Archive for Gordon Jackson

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.

The Shooting Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2013 by dcairns

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Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean writes about James Mason’s final screen appearance in THE SHOOTING PARTY.

What is it about the English country house weekend? From PG Wodehouse to Agatha Christie, from Gosford Park to Upstairs, Downstairs, we are by now so acquainted with its rituals that, even before Downton Abbey came along, most of us could give a detailed, if perhaps clichéd, account of one. We may never have dressed for dinner or circulated the port or – as would have been more likely for most of us – polished the boots of the gentry, but we are very familiar with the class distinctions, and the habits and attitudes of both servers and served.

I feared The Shooting Party, the 1985 film in which James Mason makes his last appearance, might have nothing new to say on the subject, but it goes some way towards subverting the stereotypes and confounding our expectations. Adapted from Isabel Colegate’s prize-winning novel, it’s directed by Alan Bridges, who was known mainly for his TV work, but who had won the Palme d’Or in 1973 for The Hireling, based on LP Hartley’s period novel about an inter-class love affair.

The Shooting Party is set in the autumn of 1913 and from the very start presages the coming conflict. It opens with a shot, in black and white, of a procession of people walking across an open field, a stretcher party in their midst. It’s clearly England in peacetime, and there are women in the group, but it powerfully evokes WW1 footage.

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The film then switches to colour and introduces us a group of guests assembling at a country house for a weekend of pheasant shooting, horse riding and fine dining and, for some, flirtation and adultery. The film boasts a particularly fine cast. Here are Edward Fox as Lord Gilbert Hartlip, a crack shot unhappily married to a spendthrift and faithless wife (Cheryl Campbell), Robert Hardy as Lord Bob Lilburn, the genial, buffoonish husband of a beautiful young Judi Bowker, and Rupert Frazer as a rising lawyer with literary leanings who is in love with her. Their hosts are Sir Randolph and Lady Minnie Nettleby (James Mason and Dorothy Tutin). Later John Gielgud, Gordon Jackson and Frank Windsor are added to the mix.

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Mason’s part would have been played by Paul Scofield had it not been for an accident on the first day of filming that nearly cut a swathe through British acting talent. Five of the men in the cast were being filmed arriving at the shoot in a horse-drawn brake. The driver’s footplate gave way and he fell to the ground between the horses and the brake, with concussion from a blow to the head. The driverless horses panicked and headed at speed for a low hanging beech tree and then turned sharply to avoid a fence line. The brake overturned and those who had not already jumped clear were thrown out. Scofield’s leg was badly broken and he was hospitalized for several weeks while Fox sustained broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder.

There was a hiatus while a replacement for Scofield was found. Eventually, the BBC (one of the film’s backers) released Mason from a TV role he was working on – a piece of exceptional good fortune for the production team as it’s doubtful if even Scofield could have given a finer performance.

Mason’s Sir Randolph is a thoughtful and benevolent employer who commands respect, even from the local poacher, and the Lloyd George supporters who gather in the pub. But where he differs from most of his class is in his doubts about the justice of privilege and his awareness of changes on the horizon. In a voice-over that accompanies the opening shot we hear him say “Life was extraordinarily pleasant for those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the right place. Ought it to be so pleasant? And for so few of us? …….. Might war cleanse us of our materialism? Our cynicism, our lax and lazy hypocrisies?”

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Similar concerns about the existing social structure are aired throughout the film, and objections voiced to the culture of killing for sport and male competitiveness. It’s disconcerting therefore to hear the producer, Geoff Reeve say in a 2006 interview that he optioned the book because it “seemed to embrace the values and beliefs I held at that time. Apart from believing in God, we believed in the British Empire and, if you like, the lord of the manor …….. Very old fashioned ideas. And The Shooting Party endorsed those beliefs.” I’m sure the book’s author would have been surprised to hear this, and it’s clear that Julian Bond, the screenwriter didn’t share Reeve’s view.

The script is, however, not the film’s strongest point, even though it received a BAFTA nomination. Bond, who had worked exclusively in television up to that point, generously admits it lacks the book’s complexity and that whatever depth and meaning it has is mainly thanks to the actors.

Mason is especially effective in two scenes, one humorous, the other poignant. In the first John Gielgud, playing an animal rights activist bent on sabotaging the shoot, walks in front of the guns with a placard bearing the message Thou Shalt Not Kill. He is brought before Mason and the conversation that follows, in which they discover a common interest in pamphleteering, is sheer joy.

The film’s climax is the accidental shooting of the poacher (Gordon Jackson). While he lies dying, Mason offers comfort and reassurance and together they recite the Lord’s Prayer. The scene could have been mawkish in the hands of lesser actors, but here it’s done with great delicacy and genuine emotion. Both Frank Windsor and Rupert Frazer who appear as bystanders recall the profound effect on them of witnessing the performances at close range.

It’s worth noting that Gordon Jackson, playing an Englishman, reveals his Presbyterian roots by reciting the Scottish version of the Lord’s Prayer with its reference to debts rather than the Anglican trespasses and I suspect that Bridges chose to leave this in rather than go for another, possibly inferior, take.

