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J. Arthur Rank

Cinephiles with an interest in British cinema will know that for two decades the Australian Broadcasting Commission has been running through, mostly very late at night, the entire J. Arthur Rank film library. It includes titles that Rank acquired from other production houses, most notably Gainsborough Pictures. As well Rank invested in, supported or acquired the output of many production companies including Cineguild, which produced a number of David Lean’s films, Two Cities Films and Independent Artists. The library also includes such artefacts as the entire Carry On and Doctor series. Since I started sending out my Film Alert I’ve noted quite a few which I’ve collected below. I’ll add more over time. As far as I can work out, and a perusal of the Time Out Film Guide is all I have to go on, Australian TV is now the only place that many of these pictures are regularly screened. Enjoy.

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (Thorold Dickinson, UK 1939, 84 minutes)

Thorold Dickinson had a blighted career. He made at least two great films Gaslight and Queen of Spades. The former was however suppressed, or nearly so, when MGM acquired the remake rights. The version made by George Cukor with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman has been the official version circulating for close to sixty years. Dickinson gave up feature film making, consciously or not, in 1954 to become a UN bureaucrat and then a teacher. The recovery of his work is proceeding and revivals and restorations have taken place. MGM has even put the original version of Gaslight back into circulation by including it as an extra on the DVD of Gaslight.  You can buy it down at JB Hi-Fi for less than $15. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is quite a droll little piece which, once it gets its football team promotion out of the way, rattles right along and gives Leslie Banks, he of the amazingly crooked eyebrows, a chance to indulge himself as the Police Inspector in charge of the case who is doubling as the producer of the annual Police Revue. Rehearsal for said revue involves, among other things, a line of coppers in tutus. Banks changes his hats  and costumes with giddy frequency, choosing each according to the likely location. It has loads of bizarre fun. A note on the film in the Time Out Film Guide managed to slag off the then current Arsenal team, which hadn’t been beaten for a year at the time of publication, by noting that ‘the film offers more entertainment than you’d get from a Saturday afternoon at Highbury these days.’.

Baroud (Rex Ingram, UK, 1934, 85 minutes)

Rex Ingram gets an entry in Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary. This was his last film after a career directing silents including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche (1923). Thomson on Ingram is fascinating and well worth a read. Baroud is Ingram’s only talkie, filmed in Morocco, and Rex also took the lead role. It was a failure at the box office and Ingram then went back to the US but never worked in the film industry again. Thomson mentions that both Michael Powell, who worked with him, and David Lean paid tribute to the director. Thomson concludes his note by saying that “Ingram personified artistic ambition and a visual style that made one think of painting. Of course his life was also a bold gesture meant to show the hopeless vulgarity of Hollywood.” A viewing of the film shows the distance that Ingram slipped after he directed Rudolf Valentino in The Four Horsemen. That film was quite stunning.  I watched a copy of it taped from a screening by Channel 4 in Britain. The print was freshly restored and tinted and had a new musical score by Carl Davis. The restoration was produced by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill and was clearly a labour of love. That was a film which had epic sweep amidst a very strong story of family and national rivalry. Valentino had his first great success with the film. His face was rounder and his nose seemed more elongated than it was when he displayed his mesmerising later in The Sheik. Ingram directed Baroud at the pace of a silent and gave himself the "Valentino" part and played it unconvincingly, especially because of his American accent. The narrative stumbles its way through a cut rate story of derring do in the mountains of North Africa. Little wonder Ingram called it a day. He seemed to have no idea of where film had gone in the intervening fourteen years since Four Horsemen, particularly the last four since the introduction of sound. A curiosity nevertheless.

Bees in Paradise (Val Guest, UK, 1944, 85 minutes)

This film might be resurrected solely for inclusion in any program of feminist film studies. Arthur Askey and a couple of other alleged comics get shot down over a tropical island. The place is an all girl location and the ruler spends her time issuing edicts opposed to men and their influence. Given the year it was made one might expect more obvious parallels with Nazism than seem to be there. Naturally Arthur’s arrival causes a breakdown in discipline, especially among the younger and prettier denizens. Naturally all this unnatural behaviour has to be terminated. Men must be just vessels for reproduction. The sexual politics are oddly intriguing. The songs and elaborate dance numbers are banal. The comedy is mostly pathetically juvenile. This is after all an Arthur Askey picture. He was one of those low rent Brit comedians whose films played to Brit audiences and were brought to Australia by the Greater Union people where they filled cinemas well into the fifties. He and the film are odd cultural artefacts.

Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK, 1945, 85 minutes)/Meet Me Tonight (Anthony Pelissier, UK, 1952, 81 minutes)

Both of these films are Noel Coward pieces adapted for film and all material therein is derived from the same source, the one act plays that comprised his collection ‘Tonight at 8.30’. Coward was quite a giant of the British cinema in the forties. David Thomson’s essay on Coward in the Biographical Dictionary is among his most lucid appreciations and it clearly analyses Coward’s strengths and weaknesses. He also uncovers very precisely Coward’s influence on acting and later the rejection of what he stood far – elegant restraint, beautiful modulation, sarcasm and wit. Thompson doesn’t go into the films themselves that much, though he mentions those Coward took a hand in directing (In Which we Serve, 1942 and This Happy Breed, 1944). Brief Encounter was Coward at his greatest – acutely analysing all that British politeness and reserve, its repressed sexual feeling, even gently satirising the concerns for hearth and home, unafraid to show how drab English life after the war really was. Meet Me Tonight is more trivial, played for laughs and more sexual but by retaining as much of Coward’s language as it does you get the idea of the sort of world he represented and described and what he required from his actors to play it. Thomson makes the point that Coward’s influence resides still in the way actors play certain roles. It ranges wide – from Cary Grant in North by Northwest to Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal

The Card (Ronald Neame, UK, 1952, 91 minutes)

