Posts Tagged ‘british films’

Night and the City (1950)

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Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is often noted as a seminal noir, an early example of the British version of a classically American genre that pits bad guys against worse guys. It’s an extraordinarily pessimistic film, its central character just as unlikable as the villains who surround him.

Richard Widmark is Harry Fabian, a small-time hustler who works at the Silver Fox Club, where his girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) is a singer. Fabian’s main purpose is to find a way to live a “life of plenty,” which to him means slowly conning his way up the criminal social ladder. To this end, he decides to become a wrestling promoter, taking business away from the local magnate Kristo (Herbert Lom) by enlisting the latter’s father to train wrestlers. Subterfuge piles on subterfuge: Harry obtains his start-up money from his boss’s wife Helen (Googie Whithers) by promising to help her get a license to start her own nightclub and leave her husband Phil (Francis L. Sullivan, doing his Sidney Greenstreet impression). But all of Harry’s machinations threaten to destroy him, as he sweet-talks one dangerous criminal after another and places himself, and everyone connected to him, in harm’s way.

Night and the City‘s complex plot belies its fairly short running time, with a lot of plot development packed into a very small space. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it film: one minute Harry is on top of the world, the next in the gutter trying to talk his way out again. It’s hard to root for anyone here except perhaps Mary, who suffers mightily at the hands of a man who refuses to see that he’s always going to a failure. Just as Harry is supremely unlikable, the other villains have levels of pathos: Kristos is tortured by his father’s abandonment, Phil passionately in love with a wife who hates him, Helen desperate to escape from a loveless marriage. The film’s climax is inevitable without being predictable: Harry is doomed and everyone but him knows it from the start. There is no hope underlying Night and the City’s pessimism: the criminals have almost no fear of the law, but each of them is trapped in their personal hells of ambition.

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One of the most striking and brutal scenes occurs between Kristos’s father Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and the Strangler (Mike Mazurki). The two competing wrestlers tussle together for an extended sequence that is fascinating and painful to watch: this is real wrestling, not the staged matches that Kristos specializes in. The camera documents their fight with an unflinching gaze, bringing us so close that you can almost smell the blood and sweat. If this film has an argument, it’s present in this one climactic moment. Forgotten are Harry’s fancy word games and Kristos’s gangland posturing; the melodrama that has been played out for most of the film falls back in the face of a brutal match between two men who are treated as animals. As with the rest of the film, there’s no one to root for: it’s violence without purpose, compelling and meaningless.

Night and the City’s reputation has certainly been earned: it’s an influential film with a strong cast and striking images that will be played out, in different forms, across cinematic history. It’s not one to end an evening on, though: few films are as hopeless as a European film noir, and in this one it’s hard to even cry for the loss of innocence. This is a film where innocence does not even exist.

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All Night Long (1962)

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Shakespeare has been retold, re-adapted, modernized; he has been edited for length and subject, retold to fit high school love triangles, Miami street gangs, and even animated lions. Ubiquitous as Shakespeare is, it should come as no surprise that someone along the line decided to retell Othello as a (then) modern tale of love and race among drunk and disorderly jazz musicians in 1960s London.

Basil Dearden’s All Night Long takes the plot of Othello and adds some needed jazz scoring. Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) is the leader of a major jazz ensemble that includes his passionate sax player Cass (Keith Mitchell) and brilliant drummer Johnny Cousins (Patrick McGoohan). Rex is married to Delia (Marti Stevens), a beautiful blonde chanteuse who quit her night job to be his wife. On the eve of their one-year wedding anniversary, music promoter Rod Hamilton (Richard Attenborough) throws the happy couple a big party, complete with fellow jazz musicians Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth, and Keith Christie to keep the music and spirits flowing. Things are not well in paradise, however: Johnny Cousins wants a band of his own, with Delia at the head. To this end, he employs any nefarious means necessary to get Delia away from Rex and back in the spotlight.

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There are two real stars in All Night Long, and the first is the music. The likes of Brubeck and Dankworth lend some serious musical talent to the proceedings, punctuating the backstage manipulations, petty jealousies, and passionate love affairs with piano solos and drum kicks. The non-musical lead actors do a credible job of miming their instruments, but give wide range to the real jazz performers to do what they do best. Even if the film was unsuccessful in other ways, the sheer virtuosity of the jazz would be enough to make me watch it all again.

