Monday, 27 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 48: The Halfway House (1944)

Halfway through The Halfway House was, technically, halfway through my Ealing marathon (47.5 films out of 95) so this blog entry feels suitably celebratory. 6 months on from the start of this mad idea, I am keeping to my schedule – approximately 2 films a week – and still have a stack of known and unknown films ahead of me: from the pleasures of Passport to Pimlico (1949) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) to the undiscovered lands of Meet Mr Lucifer (1953) and I Believe in You (1951).

For now, though, let’s look at another of Ealing’s supernatural productions...

In production terms, The Halfway House is tucked neatly between They Came to a City (1944) and Dead of Night (1945), and it contains elements that can be seen in those other supernaturally-inclined films (the crossover may be due to the presence of writers Angus Macphail, Diana Morgan and T.E.B. Clarke on all three): a secluded, mystical or uncanny location (here, a haunted country inn that is unstuck in time after its destruction in a German air raid), a broad combination of characters from different classes, and with different stories to tell, and an uncertain resolution that balances hope and fear for the future.

Given the focus on the inn through the opening credits (where its sign hands under the titles), and in dialogue from different characters, the film withholds any sense of the physical space until 30 minutes in. The revelation of the inn comes when recently released soldier-turned-criminal Captain Fortescu (Guy Middleton) and black marketer William Oakley (Alfred Drayton) scan the Welsh landscape with binoculars – an image of a wooded area shimmers as though in a heat haze, and the inn is uncovered, nestled between the trees. This visual trickery makes no attempt to hide the inn’s mystical nature from the audience, although the characters are more stubborn, resistant to the idea that it is an otherworldly space (the presence of calendars from 1942, newspapers from exactly a year before, and radio broadcasts begin to convince them).

Fortescu and Oakley are joined by classical conductor David Davies (Esmond Knight), who has three months to live (and who thought the inn had been destroyed in an air raid a year ago, in 1942); Jill French (Valeria White), her soon-to-be-ex-husband Richard French (Richard Bird), and their daughter Joanna (Sally Ann Howes); Alice (Francoise Rosay) and Harry Meadows (Tom Walls), mourning the death of their son; and young lovers Margaret (Philippa Hiatt) and Terence (Pat McGrath), a neutral Irishman. They all arrive at the inn – as the disparate group arrive at the strange gateway in They Came to a City – with their individuals problems, opinions and uncertainties about the future. Unlike that film, this group has guides: the innkeeper Rhys (played by Ealing stalwart Mervyn Johns) and his daughter Gwyneth (played by his real life daughter, Glynis Johns).

The scene is set, then, for a subtle (and often not-so-subtle) piece of dramatic propaganda. In the liminal space of the inn, set outside of the real world (in both time and space), the characters will come to realise the supernatural nature of their hosts and location, and reassess the future path of their lives (as Rhys puts it, this is ‘a pause in time, a pause to stand still and to look at yourself and your difficulties... a few hours to change your minds’). The resolution of these different stories is rooted very much in 1940s mainstream social beliefs and ideology, albeit with a wartime flourish: the estranged family are brought back together, the crooks see the error of their ways, with Fortescu intent on reenlisting (Oakley is a more uncertain case, as noted below), Irishman Terence realises the error of being neutral in a war against the kind of evil people who would bomb a rural idyll such as the inn; Davies accepts his fate, reenergised about what he can accomplish before he dies; and Alice and Harry share their emotions over their son’s death, and attempt to move on.

Regular readers will know that I’ve become fascinated by Mervyn Johns’ performances across a range of Ealing films: devious and jumpy in The Next of Kin (1942), comically unhinged in My Learned Friend (1943), blank slate-turned-murderous in Dead of Night (1945) and stuffily patriarchal in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), he has a compelling screen presence (despite often seeming unassuming and understated). Johns is the heart of this film as well, despite more showy turns from Middleton, McGrath and Howes (who gives a stronger performance here than in Dead of Night, but is still shrill and mannered), a calm and appealing spirit guide, whose soft tones, suggestions and knowing looks set his guests back on their ‘correct’ paths.

The standout scene for Johns is at the dinner, when he tells the story of how the inn was bombed and burned out by incendiaries. Calmly, with little emotion in his voice, he tells his audience of hearing guns in the distance, sirens wailing, the sound of a plane coming closer and closer... ‘then all is quiet’ before the bombs fall, the house burns and flames reach up to the sky. It is a compelling moment, made more impressive by a slow camera move away from Johns, passing down the length of the long dining table, before lingering at the end, as though the camera (and, by association, the viewer) is the missing guest at this strange gathering. And then, as Johns voice fades, the sound track creates the necessary jump, as distant gunfire is heard. Beautifully written, performed, and filmed, it is one of the highlights of a film full of strong visual moments (the characters lost in the landscape as they try to find the inn, Rhys’ habit of shimmering into existence in an empty room, Gwyneth’s lack of shadow, Rhys’ lack of a reflection – there is strong effects work throughout, both in optical tricks and model work).