Alec Guinness was always rather good in this sort of material. Based on an Arnold Bennett novel, it’s a story that has played out in British cinema for half a century or more. This was a more refined version of the story. It got down and dirty in the British new wave of the late 50s and 60s and there have been variations of it ever since including a particular favourite, Clive Donner’s Nothing But the Best. The Card tells the story of the rise and rise of a smart young fellow from the provincial lower classes at the turn of the 19th Century who uses his wit and wiles to make it to the top. He’s not beyond playing very dirty indeed but this being a Brit costume picture of the early 50s it’s all done with a certain civilised grace. We’re still a long way from Joe Lampton or Michael Rimmer. Guinness has that smooth as silk delivery that gave him such gravitas. That Guinness voice has a classless quality and I’m hard pressed to think of Guinness doing an accent. His range was never that of Peter Sellers. But still Guinness slipped into the role of chameleon actor very easily. I’ve never seen him play a Japanese in Mervyn Le Roy’s A Majority of One. The Card was one of those Brit comedies that were huge successes in Australia back in the fifties. Cinemas in every capital were devoted exclusively to showing them. Its value has hardly diminished and here Guinness is aided by the quite wondrous casting of both Glynis Johns and Valerie Hobson as the female leads

The Chiltern Hundreds (John Paddy Carstairs, UK, 1949, 84 minutes)

Based on a drawing room comedy written by William Douglas Home, a man of impeccable Conservative credentials, it strikes me that somehow in turning this piece into a film, something rather more devious and subversive was achieved. The Time Out Film Guide notes only that ‘conservative proprieties are observed at the end’ and its more ‘domestic farce than political satire’ but it strikes me that that there is rather more in it about the venality of politicians, sides being changed to make a deal and expedience triumphing than its given credit for. It probably belongs to the all politicians are bastards school of thought (“no matter who you vote for a politician always gets elected”) but in so doing its rather clever and continues to be quite contemporary. Nothing has changed, including the English landscape of servants and others who know their place in the class system. The central character, the butler, is played by Cecil Parker, a favourite actor who could do grumbling fruitiness to a T. He was brilliant in several dozen pictures and especially memorable as the king in Danny Kaye’s masterpiece The Court Jester.

 

The Fireraisers (Michael Powell, UK, 1934, 70 minutes)

Michael Powell did a long apprenticeship making movies on the cheap in the thirties. He had made nine movies already, in just a couple of years when he embarked upon The Fireraisers. It was his first production for Gaumont British and it is thus the first of his films that can be seen as part of the ABC’s endless rotation of the complete J. Arthur Rank library. Powell wrote the story and the script and was clearly excited by the prospects it presented to tell an up to the minute story about insurance fraudsters and have lots of fiery action scenes. He was also thrilled at the prospect of Leslie Banks playing the lead as a smooth talking crook.. Banks was a terrific actor, very assured with these crazy cocked eyebrows that zig-zagged all over his forehead. Banks character was based on a notorious insurance assessor who was arrested and convicted or arson.The story moves at a lightning pace.  The plot such as it is revolves around people deliberately burning down buildings. In his biography, Powell tells about the excitement of getting this film ready only to be thwarted by Michael Balcon insisting he make something else before it. The something else was called The Night of the Party, variously described by Powell in his autobiography as a ‘stinker’ ‘this piece of junk’ and ‘a piece of shit’. Powell didn’t like Balcon but did like Banks and they did another film together, the highly regarded Red Ensign.

First A Girl (Victor Saville, UK, 1935, 94 minutes)

When Blake Edwards made Victor/Victoria he took as his source an obscure 30s German musical with a score provided by the great Frederick Hollander. Edwards may or may not have taken much notice of this version of the film, the last of a series of British remakes of German originals. The Brit version has the virtue of the presence of the wondrous Jessie Mathews, a star of the first dimension who could sing and dance with the best of them. Nowadays she’s so far under the radar that David Thomson doesn’t even devote an entry to her in his Biographical Dictionary while such alleged luminaries as Madonna and Demi Moore (after only consulting the letter “M”) are included. The market demands it I suppose but that’s a pity. Mathews is mentioned in the entry on the film’s director, Victor Saville who is credited with bringing out her “light prettiness”. Not much of a compliment. First a Girl is indeed light but it’s also quite brilliant, not the least for Mathews in the role of the singer who can only get a job by pretending she’s a female impersonator. The narrative contains all the complications you may expect, or indeed be aware of, but nevertheless it’s a still a very heady piece of nonsense which you can watch over and over again in continuing delight

The Flemish Farm (Jeffrey Dell, UK, 1943, 79 minutes)

A Two Cities Films production. The company is best known for the productions by Filippo Del Giudice but this was not one of them. Made as propaganda during the Second World War, in obviously straitened financial circumstances which required quite a bit of cheap model work, it nevertheless had some serious intentions. It’s the story of the Belgian Air Force, its crushing by the advancing Germans, their flight to England and then the strenuous efforts made to recover the Air Squadron’s Flag, a symbol of stout resistance to the dreaded Hun. There are a couple of interesting moments most notably when some debate occurs as it to whether its worth all the death and danger just to retrieve this symbol. Clive Brook plays the head of the Belgians. He remains behind and organizes the local resistance. The gormless figure of Clifford Evans (?) plays the leading man who volunteers to go back into enemy territory. Its all spoken with impeccable British accents and the characters uniformly adopt poses of quiet humility and dignified suffering. The action often occurs offscreen and even when he has to stage a fight director Jeffrey Dell contrives to have the stabbing done when the characters are obscured by a tree. It has one shining virtue, the music score by Ralph Vaughan Williams is complex and stirring. Whether it has been published or transformed into an orchestral piece I’m unable to say but it is memorable here and warrants replaying.

