Archive for April 22, 2008

Cracking Cheese

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2008 by dcairns

No, not the Fritz Lang movie.

This CLASH BY NIGHT is a British “B” picture from 1964. And by “B” I really mean “W”, or possibly “Y”.

I didn’t get much out of it except enjoying greatly the above shot, from right at the beginning. The guy in the foreground has just lost a heap of money on a dog race. The guy on the right is Stanley Meadows, playing a gangster here just as he did in Cammell and Roeg’s seminal PERFORMANCE six years later. And he’s equally impressive here — a cool, crisp, naturally frightening actor who was terribly underused by British cinema. Plus he looks great in motorcycle goggles (his cunning disguise).

And I loved this shot — Peter Sallis (Wallace from WALLACE AND GROMIT) in the role of halfwitted lunatic “Victor Lush”, threatens everybody with a lit match in a paraffin-soaked barn.

That’s basically the plot — a coach full of of prisoners and their guards are imprisoned in said barn while a gang boss makes his getaway. Since all the jailbirds are required to do is sit put until dawn, there’s not much suspense – -except that it’s Guy Fawkes’ Night and fireworks are flying hither and yon.

The transporter full of hardened stereotypes put me in mind of CON AIR, and made me wonder if there’s another variation to be pulled on this appealing set-up. Apart from that, the film boasts an appearance by what appears to be future cheesemeister Ray Austen (VIRGIN WITCH) as the world’s most inept sexual predator. “My husband will be home shortly,” says Jennifer Jayne, whereupon he rips her blouse and is promptly socked to death by the returning hubby. Which is all just by way of illustrating that our appallingly stiff middle-class hero is AN INNOCENT MAN UNJUSTLY CONVICTED. Which turns out to have no bearing on anything, really.

CLASH BY NIGHT has an ability to just barely hold the attention by delivering unnecessary flashbacks, improbable coincidences, pathetic cop-outs and other narrative blunders at a rapid-fire pace. If it were any better it wouldn’t really be any fun. Sadly, the only major character who DOESN’T get a flashback is the religious zealot who’s been arrested for “trying to take brotherly love a bit too far.” Even in the wake of VICTIM (1961) this film didn’t feel able to go any deeper into THAT. Given the portrayal of Sallis’ character — is he insane? Is he mentally handicapped? Do they know there’s a difference? — it’s unlikely the results would have been terribly illuminating.

Oh, and there’s some quite fun X-rated cursing, or “pervasive language” as the MPAA would say. The actors can barely conceal their glee at being allowed to say big grown-up words like “bastard”. My Dad once told me that he and his friends used to read Mickey Spillane “for the swearing”, so they’d have dug this.

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Keep On Truckin’

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2008 by dcairns

The HOT TRUCK-BASED ACTION continues at Shadowplay.

HELL DRIVERS is a wonderfully unbalanced, testosterone-oozing compendium of macho posturing, undercranked vehicular montage and political subtext, nicely organised up until a rather flat ending.

In brief, Stanley Baker is an ex-con who gets taken on by euphonically-named haulage firm Hawlett, where drivers are encouraged to take insane risks and break the law in order to keep their jobs, delivering loads of gravel. This may in fact be the finest gravel-themed action film I’ve ever seen. While the racing around isn’t too convincing, the seething rivalry between Baker and the man Sylvia Sims always calls “the terrible Patrick McGoohan” is very enjoyable, and there’s an inescapable leftist slant to director and co-scenarist Cy Endfield’s film — the conflict between profit and human well-being is a central one to our existence, and it’s front and centre here.

The film actually has more steaming, heavily-accented manhood than it knows what to do with: in addition to Baker and McGoohan, there’s a strong Scottish infusion from Gordon Jackson and a nubile Sean Connery (a svelte young David McCallum also breezes by on crutches), Sid James and Alfie Bass provide cockney comedy (yes, I know Sid was South African but still…) and then there’s Wilfred Lawson, sporting a form of speech previously unknown to the world, combining RADA, Bradford and malt whiskey. In an age over-blessed with drunken actors, Lawson actually sounds inebriated at all times, no matter what role he’s playing. He’s the man who added an unscripted line to Shakespeare: “If you think I’m pissed, wait till you see the Duke of Buckingham.”

We also get Herbert Lom as a sentimental Italian and William Hartnell as the crooked boss, a man so mean he throws tea out of the window. He also shouts EVERY SINGLE LINE, like Steve Martin in THE JERK, which is wrong but amusing and actually somewhat effective. Hartnell is always a fascinating presence.

To balance the roiling manliness, we also get lusty Peggy Cummins, who’s almost as enjoyable here as in GUN CRAZY. It’s hard to freeze-frame her without making her look freakish, because her face is in constant, Botox-free motion. The effect is lovely and lively and natural, but hard to capture in stills. Also, her voice eludes the frame grab, that delightful warm throaty sound with its blend of accents. When she shares a scene with Baker, there’s flaming chemistry and unbridled Welshness of a kind rarely glimpsed in British cinema. When she dances with him the lust is palpable. But she’s his best friend’s gal, so Baker curdles and fumes, hooking his sexual frustration to his truck engine and blasting off with maximum overdrive.

Patrick McGoohan, in his dual position as Road Foreman and Resident Psychopath, essays a Belfast/Cro-Magnon accent and slouching posture that had Fiona christening him “the Hunchback of McGoohan”.

With accent, scar, nickname (“Red”) and slouch, he has enough to satisfy the most ambitious ham actor, but pads his role with belching, twitching, barking and everpresent ciggie hanging from lip. He’s atrocious, unbelievable, and compulsively watchable. Baker wins points just for resisting the urge to goggle at his co-star’s every gesture.

Stan the Man holds everything together with his customary INTENSE ANGER, focussed inwards, simmering on a low heat, always ready to explode. My old friend Lawrie used to profess himself baffled at Baker’s knighthood, but to me the reasons for celebrating S.B. are many and obvious. He brought a kind of unabashed machismo to British cinema, which had been accustomed to mostly rather mild, lightweight actors. Alongside that, Baker brought authentic proletarian qualities — he hadn’t lost his accent at some southern drama school. And that meant he was authentically and blatantly Celtic also. He prepared the way for Connery and Harris, as well as being the original angry young man. Though somewhat neglected today, his work set changes in motion that transformed the face of British screen drama.