The ending offers what, on first glance, appears to be a positive resolution: all these stories are concluded, and most characters have renewed purpose (Rhys states that Oakley has finally discovered something to fear, which will turn his world ‘into a living hell’ – yet Oakley’s sudden decision to turn himself into the authorities, and what length of prison sentence he’ll get, is largely unconvincing) Yet this remains a film that ends by killing off two of its most appealing and interesting characters (Rhys and Gwyneth) in a visually and viscerally shocking way, bombs exploding and incendiary napalm destroying the inn, and them. The scene echoes Rhys’ earlier description but to this is added another uncertainty: are Rhys and Gwyneth condemned to repeat this night forever? Joanna notes that the 1943 characters ‘can’t die last year because we’ve been alive this year’, but the uncertain status of the hosts (who did die in 1942) means that the last image of them, standing stock still amid the firebombing, may be their eternal fate.

I really can’t recommend The Halfway House enough: unlike the more overt Ealing war films (which this resembles in many ways, not least the disparate group coming together and working together), this is subtler propaganda, and its overarching supernatural atmosphere is well-done. Apart from that, however, it offers strong character portraits, great visual flourishes, and another solid turn from Johns, confirming my sense of him as Ealing’s most valuable player at this stage of its life.

Next time, we go fifteen rounds with The Square Ring (1953)...

Friday, 24 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 47: The Goose Steps Out (1942)

Watching this in close proximity to Sailors Three (1940), and given that some of the crew remain the same – noteably screenwriters Angus Macphail and John Dighton – it is clear that Ealing never felt the need to move too far from a popular pattern. Here, the mistaken identity plot from The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942) is mixed with the reluctant spy elements of Let George Do It (1940) and a scattering of the mischievous schoolboy aspects of The Ghost of St Michaels (1941). However, while Sailors Three was solid but unmemorable, this film combines comic sequences with more dramatic concepts to add to its humour – however, it also remains frustratingly incomplete on DVD...

When British Military Intelligence realise William Potts (Will Hay) is the double of German spy Mueller, Potts reluctantly agrees to take on Mueller’s identity and position at the German university where inventor Professor Hoffman (Frank Pettingell) is working on a secret new bomb. At the university, it is Hay’s usual comic business: schoolmaster Potts attempts to mislead a class of young German spies, including Max (Charles Hawtrey), Krauss (Peter Ustinov), and Kurt (Barry Morse); he befriends Hoffman so as to learn about the bomb, annoys the officious Schmidt (Raymond Lovell), and meets important General von Glotz (Julien Mitchell). Stealing one of Hoffman’s new gas-fire bombs (which Glotz intends to use in the attack on Britain), Potts is helped by several of his students – Austrian students who allege their country has been enslaved by Germany – the film ends in a series of comic set-pieces, first on a train and then a plane spiralling out-of-control towards Britain.

Given the DVD I watched clocked in at a very swift 65 minutes, it appeared as though the film had no fat on it whatsoever, skipping quickly from scene to scene, and not really lingering on any element – but that was not the original length or intention of the film (although not the most reliable of measures, both IMDb and Lovefilm list it at 79 minutes). If ignorant of that fact, the film isn’t noticeably reduced by the cuts – it still makes sense, even if the transitions are a little clunky in places – but the clips of some of the missing sections available on YouTube do reveal some of the strong verbal wordplay that Hay was known for – a cut from the classroom discussion on pronouncing English place names (‘Sluff’ and ‘Slough’), and another from the train discussion about Panzer-pincer movement. From my brief research, the reasons for these cuts (or, indeed, when they occurred) still appear unknown – it could be like the DVD release of Whisky Galore!, where an American print was used (British films were often slimmed down to B-picture lengths of 60-65 minutes for U.S. distribution).

Perhaps the most interesting point here is that I didn’t initially think I had seen an incomplete film in terms of missing pieces of existing scenes (as happened); rather, I suspected that several promising sub-plots had been dropped along the way: Hay rarely gets any romantic interest in his films, so the removal of his spy contact Lena Shuven (Anne Firth) is hardly a surprise; but the lack of a subplot where the ‘real’ Mueller reappears seems an unlikely oversight simply because of its ubiquity in such plots; the disappearance of both Schmidt and Hoffman from the final third of the film is also noticeable; while the final escape feels too easy, with Hay and his students successfully (if haphazardly) flying their plane back to Britain.

Either due to its topic or production context (still at an uncertain point of the war for Britain), the tone of the film can be schizophrenic. There are moments – most obviously when Potts is stealing a bomb from Hoffman’s laboratory – that rely heavily on thriller tenets as much as comic ones. While Hay stumbling around in a protective padded suit is inherently comic, it is used for dramatic purposes as well – he is trapped in the building, alarms going off, the suit making him easy to locate for the pursuing soldiers. In most cases, any inherent drama is undercut by humour: here, Hoffman (in a similar suit) is mistakenly ambushed by the soldiers, allowing Potts to escape; while the final plane-out-of-control sequence (featuring strong special effects model work) is counterpointed with more comic music to reduce any real tension.

As noted above (and similar to Sailors Three) the ‘good’ Germanic type – the Austrian – becomes a key feature, with Potts’ students desperate to escape to Britain. Comedy German stereotypes are also out in force: beer drinking, officiousness, excessive saluting, precision, marching... yet the film still finds time to gently mock English stereotypes (the German students think everyone speaks in upper class accents, Hay’s approach to undercover work is to get blind drunk, and Hay remains a buffoon, supported by cleverer Austrian students). Of course, British behaviour wins out in these debates – the Germans are unaware what a two-fingered salute really means (particularly when directed at an image of Hitler) – but it is another sign that Ealing didn’t always fit into the obvious good/bad binaries we expect from war films.

