Archive for Carry On

Carry On Noir

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2010 by dcairns

Had a great time showing NIGHT AND THE CITY to my class a couple weeks ago, a movie I always enjoy, for all kinds of things, from the London noir atmosphere, Francis Sullivan’s eloquently tortured fat man bad guy, and Richard Widmark’s sweaty desperation (ALL the characters in the film are studies in desperation of one kind or another). Despite the seedy atmosphere, the film seems to have had an oddly healthy effect on its participants, with Widmark and director Jules Dassin surviving well into their nineties, and co-star Googie Withers still being with us today. But this time I was taken with a minor player who was not so lucky.


The thug in the car is an actor names Peter Butterworth. Not somebody one associates with thug parts, actually: Butterworth is chiefly known for his roles in the CARRY ON series, often as an incompetent underling to stars like Harry H Corbett (CARRY ON SCREAMING) or Kenneth Williams (DON’T LOSE YOUR HEAD). He’s also in three Richard Lester films, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, THE RITZ and ROBIN AND MARIAN, where he plays a barber-surgeon failing to extract an arrow from Richard Harris’s neck.

Melancholy and an end-of-the-pier seediness seem to coalesce around the private lives of the CARRY ON team, few of who reached particularly ripe ages (so it’s pleasing to have Barbara Windsor as an uncharacteristically perky Dormouse in Tim Burton’s mess of an ALICE IN WONDERLAND). Butterworth’s death, aged sixty, from a heart attack while waiting in the wings to go onstage at a pantomime show (I’d previously read “while entertaining at a children’s party” but I’ll go with the IMDb), has a sad sound to it, although you can configure a Hollywood Version easily enough: the sound of laughter/applause ringing in his ears. And it probably beats being bashed with a brick, which is what happens to his co-thug in NIGHT AND THE CITY.

Butterworth was a splendid comic, who could quietly hold his own amid the chaos of a CARRY ON farce — it was actually good from to upstage your fellow players in these things, since the only way to make the experience lively for the audience, with the inert staging, corny gags and clunking editing, was to have a few faces emoting at once, each trying to outdo the other in enthusiasm. Situate Butterworth in the background and he’d add a whole mini-drama just by being endearingly daft. He spends the whole climactic exposition of FORUM struggling to get his sword from its sheath, and faffs around behind Richard Harris in R&M, taking the curse off the script’s poetic musings with a welcome infusion of bumbling.

Here’s a bit of SCREAMING which illustrates a number of the painful pleasures of that series. Fenella Fielding is a great underused resource of British cinema, best known internationally for revoicing Anita Pallenberg in BARBARELLA. Kenneth Williams, always alarming, is especially so as the reanimated Dr. Watt, his voice a-quiver with vibrato suggestiveness. Then, about three minutes or so in, we get Butterworth, who hardly says a word but stands behind the other players and mugs genially. Jim Dale tries to match him twitch for twitch, and you get a sort of doubling of affect as they do a kind of facial dance-off behind Harry H Corbett (once praised as British theatre’s answer to Brando, now a magnificently resourceful farceur with TV’s Steptoe and Son as, essentially, his entire career) and Williams.

You can also appreciate Gerald Thomas’s bad filmmaking. He serves up passable angles in which we can enjoy the mugging, but they don’t cut together at all well — there’s no reason for the angle changes except to serve up a spurious variety to the coverage, and break the scene into manageable-sized segments. Kevin Smith must have been taking notes.

Oh, and the big guy at the start is Bernard Bresslaw, who nearly got the role of the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, just losing out to Christopher Lee. Imagine what a fun alternative universe that would be!

The Disclaimer

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2009 by dcairns

From the Boulting Brothers’ PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, a politely lacerating satire on the armed forces. I guess the fact that they waited until 1956 to make this vulgar comedy about wartime corruption does take away somewhat from any sense of “courage,” and by firing the satire scattershot at everything in sight, writers John Boulting and Frank Harvey, adapting a novel by Alan Hackney, protect themselves against offending anybody too deeply.

