Jenny Agutter, as 15-yr-old Wynne Kinch (great name!), starts to suspect that her foster brother, with whom she’s in love, may be the local serial killer.
“Is this bringing your childhood back in a sudden Proustian rush?” I asked Fiona after five minutes of I START COUNTING. It was. Maybe the most personally evocative seventies childhood movie I’ve seen, (although it’s from 1969, when I was two) apart from things I actually saw during my own seventies childhood, which evoke feelings of nostalgia and terror due to their precise connection to my memory of seeing them then. This was my first time watching START COUNTING, as my badly cropped copy seems to be called (starring “Jenny Agutt”), so the resonance was more with the precise details of design, social behaviour, and evocation of early-mid teenagerhood.
Design — this was by the brilliant Brian Eatwell, whose biggest job in the 70s was Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS and sequel (attach wooden scaffolding to ruins, make them look like they’re under constrcution!), but he also designed several of Greene’s films: MADAME SIN, a failed TV pilot with Bette Davis as a sort of female Fu Manchu — if only this had been picked up!) THE STRANGE AFFAIR, which I have a ratty copy of, unwatched, and GODSPELL. Here he makes a church look like a space station, but still keeps it believable. He also did those amazing art-deco sets for the DR PHIBES films —
— which leads us to jazz genius Basil Kirchin, who scored this with its haunting theme song, and also wrote the music played by Dr. Phibes’ clockwork orchestra. Kirchin’s stuff always makes me think of drifting downstream in a punt, trailing my fingers in the water, probably in soft focus. But in a good way.
Social observation — START COUNTING was filmed in the same Berkshire new town where Sidney Lumet made THE OFFENCE. Greene, a Canadian, and Lumet, an Unistater, find cinematic values in these drab UK surroundings that seem to elude most of out homegrown filmmakers: it’s striking how many of the great images of Britain were directed by outsiders. A bit more recently, I was struck by the epic sweep Atom Egoyan brought to our motorways in FELICIA’S JOURNEY. The film’s flawed, but he really got a look going in it, using precisely the kind of places we Brits might dismiss as unphotogenic, or else use only for their grimness.
Apart from the very particular sense of suburban-village-sprawl nowhere, there’s the dialogue, which is peppered with teenage fantasy and blunt period tastelessness: reflecting on the recent spate of murders, Agutter’s brother muses, “He might at least rape them, it seems such a waste.” Whereas in an Italiasn giallo this unbelievably crass remark might be part of an overall seediness and misogyny, here it just seems the kind of thing an insensitive young man in that environment might say, with a slight “Tsk,” from his mum the only rebuttal.
Jenny Agutter: astonishing. I mean, astonishing.
There is an ever-present risk of exploitation and tackiness, since this is about burgeoning teen sexuality and all, and Greene does originate that shot where the camera follows Agutter’s knickers as she pulls them up her legs, but he doesn’t linger on the action as Nic Roeg would in WALKABOUT, two years later: nothing to see here. On the whole, I thought the film managed to be interested in its subject without leering at it. And some of the teen girlspeak is very funny, especially when Agutter and her best friend exchange confidences in church by speaking their lines with the same rhythm and stress as the catholic liturgy being recited by the rest of the congregation: “What’s he like?” “Tasty.”
Elsewhere in the cast, lovely old Fay Compton from Welles’ OTHELLO and Wise’s THE HAUNTING, unrecognisable in an old bag role, played to the hilt, and by contrast, Simon Ward as a randy bus conductor, who’s very very young indeed. He’s practically an ante-natal Ward, in fact. And Jenny Agutter, who makes everything work. She gets a drunk scene, she gets to behave in slightly random ways, she’s an authentic teen to the hilt, but a very specific, English, Jenny Agutterized teen. We will not see a performance like this again. Makes me realise what an underexploited national resource she is. Remember how there was a Jenny Agutter film or two every year, in which she would be duly nude, and then suddenly she did a clothed cameo in DARKMAN and disappeared? And now you only see her in bit parts on TV? Shocking.
Ou sont les Jenny Agutters d’antan?