Archive for John Le Mesurier

When Worlds Collude

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 22, 2016 by dcairns

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“This is a terrible film,” said Fiona, mid-way through STRANGER FROM VENUS. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that this low-budget British sci-fi effort wasn’t exactly ROME: OPEN CITY, but it had started so promisingly. Within moments of the first UFO sighting, we got a quick scene of the great John Le Mesurier as an archetypal Man from the Ministry, on the hotline to somebody or other, saying something or other… we were too thrilled to really pay attention to the words uttered. But after those all-too-brief seconds, Le Mes departs the film, never to be seen again, and interest markedly slumps. To offer us John Le Mes and then take him away again so suddenly is a like a cruel cinematic version of orgasm denial.

On the plus side, we then get Patricia Neal, her presence calculated to affirm with every passing moment that this is not THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Though it closely resembles it in many ways, all of them making for an unflattering comparison. As in Robert Wise’s terrific picture, a stiff-necked extraterrestrial lands and delivers a message of peace — backed up with apocalyptic threats.

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Like every other sci-fi movie made in Britain, the setting is a pub, in this case a roadside inn where the stranger takes up residence while demanding a congress with the world’s leaders. There’s a time limit on all this since his ability to breathe our earthly air will eventually give out, when he runs out of oxy-gum or something. Despite all this suspense, the film manages to be sluggish, with numerous scenes devoid of any discernible dramatic tension, and most of the plot consisting of desultory waiting.

As a result, the high-points are early on: director Burt Balaban (of the Balaban dynasty) shows a penchant for filming his cast from the back, which becomes a full-blown fetish when the Venusian interloper enters, his face hidden from us for long minutes. Eventually, the agreeably chiseled features of Helmut Dantine are revealed, and Patricia is of course drawn to the sexy stranger from Planet Lurve. His cheekbones call to her cheekbones.

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Space Helmut has an important message to deliver but can’t do so just yet, so there’s plenty of time for (excuse the expression) mooning after Patricia, and the fact that she has a fiancée who is a government official (the heavy, space-gauntleted hand of coincidence lies heavy upon the scenario) adds complication, but none of this adds up to either romantic agony or mild curiosity for the viewer. The ending manages to preserve the status quo while (somewhat) questioning it, making this a half-hearted bit of liberal fantasy that can’t quite bring itself to be surprising or radical or scary or exciting. The climax hinges upon the theft of Space Helmut’s communication device (a flat cylinder looking suspiciously like a make-up compact) from an army tent, an operation so tedious the film doesn’t even bother to present it.

The very end is quite nice, actually — bittersweet, I suppose you’d call it. But I still feel like we’re owed an apology for the premature withdrawal of Le Mesurier.

 

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Film is a Battlefield

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2016 by dcairns

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Enjoyed very much the TV play We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story, in which the origins of the beloved sitcom Dad’s Army are explored. John Sessions absolutely CHANNELS the spirit of the late Arthur Lowe, with sterling lookalike and soundalike work from Ralph Riach as dour Scotsman John Laurie, a Shadowplay favourite, Shane Ritchie as Bill Pertwee, and Roy Hudd as Ray Flanagan, the thirties comedy star who sang the theme tune.

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NOT so successful, though fascinating as a piece of casting, is Julian Sands as John Le Mesurier. Le Mez was almost a special effect as much as an actor, a persona so unique and indefinable as to possibly defy impersonation. Sands’ best work in my view was THE KILLING FIELDS, where the man he was playing stuck around on set out of sheer vanity to see himself played by an actor, providing a handy reference point for the star into the bargain. Here, he doesn’t have the real man to refer to, and who among us can imagine Le Mez NOT acting? I’d like to think he was exactly the same in civilian life, but I have no idea.

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Another Dad’s Army star is Arnold Ridley, author of The Ghost Train, the theatrical comedy warhorse filmed multiple times, as silent, talkie, British, German, Hungarian, Romanian and Japanese. “I’d like to have your royalties,” someone says to him in We’re All Doomed! “So would I,” says Arnold, ruefully.

