Archive for Derren Nesbitt

Lockdown

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2022 by dcairns

I forget who it was who suggested that STRONGROOM would make a good double bill with CASH ON DEMAND. Duly noted, and though we didn’t pair them up (this time), we did finally get around to Vernon Sewell’s claustrophobic thriller.

Sewell, a former associate of Michael Powell, seems to have had a natural inclination towards restrictive environments. True, it’s a natural way of controlling costs, but there are other ways to do that — filming on location to avoid the need to hire studios and build sets, for instance. Sewell made several films on his boat, and a decent haunted house film, but STRONGROOM may well be his best.

The concept is simple: three bank robbers are compelled to lock two staff members in the vault where their plan goes awry. Realising that the prisoners will suffocate over the long weekend, they resolve to alert the authorities, but circumstances conspire against them. Weirdly, the tension relating to whether the poor bank employees will asphyxiate is less than that concerning whether the bastards who caused it will face a murder rap.

The double-bill we went for was this and SPLIT SECOND, the Dick Powell-directed nuclear thriller, which has an interesting cast and a high concept — criminals take a bunch of hostages at a nuclear test site — but weirdly is far less tense, until the very impressive final blast. Nobody in SS seems to be taking the nuke seriously enough. Every single moment in S is about the threat of death, of finding yourself a murderer.

Sewell’s direction isn’t so much — logic says the shots ought to build in intensity, but they barely do — but the script knows what to concentrate on. It’s shameless but effective in its constant amping up of anxiety. Writer Max Marquis wrote mainly TV drivel (Crossroads!) but Richard Harris (not that one) concentrated on thrillers, including great stuff like I START COUNTING, THE LADY IN THE CAR WITH GLASSES AND A GUN (English dialogue), and a bunch of obscurities like THE MAIN CHANCE which I now feel eager to try. It’s a perfect low-budget movie, exploiting not only small, cheap sets, but slow pace. Watching oblivious minor characters padding about while death is on the line is extremely suspenseful.

While the imprisoned (Colin Gordon & Ann Lynn) are rather drab characterisations which the actors can only do so much with, the thieves include the great Derren Nesbitt, who has a strange plastic Auton quality that always makes him uncanny and watchable (he’s magnificent as the oily blackmailer in VICTIM). Sewell would cast him again in BURKE AND HARE (NOT a distinguished film — but one I kind of want to watch properly).

Nesbitt, tragicomically, blew his savings on his dream project, sex comedy THE AMOROUS MILKMAN, a contender for worst British film ever, and also appears in two more of the worst British sex farces you could ever hope to unsee, NOT NOW DARLING and OOH, YOU ARE AWFUL. He even cameos in RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, for old times’ sake. But he should never have been put in a comedy. His thick-lipped wax mask of a face stifles the laugh response. (Producer Art Linson, mulling over a casting idea with his wife: “Do you think Willem Dafoe could make you laugh?” Mrs. L: “I don’t know, but I saw him smile once and I had nightmares for a week.”)

When Nesbitt puts a stocking over his head for the robbery, it’s too much — he already looks like he has a stocking over his head, somehow.

The ending is a magnificently timed kick in the teeth for both characters and audience.

So, yes: a double bill of STRONGROOM and CASH ON DEMAND would be an excellent idea. Run them near Christmas, ideally, and have this one first: it isn’t remotely Christmassy.

Where Eagles Dare passes the Bechdel Test

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2015 by dcairns

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Rather unexpectedly. One might grumble that the test is quite hard to pass — Cukor’s THE WOMEN wouldn’t pass it, I don’t think, and no men appear in that movie. But many many films would pass the opposite version of the test — LAWRENCE OF ARABIA has no women with any dialogue at all, and THE THING has no women, period, nor do the men spend their time discussing the opposite sex.

But Alastair MacLean’s thick-ear warnography, referred to as WHERE EAGLES SHIT by Joseph Losey, includes a brief, all-business discussion between Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt. Go figure. The scene is quite redundant, which is even more obvious as it’s right next to an equally unnecessary discussion between lead Aryan supermen Anton Diffring (a man who needs binoculars to look down his nose at you) and Derren Nesbitt (described by Matthew Sweet, I think it was, as looking like he’s been dipped in peroxide from head to toe). Maybe there should be a Bechdel test for Nazis. Does your WWII film feature any scene between two Nazis when they’re not talking about the British?

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Fiona quizzed me very closely on why the hell I was watching this film. “Well, I don’t know, some people seem to like it,” I blustered. Boys of my generation saw this on TV or on re-release around the same time as STAR WARS, and like to relate to their dads via manly combat films (dads who were themselves too young to be in the war). I can’t even recall seeing it, though the cable car action rang a vague bell. But maybe I was confusing it with MOONRAKER.