The rest of the cast is no less impressive. While negotiations for Scofield’s replacement were taking place, Bridges shot a delightful small scene between Robert Hardy and Judi Bowker. Told to take their time over it, for there was nothing else that could be filmed, they turn a seemingly trivial discussion about cufflinks into a subtle and revealing portrait of a marriage.

The delays caused by the accident meant it became impossible to film the script in its totality. Apart from financial problems, the weather was becoming too wintry and the shooting season was drawing to a close. It had been planned to follow the fortunes of the male characters as they entered the war, but instead it was decided to close the film with a reprise of the opening shot of the party walking across the field with what we now know to be the poacher’s body. This time it’s in colour, with captions telling us where and when the men were killed in action.

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Mason was shown the finished film but died of a heart attack aged 75 in July 1984 only six months after shooting was completed and before its cinema release. He was posthumously named Actor of the Year by the London Critics Circle, an award he richly deserved.

Judy Dean

UK DVD: The Shooting Party (Collectors Edition) [DVD]
US DVD: The Shooting Party

Culp De-Programmer

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2012 by dcairns

SPECTRE — a failed TV pilot devised by Gene Roddenberry. Download it! Slap it in the Panasonic! Watch it!

Stars Robert Culp — my new hero! as Gene Roddenberry William Sebastian, a stylishly dressed criminologist and expert in paranormal abnormality, who, assisted by Dr Ham Hamilton — who I kept thinking was played by Bradford Dillman, but is actually the murderer Gig Young — “He looks nothing like Bradford Dillman. Why did I think it was Bradford Dillman?” “You just wanted it to be,” claims Fiona. “I deny the accusation!” — this sentence has really lost its way. Back up. Start again.

Our two decrepit intrepid heroes journey to London, England, to investigate a case of possible satanic possession at a stately home newly outfitted as mod shagging palace by incumbent Sir Geoffrey Cyon (James Villiers). Just as in SOME GIRLS DO, Villiers is surrounded by dolly birds, although whether in this film they have had their heads hollowed out and filled with radio-controlled microchips is never stated — but going by their behaviour, I’d say the answer is YES, and Roddenberry has the remote.

Gig’s bedchamber — and waterbed — is invaded at night by Allo Allo‘s Vicki Michelle, plus a dominatrix and a schoolgirl, but that’s just the beginning of the diabolism in store! The problem is figuring out which of the Cyon scions is possessed of the Devil — Villiers (who definitely is), Ann Bell, who might be, and John Hurt, who probably definitely is. “I remember being very disappointed in him for doing this,” says Fiona. Whereas I don’t remember it at all. If I did, I’d like to think I wouldn’t be watching it now. Fiona has no such excuse, other than wanting something cheery after running PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD.

John Hurt tries out for the role of a Klingon.

James Villiers turns into a cat.

Tits! Obvious cutaways of tits to try and sell this as an X-rated horror movie abroad. Clive Donner directed this — I’m starting to think he was never very good, you know. His camera swoops in, leering, in like a dirty eagle, every nipple a merit badge.

Jenny Runacre smiles slyly in the background, which you’d think would be enough, and Culp is pretty delightful, channeling Shatner’s heavy pauses. Gordon Jackson is on hand, as ever.

“You hear a lot about Bradford Dillman,” I observe, “but you never hear about his brother, Rochdale.”

Culp is such a Roddenberry substitute, he even has Majel Barrett (Mrs R) as housekeeper. And the voodoo curse on him, manifesting as chest pains and a blob of mortician’s wax on his manly abdomen, is presumably a thinly-veiled fictionalisation of the heart condition that slew the Star Trek creator.

Why Gene Roddenberry wrote science fiction: his first wife was named Eileen Rexroat. It was inevitable.

More Wiki —

“Star Trek theme music composer Alexander Courage long harbored resentment of Roddenberry’s attachment of lyrics to his composition. By union rules, this resulted in the two men splitting the music royalties payable whenever an episode of Star Trek aired, which otherwise would have gone to Courage in full. (The lyrics were never used on the show, but were performed by Nichelle Nichols on her 1991 album, “Out of this World.”)”

The only Star Trek lyrics I ever heard require to be sung with a Scottish accent —

Star Trek! It’s a funny tune!

It goes UP and then it goes doon!

AND! just when you think you’ve got it mastered,

It flies off like a crazy bastard!

I think perhaps those are not canonical.

As someone who grew up with a lot of terrible, boring, generic American TV (Petrocelli, The Fall Guy, Fantasy Island, Kojak, Dallas) I kind of wish Spectre had been commissioned. It’s not boring. It’s terrible and ridiculous, but not boring. If it had run, there might have been some good episodes, but even if they were all dreadful, they would have been more diverting than all the lawyer and cop and doctor shows, and with Culp and his polo neck, they’d have been more fun than Kolchak, too.

In some dreamy alternate reality, this series ran for decades. David Duchovny eventually took over from Culp.

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