Archive for Basil Dearden

Reach for the Moon

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2018 by dcairns

I haven’t been impressed by Basil Dearden’s comedies, though I like some of his dramas a lot. THE GREEN MAN seemed very disappointing for a black comedy with Alistair Sim, but admittedly Dearden was fired from that one so maybe it wasn’t his fault. His Benny Hill vehicle, WHO DONE IT? is really lame, but then Benny Hill didn’t have a star personality, was more a man of a thousand chubby faces, so he never made sense as a comic leading man.

And I’d heard that MAN IN THE MOON was REALLY bad, but of course that just made me curious. It’s co-written with Bryan Forbes, and another Dearden-Forbes collab, THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, is terrific, and very nearly a pure comedy itself. The star is Kenneth More, who can be effective in the right part — he certainly doesn’t ruin GENEVIEVE — so it seemed worth a go.

And yes, it’s curious… a strong supporting cast includes Shirley Anne Field, who keeps taking her clothes off, and does a great comedy voice; Michael Hordern; Norman Bird, John Glyn-Jones. Charles Gray plays an astronaut, and gets all the most eye-popping scenes.

I do tend to find More fairly charmless, and in this respect he’s quite well cast here, playing a saloon-bar bore who makes an easy living as a guinea pig in studies of the common cold: he seems to be immune, and puts his astonishing health down to a carefree attitude. This unusual profession allows us to meet him dozing in a bed in the middle of a field (part of an experiment) and the scene gets more dreamlike when Field crosses the field in full evening dress. Throughout this somewhat unsatisfactory film, we do get arresting images like this.

The story goes thus: bluff, hearty chump More is recruited by the British space program, NARSTI, to serve as a disposable space guinea pig, fired secretly at the moon to establish whether the going is safe for the specially trained, celebrated super-astronauts, led by Charles Gray (quite funny casting, this). The weirdest moment is when ground control use an isolation tank to brainwash Gray, who has become very hostile to More, resenting the fact that the untrained lout is going to be first on Luna. The brainwashing is a roaring success and Blofeld Gray emerges from the tank aglow with adoration for the baffled More. Well, first he seems sinister and inhuman, a clockwork orange, then he’s hyperanimated and childish with his schoolboy crush.

Dearden and Forbes seem to accept that the men from NARSTI — it’s not clear if they’re a state operation of a commercial one — are horrible, ruthless and would brainwash without a second thought, but they don’t seem to want to make a big satirical point of it — which marks them out as cynical but conservative, a bit like the Boultings.

At first, the casting of Gray as a hearty, athletic astronaut seems to make little sense, but in fact they know what they’re doing…

Unusually for a comedy, the tech and science approximate the real thing. Depressing that British cinema could only conceive of this subject in either farcical or monster-movie terms. This one would double-feature nicely with THE FIRST MAN INTO SPACE. But at least that cheesy B-movie seems to be sincere about something or other — the existential horror of man’s aloneness in the universe, I think. Death and decay. MAN IN THE MOON needs to find something to be serious about, to be an effective comedy.

Also, there are shots in it so nice, in a dramatic, pulp sci-fi way, that it makes you wish they’d made a wholly unironic film of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.

   

“Doctor? I’ve been searching for you… Everything seems strange and dark… I couldn’t find you! … Under this stuff, I feel like I’m suffering from some terrible disease… like I got no blood in my veins… I have no memory… Only an instinct to stay alive…until I found you… I’ve been groping my way through a maze of fear and doubt…”

The title, alas, is a cheat — More is blasted to Australia, not the moon, a fact he only realises when he encounters a tin of Heinz beans and a kangaroo.

 

Advertisements

Chart a Course for Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-10-17-12h11m39s67

Once saw the last half hour of THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME (1955) on TV and thought, That looked really good. Then forgot about it, mostly, and wasn’t even sure of the title, but when someone mentioned it in a comment here a while back, I remembered and made a mental note, and managed not to misplace it.

Basil Dearden directs, from a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat of THE CRUEL SEA fame. A British WWII gunboat sees active service, but after the war is bought up and used by three former crewmembers in a smuggling operation. In a semi-supernatural story element, the ship itself rebels against this dishonourable use. Dearden was very good with low-key occultism — he did some of the best work in compendium DEAD OF NIGHT, and THE HALFWAY HOUSE is not bad. His last film, THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF, is quite a bit cheesier, but its hoaky yarn of Roger Moore surviving a motorway crash only to be stalked by his doppelgänger gains a bit of atmosphere when you learn that Dearden himself subsequently perished in a smash-up on the same stretch of road depicted. Heart attack at the wheel.

vlcsnap-2015-10-17-12h09m34s94

Here, he has a very sweet romantic couple, George Baker and Virginia McKenna, but that doesn’t last long, and then the film belongs to the blokes, with Baker lured into sin by a mephistophelean Richard Attenborough. Bill Owen, Roland Culver and Bernard Lee class up the joint.

