Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 95 (and FINAL): Passport to Pimlico (1949)

And so, it came to an end. Not with a whimper, but with a bang: Passport to Pimlico, one of the best known ‘Ealing comedies’, one of the films that (it is claimed) speaks for the whole of the studio’s output and thematic interests, and one of the films that first sparked my love of Ealing many years ago. It remains a film of its time and place but, watching it during a time of British recession and austerity, it is also a film that can still provide a satirical edge to events, over sixty years on.

When an unexploded bomb (which is supposed to be the final one in London, until another one is found: a small comment on the fragility of fame/notoriety that echoes through the rest of the film) reveals a hidden treasure trove, the inhabitants of Miramont Place, Pimlico discover the land they live on is actually owned by the Duke of Burgundy. The local’s realisation that they are now Burgundians (and not bound by British law) is a beautifully structured piece of cinema that starts with the individual realisation of bank manager Mr Wix (Raymond Huntley), which spreads through other characters, ending up in a communal ‘knees up’ around the piano in the local, a ripping up of ration booklets, and a rejection of traditional authority figures. Because this is Ealing, such excesses are not without their problems: as the bureaucracy of Whitehall rolls over them, Miramont Place suffers from an influx of spivs and black marketeers, the imposition of strict border controls and immigration, and the cessation of basic amenities (water, electricity, food).

One of the things that this Challenge has revealed is that Ealing Studios was fascinated with the world beyond Britain’s borders: whether that was expressed through literal border crossings in Johnny Frenchman (1945) or Against the Wind (1948), or completely foreign-set narratives such as Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) or His Excellency (1952). Here, the introduction to the film suggests a continental or Latin setting, with salsa music playing, a fan turning: a seemingly foreign location. That this turns out to be England in a heat-wave (revealed through a camera shot that pulls back over Molly Reeve (Jane Hylton) sunbathing on the roof, tilts down to reveal the fish shop beneath, pans across past the pub door, and gazes down the street) is just one of the visual and thematic misdirections that the film offers to its audience. It also points to the inherently playful nature of this film, and of the studio more broadly.

The film moves along swiftly, developing new ideas quickly and never stopping, a testament to the combined skills of director Henry Cornelius, writer T.E.B. Clarke, director of photography Lionel Banes and editor Michael Truman. Narrative details are referenced in passing, not shoehorned in or signalled far in advance. The heat-wave, for example, is rarely mentioned directly in dialogue, but is alluded to visually: in the opening few minutes, we see Molly in a bikini; a few minutes later she slaps some fish into a newspaper with a weather-related headline. The end of the heat-wave is also narrated visually with a sudden rainstorm and mercury plummeting in a thermometer. The skill of the pacing is also seen in the Whitehall scenes: although featuring the star turn of Ministers Gregg (Basil Radford) and Straker (Naunton Wayne), they are brisk and rapid, short digs at bureaucracy that don’t overstay their welcome (unlike Gregg and Straker, who are slow and dogmatic).

The scene in the pub also quickly and succinctly develops key characters: Wix’s rational approach, the more enthusiastic and communally minded Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway), and bossy Edie Randall (Hermione Baddeley). The jealousy that Molly feels over Frank Huggins (John Slater) continually trying to impress Shirley Pemberton (Barbara Murray) is expressed musically, as Molly uses her singing to lure Frank’s attention away (the lyrics, ‘I don’t want to set the world on fire, just start a fire in your heart’ reaffirm this) It offers a strong example of the film’s focus on this community, but it also stands as a marker for how efficient the script, editing and direction can be.

As I suggested above, Pimlico still feels relevant today: the austerity measures of post-war Britain fit well with 2012 Britain, there is no money for public works (the Pemberton lido) only private development (blocks of flats), and there is no escaping the circuitous bureaucracy of Whitehall. In Miramont Place, public ownership of (and control over) the banks, democratically elected people’s councils, and pulling together is the response to such a crisis. Of course, that ignores the one fly in this socialist ointment: the need for a feudal overlord, in this case the current Duke of Burgundy (Paul Dupois). He may be charming, but he has little real role to play in this film: that said, the sequence of him attempting to romance Shirley under a night-time sky is beautifully undercut by the noises of a true London street (cats howling, men gargling).