Given the strong performance from Hay, good supporting work from Hawtrey, and a plot that creates fun and dramatic set-pieces, this has all the pieces that should build a strong film: the absence of all the key scenes, however, mean that the full experience is currently lacking.

Next time, the blog hits the halfway point with - what else - The Halfway House (1944)!

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 46: Sailors Three (1940)

Tommy Trinder’s first Ealing film is one of the lesser films on this challenge, but it is interesting to see how Trinder’s music hall roots are utilised in this broader, slapstick runabout. The change in Trinder’s career through his Ealing films is one of the more interesting of that first clutch of Ealing stars – Trinder, Hay, Formby – something we will follow from The Bells Go Down (1942) and The Foreman Goes to France (1942) through his later roles in Champagne Charlie (1944) and Bitter Springs (1950).

It would be easy to pass over this and see it as a throwaway Ealing film, very much in the comic mode of other Ealing wartime comedy productions. The creative team of director Walter Forde and writers Angus Macphail, John Dighton and Austin Melford are names familiar from much of Ealing’s late 30s and early 40s work, and their work here isn’t that far removed from similar routines and sequences in Let George Do It (1940), Spare a Copper (1940), or The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942). That’s not to say that Ealing’s three comic stars are interchangeable – it would be difficult to imagine Formby playing the ladies man, Trinder performing convincingly as a defrocked headmaster, or Hay being suitably innocent and naive. However, star personas aside, the plots and set pieces of these films feel very reminiscent, relying heavily on coincidence, national stereotypes and slapstick.

Here, Trinder is Tommy Taylor, a sailor on board the H.M.S. Ferocious, a British ship sent to track down and destroy German destroyer Ludendorff in the waters around South America (a catch-all definition for the continent, given the film’s foreign characters are all broadly Spanish or German character types). Tommy, along with two friends, Llewelyn ‘The Admiral’ Davies (Claude Hulbert) and Johnny Wilding (Michael Wilding), head out on shore leave and, through a tortuous series of mishaps involving Davies’ attractive sister Jane (Carla Lehman), end up rowing drunkenly back to their ship... except they head for the wrong one, and end up onboard the Ludendorff instead. Following an abortive attempt to pass as Germans, they escape, take over the ship, rescue English survivors from another German ship, and end up fighting with the original German crew as the H.M.S. Ferocious begins shelling the destroyer.

Narratively, the film throws almost everything at the screen: as well as the sailor’s drunken escapades, there are mischievous children setting off fireworks and the ship’s guns, an apparently plain sister turned beautiful young woman, an Austrian baker who hates the Nazis and wants to flee to Britain, a neutral Jonah from Tangiers who has suffered multiple torpedo attacks, a drunken wedding party, propagandistic anti-German messages and stereotypes throughout, and a couple of Trinder song and dance routines. This ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach is familiar from the films listed above, and largely works here because of the sheer pace of the film and the performances, notably from Trinder and Hulbert (a perennial supporting player, as seen in The Ghost of St Michael’s (1941) and My Learned Friend (1943).

The film is solidly put together, featuring a blend of documentary footage of sailors with fictionalised images of Trinder et al., solid special effects work on the ships (most noticeably, the perspective paintings that create a more spacious sense of the ship’s decks and engine room), and a nice final moment where the film goes all meta-textual and self-referential, placing the denouement of the film’s narrative in a newsreel format, being viewed by an audience in a cinema, where narrative loose ends are tied up and heterosexual couplings (Tommy and Jane getting married) are introduced.

The film’s propaganda notions of Germany are historically interesting – almost all Ealing filmic Germans are officious, loud, obsessed with obeying orders and marching, but never particularly evil; and here, as in our next film, there are ‘good’ Germanic types available, particularly among Austrians – in this case, Hans Muller (James Hayter) who helps the sailors escape and take over the destroyer. What is curious is the amount of German that is spoken in the film, all without subtitles; whether that was an assumption about language competency among British audiences, or an attempt to put the audience in the same unknowing position as on-screen sailors is unclear.

If this blog entry feels short, it is largely because the film is solid but not particularly remarkable. Trinder’s brash, horny but brave persona isn’t much different to his work in Fiddlers Three (1944) – a superior film to this, perhaps because of its distance from the war and enjoyment of the fantasy and historic setting – while Hulbert adequately performs the naive, awkward pratfalling side-kick role (there is a particularly nice piece of comedy business around him trying to steal the shells for the German guns, struggling up stairs and down corridors with each one, in order to throw it out a porthole). The third of these Sailors Three, Johnny, is less memorable, largely because, as Tommy’s rival in love, he feels like Trinder-lite, charming but disposable.

Next time, we stick with wartime comedy, as The Goose Steps Out (1942)...

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 45: The Blue Lamp (1950)

There are so many existing associations with The Blue Lamp that it is almost impossible to watch it with a fresh eye: George Dixon’s life and death in film, then rebirth in the television hit Dixon of Dock Green; the menacing youthful swagger of Dirk Bogarde; British cinema’s delight in such ‘social problem’ films through the 1950s and early 60s; the underlying assumptions around youth as a problem, with tradition offered as the ‘obvious’ solution; and the assumption (often problematic) that all policemen are good and trustworthy.