Floods of Fear (Charles Crichton, UK, 1958, 90 minutes)

An specified part of America and plunged into the middle of torrential rain. We’re informed, via some stock doco footage, that an apocalyptic moment has occurred and the glaciers are melting. Alocal businessman named Murphy reveals himself as a selfish bastard. The local prison inmates have been pressed into building levees. Donovan (Howard Keel) is among them as is Peebles (Cyril Cusack doing a sort of Barry Fitzgerald impersonation). They take advantage of a moment of chaos to escape by getting onto a passing roof and floating away. Donovan abandons Peebles but not before he establishes he’s gallant and gentlemanly. He’s doing six (only six!) for murder but he was framed. He comes across Elizabeth (Anne Heywood, one of those pleasant English roses of the forties and fifties) and very soon they are rolling around the sodden countryside in uncontrolled lust. Keel frequently displays a naked torso and Heywood is reduced to her wet, barely holding up underwear. Nice. But Donovan is set on going after Murphy who, it is revealed, is the bloke who got away with it. But his plans are thwarted when Peebles and another nasty crim show up and take refuge in the same house.. Donovan has to get them out of the way before he comes for Murphy and they fight. (“I hate you” Heywood screams when he leaves. Yeah sure.) Murphy is a very dirty fighter resorting to the use of many heavy and sharp instruments to attack Donovan. But Donovan overcomes him and could kill him but doesn’t. His conscience gets the better of him. Soggy you might say. Probably the critics of the day did. The effort of trying to make it all look like an American film hardly succeeds. The misbegotten enterprise was probably doomed from the start. Ed Devereux has a tiny part as a National Guardsman.

The Golden Salamander (Ronald Neame, UK, 1950, 96 minutes)

Ronald Neame died recently but not before getting the full career recognition treatment from the AFI, a night which, according to newspaper reports included much jollity and speechmaking including by Martin Scorsese. He produced four films for David Lean before becoming a director in 1947. He didn’t make a lot of films but did have some big hits including The Horses Mouth, Tunes of Glory and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The Golden Salamander was his second film and its rather unexceptionable but for the presence of the young Anouk Aimee, an inspired piece of casting as the daughter of a café owner/hotel keeper and the inevitable romantic target for Trevor Howard who arrives in some god forsaken part of Africa to investigate gunrunning. Anouk is absolutely scrumptious in the picture, an object of youthful desire. She was only 17 when she made the picture but she beams out of it.

The Great Barrier (Milton Rosmer, UK, 1937, 85 minutes)

“It is one of those films which are sometimes called ‘epic’, though their intellectual and poetic quality is hardly higher than that of the interminable historical novels which reach us from America. It should appeal enormously to Canadian Pacific Railroad shareholders, it is a thoroughly worthy picture with an excellent saloon shindy, an exciting race on horseback to save the Montreal express, and an attractive new English star, Miss Lilli Palmer”. Thus wrote Graham Greene in The Spectator way back when The Great Barrier was released. The film has faded but Lilli Palmer’s career and memory of her hasn’t. English? Well no. She was born in Germany and worked in cabaret before arriving in England where Alexander Korda put her under contract. David Thomson’s adulatory entry in his Biographical Dictionary overlooks this film and clearly Graham Greene was unaware that she had made a number of films before. Whatever. She went on to make dozens of films throughout Europe and in America and in all of them her face had a beautiful gravitas. She was only occasionally in a really fine film but she did make Cloak and Dagger for Fritz Lang, Body and Soul for Robert Rossen and Montparnasse 19 for Jacques Becker among others. She also made Rendez-vous de Minuit a cerebral exercise by the French critic Roger Leenhardt. Lilli Palmer’s acting career lasted over fifty years and she remains one of the cinema’s most luminous presences.

Great Expectations (David Lean, UK, 1946, 118 minutes)

In the Time Out Film Guide, Tom Milne pulls no punches here. “Still Lean’s best film and probably – along with Cukor’s David Copperfield – the best of all the cinema’s many stabs at Dickens. Further proof of its status comes from the fact that its one of the BFI’s 360 film classics. Hardly any point in going further except to say that the image of the young Jean Simmons as Estella remains particularly luminous in the memory. The part is taken over by Valerie Hobson later

Green For Danger (Sidney Gilliat, Great Britain, 1946, 85 minutes)

This is a strange little film set in a hospital in war time rural England. Very serious matters are afoot. The senior doctor (Leo Genn) is having an affair with another staff member but she wants more and he’s not interested in what they call today, commitment. The gorgeous Sally Gray, one of those ineffably beautiful English roses about whom regular readers will have already sensed my complete adoration, is the female lead. Someone gets bumped off and the police are called. Enter his royal fruitiness, Alastair Sim via the longest pratfall ever committed to film. That changes the film’s direction and Sim starts playing games with all the suspects. The jokes start, including jokes about detective novels and Sim chews up every bit of available material. Hugely enjoyable, especially as the rest of the case maintain a straight face in a film in which clearly started as a straightforward mystery  before Sim's intrusion caused it to hare off in all directions.

Hell Drivers (Cy Endfield, UK, 1957, 91 minutes)

Cy Enfield had an interesting career indeed. In America he directed The Sound of Fury, a brilliant film about a lynch mob, and then, after a Tarzan picture, bolted for England as the McCarthyites closed in. There he made some quite remarkable films and a few lesser works. I watched the DVD of The Limping Man which has quite a bit of narrative oomph for its first 70 or so minutes. (Then it all turns out to be some dream, a shaggy dog story and everyone marches off happily to their anointed lovers. Gimme a break.) But Hell Drivers is the real thing, Endfield’s best British film and as a taut and gripping a narrative as you’ll find. David Thomson summarises perfectly when he calls it an “unexpectedly raw look into the lives of English lorry drivers with much of the flavour and violence of an American thriller.” Following the J. Arthur Rank logo you get the words “A British Film” above the title and yet Endfield’s movie is rather more like an action packed American flick and a primer for today’s industrial relations. Stanley Baker, fresh out of prison for some crime or other which doesn’t get explained, gets work driving a truck. He takes it after being told the terms and conditions by the manager. Those terms are in brief, dog eat dog. If you cant keep up you don’t get your bonus. Don’t worry about helping out the other guy, maintain your truck in your own time and you pay for any breakdowns. Its frighteningly up to date and the workers are told to obey the law only if they must. What they have to do to survive is compete against their fellow workers and bugger solidarity. No union stuff here, no strikes for better conditions. And the boss and the foreman are ripping off the staff bonuses as well! Endfield doesn’t dress this up into any real tirade against the employing class or any clarion call for workers rights.. There are  hardly any speeches at all and no threats to take the boys out. The boys actually turn nasty against Baker when he wont join in a free for all at a local dance. They start a campaign of bullying and victimization which is settled sort of in a fist fight. Very raw and unideological despite Endfield’s confessed leftist sympathies which led to his departure from the US during the McCarthy years. Patrick McGoohan makes a very nasty Irish villain/foreman. The Time Out Film Guide makes an interesting point in noting how Endfield and Joseph Losey, both political exiles, did their best work in films featuring Stanley Baker. Quite a fascinating piece of work.

