Things I Read Off the Screen in “Rotten to the Core”

Really enjoyed this — a genuinely bitter, genuinely funny comedy from the Boulting Brothers, which crosses the stylistic approach of their 60’s satires (PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, I’M ALRIGHT JACK) with the conventions of the caper movie (the military-style heist of THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN seems the most obvious comparison).

The Boultings, Brighton-born twins, were pillars of the establishment (my friend Lawrie observed that John — or was it Roy? — became much friendlier when he spotted Lawrie’s old school tie: “What a bloody snob!” he thought) so their satires are aimed at, basically, everyone else. Foreigners are figures of fun, the working class are thugs and shirkers, industrialists are venal fools, the army are just idiots, etc. And everyone is out for themselves. It’s a darker world view even than Ealing’s subversively scathing THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, where the comedy provides a gentle gloss over the underlying savagery.

One of the reasons this 1965 movie fits into the “Things I Read…” approach is that the Boultings use “funny names” quite a bit, as well as spoof slogans, tying their humour into the Carry On tradition. One might even say the Dickens tradition, but perhaps that’s going a bit far.

BEFORE ENTERING, PLEASE READ NOTICE. Dudley Sutton, centre, was in my first film. Having appeared in working class realist dramas such as THE LEATHER BOYS, he represents a strain of modernity inserting itself into the traditional British comedy.

The convoluted narrative centres on three hopeless career criminals, “Jelly” Knight (Dudley Sutton, all huge sleepy turtle eyes), “Scapa” Flood (James Beckett, a weasel standing on its dignity) and Lenny the Dip (Kenneth Griffith, startled Welsh gerbil), who get out of stir to find that their boss, the Duke, has passed away, having eaten up their loot in medical bills. This information comes by way of the Duke’s girl, a 19-year-old Charlotte Rampling.

Glamour girl Rampling, a former model new to cinema (she debuted in a bit role in THE KNACK earlier in ’65) carries herself well, and makes the greatest impression with her teeth, which are pearly and look very sharp and are generally bared, as is quite a bit of the rest of her. It’s a promising early lead, but gives little hint of the legend that would arise.

Now things get complicated. Rampling is dating a dim-witted Scottish army officer (Ian Bannen, snaggle-toothed and bulbous-headed), who is responsible for delivering the salaries of thousands of men on maneuvers. And the Duke is not dead — he’s pulled a Harry Lime stunt and is plotting this Great Train Robbery from a fake health spa.

The Duke is Anton Rodgers, a familiar face on UK TV, but not somebody I’d ever paid much attention to. Here he turns out to be very good. He’s a loathsome protagonist, if one can even call him protag, with a genuinely vicious bite to his performance. he does that familiar British comedy trick of descending several rungs of the class ladder in a single sentence, usually with an accompanying rise in volume, but it’s nothing like Kenneth Williams’ version of the device. Rodgers is actually a little scary, and very unpleasant. Is it possible for a comedy to get away with being this hostile to all its characters? just about, it seems.

The most pleasant figure is possibly the private eye following Rampling on behalf of her respectable father, who fears she’s in with a bad crowd. Dad is Peter Vaughan, who it seems was never young, and the PI is Eric Sykes, whose talents for scene-stealing via visual comedy tics make him a welcome addition to the mise-en-scene. (Said m-e-s is compromised in  my copy since the CinemaScope frame is trimmed to 16:9 for TV broadcast. Sigh.) Sykes is actually key to unravelling the whole heist, since his involvement alerts Thorley Walters of Scotland Yard to the fact that the Duke is alive, that he has the whole criminal underworld working for him, and that his attentions are centered on Sgt Bannen.

The thieves’ gang tests our heroes’ aptitude with a computer ripped off from Jodrell Bank (home of Britain’s biggest radra telescopes, and a source of smutty humour since “Jodrell Bank” is, like “J Arthur Rank,” routinely used as cockney rhyming slang for “wank.”) Beckett scores 2, (“FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: BOOKIE’S RUNNER) Sutton gets 1, (“FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: NIL”) while Griffth causes the machine to combust, as a printout declares “FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: CHURCH OR ARMY.”