The other star is Patrick McGoohan. His Johnny Cousins is the perfect Iago: a blend of malevolence and desperation, a pathetic sociopath incapable of loving anyone, including himself. Johnny makes his entrance with a slew of drum cases bearing his name, bruiting both his self-involvement and his desperation to be recognized as someone important. His manipulation of Delia, Rex, and just about everyone else at the party starts out as calculated and self-serving, but it soon becomes apparent that, like Iago, Johnny does what he does out of pure spite. McGoohan has never been one of my favorite actors, but his intensity is perfect for the part. (As, indeed, are his formidable drumming skills. It’s difficult to mime drumming chops, and as far as I could tell McGoohan was doing his own work).

One of the more interesting elements of All Night Long is the racial aspect – or rather, the lack thereof. Despite the setting of London in the early 1960s, the marriage of Rex and Delia does not seem to raise any eyebrows. Other musicians are critical of Rex for making his wife quit working (though he constantly reiterates that she made the choice herself), but no one remarks on the social difficulties of a marriage between a black man and a white woman. Johnny’s malevolence has no hint of racial motivation, as it does to some degree in Othello – gone are Iago’s racial epithets, replaced by Johnny’s painful inability to love. We should note that Dearden was also the man behind films like Sapphire (about a racially motivated murder in 1960s London) and Victim, both unflinching in their examination of British intolerance. Yet in All Night Long, there is much being said in no one saying anything.

All Night Long has its failings, however. The trope of marijuana causing people to behave violently and erratically was a recognizable one in the 1960s, but is pretty laughable in 2015. The jazz lingo employed by our (predominantly British) musicians falls harshly on contemporary ears, making some lines impossible to listen to without cracking a smile. Finally, there is the confusion of British actors playing Americans, with McGoohan especially having difficulty maintaining a clear-cut accent. While far from a deal-breaker, some elements of All Night Long have dated rather badly, making the film more a product of its period than a universal classic.

Basil Dearden is one of finest and least recognized directors coming out of Britain in the 1960s. Here he makes excellent use of an excellent cast, highlighting some of his favorite social issues without shining a spotlight too fully on them. Patrick McGoohan in particular gives a fascinating performance, as Johnny’s cruelty runs hand in hand with his pathetic psychology. Othello was never as swinging as this.

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Green Grow The Rushes (1951) represents an odd little subgenre of post-war British filmmaking that does not really have an American equivalent of which I am aware. I’m not certain what to call it (although perhaps someone has already coined a term), but it was a specialty of studios such as Ealing. It usually involves the coming together of a British country community – either a village, a town, or a county – in a bid to maintain their independence and resist the oncoming tide of modernization and government control. In films like The Titfield Thunderbolt and Passport to Pimlico, these communities are faced with incorporation and by extension an assault on their solidarity and their uniqueness. It’s an interesting subgenre because it combines that British spirit of community with some not very subtle Socialist undertones, all wrapped up in the charm and quirkiness of the English countryside.

Green Grow The Rushes is just such a film. The coastal community of Anderida Marsh is “invaded” by three government inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture, out to discover why the area’s open farmland is not being cultivated (and where, exactly, the inhabitants are making their money). Anderida claims that it is independent from the rest of England due to an ancient charter granted them by Henry III. Their resistance to government interference is further complicated by the fact that the community largely makes its money from smuggling liquor in and hiding it in the marshes, something which they don’t want the officials to discover.

roger-livesey-green-rushesAt the head of the smugglers is the odd and wholly amusing Captain Biddle (Roger Livesey), and his compatriot Robert (a very young Richard Burton). When an attractive newspaperwoman Meg Cuffley (Honor Blackman) discovers what the smugglers are up to, she wants a piece of the story and the action (not to mention a piece of Robert). Meanwhile, the smugglers and those in the town aware of their shenanigans must continue to cover up their activities from the government inspectors. It’s a somewhat complicated set-up, and it gets even more complicated when Biddle’s boat runs ashore during a storm, stranding the crew (and the liquor) in a duck pond belonging to Bainbridge (Russell Waters), a farmer with strong resistance to anyone trespassing on his land. Faced with threats from the inspectors, the coast guard, and the local officials, the smugglers have to find a way to get the liquor off the boat before they’re boarded and their contraband discovered.