Those elements and that reputation are here, obviously, but it would be wrong to allow them to blind us to what works so well about this film: like The Long Arm (1956) it is a police procedural done with great skill, yet also a film that isn’t afraid to explore the bleakness and violence of late 1940s youth. In many ways The Blue Lamp exists as a companion piece, or contemporary parallel, to Brighton Rock (1947): Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) contains the same combination of menace and guile as Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough). Here, Riley’s apparent descent into paranoia and guilt after killing PC George Dixon (Jack Warner) is laced with cunning (as he tries to distract the police) and anger (when he thinks he is betrayed by those closest to him).

The film opens with a quickly-cut car chase (with the camera alternately ahead of the car, behind the car, and from the car’s point-of-view) that sets a pace for the film that rarely lets up. We get a familiar story: traditional street copper George Dixon is near retirement, but remains on the beat, showing new PC Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley) the ropes. A parallel storyline involving young crooks Riley and Spud (Patric Doonan), and Riley’s girlfriend Diana Lewis (Peggy Lee), collides with the main narrative in murderous fashion when Riley shoots Dixon during a cinema robbery. As the police force mobilises to track Dixon’s killer (the procedural is in full swing here: fingerprints are taken, the murder scene is photographed, clues are traced and followed up by CID), the film builds to a final car chase (a fast-paced, location heavy, visual echo of its opening scenes) and then a final hunt through White City Stadium where local criminals help the police capture Riley.

Dixon is the archetypal good cop: he knows everyone on his beat, and even the petty criminals and illegal traders seem to like him. Indeed, most of the policemen we see are presented as nice blokes who’d rather be sitting together in the canteen practicing in their male voice choir and listening to Dixon’s made up songs. Ealing has been accused of favouring male camaraderie over female (or, as in films like The Cruel Sea (1953), of trying to avoid women wherever possible) and many familiar male faces crop up in the police ranks, including PC Hughes (Meredith Edwards) and Inspector Cherry (Bernard Lee). Each policeman gets a minor character trait – astronomy, football pools, gardening, poetry – but is largely defined by their job, and their commitment to it. Of course, this blog has attempted to challenge and open up the debate around gender in Ealing – Turned Out Nice Again (1942), Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and The Feminine Touch (1956) are obvious examples here – but it remains true that The Blue Lamp offers limited scope for female roles. Although women are seen working within the police station, they are rarely the centre of attention and largely answer phones. Equally, Mrs Dixon (Gladys Henson) may verbally spar with her husband, but she remains visually restricted to domestic duties and interests; while Diana may run away from home, she runs straight into the arms of the violent and jealous Riley.

Visually, the place of drama-documentary within Ealing’s aesthetic is secure: the film relies on location-based imagery (including bombed out streets and areas) such as the montage that opens the film, newspaper headlines are used to frame the social ‘problem,’ and there is a recurring male voiceover that asks questions like ‘What protection has the man in the street against the armed threat?’ Yet while the film may rely on these visual cues, it can also be playful with composition, particularly around the younger characters: a shot from above Peggy Lee’s head as she powders her face (an angle that stresses the obvious ‘clue’ of her compact); Bogarde in the foreground of the picture as he fills the chambers of a gun; framing an argument between Riley and Spud with Bogarde and Doonan in the background, in focus, with Diane, out of focus, dominating the left of screen; or Bogarde’s haunted face as he shaves in front of a mirror. The film may ultimately side with Dixon and tradition, but it has great fun dramatising and presenting its younger criminal characters.

And there is throughout a sense that the film enjoys its darker, criminal side a little more than it should – Dixon is comfortable and safe, but Riley gets all the attention-grabbing scenes; Dixon likes to potter in his garden, Riley hangs out in coffee bars; Dixon favours a stern word, Riley gets his hands on a gun; and, ultimately, Warner is a solid screen presence, Bogarde is a compelling one.

The Blue Lamp deserves the reputations and associations I listed above, but it shouldn’t be reduced to simple ideas of good and bad, or tradition triumphing over youth ‘problems’. There is light and dark throughout the film, and that might be its most interesting legacy.

Next time, Tommy Trinder takes on a German destroyer in Sailors Three (1940)...

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 44: The Captive Heart (1946)

While there are more romantic films in Ealing’s back catalogue, this one – with its love letters flying back and forth between British prisoners-of-war held in a German camp and the British women patiently waiting for news on the homefront – felt apt for Valentine’s Day, and offers a nice (if not overly challenging) mix of drama, comedy, unrequited love and hopelessly unbelievable characterisation. But we’ll come back to that last point later...

At first, this appears to be a traditional Ealing / British war movie. The captured soldiers from Dunkirk and elsewhere are marched across Europe to a POW camp. If there was a British war film bingo card, this film would sweep the board: Welsh, Scottish, cockney, working class, posh, crook, and extra points for the Czech soldier who’s taken on another man’s identity. As they march, we get brief flashbacks to their lives pre-war, and the women they were involved with: Ted Horsfall (Jack Warner) and Evans (Mervyn Johns) run a decorating business and are happily married, although Evans and wife Dilys (Rachel Thomas) are struggling to have a child; Stephen Harley (Derek Bond) is in love with Caroline (Jane Barrett), who leaves her current boyfriend Robert Marsden (Robert Wyndham) for him; Lennox (Gordon Jackson) says goodbye to Elspeth (Margot Fitzsimons) as his train pulls away... At one point, it feels like this could be the whole film – an elaborate portmanteau of flashbacks and wartime love affairs like Dead of Night (1945) or Train of Events (1949) – but then the men arrive at the POW camp, and that becomes the focus of the narrative. Interspersed through, however, is the story of the women who were left behind – they aren’t just a series of flashbacks, we see a parallel narrative about their lives, worries and interests during wartime.