Richard Burton doesn’t look TOO drunk, although he’s doubled in many longshots. Not just for the abseiling — for the walking around shots. He was together enough to coin the phrase “dynamic lassitude,” a brilliant encapsulation of co-star Clint Eastwood’s screen manner. Nobody else makes a huge impression, though Patrick Wymark and Michael Hordern are on hand for beady-eyed perspiring and mmnah-hrrumph, respectively. “Functional” would be a very kind way of describing the dialogue. There is, quite literally, no characterisation whatsoever.

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Matte-painted castle evokes Hammer horror, augmented by the fact that Ingrid frickin’ Pitt is up there.

Lots of things blow up, though. Sometimes they blow up for no discernible reason, which is interesting and suggests an idea for a really colourful but quite abstract film in which everything blows up in every scene for no reason. INCEPTION meets THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE meets ZABRISKIE POINT. I would watch that. I do enjoy explosions, it’s the grim-faced heroes or jocular heroes who tend to walk about in front of them that give me the pip.

Things I Read Off the Screen in “Victim”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2015 by dcairns

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The first time I wrote a piece about “things I read off the screen” it was about SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. It was a film which recreated vividly a lost world of Walpamur Liquid and other strange, esoteric substances, Basil Dearden’s VICTIM, a heroic movie to have made, one which helped bring about the decriminalization of homosexual acts in England and Wales (Scotland had to wait until, if you can believe it, 1980. Not a typo. 1980.) is set in a similar world. Both films give little typographical glimpses of what was playing in West End theatres at the time. They show a grey, dithering England, drizzled on and antsy.

The Dearden film is script by Janet Green and her husband John McCormack, a team who also wrote John Ford’s SEVEN WOMEN, his last movie and theirs too.

Of course it stars Dirk Bogarde, and was a fantastically courageous thing for him to have undertaken at the time. But then, he was sick of the pap the Rank Organisation had made him appear in, and wanted to make a decisive break. Some of those movies are not so bad, and some are bad but fun, but he had his sights set on higher things. Perhaps he thought that playing a character with homosexual impulses would be like hiding in plain sight — everyone would assume he must be straight, since otherwise the risk would be too great. But I suspect mainly he welcomed the opportunity to draw attention to a bad law which was destroying people’s lives — which could potentially destroy his.

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EMERGENCY CALLS. DO NOT INSERT ANY COINS. ASK EXCHANGE FOR FIRE, POLICE OR AMBULANCE.

Every public phone in this film — and there are many — comes with its own officious warning.

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NEW THEATRE. OLIVER! MOTOR BOOKS. THORSON’S PUBLISHERS LTD.

Motor Books??? Lionel Bart’s musical OLIVER!, later a Carol Reed film, is featured so prominently in this film it creeps into the dialogue, with the senior detective lamenting that a policeman’s lot would be happier if he only had to deal with Bill Sykes types. The implication is that there are those who are true criminals and those who are victims of the law. The pairing of coppers — one enlightened, one bigoted, is exactly the same as in the team’s earlier SAPPHIRE, which dealt with race. It’s a slightly obvious way of shoehorning in a debate about the issues, and subtly prompting the viewer towards a more mature view of the subject. Exactly the kind of thing Stanley Kramer gets knocked for.

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OUT. While the expression “out of the closet” certainly existed in Britain at this time — you can hear it used in REPULSION, for instance — it’s not clear that the single word “out” by itself had any homosexual implication. I think the filmmakers have been careful to avoid flagrant double-entendres creeping into their signage, which is why this film is less cluttered with verbiage than many other urban movies of the era. So this is a case of a sign reaching for additional significance in a prophetic manner.

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CAFÉ. Lovely chiaroscuro shot displaying Dearden’s noir style, displayed in a number of his films at this time. The earlier SAPPHIRE achieves gorgeous effects like this but in colour. Overall it seems to me slightly less successful at steering a path between the various misconceptions about its subject matter. Both films are flawed in ways that are not to do with insensitivity so much as incomplete understanding, and also censorship.

Part of the sign being occluded means that it actually says CAFF, which is how English people would pronounce it anyway, accent grave be damned.

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MELVILLE FARR SHOCKS COURT. SHOOTING PARTY. And the rather vague MELVILLE FARR AWARDS PRIZE. From the scrapbook kept by Peter McEnery’s character, devoted to Dirk Bogarde’s. Bogarde/Farr explains this as “hero worship,” as if young men hero-worshipping barristers was a recognized thing. Making Farr a showbiz personality might have rendered this more plausible, and intensifed the blackmail angle, but would be too on-the-nose and too close for comfort.