There are many Richard Attenboroughs — you could say he was underrated, or that some of his aspects were.

Stout, dependable Dickie barely gets a look-in here, except as a front for devious doings.

vlcsnap-2015-10-17-12h12m39s153

We do gets suggestive flashes of Psycho Dickie, the compelling front man of BRIGHTON ROCK and 10 RILLINGTON PLACE — Fiona’s favourite Dickie. She was shocked to find how sexy his Pinkie was. The dead-eyed lizard stare is something he does extremely well.

vlcsnap-2015-10-17-12h10m44s3

Shitty Dickie, however, is much to the fore — the same spiv-like wide-boy foregrounded in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, I’M ALRIGHT JACK, ONLY WHEN I LARF (for Dearden again). He’s awfully good at subverting his own pleasant persona. It’s often the way — actors who have a sweetness about them are always particularly loathsome when they get to play baddies. Tough guys in baddie roles are never so horrible (apart from Mitchum in CAPE FEAR). Think of Robin Williams; utterly unapologetic when cast as nasty pieces of work, but sometimes too ingratiating when playing sympathetic.

Baby Dickie, the limpid-eyed, star-child of the forties, is barely to be seen, the overlay of years having modified his Starchild face to something able to suggest a touch of the debauched.

Saint Dickie, the one who clones dinosaurs for all the children at Christmas, has not crinkled into being yet.

vlcsnap-2015-10-17-12h12m07s93

Since this is an Ealing film, we can assume that the ship is The Ship of England. Boats are always societal microcosms — SAN DEMETRIO LONDON (1943) was about how, after the war, those who had taken part would share equally in the good fortune coming our way (studio head Sir Michael Balcom was part of a secret group tasked with preparing the nation for socialism). THE MAGGIE (1954) was a miniaturized Scotland, which is itself a miniaturized UK, and it’s about taking the Yanks for a ride, harmlessly, to skim a bit off their enviable wealth.

If the ship is always Britain, or the Empire, then this is Ealing’s bleakest statement about the post-war world, where the nation has sunk from self-sacrifice and daring during the war (not overly glamorized, though), to dog-eat-dog criminous capitalism. The only solution is to kill off the guilty and let the ship sink itself. Perhaps this pessimism has something to do with Balcom selling his studios to the BBC — he tried to keep the company going without a permanent base, but it inevitably fragmented and eventually submerged.

If all men were brothers would you let one marry your sister?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-09-12-09h54m49s244

(Thanks to Theodore Sturgeon for the title, which I have stolen. This is a reprint of an article originally published at BritMovie.com. The original linking piece is HERE. I’ve kept the few original framegrabs but included more from an upgraded copy — thanks, Eclipse!)

The soundtrack of Basil Dearden’s racially-charged 1959 cop-flick SAPPHIRE, composed by Philip Green but arranged by the great Johnny Dankworth in a sleazy jazz style reminiscent of TAXI DRIVER, comments on shocking turns in the action in the traditional manner, with excited blasts at key moments. But the decisions about what is actually supposed to be shocking are pretty interesting, and convey all kinds of sublimated panic.

A young white woman is found stabbed on Hampstead Heath.

Her brother (Earl Cameron) arrives at the police station to give evidence. He is black.

BA-DAAA! The music blares out in horror. Not just at the appearance of a non-white character, but at the meaning behind this — miscegenation has occurred, at some distant time in the past, and a black girl has passed herself off as white.

vlcsnap-2015-09-12-09h56m08s252

Police examine the murdered girl’s clothing. Respectable outer garments, racy red undies beneath. “There’s the black under the white,” remarks racist copper Michael Craig.

Later, in her bedroom, detectives break into a locked drawer. As it opens, more voluminous red satin underwear bursts out.

BA-DAA! The music goes into a shocked paroxysm at this explosion of erotic lingerie. The police try to figure out how to trace the panties to their source (for no obvious reason, they are seized on as a vital clue) and the music slowly turns sexy and saxy, getting to quite like the idea of frilly knickers now that it’s over the shock.