It’s an elaborate storyline, faithful to the Boulting’s tradition of peppering their films with unusual accents (how often was Northern Irish heard in British films not directly related to “the troubles”?) and colourful supporting characters. As in the earlier satires, even the regular silly jokes are notably abrasive: Sykes, disguised as a street-sweeper, mistakenly empties a shovel-full of dirt and garbage into a baby’s pram. One nice moment involves “the arms” — these are spoken of with shame and despair, since they are only to be deployed when respectable heists have failed to yield any income. Cut to Kenneth Griffith, reading the Daily Mail with a pair of false arms, while his real fingers are deployed picking pockets. This is where he discovers the Duke is alive — he tries to rob the wrong bloke, and the Duke sets fire to his newspaper, and thence to “the arms” — Griffith extinguishes his flaming extremities and lopes off, the dead limbs bouncing at his sides, simian-fashion.

“The arms” are key — they provide the film with a remarkably bitter ending. Everything has gone wrong.  The heist fails, the money is recaptured, and even stealing a tank in order to break the loot out of the bank doesn’t work (the tank falls through the floor, an impressive bit of large-scale slapstick).  Rampling’s dad is packing her off to the North, where she’s clearly going to be miserable. She feels something. It’s the Duke, picking her pocket. He’s wearing the arms. He steals a valuable keepsake he’d given her earlier. She gives him a pitying look. He hurries away, “arms” tragically akimbo.

30 Responses to “Things I Read Off the Screen in “Rotten to the Core””

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Ah, darling Charlotte in her first major movie role! She wound up making ROTTEN TO THE CORE when Polanski decided not to cast her in CUL DE SAC. According to his autobiography, she was lovely but ‘lacked acting experience’. Or maybe certain other ladies were a tad more ‘obliging’.

  2. I think he did get on very well with Jackie Bissett, not that that had anything to do with casting, obviously.

  3. (snerk!) Next time I see Jackie I must ask her about Polanski.

    The Boulting Brothers films were recieved as ripping satirical comedies by U.S. critics, though frankly they were all about making shallow fun of people, and nothing more.

    They were the Coens of their day.

  4. Shallow fun? What about “Heavens Above” – The New Testament with Jesus recast as a Brummie Peter Sellers proving that a) the chief flaw in Christianity is Christians and therefore b) the only useful place for Jesus is outer space? The Coens’ films are never angry in this way, the Boultings by contrast do actually seem to care about their subject and the fun they make is far more powerful.

  5. And what about The Family Way? Unless my memory is playing tricks, it was a lovely, affectionate portrait of working class life in the sixties with some great performances. Give me the Boultings over the Coens any day.

  6. I remember when seeing I’m All Right, Jack, while watching the workers, I flashed back to a bit of dialog from (I think) Yes, Prime Minister where Sir Frank was inveighing against the British working class “Fundamentally lazy, wants something for nothing”, which seemed to square with how the Boultings looked at them as well. Having been used by management to do work that had nothing to do with my job (and not paying me a penny more for it even if it required my University training), I couldn’t exactly sympathize with that attitude. Total satire is one of those things where I can laugh while watching it, but it often leaves me with nothing afterward. Yes, quite like the Coens.

  7. The Coens comparison is interesting… I guess the Boultings are more angry and… despairing, even, so I’d agree with Simon. They do come from an establishment position, but the films are pretty clear about the fact that management and the state are unworthy of anybody’s respect, so the shiftlessness of the working-class characters is an understandable and even inevitable response.

    The authors of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister were totally devoted Tories whose stated goal was the destruction of the welfare state.