While Green Grow The Rushes will receive no awards, it is one of the more enjoyable little films from a time period that produced its share of enjoyable films. This is in no small measure the responsibility of the cast, a veritable who’s who of British leads and character actors. Livesey is the delightful and acerbic lead, dispensing homespun wisdom to his friend Robert about women (“lily whites”) and how to keep out of trouble with them. Not that Biddle took his own advice, entangling himself with a charming lass who ran off on him and married another (without actually divorcing him).honor-blackman-green-rushes

Richard Burton, meanwhile, does not get a great deal to do with his leading man part, but he fulfills the role admirably and with great charm. The same must go for Honor Blackman, in full English Rose mode, who nonetheless shows signs of the total disregard for social and gender roles that will make her so very effective in her later career. Both lift what could otherwise be a dull romantic subplot to a charming, if airy, love story. It’s always a pleasure to see good actors working together, even more so when they are so very young.

But it is really the English country community that makes this film so endearing. The film is full of little touches: the petty bureaucratic wars between various government officials, the coy flirtation of Robert and Meg, Captain Biddle’s plot to dislodge his ship. As Anderida Marsh joins together to celebrate their charter day – complete with a reenactment of Henry III signing the charter to grant them basic independence – a screwball comedy of bureaucracy and drunkenness ensues. All in all, Green Grow The Rushes is wholly enjoyable, from start to finish.

You can watch Green Grow The Rushes on Hulu+ or for free on YouTube.

Q Planes (Clouds Over Europe)

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If you thought that British espionage stories started with a certain dry martini-drinking superspy, then you are missing out. Our neighbors across the pond have a long history of some excellent espionage in both film and print, featuring a whole host of literary heroes who were spying for Queen (King) and Country long before Mr. Bond was out of diapers (nappies).

Q Planes (released in America as Clouds Over Europe) is a British spy film made in the early days of World War II. In fact, the film was released mere months before Britain declared war on Germany. As such, there’s an urgency to the film that undercuts its otherwise breezy quality in a charming story of spies, sabotage, and fly-boys.

Q Planes stars Ralph Richardson as the fedora and umbrella-sporting British spy Major Hammond, assigned to figure out just what has happened to a number of planes that keep vanishing on their test flights. These planes are carrying expensive experimental equipment which we are assured another power would be happy to get their greedy little hands on. Hammond heads to the airfields of Barratt & Ward and enlists the aid of dashing pilot Tony McVane (a young and wavy haired Laurence Olivier) to discover just what has happened to those planes. Along for the ride is Hammond’s journalist sister Kay (Valerie Hobson), whom McVane just happens to be falling for.

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Despite a middling plot, the film flies along on the strength of its main cast. Olivier plays slightly against type as a brash and noisy young man more likely to run headfirst into trouble than to hang back and make a plan. Hobson, meanwhile, has little to do beyond gazing into Larry’s eyes. She was an interesting, wide-eyed beauty of the time period, perhaps best known in America as Dr. Frankenstein’s titular bride Elizabeth in The Bride of Frankenstein. She does make the most of her screen-time here, though, as noisy and opinionated as her male counterparts.

The star of Q Planes is Ralph Richardson’s dapper Major Hammond, and the reason why I watched this film in the first place. Hammond is a secret agent prototype, waving his umbrella about, making fun of his superiors, insubordinate without being improper. He’s also one of the inspirations for the character of John Steed which, if you pay any attention, might explain why I gravitated towards this film. Hammond’s vitality make the film fun to watch, and you only need to check out any one of his scenes to understand why. What could have been a somewhat stodgy little war thriller is energized through Richardson, a serious actor having a lot of fun.

Q Planes proves that Britain did war thrillers just as well as Hollywood, and sometimes even a bit better. While it shan’t win any awards, it’s a nifty little film, wholly enjoyable for its entire 1 hour 18 minute run-time.