Archive for Robert Hamer

An Inspector Falls

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2015 by dcairns

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It was in New York — enjoying cocktails with critic/filmmakers Dan Sallitt and Jaime Christley — I *THINK* — that the subject of Robert Hamer’s 1949 THE SPIDER AND THE FLY was mentioned, I *think* by Jaime. A Manhattan was consumed at some point so the whole thing’s blurry. But I had had a copy of this movie gathering dust for years, and had never watched it. The jist of the conversation was that I should blow off that dust and get the thing watched, and that I would not be disappointed.

In certain respects the film, starring Eric Portman as a French detective and Guy Rolfe as a master criminal, foreshadows Hamer’s better-known, later film FATHER BROWN (generically retitled THE DETECTIVE in America in what seems like a bid to obscure the Unique Selling Point). Both films are structured around a cat-and-mouse pursuit between a dogged detective and an aristocratic thief. But FATHER BROWN (a) gets shown on TV quite a bit and (b) isn’t very satisfactory — it lacks the uncanny quality of Chesterton’s source stories, and though it isn’t as committed to Catholic propaganda, what it substitutes, a bland moralism, doesn’t seem to interest the maker of KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. THE SPIDER AND THE FLY (a) never gets shown and (b) is very good indeed, with a proper complexity and a non-judgemental approach.

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Portman is a rather cold, clinical chief of police, determined to net the equally ruthless Rolfe (suave, cynical, linear as linguini in outline). He falls for a woman (Nadia Gray) whom Rolfe uses in  a job and allows to take the fall. But Rolfe is beginning to have feelings for her two. Will Portman resort to dirty tricks to get his man AND get the girl? And, more excitingly, what will happen at the one hour mark after both of those questions are unexpectedly answered? There’s undoubtedly a slight judder as the film has to reboot its entire narrative with just half an hour to go — maybe it could have been longer and that switcheroo might have sat more comfortably as a midway break — but by and large the benefits of bamboozling the audience outweight the risks to structural integrity.

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The cast is excellent. Portman, as ever, looks as if he might pour glue in your hair when you’re not looking, which adds a certain intensity to every scene he’s in. His character is a type I find appealing — the outwardly cold expert who falls passionately when he does fall. I didn’t really know Rolfe, though he seems to have slithered into everything. He’s wonderfully louche here. His frame, alarmingly attenuated, spaghettified as if by flirting with an event horizon suggests a stilt-walker. He’s the kind of master-criminal who probably leaves at each crime scene, as a calling card, a two-metre-long trouser leg. Supporting cast includes a skinny young Arthur Lowe who manages to look older in 1949 than he did in 1982, a whey-faced George Cole, James “Mr. Kipling” Hayter, and May Hallett as a very different housekeeper from the one she played in BLACK NARCISSUS.

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Lowe. left.

Best of all, it’s serious like IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY but witty and ironic like KIND HEARTS. Seth Holt edited it, Geoffrey Unsworth shot it, and the smudgy production design by Edward Carrick makes nearly every set look like either a smeared charcoal sketch or a dripping wet clay model slapped together crookedly and then somehow populated by life-sized, breathing people.

Alongside Alec Guinness, who did his best to prop Hamer up as his drinking slowly dissolved his mind, Eric Portman seems to have been Hamer’s favourite actor. He can bring the crisp coolness of Dennis Price to a heavier, more dramatic role. It looks as if he’ll never be appreciated the way some of his contemporaries are. A CANTERBURY TALE shows what he could do, but it doesn’t quite do for him what COLONEL BLIMP does for Roger Livesey, probably just because it isn’t as beloved a film. But its strangeness suits him. Portman fans looking for more viewing recommendations are directed towards DAYBREAK, my contender for the Saddest Film Ever Made.

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.

Formby follows Function

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2010 by dcairns

Matthew Sweet, in his chatty history of marginalized British cinema, Shepperton Babylon, amusingly referred to ’30s-’40s musical comedy star George Formby as looking like ” a human being reflected in a spoon,” which is unkind but not unfair. It implies “like a human being but not a human being,” which is also fair enough. There’s something of the Australopithecus about our George, and no mistake.

Of course, we don’t require comedians to be handsome, nor should we. It can even be a disadvantage: Louise Brooks said that one shot of Buster Keaton in THE GENERAL was so beautiful it took her breath away and left her unable to laugh for the rest of the film. But Keaton tethers his soulful beauty to his earnestness as a comic character, and makes it work for him. Chaplin suppresses his faun-like lustiness with felt mustache, out-of-proportion clothing and funny walk, so it only emerges when he wants it to.

Jerry Lewis, with his child-like and vaguely special-needs persona, “the kid,” is much closer to Formby’s character, who has a child’s love of the smutty and fear of the genuinely sexual. But Jer doesn’t look as genuinely warped as George, it’s merely an effect, or series of effects, which he can produce at will. Jerry is the most protean of comics, in fact, having morphed through at least four completely distinct appearances, without yet assuming the mantle of actual old age. Skinny young television Jerry became the fuller-faced Jerry as solo movie star, advanced into graying and bespectacled middle-aged Jerry, where he still seems to reside, with a brief interval as bloated and leonine Jerry,  a side-effect of the meds he was taking for a life-threatening condition, which he now seems happily quite recovered from. During all those periods except perhaps the ill one, he had a promiscuous range of sub-faces, rubber masks he could stretch and distort out of his facial apparatus, suggesting all kinds of deformity, mutation, funhouse distortion and transdimensional interference.

