Archive for Johnny Dankworth

If all men were brothers would you let one marry your sister?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2015 by dcairns

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(Thanks to Theodore Sturgeon for the title, which I have stolen. This is a reprint of an article originally published at BritMovie.com. The original linking piece is HERE. I’ve kept the few original framegrabs but included more from an upgraded copy — thanks, Eclipse!)

The soundtrack of Basil Dearden’s racially-charged 1959 cop-flick SAPPHIRE, composed by Philip Green but arranged by the great Johnny Dankworth in a sleazy jazz style reminiscent of TAXI DRIVER, comments on shocking turns in the action in the traditional manner, with excited blasts at key moments. But the decisions about what is actually supposed to be shocking are pretty interesting, and convey all kinds of sublimated panic.

A young white woman is found stabbed on Hampstead Heath.

Her brother (Earl Cameron) arrives at the police station to give evidence. He is black.

BA-DAAA! The music blares out in horror. Not just at the appearance of a non-white character, but at the meaning behind this — miscegenation has occurred, at some distant time in the past, and a black girl has passed herself off as white.

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Police examine the murdered girl’s clothing. Respectable outer garments, racy red undies beneath. “There’s the black under the white,” remarks racist copper Michael Craig.

Later, in her bedroom, detectives break into a locked drawer. As it opens, more voluminous red satin underwear bursts out.

BA-DAA! The music goes into a shocked paroxysm at this explosion of erotic lingerie. The police try to figure out how to trace the panties to their source (for no obvious reason, they are seized on as a vital clue) and the music slowly turns sexy and saxy, getting to quite like the idea of frilly knickers now that it’s over the shock.

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The weird thing is, Sapphire is a progressive movie for its day, using the format of the whodunit and police procedural to look at racial attitudes across British society at a time when immigration had become a big talking point. Dearden’s VICTIM, a superior film, would use a crime story to examine British attitudes to homosexuality, and achieve a lot in terms of consciousness-raising, censorship-loosening and eventually doing its bit towards getting the law changed to decriminalise homosexual acts. Whatever Dearden’s knowledge of gay activity in Britain was, he seemed able to achieve a level of conviction that rather escapes him in SAPPHIRE. Perhaps because the presence in the cast of actors like Dennis Price and Dirk Bogarde helped set the tone. SAPPHIRE features numerous black actors, but apart from Cameron, most of them had little film experience and little acting experience of any kind. It also feels like they don’t have the authority to insist on authenticity, so that they are forced to utter weird Americanised dialogue (VICTIM’s Janet Green rewritten by DIRTY DOZEN scribe Lukas Heller). The film’s suppression of authentic West Indian accents (only a couple are heard, well into the film) also acts against a sense of a reality, although a bonus is to be had in the stereotype-defying spectacle of an exceedingly posh black barrister, with a bishop for a dad. But this character proves to be a habitué of sleazy jazz dives, drives a flash car, and has a girlfriend who talks like she’s from Harlem, so it’s uncertain if the film is hinting that his respectable facade conceals a set of inherently non-Caucasian vices.

An equally dubious moment occurs in The Tulip, where the proprietor boasts that his club’s bongo rhythms unleash a wild side in his patrons that separates the black from the white — and behind him, a curvy blonde on a bar stool starts to twitch her feet to the music, revealing her African blood.

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If the film’s racial attitudes are a mixed bag Craig’s racist cop is shown to be misguided, but no alarm is expressed at the fact that he holds those opinions and that job — it may be partly because the plot is too. Dearden scored an early success with sections of the compendium horror film DEAD OF NIGHT (there’s an expressionistic side to his work that contradicts the more naturalistic flavour) and followed that with parts of TRAIN OF EVENTS, and he seems to have favoured sprawling, multi-character narratives. Here, there’s the domestic whodunnit, with its secrets and lies, different family members suspecting each other (Sapphire was engaged to a white music student, and his bigoted family opposed the match); the police procedural, with Nigel Patrick crisply efficient in a role that’s not so much underwritten as completely unwritten; and the social study, with racist landlords and London’s Afro-Caribbean night-life under examination. It’s enough for two or three better films.

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About halfway in, Dearden cuts loose with a nocturnal chase, as new suspect Johnny Fiddle goes on the run through a noir city that’s all blue backlight blasting in great shafts from behind every building, A THIRD MAN kind of look that’s very typical of Dearden — he stages such chases in nearly all his thrillers. In Sapphire’s lurid Eastmancolor, the effect is more hallucinatory: the night is as searing as the day. As sequences like the climax of DEAD OF NIGHT (surreal nightmare attack) and the carnival in SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS (choreographed baroque phantasmagoria) show, Dearden had a command of the expressive power of cinema that he was rarely allowed to exercise. Sapphire’s night-flight hints at a weirder, more exotic film that could have slipped into BLACK ORPHEUS territory.

