Friday, 29 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 83: I Believe in You (1952)

It is hard to know how to react to I Believe in You: in one sense, this could be dismissed as reliable Ealing social problem fodder, where nice upper and middle-class people volunteer to be probation officers to help deal with the problematic working classes, particularly the rebellious youth who frequent dance halls and get in trouble with the police (in that sense the film has been linked to Relph and Dearden’s earlier The Blue Lamp, 1950). Yet, at the same time, the film can be seen as an indictment of that organisation, largely unable to help their charges and often reduced to an under-staffed community centre. The film also feels like a tipping point for Ealing productions: the establishment are represented by the stuffy yet well-meaning Cecil Parker, Celia Johnston and George Relph, while youthful vigour comes in the form of Harry Fowler, Joan Collins and Laurence Harvey, with the latter two offering very different paths for British cinema in the years and decades following this film’s release. The distinction between Johnson and Collins is showcased throughout, both in attitudes (Norma wants to go dancing, have fun) and clothing (the film enjoys its glimpses of Collins in a bikini).

Structured around the flashback of ex-colonial officer and ‘man of leisure’ Henry Phipps (Cecil Parker), the film traces his induction into, and first year of working with, a probation service department led by Mr Dove (George Relph) and Matty Matheson (Celia Johnson). Based in an unnamed police court, the probation service is a chaotic corridor full of characters (and character actors) jostling for the attention of one of the three officers. While the film shows various cases, the focus is on Charlie Hooker (Harry Fowler), one of Phipps’ charges, and Norma Hart (Joan Collins), one of Matty’s: Hooker has drifted into gangs alongside his mates, while Norma is a wannabe gangster’s moll, hanging around with tough guys like Jordie Bennett (Laurence Harvey). As Phipps gets to grips with his new life, he ends up playing cupid for Charlie and Norma, but has to try and prevent a robbery that could ruin their future together.

Parker and Johnson are the safe and stalwart centre of the film: he’s a comic but loveable figure out of his depth (regularly referred to as ‘Mr Chips’, part of a running joke where no one can remember his name), while she is solid and reliable, with a tragedy in her past (a wartime loss is hinted at, but it is tempting to think she’s still pining for Trevor Howard). They have a thankless job at times, partly because the script can feel trite in places, but mainly because they are surrounded by scene-stealing character actors who dip in and out of the plot to serve as reminders of the broader world of the probation officers: chirpy Fred Crump (Fred Griffiths), ex-portrait model and horoscope nut Mrs Crockett (Ada Reeve), paranoid Miss Mackline (Katie Johnson), convinced that someone is poisoning her cat, and the Hon Ursula (Ursula Howells), an upper class drunk trying to forget a wartime sweetheart. These characters form much of the interest in the film, even as they point up the failure of the officers to solve problems. It is clear these people will keep recurring and returning to the same office, the same person. Even police sergeant Body (another stellar small turn from Sid James) functions in a similar way, constantly complaining that no one picks up the office’s pint of milk: it seems that despite the best efforts, the probation service is caught in a repeating loop, unable to change or help.

Psychology is important to the film, with both Matty and Phipps offering psychoanalytic reasons for their charge’s behaviour: jealousy over a mother’s new lover, loss of a loved one during wartime; mother love. Yet, again, there is no solution to these diagnoses, they are offered as clues, not resolutions. The ultimate message from the film appears to be that the probation service needs to become more like the people they help, to not look down on them like ‘a scientist looks at beetles’: Dove expresses this early on in terms that PC George Dixon would recognise, telling Phipps he needs to walk the streets of the district to keep in touch with the people, to be visible, part of the community; while Phipps’ ultimate solution to helping Charlie and Norma is to try and single-handedly prevent a robbery, literally and figuratively getting his hands dirty to stop Charlie turning into a thug.

While there are some nice visual touches throughout, this is rarely a showy film in that sense: the camera pushes in on a courtroom scene at the beginning, and then pulls back from that same scene at the end, a visual framing device for the story as a whole; the audience is often put ‘in’ the position of the offenders, with the judge speaking into camera while passing sentence; but the location work remains the key visual strength here, with a range of street scenes from throughout London’s outer boroughs. Working class terraces, Victorian hostels, overgrown gardens, shadowy steps, rubble-strewn bomb sites, temporary swimming pools rubbing up against established theatres (performing Shaw’s Man and Superman): these are the sites of I Believe in You as much as the tiny stage-bound corridor, offices and courtroom. And they, ultimately, raise this above the more prosaic material of the narrative.

[UPDATED April 2014: I Believe in You is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 6, from Network]
Next time, Petula Clark and Diana Dors take to the floor in Dance Hall (1950)...

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