Still, a portrayal of services life in WWII where everybody is out for what they can get is a surprising thing from the somewhat conservative British cinema of the 50s. By this time, Powell & Pressburger had lost the spark that enabled them to combine artistic excellence and commercial success, David Lean had gone international, and everybody else with any ambition was being stifled by bureaucracy at Rank and gentility elsewhere. With their brashness and no-prisoners commerciality, the Boultings look forward to the cinema of Hammer and Carry On — indeed, the shouty drill sergeant in this movie is played by William Hartnell, who would basically reprise the role a couple years later in CARRY ON SERGEANT, giving rise to that whole series of bawdy romps — and a sinister Nazi officer is played by Christopher Lee, shortly before his rise to lasting fame.

Ian Carmichael, who did not go on to play DRACULA.

My good friend Mary just passed me a copy of The Financial Times, an organ I don’t usually take, which contains a charming Scorsese profile by historian Simon Schama (he doesn’t know anything about films but he likes Scorsese, apparently). It tickled me to find Scorsese singing the praises of British comedies — we know he likes KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, and its flip, chill voice-over was an unlikely influence on GOODFELLAS — but Schama is rightly surprised to hear Scorsese “summoning the shade of Ian Carmichael.” It IS a surprising juxtaposition, but I guess nobody would be more surprised than Carmichael, who is very much alive.

Carmichael is an unacknowledged giant of British cinema! Apart from being perhaps the best Bertie Wooster ever (although he was too old for the part by the time he played it on TV), he makes the perfect Candide for the Boultings, his gentle quality of intelligent idiocy commending him to our sympathies. Also on great form in PRIVATE’S PROGRESS are Dennis Price as caddish Bertie Tracepurcel, Richard Attenborough as cheeky chappie Archie Cox (is there anything Attenborough can’t do? Apart from direct films, that is) and Terry-Thomas, who is quite remarkably restrained. He’s doing his usual silly-ass thing, but it’s far more controlled, quiet, less manic, and even more effective. T-T recorded in his very entertaining and genuinely eccentric memoirs that one close-up gave him an interesting task: as “Major Hitchcock” he finds himself in a cinema with his men. He’s bunked off work to see the film, and so have they.  Can he, in all decency, reprimand them?

Boulting gave T-T the big build-up, explaining note by note all the emotions he wanted to see flickering across the Thomas visage. But the Great Man decided to ignore all that and instead let his mind go perfectly blank, a technique that had served him well on previous occasions. And he was pleased to see that particular close-up cited in a year’s-end round-up of memorable movie moments. Here it is:

The intensity of an image from Dreyer!

While Terry-Thomas must get the credit for his own performance, I do think Boulting had a gift for getting genuine performances from comics like Sellers and T-T who were often content to rely on their usual tricks. His slapstick is pretty clumsy, and it’s a shame there’s so much of it, since the films seem to work best in a different register.

The Bijou Terror

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2009 by dcairns

Or, HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID.

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Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE, based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s SECRET AGENT, or with Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR for that matter) features a terrorist bomb, intended for the London Underground, exploding on a double-decker bus. Ironically, this bizarre foreshadowing of the 7/7 bombings would have been greatly reduced had Hitch got his way and blown up a tram instead. The dispute over the form of public transport to be exploded, with Hitch arguing that a tram was more recognisably London, and producers Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu arguing that a bus was, well, cheaper, resulted in Hitch never working with the two men again, which is a shame since they’d both been very helpful in the development of his career, and even his style.

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The grimly ironic ad for THE DESCENT on the side of the London bus destroyed in the 7/7 bombings.

SABOTAGE begins, after a dictionary definition of the term (“All movies should begin with dictionary definitions of their titles,” declared Fiona), with a blackout caused by — “Sabotage!” “Wrecking!” “Deliberate.” “What’s behind it?” “Who’s responsible?” — a rhythmic exchange of lines, recalling the musical use of dialogue in MURDER! but quite a bit more sophisticated. Hitch then cuts directly to Oscar Homolka, pudging through the darkness. Quite a bold choice, to eliminate any question mark about his guilt, by way of a single cut. The device is lifted pretty directly from Fritz Lang’s SPIONE, showing how Hitch was adapting silent movie technique (Lang posed his question with an intertitle and answered it with a close-up) to the talking pictures. Oddly, rather than making his films seem old-fashioned, both then and now he looks more modern than most of his contemporaries. Possibly because, as Hitch believed, silent movie-making is true movie-making.

