Archive for Lawrie Knight

The Sunday Intertitle: Choccy Moloch

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2021 by dcairns

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK holds up better than the other Boulting Bros’ satires, I think. It’s unusual in that it’s a right-wing satire that’s actually funny. There is a slight attempt at even-handedness: when a worker explains that by having two unions, they can continually pressure the bosses to raise salaries, he adds that without this crafty approach, they wouldn’t get any raises at all. That’s a pretty minuscule sop.

So if the film, firing in all directions, is FOR anything, it’s for “compassionate capitalism.” If the workers are treated fairly by the employers, we can do away with unions altogether and peace will reign. Kind of weird that they use that title, shorthand for “Sod you, Jack, I’m all right” — intended to convey individual selfishness. Here, the different classes are united in opposition to one another, but there’s real group unity within each. They stick together.

Still, with the bosses played by Terry-Thomas (idiot) and Richard Attenborough (cad) and in bed with sleazy politico Dennis Price (crook) and sleazy foreigner Marne Maitland (seen stealing the cutlery), it’s fair to say nobody comes out of it well. But if you unpick where the film is heading with its argument, you find near-fascism at the end of the ellipsis.

My late friend Lawrie Knight found himself trapped between doors with Roy Boulting: the “filming” light was on so they couldn’t go forward and there was no point going back outside. So they waited. RB noticed Lawrie’s public school tie, and immediately became friendlier than he had been previously. Lawrie was a mere third assistant director. And he was appalled at RB’s sudden change of manner. “I mean, I’m a terrible snob, but this was too much!”

Peter Sellers’ magisterial performance as Fred Kite, union man, makes the film, though it’s crammed to the rafters with superb players in meaty comic roles. Dennis Price raises his game: sure, he’s always good, but he’s always THE SAME. He could have played this role with his eyes closed, but he wakes up for it and knocks it out of the park.

There’s a modest attempt to portray the women as the sensible parties, but this involves showing Mrs. Kite (Irene Handl, fabulous as always) cozying up to our hero’s posh Aunt Dolly with a forelock-tugging obsequiousness that’s portrayed as somehow instinctive and proper. Uncomfortable. Though seeing those two share a scene is a joy.

But I mainly want to talk about the chocolate factory. Our hero (Ian Carmichael, mousy drip to perfection) is taken on a tour of this joint, and if Willie Wonka’s plant is a gaudy death-trap, and that of Lord Scrumptious an expressionistic panopticon, then the Num-Yum factory’s METROPOLIS-inspired imagery, with the rhythmic soundtrack of burping and farting machinery (no doubt inspired by the jazzy chemistry sounds of THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, a subtler, more compassionate and genuinely curious film than this) takes the film into a nauseating nightmare realm, just for this one scene. It’s a film full of disgust, moral or aesthetic, but it only assumes visceral form here. The boultings may have had the wrong slant on politics and society, but they got one thing right about satire: it’s motivated by nausea.

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK stars Bertie Wooster; Sir Hiss – A Snake; Chance; Kris Kringle; Jeeves; Madame Arcati; Mrs Gimble; Glad Trimble; Canon Chasuble; The Malay; Sgt. Wilson; Mr. Hoylake; Anxious O’Toole; Lenny the Dip; Archbishop Gilday; Orlando O’Connor; Lily Swann; and Sgt. Potty Chambers.

Byronic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2020 by dcairns

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JY wrote to request I say something about the late Kathleen Byron, born on this day 99 years ago (what are we all going to do for the Sister Ruth centenary?).

It’s taken for granted that Michael Powell was right when he told Byron that she’d never get another role as good as Sister Ruth — and of course he was. But we should stop to note that in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, a very nearly perfectly cast film, she’s a very striking presence, and THE SMALL BACK ROOM, which I adore, would not be the same without her.

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Rank, of course, did not know what to do with her, and her later career becomes a game of spot-the-Byron, as she turns up for minute, often thankless and sometimes literally wordless roles in distinguished films like THE ELEPHANT MAN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and altogether less celebrated works like CRAZE and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. It can look as if she was embracing obsolescence, accepting Powell’s prophecy, but I think it’s more likely she was still hoping to prove him wrong and knew she’d better keep her hand in if there was to be any chance of landing the great role when it came by.

Maybe people were a little scared of her — not just because she’s so intimidating in BLACK NARCISSUS, but she seems to have been a formidable person in real life. Powell’s unexplained reference to her threatening him with a revolver while naked in Vol II of his autobiography appears to be a complete wish-fulfillment confabulation on his part, but they were intimate, and she wasn’t afraid to stand up to him.