By making the transition from Ealing dramas like THE BLUE LAMP (a rather gentile detective story) to ’60s social realism flicks like A PLACE TO GO (Rita Tushingham and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE wrecker Mike Sarne), Dearden showed a great deal of adaptability (he also tried his hand at Lean’s brand of epic, with KHARTOUM, and made a jazz Othello, under the title ALL NIGHT LONG, which is most notable for allowing Miles Davis and Dickie Attenborough to share screen time). POOL OF LONDON, another multi-character panoply of Britain, wrapped up in a crime thriller, made in 1951, is a more successful look at race relations. It stars the spanner-faced, fast-talking yank Bonar Colleano, and Earl Cameron again, a likeable actor in a rather neutered role: but when Cameron finally snaps under the pressure of the relentless racist attitudes around him and goes on a drunken bender, he “confirms” the prejudices of his persecutors, and it’s quite powerful stuff. The persecutors are entirely working class, however, and the film is careful to avoid suggesting that the same thoughtless inhumanity might be present among the British police. (See the film for Cameron’s drunk scene and the climax, involving Max Adrian, improbably cast as a criminal acrobat.)

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Dearden is a broadly sympathetic social observer, but in SAPPHIRE he fails to convince us of the veracity of his black London. The inexperience and awkwardness of the black actors needn’t have been an insuperable problem: several players have charm and grace, but they’re saddled with unsuitable dialogue and attitudes, and unfairly contrasted with seasoned British professionals who sometimes appear stuff by comparison, but own their lines in a way most of the black actors cannot — what was needed was for them to be empowered to rephrase the dialogue into their own words.

Worst acting honours go to Paul Massie, however, as Sapphire’s white fiancée: he gives a constipated interpretation of a working class English boy with a Canadian accent. This is where the film really has no excuse for getting it wrong. And the other moment that might inspire rage is the fleeting, uncredited appearance by Barbara Steele — how one longs for the film to simply abandon its narrative and follow her sexy adventures as a music student in dawn-of-the-sixties unswinging London.

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Memory Monday: The Ass on the Bathroom Door

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2015 by dcairns

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So, I’m revisiting those filmmakers I devoted Official Weeks to in the past here on Shadowplay. Joseph Losey got his own week because I had a sense that I hadn’t seen nearly enough Losey and that I hadn’t appreciated him enough — a sense that, actually, I might have some kind of antipathy to his whole approach. As Richard Lester said to Soderbergh, Losey was the last person you would use the word “zany” about, and in fact I found there was a lack of humour which was almost heroic at times. MODESTY BLAISE is the one film Losey made that could be called a comedy, and indeed is absolutely dependent on whimsy since it refuses to be what the producers evidently intended, a campy James Bond sex-and-violence wallow. The only part of that equation Losey didn’t have a fierce antipathy to is the “campy” part, and yet even that was kind of alien to him, which is how he was able to make BOOM! a great piece of unconscious camp.

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I somehow didn’t have a copy of THE CRIMINAL to hand when I did Losey Week, though I knew I would like it when I saw it. When Losey played thrillers more or less straight, they were gripping. When the movie insists on providing a commentary on what it’s about, instead of just being about it, you could get problems, as with the stuff with the gangsters in Losey’s maudit remake of M: the movie insists on offering up a pinko analysis of organised crime as a manifestation of Capital. THE GODFATHER succeeds simply by allowing this idea to play out as drama, not even as an allegory, but as a simple statement of fact. Nobody needs to point it out.

Losey described THE PROWLER, another excellent noir I didn’t get around to writing about, as “a film about false values,” and such stories are powerful and compelling as long as the scenarist can resist inserting a mouthpiece to put it all into words. “The playwright should show conditions and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions,” as Brander Matthews put it.

And so to THE CRIMINAL (1960), which does just that. I think the avoidance of proselytising is something Losey ultimately found very sympatico in the British writers he worked with, which is what led him to bond so well with Pinter, who NEVER tells you what’s on his mind. Here, the writer is Alun Owen, later to pen A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Richard Lester remarked to me that Owen had a multiplicity of useful hats he could put on, as both a Scouser and  a Welshman, and he had a wealth of life experience which informed his work. Very unusually for a British crime film, THE CRIMINAL sets out simply to record a series of events, into which the viewer is invited to read meanings. What it avoids is any Marxist or Freudian analysis of what leads to a life of crime, though you can hunt for clues if that’s your bag.

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We begin in prison, though Owen has written a careful gag, a high-stakes poker game between Brit-flick stalwarts such as Murray Melvin and Patrick Wymark (shockingly young, a tufty-haired rolly-polly joker with a sinister edge, not quite the Toby Jug he would morph into just a few years later). We’re clearly meant to be taken by surprise when we discover the game is being played with matches by lags in a cell. But Losey takes his directorial wrecking-ball to the gag, framing Melvin against a painted brick wall pasted with suggestive imagery (I think that might be Abbey Lincoln and Frances Bacon!), and even before that there’s a short of a prison gate with the producers’ credit over it. This is either a crass insertion by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo-Amalgamated, who had just made PEEPING TOM and were considered the dregs of the industry, or else Losey himself couldn’t resist sticking their names over a shot of a prison gate (maybe he had more wit than I credit him with).

