Archive for Private’s Progress

The Disclaimer

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2009 by dcairns

From the Boulting Brothers’ PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, a politely lacerating satire on the armed forces. I guess the fact that they waited until 1956 to make this vulgar comedy about wartime corruption does take away somewhat from any sense of “courage,” and by firing the satire scattershot at everything in sight, writers John Boulting and Frank Harvey, adapting a novel by Alan Hackney, protect themselves against offending anybody too deeply.

Still, a portrayal of services life in WWII where everybody is out for what they can get is a surprising thing from the somewhat conservative British cinema of the 50s. By this time, Powell & Pressburger had lost the spark that enabled them to combine artistic excellence and commercial success, David Lean had gone international, and everybody else with any ambition was being stifled by bureaucracy at Rank and gentility elsewhere. With their brashness and no-prisoners commerciality, the Boultings look forward to the cinema of Hammer and Carry On — indeed, the shouty drill sergeant in this movie is played by William Hartnell, who would basically reprise the role a couple years later in CARRY ON SERGEANT, giving rise to that whole series of bawdy romps — and a sinister Nazi officer is played by Christopher Lee, shortly before his rise to lasting fame.

Ian Carmichael, who did not go on to play DRACULA.

My good friend Mary just passed me a copy of The Financial Times, an organ I don’t usually take, which contains a charming Scorsese profile by historian Simon Schama (he doesn’t know anything about films but he likes Scorsese, apparently). It tickled me to find Scorsese singing the praises of British comedies — we know he likes KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, and its flip, chill voice-over was an unlikely influence on GOODFELLAS — but Schama is rightly surprised to hear Scorsese “summoning the shade of Ian Carmichael.” It IS a surprising juxtaposition, but I guess nobody would be more surprised than Carmichael, who is very much alive.

Carmichael is an unacknowledged giant of British cinema! Apart from being perhaps the best Bertie Wooster ever (although he was too old for the part by the time he played it on TV), he makes the perfect Candide for the Boultings, his gentle quality of intelligent idiocy commending him to our sympathies. Also on great form in PRIVATE’S PROGRESS are Dennis Price as caddish Bertie Tracepurcel, Richard Attenborough as cheeky chappie Archie Cox (is there anything Attenborough can’t do? Apart from direct films, that is) and Terry-Thomas, who is quite remarkably restrained. He’s doing his usual silly-ass thing, but it’s far more controlled, quiet, less manic, and even more effective. T-T recorded in his very entertaining and genuinely eccentric memoirs that one close-up gave him an interesting task: as “Major Hitchcock” he finds himself in a cinema with his men. He’s bunked off work to see the film, and so have they.  Can he, in all decency, reprimand them?

Boulting gave T-T the big build-up, explaining note by note all the emotions he wanted to see flickering across the Thomas visage. But the Great Man decided to ignore all that and instead let his mind go perfectly blank, a technique that had served him well on previous occasions. And he was pleased to see that particular close-up cited in a year’s-end round-up of memorable movie moments. Here it is:

The intensity of an image from Dreyer!

While Terry-Thomas must get the credit for his own performance, I do think Boulting had a gift for getting genuine performances from comics like Sellers and T-T who were often content to rely on their usual tricks. His slapstick is pretty clumsy, and it’s a shame there’s so much of it, since the films seem to work best in a different register.

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Things I Read Off the Screen in “Rotten to the Core”

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2009 by dcairns

Really enjoyed this — a genuinely bitter, genuinely funny comedy from the Boulting Brothers, which crosses the stylistic approach of their 60’s satires (PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, I’M ALRIGHT JACK) with the conventions of the caper movie (the military-style heist of THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN seems the most obvious comparison).

The Boultings, Brighton-born twins, were pillars of the establishment (my friend Lawrie observed that John — or was it Roy? — became much friendlier when he spotted Lawrie’s old school tie: “What a bloody snob!” he thought) so their satires are aimed at, basically, everyone else. Foreigners are figures of fun, the working class are thugs and shirkers, industrialists are venal fools, the army are just idiots, etc. And everyone is out for themselves. It’s a darker world view even than Ealing’s subversively scathing THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, where the comedy provides a gentle gloss over the underlying savagery.

One of the reasons this 1965 movie fits into the “Things I Read…” approach is that the Boultings use “funny names” quite a bit, as well as spoof slogans, tying their humour into the Carry On tradition. One might even say the Dickens tradition, but perhaps that’s going a bit far.

