Officer Class

“Come for Guinness, stay for Mills,” Randy Cook had told us — so we did. Ronald Neame’s film of James Kennaway’s play still has a foot in theatre, and might have been more suited to b&w, but Stirling Castle looks attractive, both as a real edifice and a glass painting, and Neame films his actors acting with impressive fluidity and occasional bursts of real dynamism.

The plot deals with a battle for control of a Highland regiment. Mills has survived a Japanese POW camp in the war and his nerves are frazzled: on the surface he’s a martinet but just below that he’s damaged goods. Guinness is a war hero who doesn’t want to give up his acting command and resents any change to the way things have always been done in his time.

Both actors are magnificent — both get to do potentially showy nervous breakdown stuff. Their methods are very nearly opposite, however. Guinness originally had the other role, but swapped and suggested Mills to take his part. He’s very clever, very technical, he DOES a lot. It’s all first-class: his grin, conveying Cheshire-cat self-satisfaction, is at the same time terrifyingly psychopathic. His Scottish accent isn’t 100% convincing — very few were, in former years, but it’s specific and consistent. (Susannah York as his daughter gives her voice just the merest suggestion of a lilt.) You do notice that the actors who can talk in their own voices are able to be more natural, even when they’re also quite BIG (Angus Lennie is very funny; but there’s terrific low-key work from Gordon Jackson and Duncan MacRae).

Mills carries off the honours with a performance of slowly crumbling resolve and shredded nerves that’s just appallingly real. “My jaw is hanging open!” exclaimed Fiona after one close-up. You realise that Neame, never a showy filmmaker, lacking the brilliant flashes of his old chum Lean, was deeply attuned to performance (his partnership with Guinness was no doubt a great learning opportunity), profoundly sensitive to the dramatic values of a scene.

Mills’ breakdown is all performance, carefully observed and truly felt. Guinness’ follow-up show is a march off a cliff with orchestral accompaniment: composer Malcolm KWAI Arnold provides the titular pipe band martial music echoing in the characters’ head and spilling out onto the soundtrack. An expressionist touch that’s properly alarming, as it’s unlike anything else in the film — a highly effective signal that CONTROL IS BEING LOST.

Zeitgeist-based theories of national cinema can get a little spooky, a little superstitious, but I can’t shake the feeling that during and after WWII, and during the mid-sixties to the early seventies, the standard of British filmmaking rose tremendously, influenced by political and cultural events and the activities of certain key artists — so that the kind of filmmakers who would normally have been doing decent, sensitive work started doing GREAT work. Neame’s directing career only got started in ’47 and continued in ’50, so he more or less missed the first burst of energy (but was right in there as producer and cinematographer). And was too old and established by the time the sixties came around. So that I think his directing work, though very fine indeed, doesn’t get animated by the tremendous national enthusiasms that Lean and Powell & Pressburger were at the heart of, and the Boultings and Launder & Gilliatt and others surfed in the forties.

So I feel a sense of “It might have been” with Neame. But he’s really, really good.

TUNES OF GLORY stars Gulley Jimson; Professor Bernard Quatermass; Bertram Tracepurcel; Nellie Goode; Lord Alfred Douglas; Eliza Fraser; MacDonald ‘Intelligence’; Jim MacKenzie, Granddaddy; Grogan and Sgt. Grogan; Scuttling; 3rd Officer – Carpathia; Henry Strangeways; Scarlatti; Col. Etienne Gerard (Hussars of Conflans); Ives ‘The Mole’; Professor Bernard Quatermass; Miss Marple; and Mr. Mackay

3 Responses to “Officer Class”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I interview Neame HERE, along with Jackie Bisett, Michael York and Barbara Steele. Neame was a delight to with.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    What an evocative article, David E. I believe Moorcock says similar things about L.A. to San Francisco in LETTERS FROM HOLLYWOOD. As for yesterdays post, David C.

    “John Mills lives in a midget submarine, midget submarine, midget submarine.
    Dirk don’t want to be in a midget submarine…..
    So he can send it “beneath us the waves”….

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Merci! J’adore Moorcock.

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