Losey had earlier made a short for Hammer, A MAN ON THE BEACH (1955), a dull Tales of the Very Expected thing entirely predicated upon the shock revelation that Donald Wolfit’s character is blind. Wolfit, whose tread could be as leaden as Losey’s at his worst, plays the whole thing with an unblinking middle-distance star and groping hands, telegraphing “I can’t see a bloody thing” from his first entrance, rendering the whole enterprise pointless. So Losey is one of those filmmakers with a constitutional aversion to the “pull-back-and-reveal” gag, it seems.

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Jimmy Sangster, who apparently originated the story of THE CRIMINAL as well as scripting that benighted short, based a lot of his career on that very narrative trope, churning out DIABOLIQUES rip-offs for Hammer, so Losey’s rejection of the approach is an early sign of an exciting battle of sensibilities. Unlike Sangster, Owen is drawn to narrative sidetracks, and invents a whole prison populace of distinctive characters who don’t really need to be there for story reasons, but are essential for world-building. Asides from Melvin and Wymark (and it’s typical the show opens with such minor figures), we’ll soon get Gregoire Aslan (chucklesome charm subdued into lizard-eyed menace), Tom Bell and Kenneth Cope, who fulfills a similar function here as in X: THE UNKNOWN, which Losey nearly directed and may well have cast him in: turn up, look scared, suffer An Appalling Fate.

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As always, Patrick Magee, of the curling lip and watery eye, who plays the corrupt prison warden Burrows, threatens to rip the whole thing apart with a performance evoking paranoid schizophrenia, satanic possession and narcissistic personality disorder all at once. The only way Richard MacDonald’s spectacular prisons set can contain him is for Owen and Losey to open up other avenues into disintegration, safely channeling the Magee Overflow. Most eye-popping occurs during a monologue by mentally-ill prisoner Brian Phelan, where Losey pushes in fast to a tight closeup and actually irises in to shoot the actor in a vignette, suggesting simultaneously his frightening isolation from reality and his inability to reach Baker on any meaningful emotional level.

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Baker himself is astonishing, the kind of actor without whom this kind of film would be unimaginable. Unapologetically macho — and also willing to associate closely with the film’s themes of sexual variance. His close-quarters combat with Bell and Neil McCarthy has sexual intimations, even down to the “nothing-happening-here” pretense when Caught At It by the warden. Tough guy Clobber (Kenneth J. Warren) has pugilists on his walls and a tender relationship with Phelan.

The film, unusually, contains two long prison sequences, as we meet Baker the day before his release, and when arrested again he arranges an escape. In the outside world, an agressive, overstated heterosexuality reigns. Baker’s swinging crim pad is awash with nudes, both artistic and actual. He playfully spanks the full-length odalisque on his bathroom door. She has a nice behind, but come on — who spanks a door? When former squeeze Jill Bennett is edged out by newbie nudie Margot Saad, she’s more naked that I would have thought was possible in 1960 Britain, unless you were Pamela Green. The value of eroticism was probably the one area where Losey’s interests coincided with Anglo-Amalgamated’s.

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The film has hilariously little interest in its heist, apparently forged in a masterplan by grinning idiot John Molloy inside — we never even see the full robbery, just its aftermath, and never learn the plan, just the betrayals afterwards. These involve sad-eyed copper Laurence Naismith, purring creep Sam Wanamaker, and swaggering Nigel Green, enormous in an overcoat with padded shoulders, inflating his physique to Honey Monster proportions.

It is tempting just to list the cast, isn’t it? But the film is shot by tetchy genius Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) and edited by Reggie Mills who cut most of Powell & Pressburger’s movies. He’s wonderfully sloppy about continuity, and incredibly tight about narrative and psychology, and he has his own taut sense of rhythm. There’s a riot scene which energises all of these talents, and the ragged-edged cast, around MacDonald’s panopticon prison set and allows Losey to really break loose with the camera, which cocks its head like Ygor, crabs fast like Astaire, swoops in like Baron Harkonnen, combining the sardonic glint, the grace, and the leering aggression of all three of those figures. I should add that Johnny Dankworth’s score adds immeasurably to the atmosphere and drama, its romantic longing largely in counterpoint to the hard-edged action.

It’s a bleak film. “Miserable time of the year,” remarks Magee. “If we could only have some flowers. Down there. In summer it’s a blaze of colour.” Here’s the prison garden:

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Here’s a park.

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Here’s a field.

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England as a BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN no-man’s-land. Losey is starting to feel at home.