk), there is nothing that suggests he is capable of playing an IRA traitor, even if the character is actually helping the British at the same time. He is the cool-headed older brother and man of action (no longer ‘a boy’), able to impart grown-up advice to his younger brother (a strong performance from Bogarde, but in the tough rebellious role he was already known for) and lead him away from the path of violence. Yet Mills, although solid, rarely feels threatening: he is supposed to have been a stalwart republican until he sees the ‘error’ of those ways, but Mills largely ambles around the film being avuncular and chatty – we rarely see any sign of an underlying steely resolve or determination.

At the same time, as the images through the article show, the film’s producers and distributors seemed intent on drawing a female audience – the appeal of Mills and Bogarde might accomplish that on its own, but the film moves beyond the idea that violence (and this genre) as a man’s game, by making an explicit link to the central female character, Maureen. Sellars plays her as strong, passionate and opinionated, but that passion gets her brother shot and her mother rejecting her: when Terry takes Matt away at the end, it is as much away from Maureen as it is the IRA (Terry notes: ‘if Maureen ever had a child it’d be born in uniform with a tommy gun for a rattler’). Although there is a feminine anti-violence view through Molly, Sellars’ performance tends to dominate, and elevates Maureen within the film.

It might be obvious that although I liked much of the film, it does struggle in the middle to balance the melodrama of the Matt/Terry/Maureen relationship with its interest in being a tense crime thriller. One of the most curious additions, given that generic focus, is the bookends provided by the characters Dr. Brannigan (Joseph Tomelty) and Henry Truethorn (Gilbert Harding), elderly gentlemen (one Irish, one English) engaged in a seemingly interminable argument/squabble over the Irish-English relationship. These are comic characters – the film opens with them blustering and bickering over a chess game – but they are pulled into the action when Matt, Terry and an injured Johnny burst in on Brannigan’s surgery (during another round of the same argument). Even when taken prisoner and locked in a storehouse, Brannigan and Truethorn continue their comic bickering and, at the end, the film returns to them, still debating, still playing a game of chess. The film has come full circle to these men, and ends with the following salutation:

T: ‘To England, where the situation may be serious, but is never hopeless'
B: ‘To Ireland, where the situation is always hopeless, but never serious’

So, the film ends on an indecisive political note (matching the balance it has tried to maintain throughout), and an uncertain generic one, stuck between drama (serious) and comedy (never serious): as the comic banter of Brannigan and Truethorn continues, the camera switches back to Terry and Matt, two brothers fading away into the Irish countryside, walking away from the garage, from the IRA, from Maureen, and (presumably) from any solid answers to the English/Irish question.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 20: The Man in the White Suit (1951)

At the end of my last blog, I claimed this film was one of Ealing’s contributions to the ‘science fiction’ genre, a claim I also make (albeit in passing) in my new book Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction (Berg 2011). Given I didn’t have space to pursue that argument in depth in the book, I want to explore the film’s relationship to genre in this post, and think how some of its choices might challenge easy generic assumptions around this supposedly classic ‘Ealing comedy.’
I note at the start of Science Fiction Film that a ‘concrete, unyielding definition’ can be reductive when dealing with SF, a genre as ‘notable for its flexibility and... hybridity as it is for a series of conventions around developing technology or science.’ However, it is clear that many a genre film ‘engages with (and visualises) cultural debates around... the future, artificial creation, technological invention... [and] scientific experimentation.’ (Johnson 2011, 1) To my mind, The Man in the White Suit fulfils several of those categories, as a film whose narrative constantly returns to technology, its products, and the wider cultural reaction to new discoveries.

Take Sidney Stratton’s (Alec Guinness) laboratory equipment: a twisting, coiling series of glass tubes and beakers, through which shoot spurts of liquid, which eventually come to rest as a bubbling and pulsating viscous form in the largest container. Every appearance of this apparatus is hailed by a beautiful piece of sound design: a burbling, electronic, throbbing sonic presence that suggests whatever is in those beakers is unusual, alien, ‘other,’ in some way. The film knowingly borrows aural and visual design elements from existing film portrayals of the ‘mad scientist’ figure and those scientist’s laboratories, familiar locations to audiences au fait with Frankenstein (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) (films that tend to be referred to as ‘horror,’ however broad and inaccurate that definition might be here). Indeed, many of the films of this period that present a mad scientist joyfully bounce between science fiction, horror, thriller, gangster and comedy genre identities: the likes of The Invisible Ray (1936), Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man (1943) or The Perfect Woman (1949) are generic hybrids that foreground ‘mad’ science and similar complicated laboratory set-ups (from which chaos, inevitably ensues).

Stratton himself shares generic similarities with earlier scientific figures such as Dr. Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll or Dr Griffin, all of whom had been regularly brought to cinematic life. Committed and driven, conscious only of his work (and associated experiments), socially inept, and unaware of larger issues (moral, economic or personal), Stratton is blind to anything but the laboratory and the big idea. Yet this naive and innocent persona can also switch, in the same scene, to cocky and pompous, a quality also shared by his generic predecessors: it is to Guinness’ credit that Stratton remains likeable throughout much of the film, despite this mercurial personality. Those moments where the naive mask briefly drops remind us that a film about black and white has a central figure who is himself morally grey.