While the film has a broad cross-section of British soldiers, it is most interested in Geoffrey Mitchell (Michael Redgrave) – or, rather, Captain Karel Hasek, the Czech soldier on the run who takes Mitchell’s identity from his dead body. The film toys briefly with the mystery of who Mitchell really is – the men are suspicious when he speaks German and appears interested in their escape plans – but that isn’t the heart of the film. Instead, it is the arrival of the first letters and packages from home and the men’s interactions with their wives and girlfriends that reveals the film’s main interest: Hasek’s need to pretend to be Mitchell for Mitchell’s wife Celia (Rachel Kempson) and to avoid the suspicion of Gestapo officer Forster (Karel Stepanek), who recognises Hasek from a Czech concentration camp. It is a shame then that Redgrave is a blank slate throughout: he has the good looks but his performance is largely one-note, controlled and emotionless. While this is suitable for the initial set-up, the character necessarily has to become more open and emotional, particularly for the (unsatisfying) final scenes (which, again, more of in a moment).

The drama and camaraderie of the POW camp is well-played, but by 1946 Ealing was an old hand at this kind of consensus-building wartime bonding structure. There are minor dramas – Lennox loses his sight and calls off his engagement, Evans learns of the death of his wife during childbirth, the men attempt to get Hasek back to Britain – which are ably supported by more comic turns from reliable stalwarts like Basil Radford (as the wonderfully named Major Ossy Dalrymple), who cheerfully describes himself as ‘a social parasite... the sort we’re fighting to get rid of’ (there are echoes of Sir George Gedney (A.E. Matthews) here, the landed gentry character in They Came to a City; although Dalrymple doesn’t hate his fellow man, actively joins in with camp activities, and is self-aware about his nature, it is also clear he would prefer to be alone with his horses). The women of the film aren’t quite as varied as the POWs, and we spend less time with them. The bulk of that time is given to the middle/upper class Celia and Caroline, with only brief scenes with Dilys and Elspeth. Caroline is the most interesting here, if only because she takes the initiative with both the men in her life (she drops Robert, chooses Stephen, and then announces they have to get married – with the overt subtext, particularly for an Ealing film, of wanting to have sex before he is called up).

Given my usual preference to look beyond narrative and received wisdom on these films, I once again found myself drawn to the cinematography: and once again, I find director of photography Douglas Slocombe’s name in the credits. It’s not that the film is obviously showy or spectacular, but there are some strong visual choices made throughout: most noticeably, the decision for landscape shots to be dominated by the sky. From the first images, where lines of POWs walk horizontally across the image, the sky takes up eighty per cent of the screen, often reducing the men to a mass of interchangeable bodies, but also mocking their captivity. The sky is wide, open, and free: all things the characters cannot be. This emphasis on the scale of the natural world continues in longer shots in the camp itself, including shots where Mervyn Johns and Michael Redgrave walk away from the camera, almost shrinking in the image, dominated by their surroundings. The film also features subtle camerawork that often moves around the room and characters, calling in at the different stories and emotions: one of the strongest examples comes when Mitchell/Hasek reads Celia’s letter aloud, and the camera circles round to catch each man’s face, as they react to a description of life back home. It is a subtle moment, but it plays to the power of silent performance from all the actors.

It is also a moment that, I think, Charles Barr would claim supports the film’s celebration of the camps as ‘little England.’ Yet I am unsure the film is that clear-cut: the moments where Jack Warner leads everyone in ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ to drown out a German anthem stresses this, but there are other times where the unease and uncertainties of these men come to the fore, and they become individual pieces of England as much as a celebration of a cohesive little England. The camps are described as ‘a little piece of England’ but the film is equally interested in being able to ‘pass’ for English – not just the ‘fake’ Mitchell, but also the camp Kommandant, who is practising his English with Dalrymple. The sense here is that English-ness is something that can be learned, it isn’t intrinsic or natural – perhaps most clearly stated in Hasek’s ability to ‘become’ Mitchell and win Celia, an event that is celebrated with a fireworks display at the end of the film.

But, that ending... it requires a huge suspension of disbelief, and one the film fails to sell to the audience (or to this audience at least). Celia starts as an interesting character – coming out of an unhappy marriage, accepting her husband has left her, bringing up their children on her own – but the demands of the plot mean that her actions become increasingly unlikely. The arrival of letters from her husband – actually written by another man (the difference in handwriting explained away by Hasek using his left hand) and presenting a completely different character and opinion on life – cause her to fall in love with him again. When she hears her husband is to be repatriated, she rushes to the docks (and rushes past Hasek: Redgrave’s stoic performance serves him well here, showing Hasek’s realisation that Celia doesn’t know him); when Hasek tells her about his deception, she visibly deflates; yet a few months later, as victory in Europe is celebrated, she’s ecstatic that Hasek has got back in touch, and appears to have fallen in love with him.

While in one sense it is understandable why the narrative ends like this – everyone likes a happy ending, it stresses the inevitable heterosexual pairing-off that happens in many films – but for me it strikes a false note, and one that actually sours the other relationships of the returning POWs (Lennox and Elspeth, Stephen and Caroline, and Ted and his wife are all reunited; while Evans meets his daughter). While all the relationships were tested by miscommunication or crossed lines, Hasek and Celia never felt anything more than an artificial narrative device. It is an unconvincing end that mars an otherwise solid film.

