Archive for Gordon Jackson

Escapism

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2021 by dcairns

It’s true that Netflix has a lousy classic film selection, except that there are some oddities like EROTIKON and some commedia al’Italia you would expect to find, which we should be thankful for.

But I clicked on THE GREAT ESCAPE because I was in the mood for the smooth and unchallenging. I intended just to watch a little bit, but it’s been ages since I ran it and of course I ended up watching the whole thing. It’s kind of perfect. Of course, it shows war as being schoolboy fun, but escaping from a German POW camp — unlike suffering in a Japanese one — probably had aspects of being at school. Plotting to defeat the system was likely to be fun, with an undercurrent of terror.

We had to pause it at what felt like twenty minutes in, but turned out to be forty-nine minutes in. That’s how smoothly and efficiently and entertainingly it goes.

Elmer Bernstein’s theme is great, but all his scoring is great — when he’s not doing the march or the snare-drum suspense, he does oddly beautiful and tender things for Steve McQueen and Angus Lennie, or James Garner and Donald Pleasence. Harp arpeggios — well, we know he was a Bernard Herrmann fan. Did John Sturges temp-track these bits with tracks from Herrmann’s score for his own UNDERWATER? Probably not. (NB DEFINITELY not: see comments.) The only thing I’d question is the sudden happy music introducing fresh scenes right after tragic ones — but I bet they thought about that very seriously, and decided they couldn’t smooth things over, they had to make hard transitions to let everything play out with its full value.

Lots of Scots in this — four of them, to be precise, meaning that you rarely get a scene without some Scottish presence. James Donald and David McCallum have suppressed it, of course, but Angus Lennie and Gordon Jackson let it all hang out, and do a song and dance about it. Weird that Lennie, who’s magnificent, and John Leyton, who’s blander but very sympathetic, didn’t capitalize on this to find fame and fortune.

I like to think Leyton and McCallum meet up for regular cast reunions, the only ones left.

Officer Class

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on April 22, 2021 by dcairns

“Come for Guinness, stay for Mills,” Randy Cook had told us — so we did. Ronald Neame’s film of James Kennaway’s play still has a foot in theatre, and might have been more suited to b&w, but Stirling Castle looks attractive, both as a real edifice and a glass painting, and Neame films his actors acting with impressive fluidity and occasional bursts of real dynamism.

The plot deals with a battle for control of a Highland regiment. Mills has survived a Japanese POW camp in the war and his nerves are frazzled: on the surface he’s a martinet but just below that he’s damaged goods. Guinness is a war hero who doesn’t want to give up his acting command and resents any change to the way things have always been done in his time.

Both actors are magnificent — both get to do potentially showy nervous breakdown stuff. Their methods are very nearly opposite, however. Guinness originally had the other role, but swapped and suggested Mills to take his part. He’s very clever, very technical, he DOES a lot. It’s all first-class: his grin, conveying Cheshire-cat self-satisfaction, is at the same time terrifyingly psychopathic. His Scottish accent isn’t 100% convincing — very few were, in former years, but it’s specific and consistent. (Susannah York as his daughter gives her voice just the merest suggestion of a lilt.) You do notice that the actors who can talk in their own voices are able to be more natural, even when they’re also quite BIG (Angus Lennie is very funny; but there’s terrific low-key work from Gordon Jackson and Duncan MacRae).

Mills carries off the honours with a performance of slowly crumbling resolve and shredded nerves that’s just appallingly real. “My jaw is hanging open!” exclaimed Fiona after one close-up. You realise that Neame, never a showy filmmaker, lacking the brilliant flashes of his old chum Lean, was deeply attuned to performance (his partnership with Guinness was no doubt a great learning opportunity), profoundly sensitive to the dramatic values of a scene.

Mills’ breakdown is all performance, carefully observed and truly felt. Guinness’ follow-up show is a march off a cliff with orchestral accompaniment: composer Malcolm KWAI Arnold provides the titular pipe band martial music echoing in the characters’ head and spilling out onto the soundtrack. An expressionist touch that’s properly alarming, as it’s unlike anything else in the film — a highly effective signal that CONTROL IS BEING LOST.