    The Boulting satire that probably leaves the strongest afterglow is I’m Alright Jack, for the unintended reason that Peter Sellers’ towering performance actually generates sympathy for Fred Kite the man, even as his politics are everything the Boultings loathe.

  8. It’s true that Kite is the only one who really believes in anything and is actually conscientious in protecting his workers (Sellers is really convincing in being the only one with any ethics – he’s really absorbed in improving their lot, not just his own), the rest of them seem to live by the code that is the title of the film), but the Boultings seemed to consider him stupid for being that way – the TV broadcast was where they’re having their fun with him, as if he could be that inarticulate.

    I was a aware of the Tory leanings of the Minster/Prime Minister series (I saw them on PBS a few years after they aired in Britain), but often times reality stepped on their jokes, proving them wrong. I would often snicker at things the show would want me to take straight. I think I laughed loudest at the one with Eleanor Bron in it, where she left government because corporations were a less sexist meritocracy than the civil service! I was on the floor, it was so ridiculous.

  9. The inarticulacy of trade union leaders was a standing joke in the UK up to the Thatcher era, when they kind of disappeared from the news. it derived from the fact that they could speak to their men quite effectively, but in a more public forum they tended to reach for a higher style of prose, with garbled results. I recall one real-life example: “We want to know the reasons… for the motives… that they are doing to us!”

    So Fred Kite isn’t that implausible. He’s at his most moving when his wife and daughter turn on him, I think. And Irene Handl is another great actor, one who can’t help but be sympathetic whatever the role. She must have been at least 20 years older than Sellers, too.

  10. Ah, I see. Culture clash. Union leaders in the US in the ’60s weren’t generally like that. Some number of them were mobbed up, but the companies they dealt with were quite often mobbed up as well (something that people who recount the era tend to forget – the mob was laundering money in a number of different ways, through labor and industry).

  11. The Coens come from an establishment position — though no one in our famously “classless society” ever mentions that fact. (“It’s for the kids”)

    If you want a real satire of Christianty see Bedazzled (the original, not the remake) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian. They’re both excellent — though neither comes to grips with the fact that Jesus Christ was a flesh-eating zombie (it’s right there in the gospels — I don’t make this stuff up)

  12. Life of Brian really got under people’s skins, didn’t it? And yet I can’t recall any of its critics engaging with its message (which is basically that people should think for themselves rather than relying on faith) — it was enough that the Pythons had put Christ in a vulgar comedy.

    The ending of Bedazzled is a startlingly bleak cosmic joke.

    The Boultings’ Heavens Above! is basically a comedy version of Bunuel’s Nazarin, demonstrating that a genuinely saintly man cannot possibly hope for a career in the church. And it bypassed condemnation because the hero was a sympathetic priest!

  13. The original Bedazzled is my favourite Swinging London film. Satan to God, “You’re unbelievable!“, God laughs in wicked delight in response. Life of Brian is a basically harmless satire. I find it interesting that the former didn’t raise any brows while the latter, which for me is milder, raised people’s ire. Society is really schizoid. I am no fan of It’s All Right, Jack! but Peter Selllars is great in that film.

    Jesus as Zombie, there’s a bit of that in The Last Temptation of Christ where Jesus plucks out his heart and in the last supper scene in that film(by the way the first representation in visual arts that features women at the event) when he says this bread is my flesh and this wine is my blood, real blood percolates in the wine. Although that’s more vampire than zombie. Paul Schrader, who has a Ph. D in theology, said that early Christianity was a blood cult at its roots bound by sacrifice and slaughter, it revolved around the body and the wounds done to it and hence the strong sexual hysteria Christianity seems to provoke which all you Ken Russell fans know perfectly well. The heart scene was his contribution by the way.