With its strong location work, including shots in Piccadilly Circus (where several Pimlico kids go to watch a Gaumont-British newsreel about their street), the use of Whitehall, and the Underground (the scenes where the Pimlico brigade stop the tube to check passports and to check food stocks is a particular highlight), there is little doubt this is one of Ealing’s most obviously ‘London’ films. But the comic treatment of more universal themes of British community, identity (‘it’s because we are English that we’re sticking up for our rights to be Burgundian’) and democracy (a sign reading ‘3% For, 3% Against, 94% Don’t Know’ seems particularly apt to the film’s national vision) shine through, and reassert the film’s claims to classic status within Ealing’s 95 films, and British cinema more generally.

[Passport to Pimlico is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time... some final thoughts on the Great Ealing Film Challenge...

Friday, 10 August 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 94: Nowhere to Go (1958)

Nowhere to Go was the second-last Ealing Film produced and, suitably, is also the second-last film to be viewed and written about for this Challenge. Erstwhile Ealing editor Seth Holt made his directorial debut in a crime thriller which he scripted with Ealing script editor (and theatre critic) Kenneth Tynan (from a book by Donald MacKenzie). The hiring and influence of Tynan is covered in more detail by Charles Barr in the new collection Ealing Revisited, but of the seven films Balcon produced after selling the physical studio in Ealing, this is often seen as the film that offered one potential (and unfulfilled) new route for Ealing Films in the late 1950s.

Canadian thief Paul Gregory (George Nader) pursues Harriet P. Jefferson (Bessie Love) in order to steal her rare coin collection. Having sold the coins, he puts the money in a safe deposit box and waits to be arrested, expecting to be out in five years. Sentenced to ten years, and with the help of Victor Sloane (Bernard Lee), Gregory breaks out of prison and plans to collect the money, and leave the country. A series of accidents and double-crosses sends Gregory spinning through London’s criminal underworld, before he ends up on the run with socialite Bridget Howard (Maggie Smith) through the Welsh countryside.

There is a visual confidence on display in the film from the opening images, underpinned with a jazz soundtrack (by Dizzy Reece), that makes it feel like an early 1960s film rather than one from the late 1950s. Given its interest in interior spaces, and cool London locations, the film resembles later films like The Ipcress File (1965) more than earlier Ealing crime thrillers The Blue Lamp (1950) or Pool of London (1951). There is no dialogue in the first nine minutes of the film, as Victor arrives at the prison, throws a rope over the wall, climbs in and sets in motion Gregory’s escape; Gregory, in reverse, heads over the wall, changes his clothes, and takes the car Victor left for him, before ending up in a borrowed flat. It is a meticulous and well-staged sequence and, perhaps because of Holt’s work as an editor, there is little excess fat here or, indeed, elsewhere in the film.

Camerawork and set design remain strong throughout, with composition in depth that sets up complex scenes that reward extra attention. The apartment where Gregory stays for the first half of the film, for example, is a precise and controlled environment: we see it shot almost exclusively from one direction (a decision that could – unfairly – influence accusations of theatricality), but this is a complex and deeply layered space, with layers of information and narrative detail built on top of each other. Some images are dominated by the white telephone that sits on a side table, or his bag: both act as barriers to our ability to view the action, with Gregory often relegated to the background of the room. Given this isn’t a space Gregory is familiar with, but a borrowed location, it sets him adrift in a supposedly safe place: the idea of lacking roots or a solid base recurs throughout. (Bridget’s apartment, by contrast is a lived in space, more bohemian, with classic statues and arched window frames).