Zeitgeist-based theories of national cinema can get a little spooky, a little superstitious, but I can’t shake the feeling that during and after WWII, and during the mid-sixties to the early seventies, the standard of British filmmaking rose tremendously, influenced by political and cultural events and the activities of certain key artists — so that the kind of filmmakers who would normally have been doing decent, sensitive work started doing GREAT work. Neame’s directing career only got started in ’47 and continued in ’50, so he more or less missed the first burst of energy (but was right in there as producer and cinematographer). And was too old and established by the time the sixties came around. So that I think his directing work, though very fine indeed, doesn’t get animated by the tremendous national enthusiasms that Lean and Powell & Pressburger were at the heart of, and the Boultings and Launder & Gilliatt and others surfed in the forties.

So I feel a sense of “It might have been” with Neame. But he’s really, really good.

TUNES OF GLORY stars Gulley Jimson; Professor Bernard Quatermass; Bertram Tracepurcel; Nellie Goode; Lord Alfred Douglas; Eliza Fraser; MacDonald ‘Intelligence’; Jim MacKenzie, Granddaddy; Grogan and Sgt. Grogan; Scuttling; 3rd Officer – Carpathia; Henry Strangeways; Scarlatti; Col. Etienne Gerard (Hussars of Conflans); Ives ‘The Mole’; Professor Bernard Quatermass; Miss Marple; and Mr. Mackay

Frends at Sea

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2015 by dcairns

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OK, a little gentle nudging got me to look at Charles Frend’s unofficial trilogy of WWII sea pictures. When we get to THE CRUEL SEA it’s as good as it’s cracked up to be, so be patient…

First up, THE BIG BLOCKADE (1942) isn’t purely a sea picture, it’s about the economic war on Germany. It’s pure wartime propaganda, Ealing’s bit for the war effort, just over an hour long and a kind of sketch film, written by former Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail. Forced jocularity and British actors playing Germans and Italians and Russians. Historically interesting, of course. The Germans are the baddies — we’re encouraged to laugh as the factory management are threatened with Dachau if they don’t keep up production — the Italians are just a joke. “You violate me in international law!” protests a wop captain. “Wouldn’t dream of it, old boy,” comes the dry response.

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Robert Morley as a Nazi is a sight to see. Even more lip-smacking than usual.

The ocean-going bit involves Will Hay, popular British comedian — certainly a better character actor than George Formby or Arthur Askey, so I suppose we should be grateful. But his whole scene is basically a lot of information shoveled down the audience’s throat without enough comedy to make it halfway palatable. In the flying bit we get John Mills and Michael Rennie — Quatermass and Klaatu! — on the same plane. No wonder we won.

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I enjoyed the film mainly for the model shots and the sometimes bizarre stunt casting. Nazi Germany as Toyland.

Naval pictures are quite weird animals. They consist on the one hand of miniatures and special effects — the fantasy cinema of Georges Melies where everything is flimsily constructed and presented with a magician’s sleight-of-hand — and on the other hand, of stock footage, actuality material of the real war, with real waves, ships and (implied) death. In between these two extremes are the actors, sometimes on location, sometimes in sets. They have the tricky job of gluing it all together with dramaturgic paste. All Frend’s skills as a former editor are needed to maintain an illusion of cause and effect.

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SAN DEMETRIO LONDON (1943) is Ealing Studio’s tribute to the Merchant Marines, with a no-star cast but some favourite character people turning up amid the ensemble, such as Mervyn Johns and a baby-faced Gordon Jackson. Script is by Frend with Robert Hamer and F. Tennyson Jesse, whose novel A Pin to see the Peepshow was Hamer’s dream project as director. The team concoct some amusing banter.

“Nice bit of gun, that.”

“Ah, guns is like women, you never know until you’re in action. And then it’s too late.”

And Hamer’s reputation as a boozer is confirmed by some nicely observed drinking rituals. “Drink?” “At this hour? Thanks.”