    Nazarin isn’t about a good priest not functioning in the Church. Nazario travels individually on foot like a monk begging for food as he passes. And he’s also a rational priest, insisting people go to the doctors when they ask him to cure. Bunuel in this film and Viridiana is questioning the meaning and position of honest, earnest and real Christianity in society. Viridiana for instance leaves the convent and starts her own mission and shelter, she’s not functioning in a Church hierarchy at all. In Nazarin the priest finds himself increasingly irrelevant and doomed and defeated every way he goes and he has what Bunuel called, “a moment of doubt” at the end about God but he finds his answer in the last scene and the drums of Calanda sound off.

  14. It’s pretty remarkable that Stanley Donen was able to function so well in the 60s — for a while (see Staircase for the grisly end of his success), but then he was incredibly young when he started his MGM career.

    The thing with Life of Brian and Last Temptation is, they use Jesus and the Virgin, who Catholics take very seriously, and feel a proprietary interest in. Whereas Bedazzled is about God and the Devil, who nobody really takes seriously. You can say what you like about God. Silly, isn’t it?

  15. Stanley Donen’s two British films – Bedazzled and Two for the Road are probably his best solo efforts. Don’t forget that Charade and Arabesque were big hits. So it might not be much of a surprise.

    Donen was personally an atheist which might account for the wit of that film as well as the belief that modern man as represented by Dudley Moore needs to rely on himself rather than God or the Devil. But in that film Satan is much more sympathetic and likable than he is anywhere else. One interesting thing about Bedazzled is that it’s the first time the Faust myth was applied to the common working man and as such, Dudley Moore doesn’t want eternal knowledge or world power but just some luck in his love life. It’s a Faust story not centred on power. In the US remake, the character is a middle-class guy working in an office taking away much of the charm of the original.

  16. David E, have you actually seen “Heavens Above”? Incident for incident it is the “Life of Christ” recasting the sniffy, middle-classes as persecutors and I genuinely think it wins the “real satire of Christianity” crown. Again though, maybe culture clash.
    Or maybe it’s simply a satire of Christians (as was “Life of Brian”… I’m not sure “Bedazzled” is really a satire of anything. Still brilliant though.)

  17. Bedazzled is a 60s satire about the 60s not unlike Petulia. It’s about a man for whom the sexual revolution seems to be happening around him but feels included out. So Satan represents everything that was supposed to be great about the 60s each of the wishes given in bargain for his immortal soul riffs on some aspect of English life at that time. And again the theme of the working man as Faust is quite unique given that it’s usually a scholar or artistic figure, here’s it’s the ordinary joe.

  18. Yes I sawHeaven’s Above when it came out. Like all Boulting films it’s suprerficially cheeky, but quite conformist at heart.

    Bunuel’s agressive blasphemy demands a discussion all by itself. He’s the primary theological scholar of film — La Voie Lactee being his Master’s Thesis. Coming up right behind him is Abel Ferrara’s Mary — which as I believe I’ve noted deals with (among many things) the fac that Mary Magdalene was an actual disciple and her gospel was expunged from the official “New Testament” as it’s the only one in which Jesus says he’s NOT “The Son of God” but simply a rabbi. She likewise had no truck with Zombie Jesus et. al.

  19. Apparently every aside and tangent in La voie lactee was based on actual Church history and some dialogue came from the records. Maybe he should have gone the full distance and put citations in the end credits. It has Jesus(played by Bernard Verley) as an overgrown man-child not unlike the way Brian is in the Monty Python film(and they were big fans of Don Luis) and the key scene is when Mary(Edith Scob, wonderful) tells Jesus not to shave as “you look good with the beard”. When that movie came out, Carlos Fuentes called it “an anti-religious war film” and Julio Cortazar accused it of being funded by the Vatican. It was also a big hit in France with the protestors.

    Thanks for the clip, David E. That was one of the funniest scenes in that film.

  20. Bear in mind that the true voice behind Bedazzled is that of Peter Cook. Donen was working as a terrific interpreter of Cook’s ideas.

    Never been able to stand most of Two for the Road. Great photography and some excellent scenes, but Raphael’s script is frightfully arch.