Next time, Dirk Bogarde takes on the long arm of the law in The Blue Lamp (1950)...

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 43: My Learned Friend (1943)

The last film of Will Hay’s career (although not the last time we’ll see Hay on this challenge, with The Goose Steps Out (1942) and The Big Blockade (1942) still to come), this is a fantastic little black comedy-thriller that speeds through its plot with a series of slapstick routines, strong performances, a great final sequence on the clock face of Big Ben, and a film-stealing turn from Ealing stalwart Mervyn Johns, who pushes the balance of homicidal and hysterical seen in his The Next of Kin (1942) character to darkly comic extremes.

The film re-teams Hay and Claude Hulbert (last seen together in 1941s The Ghost of St. Michael’s), here playing seedy but canny conman (and ex-lawyer) William Finch (Hay) and hopelessly inept lawyer Babbington (Hulbert). Babbington’s eager and naive persona is established by an early scene where he plays with toy cars on the floor of chambers, and he soon fails to successfully prosecute Finch for his latest money-grabbing scheme. The two team up, however, when ex-con psychopath Arthur Grimshaw (Mervyn Johns) bumps into them in a pub and reveals he is going to kill the six people responsible for incarcerating him. These ‘six little dramas of retribution’ will end with Finch, but the first five names are unknown. The film becomes a race against time, as Finch and Babbington try to track down the other names (judges, witnesses, medical experts from the trial), and stop Grimshaw’s murderous scheme.

The narrative is not overly original, but one beautiful addition pushes it beyond the ordinary: Grimshaw keeps popping up to mock and help Finch and Babbington, leaving riddles and clues for them to decipher, and point them in the right direction. In the wrong hands, that role could have fallen flat, but Johns is exceptional, pitching his performance perfectly, adding in demented Peter Lorre-esque twitches, all breathy, slow-spoken at certain points, occasionally eager and giggling, and then matter-of-face and logical at others. Having seen him play evil (The Next of Kin), pent up (Pink String and Sealing Wax, 1945) and ‘average man’ (San Demetrio, London, 1943), it is fun to see him let rip with a character that is a force of black comic energy, stopping inches short of winking at the camera every time he appears (and there are a couple of half-glances at camera, particularly when he takes off a fake moustache after the second murder, that drifts closest to that edge). Grimshaw describes himself as an artist at one point, and it is to Johns’ credit that this character is not the one-note madman he could have been. While Hay and Hulbert have the bulk of the obviously comic business, it is Johns’ manic and murderous glint that is at the film’s heart.

Outside of the central performances, the film is as straightforward as other Ealing comedies, whether they starred Formby, Trinder or Hay. Structured around set pieces, most in one or two simple stage sets (offices, corridors, bars: there are only about three location shots in the whole film), we see Finch and Babbington fail to stop Grimshaw from murdering ‘Safety’ Wilson (Charles Victor), protect the wrong girl (Maudie Edwards), inadvertently help kill Dr. Scudamore (G.H. Mulcaster), and then try to prevent the bombing of the House of Lords. There are some moments where the broader comedy threatens to derail the whole project: an extended sequence in a theatre where ‘Aladdin’ is being performed (and where Finch and Babbington – in borrowed costumes – wreak havoc on the theatrical performance), or one among psychiatric patients (including big game hunter Colonel Chudleigh (Lloyd Pearson) and practical joker Mr Ferris (Ernest Thesiger), but the film maintains a brisk pace throughout, so that such moments are quickly discarded.

The final sequence, which takes place on two elaborate sets (the inner workings of Big Ben, with over sized cogs and wheels; and the external clock-face itself), is a bravura piece of slapstick, chase scene, performance, and tensely edited drama that deserves to be better known within British cinema. The influence of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923) is obvious, but there are also echoes of Hitchcock in the placing of a final dramatic sequence on such a well-known national landmark. True, this is done for comic effect, but the use of the clock-face as a surface to scramble over, hang from, and protect, is particularly strong here.

George Perry has noted the more callous and cynical tone of this film, and both he and Charles Barr have suggested a tempting link between this film and Ealing’s more famous multiple-murder spree, 1949s Kind Hearts and Coronets (both co-written by John Dighton). Yet while both tend to see this as a lesser run-through of similar material, that tends to ignore the strengths of this film, strengths that deserve to be more central to discussions of the darker comic side of Ealing Studios.

Next time, a Valentine's Day treat (?) as we explore The Captive Heart (1946)...

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 42: Who Done It? (1956)

After watching this film, I made a throwaway comment on Facebook that it was 81 minutes of my life that I wouldn’t get back. While that was may have been an overly harsh assessment of this Benny Hill-starring comedy – and one that Steve Chibnall called me on, noting that any film featuring Belinda Lee tearing telephone directories in half can’t be all bad – this falls short of revitalising Ealing Studios’ comic heritage in the mid-1950s, but offers some useful links back to the star-driven humour seen in its 1930s and 40s films.

It is soon clear, however, that Benny Hill is no Tommy Trinder, George Formby or Will Hay.

Hill plays Hugo Dill, a crime-thriller-loving actor who, after winning a writing competition (£100 and a bloodhound), sets up his own detective agency. With the occasionally-willing help of actress Frankie Mayne (Belinda Lee), Hugo inadvertently gets involved in a spy ring’s plans to smuggle Professor Stumpf (Denis Shaw) and his weather-changing invention out of Britain to Uralia. The spy chief Zacco (David Kossoff) hires Hugo to impersonate the professor, but Hugo’s bumbling sends the plans into disarray, leading to an extended chase sequence through a radio show at Earls Court and, finally, into the centre of a stock car race.