These science fiction themes – and the obvious parallel to stories such as Frankenstein – occur through visual/aural display, character and narrative. The story of The Man in the White Suit is familiar to anyone who has watched earlier genre films: the brilliant, but driven, scientist creates something new; his creation threatens to disrupt the social order (often physically, as in the case of Frankenstein’s Monster, or Metropolis’ robotic Maria); forcing the representatives of society gather to try and control the scientist and his creation. The end of this film features (quite literally) a rampaging mob of villagers racing through the streets of Wellsborough in pursuit of the mad scientist and his creation, the suit, which threatens all of their lives. Stratton is creator and creation, mad scientist and monstrous figure by the end, a luminous glowing presence in the dark and mean streets of Wellsborough (and which offer another potential generic thread – of film noir – through Douglas Slocombe’s gorgeous cinematography): it is no accident that the mob that chase and corner Stratton literally tear the monster to pieces, shredding his suit in their hands and destroying the ‘other’ that has upset their social situation. It is also firmly hinted that Stratton, like all great mad scientists, is still concocting new, more advanced, creations – the film’s coda has him walking out of Birnley’s mill, struck by a thought, and striding down the street, while the sonic laboratory noises rise to dominate the soundtrack.

Author John Wyndham felt the science fiction genre imagined ‘a technology, or an effect of a technology... such as humanity, up to the time of writing, has not in actual fact experienced.’ (Wyndham The Seeds of Time, 1968, 7) The Man in the White Suit takes that idea – the effect of a new (as yet undiscovered) technology as its central issue: what would the effect be if someone created a miraculous new artificial fabric that couldn’t be destroyed, wouldn’t ever get dirty, or wear out? As Charles Barr has pointed out, it means the film engages with industrial relations, wealth, and the obstructive nature of big business, but at its heart, this remains a story about technology. The film opens on shots of an electric weaving machine; its camera glides across scientific workbenches full of Bunsen burners, test tubes and electric equipment; the lingering shots of Stratton’s workbench, both small and (once mill owner Birnley (Cecil Parker) employs him) larger and more impressive renditions of the same equipment. Telephones play an important role in the comic misunderstandings that power much of the narrative; while Stratton’s new cotton thread is presented as the most technologically advanced element known to man.

Despite the presence of all these strong generic conventions, the film is rarely discussed in these terms, but more in relation to its comic and political roots. Barr sets the tone by seeing the film as ‘a statement about England... governed by consensus’ and a ‘story of frustration, blockage and stagnation’ (Barr 1980, 134-5). To me, however, this reading is too reliant on Barr’s overarching narrative of Ealing (and Britain) stagnating through the 1950s to focus on the visual and thematic content of this one film. His sense of the film as a dramatisation of Alexander Mackendrick and Michael Balcon’s relationship is fascinating, but does appear to ignore the broader generic and intertextual world highlighted above (and often the evidence of the film) in favour of anecdotal evidence of Balcon’s leadership.

The film challenges aspects of Ealing’s ‘small is good, big is bad’ comedic world (seen in Passport to Pimlico (1948) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) by ridiculing big and small: the business of Birnley Mills and the bigger business of the British textile industry (represented in gothic fashion by Ernest Thesiger as Sir John Kierlaw, a cadaverous spider at the centre of the textile web) is satirised as first desperate for, and fearful of, this new fabric. Yet the ‘small’ (here represented by both trade unionism and individual labourers such as Stratton’s landlady, Mrs Watson – Edie Martin) is also anti-Stratton, because his invention threatens their livelihood: the main representative of this position, Stratton’s friend Bertha, tells him off for not taking a tea break which ‘we had to fight for’ and, upon hearing he has a new (unpaid job) retorts ‘I don’t care whether you want to get paid or not – you’ve got to get paid.’ Like the trade union representatives (and the Ministry) in Titfield, neither side understands the central character’s obsession: big and small eventually join forces (a curious echo of Metropolis where labour and management come together) to hunt Stratton down.

As noted above, the film features a tour-de-force performance from Alec Guinness as the guileless but arrogant Stratton, but the film has several other strong performances: Cecil Parker is smug and scared in equal measure by the change in his mill’s fortunes; Thesiger is presented as evil incarnate, cocooned within a voluminous cloak, or sinking into high-backed chairs, offering to prostitute Birnley’s daughter, Daphne, if it will get him the result he wants.  Daphne (Joan Greenwood) is more problematic as a character – and, as Barr notes, disappears from the film when her role is fulfilled. She appears as fiancé to Michael Corland (Michael Gough), head of a another mill (where Stratton initially works) but is drawn to Stratton’s equipment and experiments well ahead of any male character. The relationship with Corland largely disappears, Daphne spots Stratton at her father’s mill, but then becomes interested in his work, showing an aptitude for the science, and supporting his ideas (she is, as Barr notes, the person who actually explains what Stratton’s invention can do). Daphne acts as a voice of optimism in the film: she sees the possibilities of the material, where Stratton only sees the science, and the textile industry/union only see the problems it will cause.

Daphne is also both sexualised by the men in power, and blithely aware of the power of her own sexuality. In a sexually charged scene with innuendo-laden dialogue, Kierlaw offers Daphne money to seduce Stratton and convince him to sign a new contract: she is aware of what is being asked, and demands more money for the job. Greenwood is particularly strong here as, in the course of five minutes, she has to go from conniving femme fatale with Kierlaw, through seductress (with Stratton), to idealistic crusader when she gets Stratton to agree to reveal his story (and material) to the world.

The comedy elements of the film are obviously not inconsequential: there are some great verbal exchanges (Stratton declares ‘I won’t stay in your house another minute’ just before Birnley’s butler succeeds in throwing him out) and visual touches (Stratton, in his luminous white suit, tries to hide below an advertisement for raincoats that promise to hide ‘a multitude’). This is a film of multiple generic pleasures: science fiction (and aspects of horror) in its topic, themes, character and visual aspects; thriller or film noir in the rain-soaked dark streets and alleys where Stratton hides from the mob, or the appearance of the textile barons like gangsters in their overcoats and matching black cars; comedy in its dialogue and physical slapstick. To insist the film sits within one category lessens the film and its place within the Ealing canon.