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)...