HenryV/or as the title card tells us “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with his Battell Fought at Agincourt in France” (Laurence Olivier, UK, 1944, 137 minutes)

In his writing and his editing Scott Murray is a stickler for putting up the exact title of the film as it appears on the copy screened to the public. Rendered thus you get things like Peter Kenna’s The Umbrella Woman or David Williamson’s The Club or Patrick White’s The Night the Prowler, assertions of authorship no doubt wrought in the rights negotiations by authors and their agents possibly being too smart for their own or their client’s good. Having your name at the head of some of those films isn’t necessarily a virtue. But the title written above is what Laurence Olivier put on the front of his grand piece of wartime propaganda. No doubt the newspaper ads disregarded this piece of indulgence and shortened it to the much more prosaic HenryV but irrespective of its title it is one of the great Shakespeare adaptations and is deservedly one of the 360 films included in the BFI canon

I Know Where I'm Going (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1945, 92 minutes)

This is perhaps the greatest of the many great films made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It’s the story of a woman (Wendy Hiller) who has planned her life and her path to wealth down to the most meticulous detail. That planning is leading to her to head to a Scottish Isle where she will marry a fabulously wealthy but utterly colourless man and live in some sort of happiness ever after. But the trip is fraught with incidents which turn her head and rattle her composure Simple, timeworn, straightforward. You see it coming but you dont care. One of the most delicious romantic love story ever filmed and the setting, the local colour and characters just take your breath away at times Some of the credit must go to Erwin Hillier the cinematographer. In his autobiography Michael Powell acknowledges this when he writes that he thinks Hillier's camerawork "is a high-water mark of black and white photography in the 30s and 40s. Its so delicate and emotional, and he has complete control of every inch of the screen".

I See a Dark Stranger (Frank Launder, UK, 1946, 112 minutes)

Would I like this film as much if it didn’t have Deborah Kerr in it. Hard to say. She is just wonderful as the young Irish girl marching off to join the IRA. She’s planning to rid Ireland of the English only she's duped into working for the Nazis. Yes… well it’s not intended to be a copy of Rome Open City. But it is utterly charming and the chase through the Irish countryside is so picturesque it almost defines the kind of utterly, utterly British films made at the time. And there is Kerr. Luminous, lovely beguiling. Her voice sings to you. She was 24 when she made this one and she had already made eight films prior to this, including Powell & Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp. After one more film, Black Narcissus, she was whisked off to Hollywood where she deservedly became a star of the first magnitude and never lost an ounce of radiance

The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1926, 96 minutes)

The first ‘great’ Hitchcock film and one which prefigures many of the themes and stories that he would pursue over the course of nealy half a century of film-making. A variation on the Jack the Ripper story, it is a silent which moves at an astonishing pace and employs a range of devices, like shots through a glass floor, that the master would do infinite variations on for the rest of his career.

London Town (Wesley Ruggles, UK, 1946, 93 minutes)

This was the last film directed by the American Wesley Ruggles and the only film he made in Britain. Ruggles started in the silent period as an actor and began directing in 1918. He died in 1972. London Town was clearly envisaged as a prestige production and appears to be based on a stage revue of the same name which starred Sid Field, a well-known vaudeville comedian, singer and dancer. It’s a showcase for Field himself. He gets to do a lot of comedy, some camp some not, sing a bit and generally horse around. You wouldn’t call him handsome. The story has Field being discovered in Wigan and brought down to do a new show in London. He thinks he’s going to be the star comedian but he’s only been hired as understudy to the chief comic, an actor with a drinking problem who needs to know that someone will step up if he goes astray. “Health insurance” he’s described as. Sid spends most of the first half of the picture being forlorn. His only comfort is that he has captured the eye of the show’s soubrette, the utterly delectable Kay Kendall. If you want to see a nascent star, here she is. Her songs are good but her sheer presence is magnetic. There are some incidental funny moments. The gay valet Belgrave has some droll deadpan lines. (“Funny eh Belgrave? Says Sid. “I am deeply convulsed sir”). Otherwise the humor has long passed its use by date, especially so in a long sketch about a camp photographer taking a picture of the local mayor. There are some other incidental pleasures, most particularly a sequence of Londoners at play on the Thames. It was obviously intended as a major showcase for Fields but nothing was spared on the production values. The sets and costumes for the show numbers are very elaborate and the Technicolor photography was handled by the great Erwin Hillier with Natalie Kalmus as the Color Consultant. Petula Clark, aged fourteen, plays Sid’s daughter

The Long Memory (Robert Hamer, UK, 1953, 91 minutes)

Taken from a novel by a no doubt popular author of the day, Hamer adapted this film into something that tugged in a lot of directions. The basic thriller material is built upon a couple of monumental script contrivances that get the hero, released crim/innocent victim John Mills, into situations that beggar belief. You have to ignore those moments after a long ‘whaaaaat!’ Much more interesting is the work Hamer does with the setting on a very bleak and run down bit of the Kent coast. Mills takes up residence on a beached barge as he plots revenge. He frequents a café where crooks hang out and it seems likely that the art director had taken more than one peak at Quai des Brumes before coming up with the interior of this low dive. Among the denizens is a young Polish woman, mostly seen scrubbing the floor and resisting the imprecations of the patrons. She walks out after an attempted rape and moves in with Mills. The actress is Veda Bergh and she’s astonishingly pretty. Who knows what else she was in but the name has never appeared again as far as I know. Meanwhile Mills former girl friend, the one who landed him in jail, has taken up with policeman John McCallum (our second greatest acting export) who is dedicating himself to frustrating Mills revenge plans. No need to go into all the guilty secrets that are going to emerge. Among the characters is a tramp straight out Samuel Beckett who hangs around Mills’ barge, warns him about impending danger and generally plays the role of a bizarre angel of mercy. He has dialogue that might have been written by Beckett himself or maybe Harold Pinter. The crook is also a brilliant concoction and he has as his henchman a very gay doorkeeper played by Harold Lang with a silky East End accent. This film came just after Hamer’s best work and the films after it, respectable as some of them are, indicate the slow downward spiral he entered as his alcoholism overtook him. What might have made it a greater film would have been to reverse the roles with McCallum playing the released crim and Mills the detective. McCallum was very good in Hamer’s earlier It Always Rains on Sunday playing an escapee. Mills was always a rather dull and earnest actor of very limited range. In this film he’s required to abandon himself for passion with Veda Bergh and he’s not very convincing. Another reminder however that even with ordinary material Hamer could produce some memorable cinema.