George, by contrast, is just George, stuck with the face a jesting or maleficent creator inflicted upon him. His body is normal, indeed quite muscular and well-developed, but that just seems part of the gag/tragedy, the human shape crowned with a monkey’s confused head, wondering how it got there. And the voice seems to be George’s own, a Jerry-kid nasal whine pitched at an octave anyone can hear but only dogs want to.

Fred Astaire’s singing voice has been described as “unlikely but effective.” George’s is extremely unlikely indeed, but effective in its perverse way, especially when paired with his banjo ukulele. When it comes to the banjolele I must pronounce myself on the side of Bertie Wooster and against Jeeves, as counter-intuitive as that sounds — I find it a uniquely pleasing instrument, which makes me quite able to enjoy a Formby song despite the shuddersome features gurning at me from the screen. It’s a comedy instrument, I suppose, but it has the edge over the “Jew’s harp” or “swannee whistle” in that it can play a range of actual notes, and at high speed.

What of the films? Here, a fascinating evolution can be seen. BOOTS! BOOTS! from 1934 was George’s first starring part (he was by now well-established as a stage star in his native Lancashire), intended for Northern English audiences and making no effort whatever to reach a wider range of social classes or geographically distributed punters, nor to adapt to the structures and possibilities of the motion-picture medium, except in the minimal sense of allowing lights, camera and microphone to be present while George and co perform their play.

Bert Tracey’s film begins, promisingly, by tracking down a hotel corridor, observing the various items of footwear left out for George the bootblack to work his magic upon. Then the film proper begins, with an almost audible slamming of the door in the face of film language, as Tracey serves up a series of long-shot single-take compositions, where each set seems to come with its own camera set-up, which will never vary no matter how many times we go away and come back.

Long shots like the above go on for minutes at a time, the characters separated from the movie audience by great distances of gray, grainy space, their voices echoing off the four edges of the screen. Whereas great old movies make you wonder at the fact that all the actors in them are now dead, and yet immortally alive and present forever, this one brings home to you just how dead they all are, and makes you say a silent prayer of thanks for the fact.

But George stuck at it, and within a year had made two films, OFF THE DOLE and NO LIMIT, which made great strides forward in terms of cinematic technique. Ie, they allowed it to be present. Soon, George was introduced to dizzying concepts like “the close-up” (not a natural friend to George) and “the edit,” which could be used within scenes and not just as a means of stringing them together. That’s basically about as sophisticated as George’s movies ever got, although the camera might track to introduce a scene or follow movement. Reliable third-tier directors like Monty Banks and Marcel Varnel took charge of the films, and at Ealing the cast might include actual movie talents like Googie Withers, and other credits might include Basil Dearden as writer, Ronald Neame as cinematographer (on LET GEORGE DO IT!) and Robert Hamer as editor (TURNED OUT NICE AGAIN).

Sadly, despite the considerable talents assembled, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone concerned that a Formby vehicle might aspire to, or even benefit from, artistic merit. Everything is crammed in at the minimum standard expected by the average uncritical audience. The exception is the songs, or almost: often they come up with a catchy bit and then just repeat it ad nauseam, but at their best they can be rather pleasing.

There’s much to dislike about George: he made bad film after bad film, he was notoriously mean, although unlike other famously stingy comics he came from a wealthy background and never knew poverty, and he had, it seems, a horrendous wife, Beryl, who was convinced that any woman in proximity to George, especially his co-stars, had designs on her man, seduced by his outlandish allure and powerful miasma of sexual magnetism. Beryl even appears in his first two films, and such was her fame that she is credited solely by one name, “Beryl,” like Arletty, or Pink.

But on the positive side, Formby’s films were unashamedly working class in their appeal and subjects, in an era when British cinema was often tebbly tebby posh. Or else concerned with the antics of unconvincing cock-er-nees. Formby took British cinema north of Watford, and his audiences did not feel patronized by him. (WHISKY GALORE!, an excellent Ealing comedy from 1949, is set on a fictitious Scottish island, but it’s treated very much as foreign turf, which the audience must be carefully introduced to, with an ethnographic flavour, before we can be trusted to feel at home.)

Ealing pictures would look elsewhere to achieve their best successes in the comedy field, films they’re actually remembered for. A new format was assembled, often using an ensemble cast rather than a “leading man,” and seeking to capture some sort of national spirit — and this was effective until the format became more rigid and recognizable. Indeed, the best films from the Ealing school depart either intermittently or completely from the group comedy structure favoured by producer Michael Balcon in PASSPORT TO PIMLICO. In KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, Robert Hamer sought quite consciously to make a film “unlike any attempted before.”