  21. Arch in what sense? For me it was this wonderful film about marriage and for me it was interesting that it dealt with what is a happy marriage. And the use of layered flashbacks which is divided in time but keeps them in the same repititive space was well done. It’s a gimmick yes but it works perfectly and it’s demanded by the script. Raphael’s Darling may be arch and unsure about what it’s trying to target, apparently we are supposed to see Julie Christie as a warning but she’s the only real sympathetic figure in the film but this film works well.

    Donen did great work with gifted collaborators throughout his career of course and I was reacting mainly to the way the direction responds to Peter Cook’s satire. But yeah Peter Cook was definitely the guy who did that kind of comedy and made it work.

  22. Yes, John Schlesinger started out with the idea that Julie Christie’s character was a monster, but then she was such a sympathetic performer he realized that would never work.

    I just remember most of the dialogue in Two for the Road being insufferably… arch. There’s that great sequence with the appalling family though.

    A great shame Cook didn’t write more movies, but he settled into a kind of comfortable non-productivity interrupted by brief blazes of genius. He seems to have been happy to give up ambition. You should check out his Clive Anderson talk show appearance, where he plays all the guests, an incredible feat of improvised wizardry.

  23. david wingrove Says:

    My main memory of TWO FOR THE ROAD is of Audrey Hepburn in a stunning Paco Rabanne gown made entirely of silver discs! It was in the very last scene, so you had to wait an eternity for it to show up.

    Also, a year or so after seeing the film, I found myself driving through France. Desperate for a place to stay that night, we turned off the road and found ourselves at the very same chateau/B&B where Audrey and Al had stayed on one of their journeys.

    As soon as we got to the end of the drive, I had an eerie sense of deja vu – and then, suddenly, I realised why the place looked so familiar. It was totally unpretentious and surprisingly cheap…so we were able to feel like movie stars on a shoestring budget!

    Alas, I can’t remember the name of the chateau or even what the nearest town was. But I’d much rather spend a holiday there than try and sit through TWO FOR THE ROAD a second time.

    David E, isn’t it a bit cruel to ask La Bisset about Polanski? I mean, YUCK! The things a poor girl has to do to get a job!

  24. Polanski has already written of his fling with JB during Cul-de-Sac, saying that he was sure she wouldn’t mind him talking about it. Apparently she was the one bright spot of filming on Lindisfarne, where the locals entertained themselves by shooting rats with a cannon full of shrapnel.

  25. david wingrove Says:

    Personally, I think I’d rather shoot rats than shag Roman Polanski…but, hey, Jackie, whatever floats your boat!

  26. “I’d rather shoot rats than shag Roman Polanski” sounds like it should be (1) the title for an autobiography (and it would work with just about anybody) (2) inscribed on a tombstone (3) the central credo of a major political party.

  27. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Re: Darling. I read that the story was possibly based on the life of pop artist/model/actress Pauline Boty and her affair with Philip Saville (played by Dirk Bogaerde). Apparently most of swinging London was aware of this and half-expected her to get the part. But she was turned down at audition.

    Pauline appeared in Ken Russell’s Monitor programme ‘Pop Goes the Easel’ and it has been written that it was pretty sexist how she was made to act (frightened, running down a corridor) while Peter Blake and the rest were mainly painting and talking about art.

  28. Russell certainly lacks feminist credentials. On the other hand, I think he got inspired by Boty as a character in a way he wasn’t by the other artists — so he makes her sequence dramatic rather than purely documentary.

    This is Saville the TV director? He’s had a very long career, not quite distinguished but clearly successful and profitable. His TV Dracula has a magnificent performance from Jack Shepherd as Renfield. Now, Renfield is a character who ALWAYS works (like Goebbels!), but Shepherd may be the best ever.

  29. Jenny Eardley Says:

    The very same. I’d like to watch that, just imdb’d it and it has Louis Jourdan as Dracula too. I bet he’s good.

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