Gregory is not the only character to be trapped or positioned through such camera compositions: after being attacked, he lies unconscious on the floor, his head taking up the bottom left of the foreground of the frame, while Victor, in the deep background of the image, searches the apartment for the money. In each case, the space of the apartment, and the arrangement of the characters, is a bravura attempt to use location thematically. Forced perspectives also crucially link character and event: Gregory in the background of the coin dealers, with the bag (containing the coins) looming large in the foreground; or an image outside Rosa’s flat, with a cat in extreme left of image, and police cars pulling up in the mews below (the cat, disturbed, wakes Gregory, who is able to escape across the roof). Some of these effects also suggest generic identity: when Victor enters the apartment, the film uses canted camera angles, and a streaming light from outside that casts diagonal venetian blind shadows across the ceiling: both hark back to American (and British) crime films and film noir from the past two decades, an acknowledgement of how crime thrillers had changed since the 1940s.

The narrative remains solid and well-paced throughout, with Gregory running from club to apartment, to the apparent safety of Bridget’s flat and, later, her family’s country house. Yet Bridget remains an opaque character, a narrative prop as much as a strongly psychologised (or even thematically useful) presence. Maggie Smith gives a solid performance, suggesting an occasional wildness or ingénue quality (most obvious when talking to Inspector Scott – Geoffrey Keen – in the final minutes of the film) but the film fails to explain why Bridget would be attracted to, never mind help, Gregory. She also appears at useful moments for the narrative (arriving at the flat Gregory is staying in, within hours of him escaping from prison; leaving the club that Gregory’s criminal connection runs) but these coincidences are seemingly explained away by a line that she is a home for lost causes and lame ducks: neither of which Gregory falls into, as a thief and murderer.

There is a claim here that the film is interesting because it lacks the moral centre of previous Ealing productions, but is Gregory any better / worse / different than psychotic Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness, The Ladykillers, 1955), Irish terrorist Matt Sullivan (Dirk Bogarde, The Gentle Gunman, 1952), or German spy Davis (Mervyn Johns, The Next of Kin, 1942)? Gregory is ultimately punished – shot while committing the minor crime of stealing a bicycle – but as his actions devolve from meticulous planning to kneejerk responses, he becomes a less fascinating character, and Nader’s performance is largely one-note. Most of the time he is surrounded by characters actors like Bernard Lee or Maggie Smith who disguise the lack of personality in its star.

Nowhere to Go opens with the shriek of a steam train as it rumbles past camera, and ends with Bridget walking down the hill, with a cloudy sunset in the distance, jazz drifting over the imagery. It is tempting to read more into those images than Holt (and cinematographer Paul Beeson) intended. A sunset on Ealing Films, perhaps, given their final film would be the Australian-set The Siege of Pinchgut (1959)? A shift from the traditional (steam trains, moral certainty, metropolitan, jazz) to regional British spaces that the British New Wave and rock ‘n roll would soon begin to colonise? Ealing Films would never contribute to that version of British cinema, but Nowhere to Go suggests they might have had interesting things to add...

[Nowhere to Go is not currently available on DVD from Studio Canal]

Next time, the Great Ealing Film Challenge finishes with one of the studios' best loved productions, Passport to Pimlico (1949)...

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 93: The Ware Case (1938)

When discussing Young Man’s Fancy (1939), it was noted that these early Ealing films act as a bridge between the Basil Dean / Associated Talking Picture films produced at Ealing and the Balcon-produced films that the production company called ‘Ealing Studios’ would become known for. Yet even using that framework to approach these films, The Ware Case is an odd and generically unstable contribution to the Ealing back catalogue.

Told through a flashback structure that begins with a murder court case, the bulk of the film follows immature man-about-town Lord Hubert Ware (Clive Brook) as he leaves a litany of angry creditors across London and the continent. Ignorant of the feelings of his wife Meg (Jane Baxter), Hubert is presented as an amusing cad who spins lies and half-truths to get out of a variety of problems, including imminent bankruptcy and a string of mistresses. Hubert’s friend and barrister Michael Adve (Barry K. Barnes) is secretly in love with Meg, while Meg’s rich brother Eustace (Peter Bull) resents Hubert’s attitude to life and money. Meg puts Hubert’s country mansion up for sale, in order to stave off bankruptcy, but while all the major characters are staying there, Eustace’s body is found floating in the lake. The Ware’s money problems are solved, but the testimony of Ware’s ex- gamekeeper (John Laurie) suggests foul play, leading to a high profile murder trial.

