Cop Show

OK, here’s the answer to CLUES… probably a disappointing one since few have even heard of it and it’s not that special…

Sixties policier GIRL IN THE HEADLINES has a rather exotic feel since everybody’s so posh. Even the heroic chief inspector is comfortably middle-class: Jane Asher plays his daughter, for heaven’s sake. It’s all the more bizarre because the story deals with murder and drug-running, yet our cast includes fashion models, a retired opera singer, a knighted captain of industry, a painter, and a TV actor. All plausible drug USERS, but hidden among them are diabolical smugglers and hot-blooded assassins.

Our lead cop is Ian Hendry — “eyes like piss-holes in the snow,” Michael Caine says of him in GET CARTER, but here he’s younger, fresher, has suffered fewer disappointments and put away less booze. Hendry was the original lead of the series that mutated into The Avengers, and had an apparently bright future ahead. By the time of GET CARTER he’d done REPULSION and THE HILL, but things weren’t working out. Mike Hodges says that in Hendry’s main scene with Caine there was a real tension, a resentment from Hendry towards the more successful actor, that seethes in the background.

Hendry is assisted by Ronald Fraser (and it’s weird seeing HIM get second billing), a somewhat grotesque character player with a head like a turnip and the world’s smallest mouth — basically a glorified pore. He provides comic asides and non-sequiteurs like a Dragnet sidekick.

Filling out the rogue’s gallery we have Jeremy Brett and James Villiers, both of whom there’s lots to say about. Brett, like his best friend Robert Stephens, had mixed fortunes with the role of Sherlock Holmes. Stephens hated working for Billy Wilder so much on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES that he attempted suicide to get out of it, yet now it’s the role he’s most remembered for. Brett, much later in life, scored a great success as Holmes in TV adaptations of the entire Conan Doyle Holmes canon, but suffered terribly from manic-depression and a feeling that he could never escape the role. Treated with lithium, which caused him terrible physical problems, he reached a low point where he prostrated himself on the pavement of Baker Street begging the shade of Sherlock to release him.

Here he’s young, strikingly handsome, strong AND sensitive, and obvious star material. But I suppose the British cinema was moving into a phase where it wasn’t looking for a dashing leading man. Brett might have tried Hollywood, where his mental illness would scarcely have been noticed.

James Villiers plays a homosexual TV star (has small yapping dog, frequents all-male jazz cellar). Descended from the Earls of Clarendon, Villiers brings his customary aristocratic elan and a rather likable feyness to bear on a character we are clearly meant to despise. “I think he’d like to marry me,” suggests Hendry, though Villiers has shown no sign of any such infatuation.

Rosalie Crutchley, haunted and beautiful, plays housekeeper to the retired opera singer mixed up in this somehow. Known for her housekeeping — fans of THE HAUNTING can quote her “No one will come. In the night. In the dark,” — Crutchley brings solemnity and compulsion to her scene.

Michael Truman, the director of this modest, pleasant, unmemorable whodunnit, was a successful TV man who dabbled in film. The producer was John Davis, whose name lives in infamy as destroyer of the British film industry. Michael Powell savaged him in PEEPING TOM, creating a studio boss called Don Jarvis who says things like “From now on, if you can see it and hear it, it goes in!” — purportedly a true-life quote. As head of production at Rank, Davis presided over the collapse of the British film industry and the demise of Powell’s career.

(Powell’s cinematographer, Christopher Challis, reports that he had a job sitting on a committee at Rank to discuss the ailing industry. He hated the work, and resolved to get himself fired from it. His chance came when a report was read out, saying that Rank had quizzed punters leaving its Odeon cinemas, asking if there was anything the organisation could be doing to bolster film-going. The public had given them the thumbs up: nothing need be done. Challis stood up and said that since statistics showed that the majority of Brits never went near an Odeon, maybe the pollsters should be talking to THEM instead.

He was not asked back.)