Michael Balcon had been busily grabbing American movie stars for Hitch, starting with the English Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, established Hollywood players who had to be lured back to Blighty, and continuing with Robert Young in SECRET AGENT. This time he scored Sylvia Sidney, who found the Hitchcock experience traumatic. Most accounts stress the unfamiliar approach Hitch took, working without establishing shots and assembling a scene from inserts, which disorientated the actress (you should always allow the actors to play the whole scene through, even if you don’t shoot it), although writer Charles Bennett reckoned Hitch wanted to “tame” or “break” a big Hollywood star. But we have to bear in mind Bennett’s bitterness towards Hitchcock (which is weird, because Bennett accepted a Hollywood contract ahead of Hitch — it was he who broke up the team).

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Homolka returns to his home, above the cinema he runs with wife Sylvia Sidney, leading to this striking shot of her discovering him in bed, his alibi being that he’s been there all along. Hitch has established the cinema and the grocery stall next door (often invoked by documentarists seeking to illustrate Hitchcock’s father’s trade) and John Loder, the undercover cop posing as a grocer to keep tabs on Homolka.

As is typical of the British Hitchcocks, direct political context is shunned, so the terrorists in this movie are never identified with a specific nation or cause. Homolka’s boss is never apprehended, because that would raise too many questions. Loder’s boss has a speech about how the ringleaders will never be caught (why?), and what they’re after is the foot soldiers.

Homolka meets his cell leader at the London Zoo aquarium, leading to one of my favourite moments, where a fish tank dissolves into a screen showing Piccadilly Circus — the next target — which then collapses and liquefies in a stunning piece of mirror-magic. Another of the subjective effects Hitch is so keen on, but a really nightmarish and imaginative one.

Also in this scene we get an uncredited Charles Hawtrey, lecturing a girlfriend (!) on the sex life of the oyster. The presence of this campy yet infantile British comedy star leads me to a brief reverie about an imaginary Hitchcock CARRY ON film, with Kenneth Williams as a master criminal and Barbara Windsor as an icy blonde, but the moment passes.

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Homolka, left, with William Dewhurst as the Professor.

Homolka visits the charmingly whimsical Professor, who runs a pet shop as cover for his work as explosives expert, then invites diverse hoodlums round to the Bijou to plan how the bomb is to be planted. Another memorable cameo here, from Peter Bull, his face like a sore balloon. Bull, who can also be seen as a heavy in an INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH film a few years later, seemed to get a lot of villain roles, despite his plummy, fruity demeanor which seems to suit him for comic roles, like the Russian ambassador in DR STRANGELOVE (keep an eye on Bull during Strangelove’s final speech, where you can see him visibly struggling to contain his laughter).

(My understanding is that Bull was Robert Morley’s lover: what a sweet couple! But I may be wrong.)

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Loder scares off the heavies, and Homolka instead entrusts the bomb to Sidney’s younger brother, Desmond Tester (jocularly known to Hitch as “the testicle”). This leads to the film’s biggest suspense sequence, and what Hitch always described as a major miscalculation on his part — the death of the boy.

But Hitchcock’s verdict on the sequence was doubtless influenced by the barracking he received from critic C.A. Lejeune, who tore into him after the press show. And the killing is essential to the plot, as conceived by Joseph Conrad and redesigned by Charles Bennett. It motivates everything that follows. If there is a mistake, it’s perhaps in treating the build-up so lightly — the comic scene of the testicle being roped into a market toothpaste demonstration, ending with a sousing in hair oil and a brusque “Now bugger off, you little basket,” prepares the audience for a light-hearted solution to the crisis. They can’t seriously intend to blow up this boy after we’ve all been laughing at him?

They do — and Hitch cuts directly to Loder, Sidney and Homolka sharing a joke at the Bijou, their laughter striking a shockingly inappropriate note (Hitch is stealing from himself here, having previously used the cut-to-laughter device after Peggy Ashcroft gets slapped in THE 39 STEPS). Truffaut observed that threatening the life of a child amounts almost to an abuse of cinematic power… There’s no question that Hitchcock is taking his philosophy of “putting the audience through it” as far as he can, but does he take it too far? The comic set-up, followed by serious mayhem (not only does the testicle get exploded, but also an adorable puppy and a sympathetic bus conductor), followed by jarring laughter, is more like the kind of calculated outrage Robert Altman would perpetrate (Altman actually directed some of Hitch’s TV show, before producer Joan Harrison fired him).