Madeleine (David Lean, Great Britain, 1949, 114 minutes)/Daybreak (Compton Bennett, Great Britain, 1947, 90 minutes)

Let me first focus on the presence of Ann Todd, then David Lean’s wife and the star of both these films. Her ice cold portrayal of a woman accused of poisoning her lover is something very intense. The early David Lean films were the work of a prodigiously talented technician. He created all his films with cold calculation of his own that subject and director were as one. Thus the performance of the lead only added another layer of ice. Based on a true story, its a film which peels away one woman's desire and the lenghts she goes to to avoid the demands her society made upon her sex. "Amoral deviousness" pitted against 'the rigid hypocrisy of Victorian Glasgow" says the Time Out Film Guide...."...she dares to expose her sensuality and cunningly exploits the prim reticence of a Victiorian miss. Lean made two other films with Todd, The Passionate Friends and The Sound Barrier. In the meantime, if Madeleine grabs you, then don’t miss Daybreak. Todd plays a calculating "dance hall girl" who first appears looking rather like Michele Morgan in Quai des Brumes. She sets her sights on a lonely middle-aged barber who, secretly, is also the British hangman. He decides not to let her in on this bit of his biography fearing it might turn her off. Smart. He inherits a barge and they go to live on it and he plans to give up his night job. They hire a handsome continental sailor as deckhand. While he's off topping his last victim she and the sailor get involved. Very complicated but quite a hoot if you like melodrama. It was a Gainsborough production made after Sydney Box took over the studio. George Perry in his 'The Great British Picture Show' notes that Box claimed that the film "was so mangled by the British Board of Film Censors as to be hardly worth releasing - an opinion most critics shared". Take that... but I wouldn't agree. Todd is very beguiling in that frozen way she could effect and that suave, fruity and always interesting Eric Portman co-stars as the barber who dabbles in necking.

The Naked Truth (Mario Zampi, UK, 1957, 90 minutes)

The entrails of so many other movies are draped around this one, most notably Dennis Price’s role in Kind Hearts and Coronets. It’s harmless enough and you don’t actually think it has any gravity at all for most of it after the opening bits where Price as Nigel Dennis wordlessly goes round threatening famous people with exposure of their past sins if they don’t pay him money to stop publication. Price says he’s taken the idea from the US where Confidential Magazine did exactly that. How he comes to be in possession of these secrets is something that we are not allowed to concern ourselves with. He just does. The slowest jokes are those involving the misbehaving peer Lord Mayley (Terry-Thomas). He is a sneaky philanderer whose wife is onto him. The most elaborate are those involving Peter Sellers. He is Wee Sonny McGregor, a popular television personality with investments in what used to be called rack landlordism, slums to you and I. This is his deep dark secret. Sellers is then called upon to do various other impersonations (his TV character is a fake Scot as well) including an alleged ancient boat inspector, an Irishman, a copper and a couple of others that he does as part of his TV show. He is the life and soul of the film. Its funny when he’s in it. Not when he’s not. Naturally a great conspiracy involving bits and pieces of impersonation and slapstick settles all the issues. Sellers made this film the same year as The Smallest Show on Earth. His activity burgeoned. He did sixteen films and probably double that many roles over the next five years.

Never Let Go ((John Guillermin, UK 1960, 90 minutes)

This film was originally banned by the Australian censors It is indeed a horrid piece of work. Chief among its mysteries is why Peter Sellers should have chosen to make it especially as it came between two successful comedies Two Way Stretch and The Millionairess. Sellers plays an unctuously revolting spiv, a repulsive character. He runs an operation re-birthing stolen cars. He rules his gang members with a violent hand. He keeps as a mistress a seventeen year old who has fled from a girls’ reformatory and can’t escape his clutches. (She’s played by Carol White who went on to fame in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow.) Sellers happens to steal Richard Todd’s new car and spends most of the film inflicting ever more grievous bodily harm on Todd to dissuade him from pursuing repossession of the vehicle. It’s badly directed without any feel for the nightmare noir characteristics of the plot and it’s badly photographed, or at least so hurriedly photographed that you get little sense that the whole thing isn’t being thrown together in some studio. But it is a vicious film and you can see why our fuddy duddy censorship authorities of the day would have blanched at its ‘low moral tone’

No Love for Johnnie (Ralph Thomas, UK, 1961, 110 minutes)

Ralph Thomas made films for thirty years and very few of them have any reputation. A lot of his work was those Doctor comedies, ordinary thrillers and other time-filling programme material. But this film stands out. Made in widescreen, which you wont see on the ABC’s copy, and black and white, it’s the story of a highly regarded, ambitious and very smart British Labor MP at a time when his party is swept to power. He misses out on a Cabinet post and his embitterment causes him to drift towards the influence of the party’s most left-wing faction, a group whose leader is constantly plotting to embarrass the right wing Prime Minister. Johnnie Byrne, brilliantly played by Peter Finch, also has a few personal problems – an alienated wife, a constituency organization which would like to knock off his pre-selection and, symbolically, a constituent who just wants to get his help on a welfare matter. The atmosphere of party and factional politics is exact. The sense of shifting alliances, personal and political quite brilliant. There’s sympathy for a party leader trying to keep his recalcitrants in line and there is a most telling insight into the minor matters of politics. The activities in an around Westminster are rendered with a critical eye but one never quite knows what Thomas’s politics might be. There is an attempt to ‘play fair’ which might have caused the film to be denigrated as much by the left as the right. Its one of a handful of films that actually tells you something about how politicians really go about their business.

