Archive for The League of Gentlemen

Cliff Hanger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2011 by dcairns

I recall seeing bits of MASQUERADE (1965) — always the same bits, too — on TV over the years. Being a moderate admirer of Basil Dearden, I finally decided to see the whole thing. It’s — moderately good. Cliff Robertson is an American ex-serviceman at a loose end, recruited by former comrade Jack Hawkins to protect an Arabian prince from his evil uncle (regular pseudo-arab Roger Delgado, the Master in Dr. Who). Pitched at Hitchcock romp level, and from a novel by FAMILY PLOT’s Victor Canning, it suffers from a major plot twist heavily telegraphed by modern standards, and easily predictable to anyone who’s previously seen Hawkins as a disillusioned soldier turning to crime in Dearden’s THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN.

Bizarre nod to Bunuel?

Still, the cliffhanging is suspenseful, and co-scenarist William Goldman serves up his first reversal in a long career of rug-pulling, when Robertson, imprisoned in a  circus cage, tries to reach a set of keys dangling just out of reach. He espies some bamboo in a neighbouring cage, and hatches the plan of assembling a rod to fish for the keys — trouble is, the cage is occupied by a very nasty vulture. Much agonized pecking later, Cliff does manage to rig up a key-catching stick — only to discover than none of the keys fits his lock. Of course: why would the bad guys leave the keys to HIS cage in plain view?

The reversals come ever thicker and faster, until, like Goldman’s later screenplay for MAVERICK, it becomes rather hard to be surprised anymore. But more damaging is the misogyny, a tonal pain in any ostensibly lighthearted flick. Marisa Mell is a free-spirited circus girl, sporting bruises from hairy ape boyfriend Michel Piccoli. “I don’t mind,” she tells Robertson. “Say, you’re pretty kinky, baby!” he exclaims, thus putting the film’s portrayal of abusive relationships on a psychological par with the apache dance.

His later line, “I’d give you a smack in the face only I’m afraid you might like it,” doesn’t help matters. I still didn’t like the line when it was plagiarised for ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA years later. By all means, abuse masochists, that’s what they like, but don’t make fun of ’em! One also wants to say to the writers: “She’s your sexual fantasy, mate. Why are you having a go at her?”

Nobody seems too bothered by Goldman’s sexism, which strikes me as a constant in his work. It doesn’t quite spoil THE PRINCESS BRIDE, a truly charming film, but it forms a bit of a stain. Probably less harmful to my enjoyment than the tacky production values, but when you have Wallace Shawn and Mandy Patinkin and Peter Cook etc, and some very very funny jokes and characters and plotting, you can get away with murder. I get the impression that Goldman’s status as some kind of screenplay guru puts him either above criticism or beneath contempt, so nobody looks too closely at the actual strengths and weaknesses. (His analysis of some of his own flaws in Adventures in the Screen Trade is often very telling, though.)

Dearden’s nicest bit of direction comes when a dopey Robertson wanders dazed through a castle at night — sudden Carol Reed infusion of canted angles, vaseline-smeared filter making fairy-tale dream-effect — but it’s all so out of keeping with the rest of the movie, which has totally neglected Hitchcockian POV and expressionist tricks, that it sticks out like a sore, soft-focus thumb.

Still, the sight of Charles Gray dangling from a helicopter is worth anybody’s 102 minutes. Deus Ex machina!

Buy Goldman’s book —

UK: Adventures in the Screen Trade

US: Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting

Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden’s London Underground (Sapphire, The League of Gentlemen, Victim, All Night Long) (Criterion Collection)

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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.

Correspondence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2008 by dcairns

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‘interesting fact: if you google “david cairns”, shadowplay comes out at the bottom of the page; if you google “christina alepi”, shadowplay is the first result. (!) Typing my own name is the quickest way to get to your blog (after bookmarking, but it can’t beat googling my OWN NAME!)’
~ Christina Alepi, via Facebook.

A few things happening with the old email and Facebook, which I just joined in a spirit of “Why not?” Maybe once I year I do something daft like that: about a year ago I started a blog. Yep, Shadowplay celebrates her birthday on December 1st. Will have to think of some special way to mark it. Suggestions welcome.

Some time back I got one of the few bits of negative commentary I’ve had here, after reviewing a depressing British horror “comedy” called THE COTTAGE. I’ve tended to avoid trashing stuff most of the time, since it’s nice to be nice and it seems more interesting to find the exciting or strange bits of films and pare away the dull stuff, but when it comes to modern British cinema I sometimes get a bit upset. Anyhow, the piece attracted an irked comment from someone pretty obviously connected with the movie, but I never knew who. But when I joined Facebook, it swept through my emails looking for contacts, and suddenly identified the commenter as actor Reece Shearsmith, one of the stars of the film. Mystery solved!

Not sure how I feel about this, since I’m a fan of the first two series of The League of Gentlemen, and would have said at least some nice things about THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN’S APOCALYPSE, which seemed an honorable attempt to do something interesting in British cinema. So it’s not like Shearsmith was ever on my shitlist. (Do I have a shitlist? Note to self: compile shitlist.) I may have said something about his performance in THE COTTAGE not quite working, but that’s kind of the same as calling him a flawless genius, since the rest of the film doesn’t work the way a dead horse doesn’t work as an air freshener.

More pleasant correspondence: after the excellent Charles Drazin suggested I contact David Thomson and let him in on The Great Duvivier Giveaway, my scheme to reshape the movie canon, in hopes of getting him to change his mind about Julien Duvivier and maybe rewrite his rather critical piece in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, I wrote to Thomson with a disc of LA FIN DU JOUR, and received this very charming reply:

Dear Mr Cairns,

I was touched to receive your letter and the DVD of La Fin du Jour.  On the spot, I proposed you to the House of Edinburgh Saints (your only fellow there is Mark Cousins – maybe you know each other).

[We do.]

As it happens, yours is not the first plea on behalf of Duvivier. The other one came from no less than Stephen Sondheim (at the Telluride Film Festival). So I am re-examining the matter, and I am very grateful to you for the prompting.

More to come, I’m sure.

All good wishes

David Thomson

So I seem to be in good company. I wonder, if you’re David Thomson, if you’re constantly getting grabbed by bloggers and composers and bums off the street who want to convert you to the cause of John Ford or Tony Richardson or William Wyler?

Makes me think I’m lucky I only have the cast of THE COTTAGE to contend with.

In other news: I was vaguely thinking of starting Borzage Week in a week’s time, but since I have a number of pieces all ready and nothing else to post of any substance, I’m bringing it forward to Monday 17th. That’ll still give us time to invent something suitably exciting for December 1st.