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The first surprise is when the titular boat is shelled at sea and the crew have to man the lifeboats. One lot endure a rocky couple of nights in an inky ocean which is actually rear-projected in negative. It’s like the coach ride from NOSFERATU, an intersticial realm between filmic dimensions of reality — I suppose they slipped into it owing to that weird gulf between archive footage and miniatures.

The second surprise is when, spotting what they think is a rescue ship, the lifeboat survivors find it’s their own bloody ship again, still ablaze but miraculously unsunk and unexploded. In a gingerly fashion, they get aboard and try to make her shipshape, since another night in the lifeboat seems unsurvivable. So what we have is a tale not of warfare but simple survival. It’s all quite compelling, low-key and restrained in the British tradition. The really touching bit involves the men getting a cash bonus for salvaging their own vessel. Ealing’s love of camaraderie and the common man shine through. In fact, the studio was somewhat socialistic, and Ealing boss Michael Balcon was on a secret committee tasked with preparing the British public for a Labour government after the war. Here, the sailors share in the profits of their toils as we were all supposed to.

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SAN DEMETRIO LONDON ends in Scotland, and THE CRUEL SEA (1953) begins there, as Jack Hawkins gets his new vessel and new crew. The immediate dramatic issue becomes Stanley Baker, loudmouthed first mate, a used car salesman in civilian life (the other officers are all respectable middle-class solicitors and copywriters and such). He has to be gotten rid of with what’s either a duodenal ulcer or neurotic malingering. It’s suggested that he wouldn’t have had the mental resilience for war — although two of the remaining men show marked signs of strain later. Baker certainly makes a strong impression, snarling and sneering as if on the verge of erupting from sheer class resentment. He even vomits angrily, in what must be the most shocking emetic sequence of fifties British cinema — it’s not that it’s explicitly depicted, it’s just what Baker is able to do with the power of acting alone. That man could puke for Wales.

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With Baker out of the picture, genteel Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliot and John Stratton supply Hawkins’ support, and the film gets into its stride. When Elliot died, Dennis Potter appeared on TV to testify to his chum’s unique ability to suggest, by the merest contractions of the muscles around the jaw, the good impulses in a bad man struggling to get out, or the bad influences in a good man struggling to get out. He’s already doing it here!

The whole movie is about the psychological effects of war: living at close quarters in unpleasant conditions, fear of death, dealing with suffering and mutilation, and ultimately, being forced to make decisions that are hard to live with. The kind of material dealt with would have been impossible to show in wartime, I think. IN WHICH WE SERVE features civilian casualties and isn’t all upbeat flag-waving, but it’s hard to believe they could have gotten away with a captain sacrificing men in the water in order to depth-charge an enemy sub — that might not be there.

The sequence is boldly conceived and brilliantly cut. Realizing he needed a shot of the dead bodies drifting away from the ship, a shot he’d neglected to take, Frend reversed a shot in which the bodies are coming closer. So the emotional climax of the scene features seagulls whirling in the air tail-feathers-first, something nobody ever notices since the attention is riveted upon the centre of dramatic interest.

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Hawkins is excellent, of course, in the role that made him. He’d been bumming around the British film industry since the early thirties, appearing in a talkie version of THE LODGER where his great jack-o-lantern head bobbles about atop scrawny scarecrow limbs, made the more ghastly by pallid greasepaint and dark lipstick. Hawkins the Death-Clown. Putting on a bit of weight was essential to balance off that vast cranium — once he turned into a toby jug he was somehow acceptable, and made a fine character player for Reed, Powell, Gilliatt, Dickinson, Mackendrick. But he wasn’t usually asked to carry so much of the show as he is here.

Frend helps his actors along with some striking uses of sound, no doubt indicated in Eric Ambler’s script. As dead men float on the waves, we hear their memories, as if their brains, winding down to a long sleep, were replaying a few stuck phrases… and when Hawkins gets his new command, he momentarily hears screams coming from the speaking tube, a stray memory of the sinking of his last ship. I think these unusual effects come jointly from Ambler’s background as a novelist and Frend’s as editor, pushing the emotional dial up to a near-unbearable pitch by sheer brilliance of technique.