Nowhere to Go (Seth Holt, UK, 1958, 97 minutes)

Just at the time when the so-called British new wave was emerging, and kitchen sink dramas became the rage, one young director, aged 35 made one of the smartest little thrillers of its time. He died at the age of 48 from, according to David Thomson, heart disease and exhaustion. Nowhere to Go was Seth Holt’s first film. He scripted it with Kenneth Tynan and it was produced by Michael Balcon. Tynan was the critic who did much to put Osborne, Pinter, Wesker and others on the map. The American second-rater George Nader was wheeled in to play the lead but the casting triumph was that of Maggie Smith, in her film debut, as the taxi driver who succumbs to his story. It’s a gripping entertainment. Holt only made five films. Thomson is an enthusiast for his blighted career and he says: “Despite the fact that Holt seemed unable to escape flawed, unfinished work, the creator of marvellous sequences within melodramas, he was the most gifted British director working in Britain.” Holt’s five films were made over thirteen years and fashion passed him by. Still somebody, someday, will dig up Station Six Sahara and we’ll again see what made us all more than a little sad at his passing.

 

The Passionate Friends (David Lean, UK, 1949, 95 minutes) & Madeleine (David Lean, UK, 1949, 114 minutes)

When I come to make a suggestion of something from vintage Britain or Hollywood, I usually check to see what David Thomson thinks. Near the end of his essay on Lean, a generally not very favourable note, he describes The Passionate Friends as ‘the film most deserving recovery’. Thomson divides Lean’s career into the “early films which have pace flourish and a modesty of scale”. The later films get a right good, acerbic Brit going over. And yes, for me at least, part of the attraction of The Passionate Friends, as with the Lean film which followed, Madeleine, is the presence of the inscrutably luscious Ann Todd, then Mrs Lean, a china doll beauty to die for. Which Lean didn’t. He shortly thereafter tossed her over for the next in the long line of wives and mistresses that gave him quite another reputation. It was quite a year in Lean’s long career. Maybe the best of them. We’re lucky that David Lean made most of his early films, right through to River Kwai, for J Arthur Rank and thus over the course of a year you get the opportunity to see everything from In Which We Serve to Hobson’s Choice, often more than once, especially when, like The Passionate Friends they fit easily into all those late night slots between the Bowls tournaments and the replays of Question Time.

The Phantom Light (Michael Powell, UK, 1935, 75 minutes)

In the mid-30s Michael Powell, not yet teamed up with Emeric Pressburger, had a four picture contract with Gaumont British. The first three were The Fireraisers, Night of the Party and Red Ensign. They cost about 12,000 pounds apiece. The last of them was Phantom Light  and Powell says of it in his autobiography that it "starred Gordon Harker as a lighthouse keeper. I am a sucker for lighthouses. The lonelier and more inaccessible the better. And I love comedy-thrillers. I said 'yes' to this one right away and never regretted it. I enjoyed every minute. The less said about the plot the better.....Gordon Harker was one of Hitch's favourite faces, and Hitch had helped to make him into a star. He had one of those flat, disillusioned Cockney faces, half-fish, half-Simian, with an eye like a dead mackerel." The film was produced by Michael Balcon ("very conventional, not to say suburban") and Balcon vetoed Roger Livesey being given the lead! Powell didn't enjoy the experience much, nor did he develop a high opinion of Balcon. The film moves at a clip and, apart from Harker who has a lot of funny, cynical, sarcastic lines, there are two other lead characters whose real identities are the subject of much conjecture and which are only finally revealed as the film races through lashings of plot about wreckers and insurance fraudsters. Powell is forced to intercut some cut rate model shots of a ship at sea with the action but as the pace quickens so does his editing. He often fires up four or five angled close-ups of the bucolic Welsh fisher-folk registering alarm. The Eisenstein influence perhaps over the speed generating montage. As a matter of interest the film was reviewed by Graham Greene early in his stint as film critic on The Spectator. He called it ‘exciting’ and praised in particular the performance of Donald Calthrop in the minor role of David one of the myriad of Owens whose presence contributes a running gag: “There is a concentrated venom in his acting, a soured malicious spirituality, a pitiful damned dog air which puts him in the same rank as Mr Laughton.” Minor but worth a look.

Portrait From Life (Terence Fisher, UK, 1949, 85 minutes)

Made immediately after Fisher’s medium length To the Public Danger (q.v), this one has a cracking story about an Army officer getting involved with an amnesiac girl in post-war Germany and a cast including Guy Rolfe and Herbert Lom. But best of all it has Mai Zetterling in the lead. (I was only recently reminded of her contribution when I saw the first film she made as a director Loving Couples on DVD. That created a scandal in its day, the censor happily snipping 18 minutes of alleged rude bits out of it.) This film is clearly one which David Thomson hasn’t actually seen. He characterizes Fisher’s early work as ‘light and romantic’ and dismisses Zetterling’s early career in Britain as ‘exotic decoration’. Wrong on both counts I think

The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK 1948, 133 minutes)

If you haven’t seen The Red Shoes by now well you haven’t been trying too hard. Better of course to buy the Criterion DVD which is one of its very best productions, full of commentaries and extras that really do illuminate the film. In the meantime here’s a snippet from Tony Rayns’ entry in the Time Out Film Guide to set you thinking about the film all over again. “But in texture it’s like nothing the British cinema has ever seen: a rhapsody of colour expressionism reaching delirious heights in the ballet scenes, but never becoming too brash and smothering its own nuances. And if the plot threatens to anchor the spectacle in a more mundane register, it’s worth bearing in mind the inhibition on which it rests: the central impresario/dancer relationship was modelled directly on Diaghelev and Nijinsky, and its dynamic remains ‘secretly’ gay.”