sapp01

The weird thing is, Sapphire is a progressive movie for its day, using the format of the whodunit and police procedural to look at racial attitudes across British society at a time when immigration had become a big talking point. Dearden’s VICTIM, a superior film, would use a crime story to examine British attitudes to homosexuality, and achieve a lot in terms of consciousness-raising, censorship-loosening and eventually doing its bit towards getting the law changed to decriminalise homosexual acts. Whatever Dearden’s knowledge of gay activity in Britain was, he seemed able to achieve a level of conviction that rather escapes him in SAPPHIRE. Perhaps because the presence in the cast of actors like Dennis Price and Dirk Bogarde helped set the tone. SAPPHIRE features numerous black actors, but apart from Cameron, most of them had little film experience and little acting experience of any kind. It also feels like they don’t have the authority to insist on authenticity, so that they are forced to utter weird Americanised dialogue (VICTIM’s Janet Green rewritten by DIRTY DOZEN scribe Lukas Heller). The film’s suppression of authentic West Indian accents (only a couple are heard, well into the film) also acts against a sense of a reality, although a bonus is to be had in the stereotype-defying spectacle of an exceedingly posh black barrister, with a bishop for a dad. But this character proves to be a habitué of sleazy jazz dives, drives a flash car, and has a girlfriend who talks like she’s from Harlem, so it’s uncertain if the film is hinting that his respectable facade conceals a set of inherently non-Caucasian vices.

An equally dubious moment occurs in The Tulip, where the proprietor boasts that his club’s bongo rhythms unleash a wild side in his patrons that separates the black from the white — and behind him, a curvy blonde on a bar stool starts to twitch her feet to the music, revealing her African blood.

sapp02

If the film’s racial attitudes are a mixed bag Craig’s racist cop is shown to be misguided, but no alarm is expressed at the fact that he holds those opinions and that job — it may be partly because the plot is too. Dearden scored an early success with sections of the compendium horror film DEAD OF NIGHT (there’s an expressionistic side to his work that contradicts the more naturalistic flavour) and followed that with parts of TRAIN OF EVENTS, and he seems to have favoured sprawling, multi-character narratives. Here, there’s the domestic whodunnit, with its secrets and lies, different family members suspecting each other (Sapphire was engaged to a white music student, and his bigoted family opposed the match); the police procedural, with Nigel Patrick crisply efficient in a role that’s not so much underwritten as completely unwritten; and the social study, with racist landlords and London’s Afro-Caribbean night-life under examination. It’s enough for two or three better films.

vlcsnap-2015-09-12-09h52m48s255

About halfway in, Dearden cuts loose with a nocturnal chase, as new suspect Johnny Fiddle goes on the run through a noir city that’s all blue backlight blasting in great shafts from behind every building, A THIRD MAN kind of look that’s very typical of Dearden — he stages such chases in nearly all his thrillers. In Sapphire’s lurid Eastmancolor, the effect is more hallucinatory: the night is as searing as the day. As sequences like the climax of DEAD OF NIGHT (surreal nightmare attack) and the carnival in SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS (choreographed baroque phantasmagoria) show, Dearden had a command of the expressive power of cinema that he was rarely allowed to exercise. Sapphire’s night-flight hints at a weirder, more exotic film that could have slipped into BLACK ORPHEUS territory.

By making the transition from Ealing dramas like THE BLUE LAMP (a rather gentile detective story) to ’60s social realism flicks like A PLACE TO GO (Rita Tushingham and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE wrecker Mike Sarne), Dearden showed a great deal of adaptability (he also tried his hand at Lean’s brand of epic, with KHARTOUM, and made a jazz Othello, under the title ALL NIGHT LONG, which is most notable for allowing Miles Davis and Dickie Attenborough to share screen time). POOL OF LONDON, another multi-character panoply of Britain, wrapped up in a crime thriller, made in 1951, is a more successful look at race relations. It stars the spanner-faced, fast-talking yank Bonar Colleano, and Earl Cameron again, a likeable actor in a rather neutered role: but when Cameron finally snaps under the pressure of the relentless racist attitudes around him and goes on a drunken bender, he “confirms” the prejudices of his persecutors, and it’s quite powerful stuff. The persecutors are entirely working class, however, and the film is careful to avoid suggesting that the same thoughtless inhumanity might be present among the British police. (See the film for Cameron’s drunk scene and the climax, involving Max Adrian, improbably cast as a criminal acrobat.)

vlcsnap-2015-09-12-09h58m58s150

Dearden is a broadly sympathetic social observer, but in SAPPHIRE he fails to convince us of the veracity of his black London. The inexperience and awkwardness of the black actors needn’t have been an insuperable problem: several players have charm and grace, but they’re saddled with unsuitable dialogue and attitudes, and unfairly contrasted with seasoned British professionals who sometimes appear stuff by comparison, but own their lines in a way most of the black actors cannot — what was needed was for them to be empowered to rephrase the dialogue into their own words.

Worst acting honours go to Paul Massie, however, as Sapphire’s white fiancée: he gives a constipated interpretation of a working class English boy with a Canadian accent. This is where the film really has no excuse for getting it wrong. And the other moment that might inspire rage is the fleeting, uncredited appearance by Barbara Steele — how one longs for the film to simply abandon its narrative and follow her sexy adventures as a music student in dawn-of-the-sixties unswinging London.

sapp03