It struck me as I was watching GIRL IN THE HEADLINES that Britain doesn’t really DO police procedurals anymore. Asides from HOT FUZZ, there hasn’t been a Brit cop film I can think of since the seventies. Of course it’s easy to blame TV for flooding the market, but other nations with healthy TV industries manage to present cinematic cop thrillers too. The French and Americans certainly have no problem making great televisual police drama and great cinematic police drama, and they know the difference, too. In GIRL IN THE HEADLINES the main characters don’t experience any profound change during the story — they just do their jobs. Which would be essential in a TV show where the characters have to resume duties next week, but it’s almost fatal to a one-off drama. I think the reason Britain doesn’t make cop films is a lack of confidence in being able to deliver the required cinematic qualities that would separate film from TV. These qualities are:

1) A character arc which results in a transformed lead character.

2) A story with a unique selling point, or high concept, to get people out from TV-land and into the cinema.

3) Visual style to lift the film from the run of TV police procedurals.

I’m speaking purely of the most basic commercial cinema and traditional dramatic form — there might well be other approaches that could be successful, but the above three points would be enough to make a cop movie populist and accessible. I think the fact that our cinema lacks confidence in its ability to pull off those three qualities in a cop film indicates a lack of confidence in cinematic storytelling altogether. It’s notable that Edgar Wright of HOT FUZZ is clearly bursting with confidence and overloads his film with the three factors cited — even though point 1 need not necessarily apply to comedy.

Swan's Way

And THAT should be the theme for a blog post in itself — comedy and character arcs.

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11 Responses to “Cop Show”

  1. Deliciously obscure.

    The title sounds like it’sgoing to be about Christine Keeler or Mandy Rice-Davies.

    And James Villiers playing a full-out gay man! Deeelightful! He’s long been a guilty pleasure of mine. A sort of upper crust Kenneth Williams.

  2. Villiers was a favourite of Seth Holt, appearing in The Nanny and Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb. And I have a great, possibly slanderous story about him rebelling against Michael Winner which I’d like to run but I don’t know if I should…legally.

    The movie is out on UK DVD and is certainly worth a look, mainly as a snapshot of its time perhaps, and as an example of the kind of film that simply isn’t attempted now.

  3. This looks FANTASTIC! I once wrote an ongoing series for Crime Time Magazine about the entire history of crime cinema but somehow managed to miss this entirely. How could that have been? Had a a great day with Mike Hodges as part of it that started in the BFI and ended in De Hems pub in Soho. He’s a great raconteur with some wonderfully scandalous stories to tell. Mostly about Dino DeLaurentis (“why they laugh, Mike?” on British crew filming Flash Gordon).

  4. Yes, Hodges is a great laugh. Most of his stories can be heard on the Flash Gordon DVD commentary.

    Girl in the Headlines is nice but not quite a full movie, somehow, But I’m hoping to plunge into the world of Brit B-movie crime more thoroughly as the year goes on.

  5. […] the images above relates directly to the film’s title, and it stars an actor discussed in the solution to the last edition of […]

  6. […] link between CLUE OF THE NEW PIN and our last Clues feature, GIRL IN THE HEADLINES, is the presence of James Villiers, cast once again as a fey television personality. But here […]

  7. I love the attention given to my favorite actor, Jimbo Villiers. In my opinion, he is sheer perfection in everything he did. Why else would I have sat through “King Ralph”?

    I celebrated his last birthday by getting a portrait of him as Henry Higgins tattooed on my right bicep. He was surely the most beautiful man to ever live. And I’m a lesbian!

  8. And he was, I suspect, gay.

    Send me a picture of that tattoo and I’ll feature it!

    And tune in tomorrow for more Villiers villainy.

  9. Skywatcher Says:

    The film is based on the book ‘THE NOSE ON MY FACE’ by Laurence Payne. When he wasn’t acting, Payne pursued a second career as a thrilller writer, and this was his first book. He was pretty good, although all eleven of his novels are long out of print This is a fairly close adaption, although it does miss out on a lot of the in-jokes that litter Payne’s writing (at one point the two coppers search for a suspect at the cinema showing THE TROLLENBERG TERROR and can’t work out where they’ve seen the young male lead of the 50s sci-fi flick).

  10. They’ve de-quirked the along with removing the in-jokes, almost as if they were afraid of being too interesting…

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