Robbery Under Arms (Jack Lee, UK, 1957, 104 minutes)

The Brit director of this less than scintillating work.Jack Lee eventually settled in Australia and though he never made another feature he did become Chairman of the South Australian Film Corporation during its most productive phase. Earlier he had made A Town Like Alice and The Wooden Horse among others. The film has no champions as a masterpiece. It has an odd air, a slightly at odds with the landscape feel, as stereotypes from other kinds of movies are plonked down in the Australian bush. Most notable of those is Peter Finch’s Captain Starlight. He drifts in an out of the picture and plays the gentleman rogue with a certain dour aplomb. As a portrait of the nation last century it’s a long way removed from what Rolf Boldrewood was trying to say and a lot closer to action programmer material. The young Jill Ireland and David McCallum both have parts. The producer Joseph Janni went on to make some very successful pictures and had a most productive partnership with John Schlesinger (A Kind of Loving, Darling, Far From the Madding Crowd). The pity was that Finch made so few films back here after he left to find fame and I assume fortune at the behest of the Oliviers. Really only his turn in the other film he made here in 1957, The Shiralee, was any reminder of how much we lost in the days when no industry existed and our locals left forever.

 

Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1936, 76 minutes)

A recent viewing of Sabotage gave me quite a surprise at how grim the film itself is. Maybe we’re more conscious of its subject in age of urban terror. Oscar Homolka plays a German who is running a movie house in London. His wife (Sylvia Sidney) sells tickets. Oscar is mixed up with a terrorist group which commits random acts of sabotage and he does it for money. He is called upon to put a bomb in an underground railway station but the police are on to him and he cant get away. He sends his wife's young brother across London with the bomb... What is interesting, (beyond the grimness of the theme, there are no last minute rescues here and no jokey cliff-hanging narrative), is the relationship between Oscar and his wife. How did they marry. Why did they marry. What is their relationship about. Its not violent or fearful but there is something unknown about how this couple exist together. Maybe I'm seeking profundity in contrivance. After all Sylvia Sidney was a star and it was no doubt a casting coup to get her. But her presence throws an enormous amount of ambiguity into the mix. Then there is the special agent undercover policeman who falls for her and wants to abandon everything if she'll flee with him. (The young brother is played by Desmond Tester, who arrived on these shores in the 50s and then made a name for himself on Sydney children's TV

The Savage Innocents (Nicholas Ray, UK/France/Italy, 1960, 110 minutes)

Shot in Super-Technirama, one of those now ignored 70mm processes, on TV you’ll only get a part of the picture in this film from Nick Ray’s late career. It has its defenders but it’s not a film which has anywhere near the visceral tension of Ray’s best work, the films he made in Hollywood in the late forties through to mid-fifties. By this time he was self-exiled, probably alcoholic and starting to show the strain. But his earliest works were the films which caused Jean-Luc Godard to declaim “the cinema is Nicholas Ray”.

The Seventh Veil (Compton Bennett, UK 1945, 95 minutes)

I was once silly enough to describe this film as "one of the great British films of the 40s, starring one of those truly extraordinary Brit actresses of the time, Ann Todd". I am afraid that, after reflection and re-viewing, only the second part of that statement is true. The film is, how shall I put this tactfully,  seriously over the top, a melodramatic contrivance of quite some dimension. What makes it an attraction is the complete seriousness which it took upon itself to explore a story wherein James Mason plays this cruel uncle who wants to make Todd into a great concert pianist. Nothing will stand in his way, including beating her with a walking stick across her knuckles. Of course nowadays we get to ponder all these hints of paedophilia and child abuse in the relationship which may have been supposed to slip by the average punter but would be be chortled over by the cognoscenti. So...lots of ersatz Freud goes into the stew and James Mason, physically as well as emotionally crippled, just eats everything in sight in his attempt to set down  a new level of odiousness. And then it has a 'happy ending". Amazing that. In the Time Out Film Guide Tom Milne starts by calling it "ineffable tripe" and ends by calling it "enjoyable, sort of." Rather well put. But dont forget the inscrutable Todd. Matthew Sweet's 'Shepperton Babylon', the most amusing book on the cinema I've read in a while, gives The Seventh Veil some attention in the context of  telling the story of James Mason's wild life. Sweet concludes that "by the time the film had won an Oscar for Sydney and Muriel Box, its husband-and-wife screenwriters, half the women of England were eager to feel the back of James Mason's hand against their cheeks - or at least, that was what the letters pages of of the fan magazines suggested." I always say that you cant beat the English for sophistication

The Sleeping Tiger (Joseph Losey, UK, 1954, 89 minutes)

Plenty of you will know that I hold Joseph Losey in the very highest regard. I’ve always been fascinated by the series of films he made under very trying circumstances in Italy and then in Britain after he had been blacklisted and fled to Europe. This was Losey’s first British film and was based, in his words, on “a lousy, cheap story…a sort of bedtime reading for senile stags.” But it led to Losey’s first work with Dirk Bogarde, one of the most fruitful collaborations between an actor and director in modern cinema. I wrote some notes on the film when it screened at the Brisbane Film Festival as part of a Losey retrospective a few years ago. In part I said then: “Losey himself admits that the film’s improbabilities were part of the reason for its lack of critical success. Despite that there are already some features of Losey’s work apparent: the simmering sexual tension between the psychiatrist and his wife and the wife and the young criminal, the casual violence and the fascination with decadent lifestyles.”

 

The Spider and the Fly (Robert Hamer, UK, 1949, 95 minutes)

.Robert Hamer is nearly forgotten these days yet for awhile it seemed he may have been carrying the hopes of the British cinema on his back. He was not yet forty by the time he had made the best episode in Dead of Night, Pink String and Sealing Wax, It Always Rains on Sunday, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Spider and the Fly. With the exception of Kind Hearts, no doubt because of it’s bit of Alec Guinness eight role bravura, the other films are largely, and undeservedly forgotten. In this one, Guy Rolfe plays a gentleman thief and one of my favorite Brit actors Eric Portman plays the dogged police inspector. Its one of those stories where the fascination lies in the mutual respect built between the two protagonists, a sort of a ‘civilised’ duel. Their relationship is complicated after both have formed a relationship with Rolfe’s mistress. In the note on the film in The Time Out Film Guide, Tom Milne is glowing when he mentions ‘the look of the film, bleak and penumbral with sets, camerawork and beautifully chosen locations, conspiring to recapture the poetic quality of Feuillade’s Paris, makes it rank with Hamer’s best work. A director ripe for full scale rather than piecemeal rediscovery, especially as TCM has recently unearthed Hamer’s extremely odd later film The Scapegoat in which Alec Guinness plays two roles as a dull Englishman and a ne’er do well Frenchman whom no one, except the Frenchman’s mistress, can tell apart