My late friend Lawrie Knight, a third assistant on BN, confirmed Byron’s account of her refusing to take Powell’s direction when Sister Ruth visits Mr. Dean’s hut. She’d decided for herself that Sister Ruth was PERFECTLY SANE and she was damn well going to play it that way. Of course, most viewers still perceive Ruth as mad — her actions are a bit extreme, but unrequited love, frustration and jealousy aren’t mental illnesses, though they may have many of the same characteristics. Whatever was behind Byron’s choices, the effect on screen is incredibly powerful and convincing. Powell went off in a huff, Byron worked out the scene with David Farrar, then they showed it to their director.

“Well, it’s not what I wanted but I suppose it’s all right,” he harumphed.

To his credit, he let her do it, he cast her once more, and he gave her some of the greatest close-ups in British cinema.

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(What ARE the greatest close-up in British cinema? When Deborah Kerr looks up from the pencil in her hand and sees Ruth staring at her, that’s one. Christopher Lee coming downstairs and saying hello, that’s two. Yootha Joyce in the hairdressers in THE PUMPKIN EATER, that’s three. Hmm, they’re all quite scary. I’ll need to think of some romantic ones — I think COLONEL BLIMP offers several…)

Snarl-Up

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2018 by dcairns

Orson Welles may have called John Guillermin “one of the truly outstanding incompetents” and a viewing of the Franco-Anglo-Irish director’s KING KONG movies might seem to bear that out, but I can’t help but feel there’s some merit there, in the earlier works, indicating that while some are born incompetent, others go on to achieve incompetence.

My late friend Lawrie knew Guillermin quite well. On noticing one of the maestro’s lesser works, EL CONDOR, in his Radio Times, I started to read the synopsis: “Slick, nasty and superficial…” “That’s John!” declared Lawrie jubilantly, but with a certain affectionate indulgence.

Talking Pictures TV kindly screened NEVER LET GO (1960), an earlier Guillermin, from when he had B-picture zest. It’s certainly slick, nasty and superficial, but it’s also very effective. Fiona was WILDLY enthusiastic about it. It has no really appealing characters, but it’s relentless, event-packed, and looks and sounds great, thanks to Powell & Pressburger photographer Christopher Challis and new composer on the block John Barry. But what really tips it over the edge is a ferocious performance by Peter Sellers, another of Orson’s favourite people (“Where’s our thin friend today?”) in, I believe, his first serious role.

Richard Todd plays a cosmetics salesman whose car is stolen by a gang of hoodlums led by Adam Faith (the best pop-star actor, I’d say, and a uniquely naturalistic one — he’s also fantastic in BEAT GIRL, the other great Barry-scored exploitation romp of 1960. Todd has staked his whole future on this uninsured Ford Anglia, and slowly transforms from a meek, bespectacled underdog (he’s worked out a very good, unassuming/defeated WALK) to a would-be Paul Kersey, bristling at Scotland Yard’s slow-but-sure investigation and taking the fight to the “legitimate businessman,” Sellers, who deals in hot vehicles.

There’s also good work by Carol White, the Battersea Bardot, in a somewhat thankless early role. Faith gets to alternately menace and be menaced, whereas White is entirely put-upon, a care home girl Sellers has taken as mistress, installing her in a downmarket shagging palace and leering over her with panting, bared-teeth menace. It’s an electrifying performance from him: when an actor goes all-out to be repellant, and has such resources, the effect is overwhelming. Guillermin’s dramatic low angles emphasise the pudginess of Sellers’ “jawline,” while the actor makes full use of his thin lips and sharp little teeth to suggest the lurking sadism of this mediocre criminal. He also plays it with a suppressed northern accent, hinting at the character’s social aspirations, along with his constant reiteration that he’s got a “legitimate business.”

“I know the term ‘fight in a warehouse’ is supposed to be pejorative…” said Fiona, as Todd and Sellers try to tear each other apart in a garage at the end. The whole place is a death trap, with big jeroboams of battery acid (never used: just planted there to terrify us) a descending car platform that threatens to crush Todd’s skull, chains and crowbars and planks with nails in…

If the film was as tough as it thinks it is, Todd’s car would have been totally trashed in the fight, Sellers would have been killed, and our vigilante hero would have been jailed for murder — instead, Sellers is only stunned, then arrested, and Todd goes home to his wife. But the happy ending is pretty crazy, considering the number of crimes he’s blatantly committed, and which the Yard has decided to sympathetically overlook. Still, at this stage in John Barry’s career, a filmmaker could do just about anything if he had that guy’s music to paper over the narrative cracks.