Archive for November 16, 2022

Dickie Amuck

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 16, 2022 by dcairns

The same night (Saturday, at our online film club — join us?) we ran WITNESS IN THE DARK, we also looked at THE MAN UPSTAIRS, and it was an excellent night. TMU himself is the late Sir Dickie Lord Attenborough, gone berserk in a cheap flat, and beseiged by cops while his fellow lodgers try to decide amongst themselves whether to band together and help him.

It’s a knock-off of LE JOUR SE LEVE or THE LONG NIGHT, but instead of Marcel Carne or Anatole Litvak in charge it has Don Chaffey, distinctly of the B-list but he does all right here. He’s known for his Harryhausens, SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and ONE MILLIONS YEARS BC, two of my favourites, and he was headhunted by Disney which maybe kept him away from more thematically ambitious works, but here he’s on top form, apparently relishing the limitations of shooting in and around a single building. Some great angles skilfully used.

TMU is evidently a much more lavish production than WITNESS IN THE DARK, even if it keeps things small. It has proper production design, giving it a sense both of solidity and social authenticity. Admittedly, the crowd gathered outside is rather tiny, and has to be swelled by the rather noticeable presence of Dickie’s chum Bryan Forbes (at least, I think it’s him. Could be Syd Chaplin). So nobody gets clobbered with a bicycle in the crush, it wouldn’t be credible. Asides from Attenborough, there’s Bernard Lee as the mulish copper who wants to barge in with tear gas, surely precipitating tragedy, and Donald Houston as the sympathetic shrink trying to de-escalate the situation. And there’s Virginia Maskell, Kenneth Griffith, Edward Judd (way down the cast as a secondary constable) and other persons of interest.

The conflict about how to tackle mental health crises when they impact public order is still timely — the police have very little training in this important part of their job (I think they get about a day) and they’re not always inclined to thoughtful or sensitive approaches (you don’t need ANY academic qualifications to join the fuzz in this country). If you were going to design a service purely to deal with mental health crises, it wouldn’t greatly resemble the police.

This all plays out neatly through interpersonal conflict between Lee and Houston. A British film in 1954 wasn’t about to diss the police for corruption or brutality, but suggesting they can be stupid or misguided was still pretty bold. And this kind of conflict is great to make Houston look good, in his duffel coat, and to get the audience agitated, which we were.

The film is less successful in piecing together Attenborough’s character’s backstory — we get very interested by the pills he’s on, by the fact that he’s a government research scientist involved with nuclear physics — but we don’t find out anything that could serve as a commentary on the bomb, militarism, or society. The neighbours organizing to help him seem motivated by the fact that he’s an educated, middle-class chap, not some yob. In the era of the angry young man, Attenborough is a perturbed middle-aged man.

But the tension is raised nicely — there’s almost no music, just the opening titles and some very faint rhythmic sounds during the final countdown to surrender or death. It’s all done with story, performance, lighting and framing (by Gerald Gibbs who shot WHISKY GALORE!), and editing (John Trumper, who cut GET CARTER). A slight overuse of the cucalorus, but those abstract, unmotivated shadows are lovely so I can’t begrudge them.