They Were Sisters (Arthur Crabtree, UK, 1945, 85 minutes)

This film has a curious mixture of English reserve in the face of massive family dysfunction and wild plotting centering around the personality and antics of James Mason, a possessive cad with a way with a women. Mason latches on to the youngest and plainest of three sisters (after the most beautiful rebuffs him), whisks her off her feet and takes her for his bride. At the wedding he’s drunk and uninterested in her. Cut to a decade or so later and Mason has made pots of money and hates his wife and kids. He has turned their lives into miserable existences but of course, this being the thirties wont relinquish them. Propriety still counts. So does property and the wife and kids are his propert. Meanwhile, one flighty sister constantly lets the others down and takes up with unsuitable men. Her husband acts bemused. The third, the soul of love and devotion tries to hold the whole catastrophe together. But she cant produce a child and that causes longings and tension and she envies her sisters their fecundity. Then the plot becomes really melodramatic! The harassed sister tries to leave and Mason gets very aggravating and violent. In a way it’s a first , of many, step towards Mason’s role in Bigger than Life. Along the way he made an art form of playing bitter, twisted, manipulative, humourless men with no morals and no qualms about resorting to violence. Played out within an English middle-class milieu where everyone speaks in BBC accents, the houses are enormous, every family has a bunch of servants and seem to have little or no active work. Fascinating entertainment.

To the Public Danger (Terence Fisher, UK, 1948, 58 minutes)

Terence Fisher made his name as perhaps the best of the regular Hammer Studios directors. His career from the late 50s to the early 70s is littered with any number of Frankenstein, Dracula and other assorted monster titles. At his best his work was regarded as rather superior stuff. Its limitations were that after awhile you’d seen it all and the variations just didn’t have a wallop. Hammer degenerated into soft core sex and so-called thrillers with titles like Maniac. Of course it was sometimes hard to know for sure just how good or bad things were because for quite some time the Australian censors routinely banned them. To the Public Danger was Fisher’s second film and it’s quite something. Two upper (upper-middle maybe) class smarties turn up at a country pub. One is drunk already the other is a smoothie who sets his sights on the only woman in the room, an attractive if shallow young thing from the local chocolate factory who’s there with her dull and somewhat impoverished boyfriend (also from the factory). The girl complains of boredom because the Americans have gone home, the smoothie has a complete contempt for authority. She’s immediately impressed and they drink and drink and drink before all four head off somewhere in his car and trouble ensues. Violence escalates. The class distinctions are a provocative underlying element in driving the male enmity. Very short and very taut, it’s a model of smart, tense film-making and its in no way divorced from the circumstances of England at the time.

Up to His Neck (John Paddy Carstairs, UK, 1954, 85 minutes)

Spare a moment to allow me to explain. A couple of months before I saw this film I happened to record a movie called The Seekers in which Jack Hawkins and Glynis Johns played upright citizens who were victims of cruel fate and decided to make a new life in nineteenth century New Zealand. Jack becomes a leader of the group and they have an uneasy relationship with the local Maori. This relationship is made even more fraught when Jack succumbs to the gloriously ample charms of the chief’s young daughter. They end up hurling themselves at each other and its quite a spectacle, especially as the young daughter has to dance a very lubricious dance and then seduces Jack after diving naked into the sea before him. I have no idea whether the censors of the day allowed us the sight now available of Laya Raki, allegedly a part-Javanese princess, momentarily baring herself before Jack’s astonished eyes. The scene is so memorable that, even fifty years later, there are websites devoted to it. Now someone who knows, told me they met Laya once, she was married to the Aussie actor Ron Randell. She was ‘a bit obvious’ according to this impeccable source but nevertheless she carved out a career for herself playing ‘obvious femmes fatales’ for a decade or so. So with great anticipation the world waited for Laya’s further appearance in Up to his Neck, playing along side Ronald Shiner, a Brit comedian who had his own brief flirtation with fame in a series of Rank comedies. She spends most of the film running around in Army dungarees in Ronald’s wake, her obvious talents thus entirely wasted.

When the Bough Breaks (Lawrence Huntington, UK, 1947, 90 mins)

A Gainsborough Production by the team of Sydney and Betty E Box this is a very contrived film. Lily (Patricia Roc) wakes up after giving birth and a policeman informs her that her marriage was bigamous. She walks out shattered and is refuses to seek assistance from the baby’s father. She gets a room in a grim attic and later a job as a shop assistant. She has to leave the baby in a child care institution where it receives devoted attention from Frances one of the helpers. Frances has lost a child and she and her wealthy husband offer to look after the child. Without much agonizing Lily leaves the baby behind though she refuses to sign any formal adoption papers. Cut to Jimmy’s 8th birthday and he’s a well-spoken middle class boy wearing a school uniform. Lily has lost contact. She’s also frightened of committing herself to a relationship until a local grocer sweeps her off her feet. The nshe wants Jimmy back and goes though a court process. Jimmy is very upset at the whole thing and stands out like a sore thumb in the working class neighborhood to which he’s been ordered by the courts. He runs away. Goes ‘home’ to ‘mummy’. Lily tries to get him back but gives up. Cut to the first birthday party of the new offspring of Lily and the grocer. End. Wow. This was the sort of tosh that the Box family regularly made. Full of over-ripe situations acted out by people pretending normalcy. It’s a fascinating mixture of fake realism and low rent melodrama. Patricia Roc was one of the small group of female stars in the Gainsborough Pictures business. Matthew Sweet in his ‘Shepperton Babylon’ describes the roles she played as women who ‘whether they wore whalebone or dungarees, were unpretentious, self-sufficient and pragmatic in sexual matters - which may explain how she came to be known around the studio as Bed Roc.’ The Brits can be so cruel to their own.