As a child of the 1970s, my memory of Benny Hill is likely the one that dominates: a ruddy-faced older and chubby television personality permanently chasing scantily-clad women in sped-up footage to the same repetitive piece of music. In that sense at least, this film is a partial revelation, because his younger persona is given a (limited) chance to act – his voice is deeper and stronger than my (unreliable) memory of the later television appearances, and his physical acting (particularly in some of the disguises he adopts) is largely strong. It is a shame that he is playing that stalwart of the Ealing star-driven comedies, the innocent naïf (innocent in the larger world, as well as sexually), rather than a role that would have stretched his acting in some way. It is also a shame that the film tends to fall back on reliable clichés – Hugo trying to be a hard-boiled American detective, cross-dressing as a wronged woman with strangled high-pitched voice – clichés that may play to Hill’s own limitations or skills, but ones that do little to enliven the comedy here.

Lee’s character is frustratingly underused: preternaturally strong (ripping up telephone directories, lifting furniture with one hand), she pretends to be weak around men so they won’t be put off by her strength. A strong woman hiding her power would be fertile comic ground for most films, but Lee is largely reduced to running around after Hill and occasionally punching / throwing the Uralian spies out of windows (which is a useful trick, given how inept Hugo is). She also falls in with actresses such as Googie Withers, Phyllis Calvert, Diana Decker and Patricia Kirkwood, as the underdeveloped female role who falls (inexplicably) in love with their comic star, be it George Formby, Tommy Trinder or Benny Hill. While this is an obvious narrative development that goes well beyond Ealing’s films, it remains problematic when (as here) the stars have no obvious chemistry.

The highlight of the film is a personal one that has little to do with the actual narrative or performances, but does relate to the power of Ealing’s tendency for location filming. It is rare to see an Ealing Studios film that is actually filmed on the streets of Ealing – obviously any set-based work was filmed within the walls of Ealing Studios, but location work ranged throughout London, depending on requirements. Here, for the first time, I spotted an actual Ealing location – Pitshanger Manor and Walpole Park (which are next to the Studios themselves), are used for the scene where the Professor demonstrates his weather controlling invention. As Sir Walter (Ernest Thesiger) greets the Professor (Hill, in disguise), they walk past the entrance to Pitshanger Manor, then into the Park itself, where the demonstration takes place. Having lived in Ealing for ten years, and regularly walked past that spot, it was perhaps the moment where I was most interested in, and engaged by, the film.

For the rest, I can see the potential appeal – the use of set pieces, mistaken identity, physical slapstick and chase sequences – but, almost halfway through this Ealing challenge, they are too reminiscent of earlier (and better) star-driven Ealing comedies. The star turn here is never as strong as it needed to be, with Hill an unconvincing figure to build this thin narrative around. The film’s struggle to create its own identity (yet hark back to earlier comedies) is underlined by the inclusion of a pair of snooty, patronising characters who dismiss the professor’s invention – roles that, fifteen years previously, would have been perfect for a Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne cameo, yet have little impact here.

Next time, we stick with comedy, but with a darker tone, in My Learned Friend (1943)...

Friday, 3 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 41: Dunkirk (1958)

Ealing’s penultimate film (and one of its longest, at 130 minutes) is a return to the wartime spirit that energised much of the studio’s 1940s output. Unlike the more propagandist notes struck in a range of films, from The Big Blockade (1942) and San Demetrio, London (1943) to The Ghost of St Michaels (1941) and The Foreman Went to France (1942), this is a retrospective look at the early period of the Second World War rather than one mired in contemporary uncertainty. While it is not entirely successful – the film does drag in places, much of the dialogue (particularly that given to Bernard Lee) is declamatory and expositional, while some of the performances feel perfunctory – it is hardly the valorisation of the British army that Balcon set out to make. Indeed, its dramatisation of the horrors of Dunkirk is arguably more effective than the more recent attempt in Atonement (2007), in part because of the length of time the film spends in that location, and its use of widescreen composition to sell the vast numbers stranded there.

It still feels strange to see an Ealing film that opens with the roars of the MGM lion – it is also an ‘Ealing Film’ rather than ‘Ealing Studios’ because of the move away from its traditional home in Ealing (a studio taken over by the BBC). It feels like a partial colonisation of Michael Balcon’s claim that Ealing films existed to project Britishness, if that Britishness was actually being bankrolled by an American studio. As Sue Harper and Vincent Porter have noted, MGM hoped to make money from the deal, not revitalise the flagging fortunes of Balcon, Ealing or British film culture more widely. (Harper & Porter 2003, 69) While they also describe this film as ‘emotionally frozen,’ I can’t help thinking that’s an unfair assessment of what can be an impressive piece of filmmaking.