It is hard to know how to take the film’s central character: the initial whirlwind of creditors, conspicuous consumption, casinos and women suggests a likeable cad, and the film goes to great lengths to position Hubert at the centre of the film (not least the fact he is in the dock in the opening court scenes). When Michael describes Hubert (and his class) as ‘out of date, museum pieces’ and we see the growing relationship between him and Meg, it is the start of a series of narrative events that wrong-foot audience expectation’s of a light-hearted aristocratic comedy of errors. The death of Eustace offers the next narrative lurch, with the introduction of a revenge-based court case providing another. Yet even here, the film is not finished. With Hubert cleared, he returns to his London flat, hears servants talking about Meg and Michael’s unrequited love, confronts his wife about it, seemingly realises his entire life has been a waste, announces to a crowd that he did murder Eustace, then throws himself off the balcony to his death below.

In its discussion of class dynamics, then, the film clearly ties in (however accidentally) to later notions of the middle class Ealing Studios and its desire to depict the working and middle classes on screen. Yet while Hubert’s class position might be out-of-touch, he remains one of the film’s few dynamic and interesting characters, fuelled by a strong performance by Brook who spits out his dialogue as though in a fast-paced screwball comedy, not this Frankenstein of generic odds and ends. There is solid support from Baxter and Barnes, but they fail to conjure up any of the hidden passion their characters are supposed to share, while Edward Rigby and John Laurie do their best to enliven the working class clichés showered on their drunken bookmaker and vengeful gamekeeper characters.

Although hampered by that strange narrative melange (and a curious flashback structure that begins with the foreman reciting the facts of the case, but never returns to the jury room when the flashback is complete), the film looks good, and is another solid production from director Robert Stevenson, scriptwriter Roland Pertwee and cinematographer Ronald Neame. Stevenson and Neame conjure up some impressive shots here, with good use of deep focus in the courtroom scenes, and some high angle shots that work to heighten the drama (notably down the side of the mansion block before Hubert falls to his death). The set design is also strong, setting up a modern art deco feel for the London apartment, more traditional (and spacious) country house interiors, and a cramped courtroom; this work is aided by extensive location filming, particularly around the Ware estate, that gives some verisimilitude to the film’s aristocratic setting.

Difficult to categorise, and with an uneven balance of comedy and tragedy around its central (and most interesting character), The Ware Case is never dull.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Ware Case is available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 5, from Network]

Next time, Ealing's final British film, the crime thriller Nowhere to Go (1958)...

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 92: His Excellency (1952)

His Excellency is one of those films that is difficult to love, partly because it often fails to deliver a coherent experience or meaning: it has moments of jingoism and anti-foreigner attitudes that feel alien to a 21st century audience, yet also goes to great pains to mock the British patriarchal attitude to ‘the colonies’; it mocks socialism yet offers a partial celebration of unionism and collective action; ridicules military might but ultimately relies on it to resolve narrative issues; celebrates a particular ‘northern’ personality within Britain but dilutes that through the imposition of upper class knowledge and restraint. And, worst of all for some critics, it is not the darkly wry and subversively witty film that Robert Hamer, director of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), was expected to deliver.

However, for all of the above reasons, the film is never less than fascinating, not least when it is imploding under the weight of its own narrative devices and themes.

From the opening announcement it is clear the film has a political and satirical point to make: ‘Great Britain’s Colonies are known to be the outposts of her Empire. They are reputed also to be the outposts of dressing for dinner, reading “The Times”, cricket and afternoon tea... This film tells of a mythical Colony of this kind during Britain’s recent Labour regime.’ That statement is a clue to the balancing act of mockery and patriotism the narrative tries to accomplish. In the colony (and naval base) of Artisa, the existing governor is replaced after a worker’s strike and dockyard riot. Instead of reliable aristocratic candidate Sir James Kirkman (Cecil Parker), Britain installs northern trade union leader George Harrison (Eric Portman). A man of action rather than a diplomat, Harrison rejects much of Kirkman’s advice and tries to change working conditions for the Arista dockyard workers, leading to a confrontation with Arista’s corrupt Prime Minister (Gerard Heinz) and local union leader Morellos (Geoffrey Keen). As the military are called out to deal with another strike and riot, Harrison relies on a final speech to try and get the workers on his side and back to work.