BEFORE ENTERING, PLEASE READ NOTICE. Dudley Sutton, centre, was in my first film. Having appeared in working class realist dramas such as THE LEATHER BOYS, he represents a strain of modernity inserting itself into the traditional British comedy.

The convoluted narrative centres on three hopeless career criminals, “Jelly” Knight (Dudley Sutton, all huge sleepy turtle eyes), “Scapa” Flood (James Beckett, a weasel standing on its dignity) and Lenny the Dip (Kenneth Griffith, startled Welsh gerbil), who get out of stir to find that their boss, the Duke, has passed away, having eaten up their loot in medical bills. This information comes by way of the Duke’s girl, a 19-year-old Charlotte Rampling.

Glamour girl Rampling, a former model new to cinema (she debuted in a bit role in THE KNACK earlier in ’65) carries herself well, and makes the greatest impression with her teeth, which are pearly and look very sharp and are generally bared, as is quite a bit of the rest of her. It’s a promising early lead, but gives little hint of the legend that would arise.

Now things get complicated. Rampling is dating a dim-witted Scottish army officer (Ian Bannen, snaggle-toothed and bulbous-headed), who is responsible for delivering the salaries of thousands of men on maneuvers. And the Duke is not dead — he’s pulled a Harry Lime stunt and is plotting this Great Train Robbery from a fake health spa.

The Duke is Anton Rodgers, a familiar face on UK TV, but not somebody I’d ever paid much attention to. Here he turns out to be very good. He’s a loathsome protagonist, if one can even call him protag, with a genuinely vicious bite to his performance. he does that familiar British comedy trick of descending several rungs of the class ladder in a single sentence, usually with an accompanying rise in volume, but it’s nothing like Kenneth Williams’ version of the device. Rodgers is actually a little scary, and very unpleasant. Is it possible for a comedy to get away with being this hostile to all its characters? just about, it seems.

The most pleasant figure is possibly the private eye following Rampling on behalf of her respectable father, who fears she’s in with a bad crowd. Dad is Peter Vaughan, who it seems was never young, and the PI is Eric Sykes, whose talents for scene-stealing via visual comedy tics make him a welcome addition to the mise-en-scene. (Said m-e-s is compromised in  my copy since the CinemaScope frame is trimmed to 16:9 for TV broadcast. Sigh.) Sykes is actually key to unravelling the whole heist, since his involvement alerts Thorley Walters of Scotland Yard to the fact that the Duke is alive, that he has the whole criminal underworld working for him, and that his attentions are centered on Sgt Bannen.

The thieves’ gang tests our heroes’ aptitude with a computer ripped off from Jodrell Bank (home of Britain’s biggest radra telescopes, and a source of smutty humour since “Jodrell Bank” is, like “J Arthur Rank,” routinely used as cockney rhyming slang for “wank.”) Beckett scores 2, (“FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: BOOKIE’S RUNNER) Sutton gets 1, (“FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: NIL”) while Griffth causes the machine to combust, as a printout declares “FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: CHURCH OR ARMY.”

It’s an elaborate storyline, faithful to the Boulting’s tradition of peppering their films with unusual accents (how often was Northern Irish heard in British films not directly related to “the troubles”?) and colourful supporting characters. As in the earlier satires, even the regular silly jokes are notably abrasive: Sykes, disguised as a street-sweeper, mistakenly empties a shovel-full of dirt and garbage into a baby’s pram. One nice moment involves “the arms” — these are spoken of with shame and despair, since they are only to be deployed when respectable heists have failed to yield any income. Cut to Kenneth Griffith, reading the Daily Mail with a pair of false arms, while his real fingers are deployed picking pockets. This is where he discovers the Duke is alive — he tries to rob the wrong bloke, and the Duke sets fire to his newspaper, and thence to “the arms” — Griffith extinguishes his flaming extremities and lopes off, the dead limbs bouncing at his sides, simian-fashion.

“The arms” are key — they provide the film with a remarkably bitter ending. Everything has gone wrong.  The heist fails, the money is recaptured, and even stealing a tank in order to break the loot out of the bank doesn’t work (the tank falls through the floor, an impressive bit of large-scale slapstick).  Rampling’s dad is packing her off to the North, where she’s clearly going to be miserable. She feels something. It’s the Duke, picking her pocket. He’s wearing the arms. He steals a valuable keepsake he’d given her earlier. She gives him a pitying look. He hurries away, “arms” tragically akimbo.