There are moments where the film feels creatively powerful and distinct: montage sequences at the beginning (clips from contemporary newsreels being ‘watched’ by members of the British Expeditionary Forces, including Corporal ‘Tubby’ Bins (John Mills); a compilation of images and scenes that narrate the German advance over a Flanagan and Allen music hall song), an impressive use of widescreen throughout, and a strong soundtrack. The use of widescreen by director of photography Paul Beeson creates often inspired framing and composition – the lines of soldier wading out into the sea off Dunkirk beach stretches the full length of the vertical rectangle of the screen; there are sweeping vistas of the French and Belgian landscapes with refugees fleeing the German advance (and, later, being mown by Luftwaffe strafing); and an aerial attack on a British position features a series of explosions moving left to right across the screen (in many ways reminiscent of similar scenes in Apocalypse Now). Certain aspects of the set design also utilise the wider screen: for example, the cavernous sets that represent the Ministry of Information. Yet this can also work to the film’s disadvantage, when a shot in the local pub frequented by journalist Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) and businessman John Holden (Richard Attenborough) casts them adrift in an unfeasibly large lounge bar.

So, the film features some stylistically powerful images and knows how to construct suitably tense sequences: the chaos on the Dunkirk beach as the Germans attack (featuring some nice mobile camera work through the dunes), an attack by a German patrol on Bins’ small group of stragglers in a farmyard, and several aerial bombardments. While some of that visual work sits alongside elements of the emotional restraint that Harper & Porter refer to, there are also scenes of men breaking down, arguing, sending others to their death, confronting their fears. Given the subject matter, and the fact the film spends around half its running time stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, it is perhaps not surprising that its vision of the British armed forces is more nuanced than the requisite stiff upper lip. With the benefit of hindsight, the film uses the figure of Foreman to criticise figures in the Admiralty, Ministry and government, for not being better prepared for a war with Germany. Yet this work is also clumsily presented – Lee is almost fatally lumbered with long exposition and enlightened opinion to deliver, so much so that it is almost a relief when he dies on the Dunkirk beach.

But it is not all retrospective ‘if only’: Holden is presented as an ordinary man who doesn’t believe he has a role to play in the war, and takes openly of the ‘phoney war.’ While the film narrative redresses his earlier opinion (and seeming cowardice) by having him sail his small boat to Dunkirk to rescue stranded soldiers (including Mills’ Bins and his men), it is made clear that Holden’s opinion is by no means an isolated one. Yet the main difficulty with Holden as a character is that the reasoning behind his actions is never entirely clear, driven by self-interest, guilt and peer pressure in varying degrees: the fact he is supposed to be an older, comfortable man is also undercut slightly by the obviously youthful Attenborough in a fake moustache and glasses. Of course, by the close, Horden is a hero of Dunkirk, working alongside Bins in a new spirit of togetherness: as the final voiceover notes, “no longer were there fighting men and civilians... A nation had been made whole.”

Of course, women are not really mentioned in that statement, particularly as the civilians pictured are the male boat owners, not the wives waiting at home. Balcon famously demanded that female roles were reduced in this film, to allow the focus to be on the fighting men: a decision that means only two women are featured (not counting the bathing beauties in one of the newsreel clips, and the mute French and Belgian women among the refugees). These women – Diana (Maxine Audley) and Grace (Patricia Plunkett) – are, respectively, the wives of Foreman and Holden. Their roles are diametrically opposed however, in that Diana is calm and supportive, while Grace is shrill and demanding, a new mother who demands that Holden never leaves her and the baby. This moment, when Holden is asked to make his promise, appears to be the catalyst that changes Holden from a neutral observer out for his own gain down the path towards cooperation and togetherness. And because he is ‘made whole’ by Dunkirk and interaction with the fighting men, the film apparently feels no need to show us his family again.

As for ‘Tubby’ Bins, the film stresses a couple of times that it the knowledge of his wife back home that drives his desire to return to Britain, but we learn very little else about Bins’ motivations – perhaps representative of Balcon’s desire to show the British in a strong and dignified way. However, that argument falls down again through the behaviour of Bins’ patrol (he reluctantly takes over when the ranking officer is killed), who at one point refuse to obey him (‘they’ve gone yellow’), and almost mutiny when he is forced to leave a wounded man behind to be captured. Mills’ performance also fuels the more emotional side of Bins’ – a face perpetually caught between youthful vigour and world weary ennui, expressive even when his dialogue and character isn’t. His quest is a small odyssey, dragging the remains of his unit through the countryside, aiming for home and reaching Dunkirk.

For all that Balcon wanted to show the British army in a good light, the film doesn’t pull its punches: the higher officer class are shown to be largely ineffective, the Ministry of Information is a faceless organisation that won’t reveal pertinent information, the Navy pull ships away from the evacuation (although a stroppy Vice Admiral Ramsay – Nicholas Hannen – manages to get them back for one final attempt). Yes, the ordinary soldier is valorised, but they are not simply faceless and undifferentiated: in the chaos of the Dunkirk beaches, men turn to God and drink, some panic and want to give up, others debate what should happen next. Most often, while the film wants to praise togetherness, it is actually individual action that saves the day – officers sacrificing themselves, Bins’ determination, and Foreman’s guilting of Holden into action.

As for the Germans, they are rarely seen, but more often heard. One of the strengths of the film is its soundtrack: the German guns, planes and bombs are the most dominant noises throughout the film. The harsh bark of machine gun fire, the low drone of unseen Luftwaffe above, the thunder of explosions – these are the face of the enemy throughout Dunkirk. German soldiers are seen, but it is the sense of the might of an unseen force powering through France and Belgium that the film most effectively dramatises.
Overall, then, this late Ealing effort has issues, but contains some fascinating stylistic and narrative ideas that make it worth viewing.

Next time, from the tragedy of war to the comedy of Benny Hill in Who Done It? (1956)...