Pinky on Parade

Lionel “Pinky” Atwill displays his enantiodromic approach to acting.

Interest in Thorold Dickinson seems to be on a continual rise, which is a good thing in my book. Now we have his first feature as solo director available, THE HIGH COMMAND. Produced  by Fanfare Films, a fly-by-night outfit who ceased trading after their single movie, it’s a military mystery/courtroom drama starring Lionel “Pinky” Atwill as a general with a shady past, Lucie Mannheim (THE 39 STEPS) as the rich wife of pathologically jealous Steven Geray, and a young, skinny James Mason as a dashing officer who romances her. It all comes to a head when a sleazy British military doctor is murdered, and the events take place in a West African colony on the Gold Coast.

Despite a meagre budget, Dickinson insisted on grabbing some authentic location shots, and he folds them into the studio stuff with cunning, if transparent artifice. His background as an editor reveals itself with jokey use of sound and snazzy transitions, and if the plot is a somewhat contrived affair (last-minute re-writes were required to appease the censor, who objected to anything showing British officers in a bad light), it’s consistently entertaining.

Otto (PEEPING TOM) Heller’s cinematography produces some striking moments, and even the sequence where documentary shots of a firelit native ceremony is intercut with studio closeups of the Brit stars is reasonable effective. The trouble is, of course, that the location material has unavoidable rough edges, which nobody would dream of replicating in the studio material, so a certain clash of styles is inevitable. One appreciates the effort, though, and Dickinson’s foreign travel opened his eyes to the realities of colonial life, which fed into the film’s lightly satiric attitude.

In particular, Graham Greene’s review singled out a scene where a colossal gust of wind blasts through the colonial club while the national anthem is being played, and nobody can close a window or suppress a billowing tablecloth as everybody’s too bust standing to attention. My Dad reports than in the ‘forties, during his film-going youth, the national anthem was played at the end of every programme at the local Odeon, and there’d be a stampede by the audience to get out before it started, otherwise you’d be stuck standing to attention for the full six verses. It’s fascinating: everybody knew it would be disrespectful not to stand, but it was considered perfectly respectful to elbow your way out of the auditorium at high speed to avoid standing.

These Britons are crazy.

Buy THE HIGH COMMAND here: The High Command [DVD]

17 Responses to “Pinky on Parade”

  1. Thorold Dickinson, the man who directed Anton Walbrook in two of his best roles, GASLIGHT and THE QUEEN OF SPADES. I knew that name seemed familiar. This one looks like a goodie. Your second frame grab is indeed striking.

  2. It’s an energetic potboiler — less than the sum of its parts, maybe, but what parts!

    Dickinson had co-directed several films at this point, I think basically advising the directors on how to shoot for smooth cutting (TD was an editor originally). This solo outing shows his ambition to do something more interesting with montage, after many years working with less adventurous filmmakers, Maurice Elvey, Sinclair Hill, Basil Dean…

  3. In India, over the last six years you have the national anthem playing before the movie. Which leads some people to come deliberately at the last minute, exactly before the film starts.

    Thorold Dickinson is a terrific talent and its great that some of his movies are becoming available. ‘The Queen of Spades’ is a real masterpiece.

  4. One of his co-directed efforts, Shikari, appears to be an Indian production, but I don’t know anything about it beyond what’s here —

  5. Hopefully it’s not lost!

  6. Yeah… most of the others have made it, so there’s a chance. Java Head just got a DVD release — not too interesting, but it does have Anna May Wong.

  7. This serves to remind me that I must investigate Dickson more. I’m of course familiar with his Walbrook masterpieces but there’s clearly much else. Lionel Atwill was largely relegated to “Mad Scientist” parts in B movies at the end. But he shines gloriously in Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman

  8. Christopher Says:

    I always thought Atwill got a bum deal being typcast as Mad Scientists and frankenstein police inspectors ..It was never so much that I saw him as just those like some other actors who got stuck in the same roles.He appeared as if he could have blended into any range at any time,given the chance.

  9. He gets a bit of tear-jerking to do here, which is fairly startling.

    Dickenson’s Secret People struck me as really interesting, anticipating LeCarre’s gloomy take on spycraft, and I’ve still to see his Israeli picture, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer.

  10. Christopher Says:

    .on the other hand,from an armchair spectator point of view,I can’t think of a better gig than being typecast in Universal horrors when I’m not being a villain on loan to other studios.

  11. Vincent Price always claimed typecasting was an actor’s dream, since it meant one was always in demand. Unimaginative producers and directors need never be in doubt how to cast.

  12. SECRET PEOPLE ought to have an audience for being Audrey Hepburn’s actual first film. Although her appearance in the frame story of THE LAVENDER HILL MOB ought to count as well.

  13. That’s how Secret People is usually discussed. But it’s a powerful, sombre film — anticipating those that emerged in reaction against James Bond’s flippancy.

  14. I remember the anthem being played in Irish cinemas after the last show when I was younger, possibly until I was in college in the early 1990s (I doubt I would have been to the last show too often before then), and when I was in Kenya for a research project three years one of the cinemas played the anthem at the end of the screening, too. Of course, no-one told me so I had to stand through the whole thing in company with two ushers and some guy in the front row.

  15. Heh. It’s a strange custom: we know we’re supposed to feel patriotism, but why in the cinema and not in restaurants or toilets?

  16. Ssh, don’t give people ideas.

  17. Standing to attention while the anthem is played in the toilet might cause problems, especially for one half of the population.

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