Snarl-Up

Orson Welles may have called John Guillermin “one of the truly outstanding incompetents” and a viewing of the Franco-Anglo-Irish director’s KING KONG movies might seem to bear that out, but I can’t help but feel there’s some merit there, in the earlier works, indicating that while some are born incompetent, others go on to achieve incompetence.

My late friend Lawrie knew Guillermin quite well. On noticing one of the maestro’s lesser works, EL CONDOR, in his Radio Times, I started to read the synopsis: “Slick, nasty and superficial…” “That’s John!” declared Lawrie jubilantly, but with a certain affectionate indulgence.

Talking Pictures TV kindly screened NEVER LET GO (1960), an earlier Guillermin, from when he had B-picture zest. It’s certainly slick, nasty and superficial, but it’s also very effective. Fiona was WILDLY enthusiastic about it. It has no really appealing characters, but it’s relentless, event-packed, and looks and sounds great, thanks to Powell & Pressburger photographer Christopher Challis and new composer on the block John Barry. But what really tips it over the edge is a ferocious performance by Peter Sellers, another of Orson’s favourite people (“Where’s our thin friend today?”) in, I believe, his first serious role.

Richard Todd plays a cosmetics salesman whose car is stolen by a gang of hoodlums led by Adam Faith (the best pop-star actor, I’d say, and a uniquely naturalistic one — he’s also fantastic in BEAT GIRL, the other great Barry-scored exploitation romp of 1960. Todd has staked his whole future on this uninsured Ford Anglia, and slowly transforms from a meek, bespectacled underdog (he’s worked out a very good, unassuming/defeated WALK) to a would-be Paul Kersey, bristling at Scotland Yard’s slow-but-sure investigation and taking the fight to the “legitimate businessman,” Sellers, who deals in hot vehicles.

There’s also good work by Carol White, the Battersea Bardot, in a somewhat thankless early role. Faith gets to alternately menace and be menaced, whereas White is entirely put-upon, a care home girl Sellers has taken as mistress, installing her in a downmarket shagging palace and leering over her with panting, bared-teeth menace. It’s an electrifying performance from him: when an actor goes all-out to be repellant, and has such resources, the effect is overwhelming. Guillermin’s dramatic low angles emphasise the pudginess of Sellers’ “jawline,” while the actor makes full use of his thin lips and sharp little teeth to suggest the lurking sadism of this mediocre criminal. He also plays it with a suppressed northern accent, hinting at the character’s social aspirations, along with his constant reiteration that he’s got a “legitimate business.”

“I know the term ‘fight in a warehouse’ is supposed to be pejorative…” said Fiona, as Todd and Sellers try to tear each other apart in a garage at the end. The whole place is a death trap, with big jeroboams of battery acid (never used: just planted there to terrify us) a descending car platform that threatens to crush Todd’s skull, chains and crowbars and planks with nails in…

If the film was as tough as it thinks it is, Todd’s car would have been totally trashed in the fight, Sellers would have been killed, and our vigilante hero would have been jailed for murder — instead, Sellers is only stunned, then arrested, and Todd goes home to his wife. But the happy ending is pretty crazy, considering the number of crimes he’s blatantly committed, and which the Yard has decided to sympathetically overlook. Still, at this stage in John Barry’s career, a filmmaker could do just about anything if he had that guy’s music to paper over the narrative cracks.

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5 Responses to “Snarl-Up”

  1. Whilst Never Let Go is an excellent film, Guillerman’s finest hour was realised in RAPTURE. A small masterpiece.

  2. And that’s a very strange film — not what you would think of as commercial, which most of his films brazenly are. And it has a really striking visual style which NLG can’t match, despite its energy and efficiency and noir look.

  3. It came out stateside just as he was being recognized as a major comedy star — and got a lot of notice because of that.

  4. Howard Curtis Says:

    Unable to sleep a few weeks ago, I switched on Talking Pictures TV at 6 a.m. and caught the beginning of an early John Guillermin B-film from the 50s called “The Smart Aleck”. Unremarkable stuff (I didn’t stay with it) except that it began with a series of striking high-angle and low-angle shots of a man approaching a block of flats, including one extraordinary high-angle shot looking down on a man sleeping on a balcony in the bottom of the frame with the rest of the frame taken up with the courtyard of the flats and a tiny figure looking up. A stunning image, which must have taken ages to set up and yet is on screen for a couple of seconds and not repeated. Guillermin clearly had visual flare, but what possessed him to show it off like this in a 60-minute B-film? Was he just trying to establish his credentials at the beginning of his career? (I don’t know much of his work, but do have a sneaking liking for his 1968 war film “The Bridge at Remagen”.)

  5. Haven’t seen this one. Beginning directors often throw in every trick they can think of in an attempt to get noticed. And, ironically, Guillermin here seems to be following Welles’ principle of cutting your most impressive and beautiful shots tighter than the rest, so the audience barely has time to appreciate them, and sits up and pays more attention.

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