Anyhow, even if the death of the testicle was an error, everything that follows it is incredibly effective. While Sylvia Sidney’s casting raises questions, what with her English brother (the testicle’s accent sounds like a juvenile Hitch) and vaguely foreign husband, her performance in the later scenes more than compensates for the unlikeliness of her turning up as a London cinema manager. Like Fritz Lang in FURY, Hitch seems to call attention to the idiosyncrasies of her face, with the impressively wide forehead, huge eyes and lips, and tapering chin. And as in FURY, Sidney turns suffering into something beautiful.

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The use of the Disney cartoon which Sidney watches, laughing automatically and then collapsing into tears when the slapstick action reminds her of her brother’s death, deepens the film’s painful confusion of comedy and tragedy. 

The cruelest tricks Hitch plays on the audience involve the appearances of the phantom testicle, popping up in jump cuts among the crowd, or charging joyously up to her before a perfect match cut reveals him to be a different child, barging rudely past. Hitchcock may be torturing the audience, but he’s also taking the bereavement seriously, and this film really captures that feeling of momentarily seeing a familiar figure who isn’t there. It’s the perfect combination of genre storytelling, film technique and poetic evocation of experience.

Sidney’s subsequent knifing of Homolka is another classic scene of domestic homicide, strongly echoing the famous “knife!” scene of BLACKMAIL, and the family scenes in THE LODGER. This is the scene where Hitch’s star became distressed that he was filming little bits and pieces of action without her having a sense of the whole scene. To Hitch, a close-up of  didn’t require any explanation to the actress, or any real acting, so why couldn’t she just stand there and carve the meat? Of course, actors are like the rest of us: the despise doing anything without knowing the reason for it. Tell your best friend to change their shoes, but refuse to explain why. It’s going to take you a long time to persuade them. And that’s your best friend.

While a lot of the stuff about Hitchcock being down on actors is exaggerated, he must have felt some frustration at having to explain perfectly mechanical bits of business in terms of motivation. There’s that line he’s supposed to have uttered when he found a performer simply couldn’t perform: “I’ve put him on the floor, I’ve wound him up, but he won’t go!

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Nevertheless, the murder is a tour-de-force of both performance and film-making, with Homolka prompting his own death simply by being a grouchy husband at the wrong time — and something else: does he want to die? It sometimes feels like it. Though he shows no real remorse (his earlier expression of reluctance to cause death through his acts of sabotage is wonderfully perfunctory), there’s that fascinating moment when he walks right up to his knife-wielding wife and makes a little movement towards her. Hitch had liked Pierre Fresnay’s death scene in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, so he re-uses some of the idea here — that slight delay when we don’t know for sure what’s happened. Even Homolka doesn’t know he’s dead. An idea copied a thousand times! (Random nice example: Demme’s SOMETHING WILD.)

Homolka, with what Fiona calls his “great Slavic pudding of a face,” is pretty effective, even if his suspicious manner is a bit too suspicious. He could probably have afforded to go for slightly more sympathy. But he’s a striking presence, and I guess this is his closest to a leading man role. For years he would play stereotypical Russians — Ken Russell makes him wonderfully endearing in THE BILLION FOLLAR BRAIN.

Deus ex machina time: the bomb-making prof calls at the Bijou to retrieve an incriminating bird-cage, is cornered by the cops, and blows the place up, destroying the evidence of Sidney’s crime. As in BLACKMAIL, the heroine gets away with murder and is romantically united with the detective who was willing to protect her, and just as in that film, it’s an uncomfortable happy ending. Although Hitchcock doesn’t push the idea, a life with murder in one’s conscience, unable to confess, seems like a hard thing to bear.

John Loder’s casting as the hero is often regretted, especially as Robert Donat was once in the frame to play the role. He would have pulled off the humour much more stylishly. But it’s not really a star part: the cop doesn’t actually achieve anything — he doesn’t catch any of the bad guys, he doesn’t prevent the bombing, he doesn’t rescue Sidney and whisk her to the continent, as he promises. All he really manages is a nice meal at Simpson’s, a favourite eatery of Hitch’s (the Lion’s Corner House, which proved unsatisfactory in BLACKMAIL, is raised as a possibility but rejected out of hand). In a nice bit of throwaway characterisation, we realise Loder’s feelings for Sidney when he tears up the expenses claim for the meal he was going to submit at Scotland Yard.

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Food is important in Hitchcock.

If Homolka hadn’t complained about his vegetables, he might have made it to the end credits unperforated.