“The filthiest man I ever met!”
This was my late friend, assistant director Lawrie Knight’s recollection of Ken Hughes, who once sub-let a flat from Lawrie, and had to be turned out after complaints from the landlady about his rowdy and disgusting ways. Infuriatingly, I know no more about this.
Hughes, best remembered as director of children’s perennial CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, began his career with a lot of little thrillers, and as a BANG BANG fan I always wanted to see some of these. Turns out several can be downloaded and there are collectors of obscure UK stuff who have accumulated others. So I got my sweaty mits on CONFESSION and, even more excitingly, THE ATOMIC MAN.
“This film is f*cked,” protested Fiona, pronouncing the asterisk very distinctly, at first sight of the fuzzy copy of CONFESSION, and refused to watch it. I persevered, partly through an interest in Sydney Chaplin. Son of the rather more famous Charles, Syd always appears as a passionate and interesting witness in documentaries about his dad’s life, so I was intrigued to see if he had the same impact as a screen actor. Not quite, sadly. Maybe he had to grow into his talent, and by the time he had, the heat had gone out of his acting career. As a youngster, Sydney was a strikingly handsome fellow, like a beefier version of Chaplin Snr, but his looks had faded a little by the time he appeared in Hughes 1955 crime thriller, as a crook who tries to kill the priest who heard the confession of a man he killed… it’s complicated, but at any rate he doesn’t have sufficient faith in the sanctity of the confessional.
It’s not a strong film, alas. The climax, with a convincingly gruesome death plummet (you hardly ever see bodies actually hit the ground in these things, which always frustrated me as a bloodthirsty kid, but Hughes plays faitr and includes the final earthly impact) is pretty good, as our baddie is blasted from the belfry by swinging bells — killed by God! And the first killing, set to the screeching of a nearby train, is pretty dynamic and effective. But too much of the film is just our man ambling around, not feeling particularly guilty as far as we can see, and not taking any dramatic action, nefarious of otherwise, to resolve his problems.
Reviewers liken the movie to Hitchcock’s I CONFESS, and say that the narrative problem is a tricky one — how to spin a compelling drama out of the priest’s conundrum? But Hitchcock makes that problem work just fine (I’m sure it works even better for Catholics) — his real problem is with a priest as hero. No romance, really. No humour, much. Hughes, who scripted his own movie, uses the priest as a minor plot device, and isn’t really exercised by the same issue, but fails to come up with a compelling dramatic problem to replace the priest’s. He doesn’t even seem to have really decided who his main character is. Clearly it ought to be former Hollywood bad boy Sydney, but Hughes seems reluctant to make an out-and-out villain his hero. A shame.
THE ATOMIC MAN has a lot more momentum and panache and silliness. Set in a Britain bursting with Americans, including a loutish Gene Nelson (“Delaney”) and a peevish Faith Domergue (“Lebowski”), it details the enigma of a man hauled from the Thames with a bullet in his back, whose presence causes photos to fog and who resurrects after pronounced dead. Is it Jesus? No, Jesus was not atomic. This guy is atomic.
They try to x-ray him, but he ends up x-raying them, or something.
Wait, if he can’t be photographed, how come we can see him in this film?
My enjoyment was marred slightly by this copy being even more f*cked than CONFESSION. It looks like the print, which is scratchy and embossed at several points with a giant apostrophe –
– has been projected onto choppy water and then video-taped by an ancient camera whose tube has been scorched repeatedly by Arthur C. Clarke’s laser. It’s like watching a movie from inside Fritz Lang’s lung.
Never mind that, is it good?
Better say diverting. But there’s one hugely enjoyable conceit — our atomic fellow has been mentally blasted 7 seconds into the future: though his body remains in the here and now, his mind is there and then, which means he tends to answer questions before they’re asked. This blows rather a big hole in the concept of free will if you ask me, which I notice you’re not. If he answers your question, doesn’t that mean you’re now compelled to ask it?
A similar space-time infarction seems to be taking place when, in the midst of all this sci-fi espionage (fat Brazilian spymaster, plastic surgeon, impostor, project to transmute base metals), Barry and Domergue are interrupted mid-muse by the spectre of Charles Hawtrey, CARRY ON-film regular, giving exactly the same comic performance of dirty-minded gay schoolboy that he would give in countless low comedies for Rank. He bursts through a door and snaps “‘ello ‘ello, what’s going on ‘ere, I wouldn’t be surprised!” and his appearance smacks so much of refugee-from-another-film syndrome that it’s doubly surprising when anyone else actually acknowledges his presence. One had assumed he was the result of a printing error at the lab.
When the explanation for the time-shift comes along, it’s insanely protracted, hideously convoluted, and utterly nonsensical. Starting from the semi-sensible springboard idea of the character having been clinically dead for 7 seconds, the neuro-psychologist mouthpiece character delivering the expos soon finds himself on very thin ice, and shortly thereafter at the bottom of a wintry pond of pseudo-science and 14-carot baloney. But I found it enjoyable.
Alec C. Snowden, who produced and fronted for Joseph Losey on what I call THE INTIMATE FINGER, produced this one as well. Good!
This has been a Fever Dream Double Feature.