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This led me to look at THE WAY AHEAD, Carol Reed’s celebrated propaganda flick, written by Eric Ambler & Peter Ustinov (who also appears, along with most of British equity). The movie formed the basis for satirical treatments in HOW I WON THE WAR, CARRY ON SERGEANT and Dad’s Army itself, and in fact William Hartnell plays the sergeant-major in this and in the CARRY ON, with Laurie as a dour Scotsman in this and Dad’s Army. The Dad’s Army end credits, showing the aged cast trooping across a battlefield in a series of tracking shots, seems to deliberately reprise the climax of Reed’s film.

When Powell & Pressburger made propaganda, their essential eccentricity always led them madly off-message and resulted in art rather than message-mongering. Reed’s film is more disciplined, therefore less artistic, and even though Ustinov hated the idiocy he was surrounded with in the armed forces, his script does an excellent job of celebrating the way the bickering, petty civilian raw material is shaped into a disciplined fighting unit by loveable David Niven and gruff-but-also-loveable Hartnell.

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Sudden Trevor Howard!

There are only a few actual SHOTS in the first half, with a good deal of effective but perfunctory coverage, but at sea there’s a dramatic sequence, all staged full-scale, in which Reed finds that a sinking ship provides the ideal justification for his patented Deutsch tilts.

Raymond Durgnat, our most imaginative critic, proposed that the true meaning of the climax, in which the heroes advance through concealing swathes of smoke, was this: “It can be read as saying, They’re all dead. Reed’s brief was to warn us, This is going to be worse than we can imagine.” The final shot, showing the old guard smiling at news in the papers, seems to quash this gloomy notion and compel us to presume the attack was a success, but those moments in the billowing whiteness do have an eerie uncertainty to them which defies the triumphal music.

 

In Which the Entire British Secret Service is Gay

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2015 by dcairns

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Or perhaps just very very British.

A useful idiot is someone working for the secret service who doesn’t know it. In HOT ENOUGH FOR JUNE, Dirk Bogarde, nearing the end of his Rank starlet period, plays a Bohemian young fellow recruited by a dodgy glass company for a business trip to Prague — he’s actually working for Robert Morley and John le Mesurier of the secret service.

Follow the routine of the late Robert Anton Wilson: every morning when you wake up, ask yourself, “Am I a useful idiot?”

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Movie begins by tracking down one of those Corridors of Power we’re always hearing about. One of the very, very few stylish shots in the career of Ralph Thomas, director. He’d already propelled Dirk through a number of DOCTOR films (his brother helmed the CARRY ON series). At the end of the corridor, John Le Mes checks in the belongings of a deceased agent — revealed to be 007. It’s one of a number of cheeky gags dotted along the way, including a news headline where the film’s director protests “I AM NOT A SPY!” Mostly, the film is a light thriller just this side of parody — its vision of espionage is clearly closer to the truth than that of Bond.

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But Dirk gets his own Bond girl in Prague, Sylva Koscina (never in an actual Bond film, she did wave a speargun about opposite Richard Johnson as Bulldog Drummond for the same director). She gets some surprisingly sexy stuff to do.

Morley cautions Le Mes not to recruit anyone too susceptible to feminine charms. Then he warns him not to go too far in the opposite direction. Then he blows him a kiss.

Over a drink, Koscina asks Dirk if it’s true you have to go to Eton to get into the British government. He admits it helps. She asks if communists ever get to go to Eton. He explains that they don’t often go, but sometimes by the time people graduate from Eton, they are communists. She asks if they get into the government. “Mainly the Foreign Office.”

Screenplay is by Lukas Heller, best known for THE DIRTY DOZEN, which is also actually quite a witty film.

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Thomas isn’t much of a director, really — early on, he tries some very slight Dutch tilts, for a casual conversation at Dirk’s Bohemian flat. I figured he was limbering up for a bit of THIRD MAN business one we get to Prague (which is played by Padua, not too convincingly). But he omits to ever go lopsided again. I guess he didn’t like the look of the shots when he saw them in dailies, but a re-shoot was out of the question. If he’d had the nerve to sustain this approach, it would have worked beautifully.

But there’s some good comedy playing, the actual action is reasonably tense and plausible, and it’s amusing to see Bogarde meeting his contact in the men’s room. “Homosexuality is the best damn cover an agent ever had,” types William Lee in Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH.

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