Archive for Basil Dearden

Crossing the River

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2021 by dcairns

I’m not 100% but it’s entirely possible that the references to “crossing the river” in THE OPTIMISTS (OF NINE ELMS, 1973) take in Egyptian mythology about the journey to the land of the dead. At any rate, it’s a deliberately death-haunted film, with Peter Sellers in old-age makeup as an impoverished music hall entertainer befriended by a couple of scrappy kids.

Writer-director Anthony Simmons had been planning the film, based on his novel, for years — Buster Keaton was pencilled in originally. I found myself wondering how heartbreaking the film would have been with Stan Laurel — a near-impossibility, of course. Sellers is perhaps too theatrical to really move you. Here he’s walking around in a Loachian realist environment, in a Stuart Freeborn false nose and teeth (the teeth have a very subtle effect, the nose sticks out) and special hump-soled shoes to give him a rolling walk.

The film has some stupendous credits — George Martin scoring, Lionel Bart songwriting, though Sellers also plays some authentic old numbers his father taught him. His father also taught George Formby, and there’s a Formby standard in there — I bet nobody cleared the rights. G. Martin’s film scoring career was intermittent, but he seems to have plunged in wholeheartedly around this time, doing PULP and LIVE AND LET DIE close to it.

This was viewed in our weekly watch party. Regular participant Donald Wisely wisely said, “Really liked the shot early in the film of the helicopter hovering over the Thames. It looked a vision of the London that was coming, where it was all finance and property, but no actual productive industry. As a piece of understated social commentary, and possible prophetic vision of, the decline of Britain this film deserves to be better known.”

The kids are great, though their naturalism tends to point up Sellers’ schtickiness. But I guess he’s playing Old Sam as a man immersed in his old routines as a shield against bitter reality.

The film is about death, though Sam is still going at the end. Only the dog dies. But at one point we cut from Sellers standing in the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery — a true thing I never knew existed — to the Dorchester Hotel, where he would have a massive fatal heart attack, alone, seven years later.

I first became convinced that Simmons knew what he was doing when the kids are playing in Thameside landfill and the little boy disappears from view. As his sister looks about frantically, every POV shot features some piece of crumbled, crushed debris that looks, for an instant, as if it could be a small boy’s body. Terrifying.

Fiona’s re-reading The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis, so I picked it up and read the OPTIMISTS stuff, but of course I also turned to page seventeen. There, Lewis speculates on Sellers meeting his stand-in (or doppelganger) just before his fatal heart attack, and also mentions that Sellers had just visited Roger Moore on the set of THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF. He notes the eerie coincidence of the film’s director, Basil “room for one more inside”, Dearden perishing in a car crash at just the same stretch of motorway where Moore’s character is killed (maybe twice). He fails to note that Moore himself was a Sellers doppelganger, even though his actual doppelganging hadn’t happened yet: in CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, Moore, using the pseudonym Turk Thrust, plays a reincarnated, plastically-surgeoned Inspector Clouseau.

We might pass the future scene of our own deaths a thousand times without knowing it, or shake hands with our fatal double.

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.

 

Chart a Course for Hell

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.