The class and political conflict is clear from the opening words and dialogue. One of the film’s representations of colonial ‘Britishness’ is a group of old ladies who gather at ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’, read The Times and discuss the latest developments in London society. It is one of these ladies who declares, upon hearing of Harrison’s appointment, ‘I suppose with this wretched government one had to expect a Socialist, but they might at least have sent us one of the right sort’ (i.e. a socialist from the right background) It is tempting to compare this old-fashioned and fusty version of Britain with a similar gathering of old ladies in The Ladykillers (1955) three years later. In both cases, it is possible to read the gatherings as a clash of modernity, tradition and party politics – if the The Ladykillers (as director Mackendrick claimed) was about the Edwardian anachronism of Mrs Wilberforce (and her gloriously skewed house), then His Excellency signals the Victorian/Edwardian colonial mindset is equally anachronistic. If The Ladykillers can be read as a veiled comment on the post-war political landscape (as suggested by Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate), His Excellency offers a more explicit intervention in such debates.

Ealing’s politics and productions were class-ridden, but the content of their films can also be seen as driven by a reformer’s zeal, an often middle class exploration of modern society and different areas of Britain and abroad. While much of its representation of Britain here is aristocratic or militaristic, Harrison and his daughter Peggy (Susan Stephen) are the voices of the sensible middle classes, mediators that can attempt to talk to both sides and reach a compromise. This is hardly the socialism rejected in the line of dialogue quoted above, but it is a return to wartime values of compromise and coalition (Harrison accepts the need for Kirkman’s upper class help, Kirkman accepts Harrison’s perspective is valid). These are elements and ideals that Ealing understood, given Balcon’s description of their ‘mild revolution’ when many of them supported the post-war Labour government. However, the other side of this exploration of Britishness abroad means the film gives little voice to the natives of Arista, who are broadly scheming or in the pocket of large corporations. The local police chief Dobrieda (Eric Pohlmann), for example, is a caricature, a pompous colourful peacock of a figure that struts around the film like a bad Mussolini impersonator.

Harrison, as the film’s patriarch, believes he can walk the streets of his capital city until he understands the living conditions of his new people and find a solution (notably he never visits the tea shoppe, but prefers local bars). He may still hark back to his working class roots (Portman has a striking Manchester accent throughout), but it is clear from Peggy’s attitudes and accent that theirs is now a middle class life. Harrison, however, does succeed in wrestling sense from both upper and working class perspectives though his language alone – he attends a meeting of striking workers and convinces them to return to work through his oratory alone, while Kirkman and others are browbeaten by his ideas and orders. Where military might failed, working class language and logic triumph.

As might be imagined, this story offers little feminine perspective beyond the old ladies in the tea shoppe. Lady Kirkman (Helen Cherry) makes snide comments about the Harrisons, but is won over by Peggy’s charm and approach to running the governor’s palace; yet this is hardly a celebration of Peggy, who is reduced to a housewife’s role, chastising the chef and giving speeches to the local Red Cross. Stephen gives a solid, light performance but has little role beyond a sounding board for Portman to test rhetoric on.

Given the incoherent nature of much of the film, there are elements that can be celebrated: Portman and Parker give committed and enjoyable performances, the opulent set design of the palace is well used throughout (there are several shots of Harrison, Kirkman and Admiral Barclay (Edward Chapman) arranged across those spaces, like chess pieces on the chequered floor beneath them), and it continues Ealing’s strong tradition of location filming (the images of Portman striding through the streets and alleys of Arista, lingering in the empty town square, or yelling at the dockyard add colour to the story). Indeed, in places, the film is crying out for actual colour – Technicolor or Eastmancolour – and it is a shame it wasn’t made two years later, when the studio embraced colour filmmaking.

[UPDATED April 2014: His Excellency is available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 10, from Network]

Next time, we go (almost) back to the start, with the second film after Michael Balcon took over, The Ware Case (1938)...