Instead, Dennis Price, who had already been outed by an arrest for soliciting, plays the film’s token theatrical, part of a group of co-operative blackmailees who are presented by the movie as something of a sinister cabal. We’re encouraged to feel sympathy for Bogarde, but Bogarde is sort-of “innocent.” In areas like this, the film’s footwork is so fancy it can be hard to know if it’s progressive or reactionary. The answer has to be that it’s progressive just by virtue of the fact that it exists.

IIRC, Bogarde wrote in one of his autobiographies that in Price the film contained one actual homosexual. It also has Hilton Edwards (producer and partner to Michaeal MacLiammoir). Of course, Bogarde is excluding himself, as he always did. When the gay BBC presenter Russell Harty quizzed him on his private life, Bogarde responded with a virtual non-denial denial: “I’m still in the shell and you haven’t cracked it yet, honey!” A refusal to confirm, couched in the campest possible terms.

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GENTLE HAIRDRE. The film’s inclusion of stereotypes like gay hairdressers is forgivable, it seems to me. There WERE gay hairdressers. The IMDB says of actor Charles Lloyd Pack that he “invariably played Church of England ministers.” Not QUITE invariably. It is an odd feature of clerical life that the qualities required in an actor to play a camp hairdresser are exactly those also required to play a Church of England minister.

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FLOWER DRUM SONG.

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HENRY’S. A. PALA. GEL & SON. Don’t know what it means.

The first entrance of the actual blackmailer who, like the Boris Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD and the antagonists of KILL BABY KILL and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE, becomes a de facto serial killer without laying a finger on anyone. This is Derren Nesbitt, who was always on TV when I was growing up, and always in the most dismal things. He’s electrifying here. His wallpaper looks like pieces of correspondence with all the words redacted, and he has a punchbag and a framed print of Michelangelo’s David. Phys Ed and Art, the two suspect subjects. This wraparound ponce in his motorcycle jacket, exuding piss-elegant smarm and leering bullyboy malevolence, is in a very strange partnership with a latter-day puritan who believes in punishing “wrongdoers.” Though his partner’s sincerity in this quest is thrown into question by Nesbitt’s every mannerism. The character is listed in the credits as “Sandy Youth.”

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MR & MRS WOOD. THE LOST LETTER. THE MAGIC MIRROR.

An old theatre playbill provides gnomic hints. The letter must refer to the blackmail notes circulating throughout the narrative. Telephone calls are consistently ineffective in this film, plus you get shouted at by signs: NO PHONE CALLS AFTER 10PM; THIS TELEPHONE IS FOR THE USE OF OUR CUSTOMERS; PLEASE BE AS BRIEF AS POSSIBLE. But letters are effective. Letters make thing happen. A gratuitous subplot involves a fraud ring, operating in parallel with the blackmail, also utilising the postal system. “Words ARE important,” as Peter O’Toole teaches us in THE LAST EMPEROR. When Farr’s garage door is defaced (see top), his brother-in-law somehow knows it’s not the work of “hooligans” because it’s “too explicit.”

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There’s more to this film than the writing on the wall. The gay bachelor flat Bogarde must visit (where he indulges in a bit of gay-bashing himself, slugging the rather frail Peter Copley on the jaw) is decorated in prints of lush foliage. In the stunning shot above, bare autumn trees visible through his front window surround him, creeping in, like cracks in a facade (or like the lines the makeup artist has darkened in his face to make him look older, to make it clear this is Dirk Bogarde playing a character).

Sylvia Sims, who today is a marvelous old bag, has spoken of the boredom of the wife roles she was usually saddled with in her glamorous youth. “Poker-up-the-arse parts,” she and Jean Simmons called them. She took this one because she recognized it was an important film. The mediocrity of her rather vapid character is scarcely felt because Dearden shoots the confrontation with Bogarde so dynamically. (“Because I WANTED HIM!” was Bogarde’s own addition to the script, which he felt was mealy-mouthed on this key point. They filmed the line without clearance from the censor and then simply fought it through.)

In the end, Farr sacrifices his career to do the right thing. He is rewarded by being allowed to keep his marriage. The suggestion is that this is a happy ending — certainly, the movie cannot be allowed to suggest that happiness for Farr lies in embracing his other instincts, which are described elsewhere as unfortunate, worthy of pity rather than censure, but in no way salutary. Is Farr gay? We tend to assume he is because of the casting, but the movie doesn’t come out and say so — he was attracted to McEnery’s “Boy” Barrett, and so stopped seeing him. This, he says, is quite different to what happened before his marriage — and incident his wife was aware of when they wed, and which he swore would never be repeated. So, in this cunning way, by repeatedly making it clear that nothing “happened” with McEnery, the filmmakers smuggle in the fact that something DID “happen” previously. And the result of all this finagling is that Farr gets to have had gay sex and doesn’t have to die. He gets off with life.

Background music from the transport cafe scene — pre-Beatles rock n roll, trying every so hard to pass for American. Kind of delightful, though.