Archive for Winston Churchill

The Big Dead One

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2015 by dcairns


I’d seen bits of THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) on Film4 and it looked like a snooze, but the Anne Billson said she liked it so I investigated.

Ronald Neame was never what you’d call an exciting director, but he was always an affable one. Having made his Significant Contribution to cinema in his collaborations with David Lean, he settled into Lightly Likable for most of his career, apart from a few bloated floaters at the end.

And talk of floaters brings us to this movie, in which British intelligence plants a corpse at sea carrying faked documents to fool the Nazis into expecting an attack from the wrong direction. It’s unlikely stuff, and largely true — I’m now reading Ben MacIntyre’s enjoyable Operation Mincemeat, which details exploits of the various eccentrics who put this plan together, a plan for which the word “cockamamie” might have been invented, assuming that word ever was invented.

Here’s MacIntyre’s character study of coroner and co-conspirator Bentley Purchase ~

“He found death not only fascinating but extremely funny. No form of violent mortality surprised or upset him. ‘A depressing job?’ he once said. ‘Far from it. I can’t imagine it getting me down.’ He would offer slightly damp chocolates to guests in his private chambers, and joke: ‘They were found in Auntie’s bag when she was fished out of the Round Pond at Hampstead last night.’ A farmer by birth, Purchase was ‘rugged in appearance and character’ with ‘an impish sense of humour’ and a finely calibrated sense of the ridiculous: he loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and the model piggery he ran near Ipswich.”

Tragically, Purchase doesn’t appear in Neame’s film (scripted by ace novelist Nigel Balchin of THE SMALL BACK ROOM fame), but my old friend Sir Bernard Spilsbury does, embodied by the ever-impressive Andre Morell. Who better than a former BBC Quatermass to play this august pathologist?


The first half of the film IS a little dull — it’s a procedural in which none of the details are surprising once we get over the macabre plot, with only some nifty comic timing from Laurence Naismith to liven it up. The scenario allows the inclusion of a couple of American actors — a very shiny Gloria Grahame is allowed since, after all, there must have been some Americans in London in 1943, and Clifton Webb can play an English officer because, after all, he’s snooty and gay which is almost as good as being English. The man he’s playing, Ewen Montagu, was brother of Hitchcock producer and Soviet spy Ivor Montagu.

Churchill goes unseen, like Celeste Holm in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES or Jesus in BEN-HUR, but Peter Sellers does the voice, with perhaps a little too much comic glee.


Then Stephen Boyd enters as an Irish Nazi spy, sent to ascertain if the fictitious character invented for the corpse was ever real. Now some actual jeopardy is injected, since Boyd might upset the whole plan and also, HE’S in danger of being caught and hanged. And even if he is a Nazi spy, he’s a Personable Movie Star and we’re spending time with him so naturally we become implicated in his mission. Boyd is really good here, avoiding any show of overt villainy and just playing a rather exciting fellow doing a job. His charisma is at its peak. Fiona was impressed by the amount of detail in his bumpy forehead. “There’s a lot going on there. He’s like a Klingon!”

The only trouble is, he’s entirely fictitious. We had broken the Nazi codes by this point and had captured, executed or turned every single spy they had in Britain. I must say, though, he’s an admirable invention — he keeps the whole thing afloat, if you’ll pardon the expression. Boyd, and cameos like Naismith and Miles Malleson (“He won’t be doing the crossword tonight”) make the sedate Cinemascope entertainment just watchable enough. And then there’s the haunting bit of poetry at the graveside and it all goes very eerie and moving — out of left field, emotion enters the film, like a phantom, and sweeps through it, swinging the door shut as it goes.


“Last night I dreamed a deadly dream, beyond the Isle of Sky, I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I.”

Alfred his cock presents

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 29, 2009 by dcairns


There’s a story, which I have trouble believing, that to get a shocked reaction from Madeleine Carroll for one particular close-up in THE 39 STEPS, Hitchcock unbuttoned his fly and startled her with the sight of his partial namesake. (The shot above looks to me like the only reasonable contender. The expression on Carroll’s face is hard to read: concern? Pity?)

When asked, by a subsequent interviewer, if this tale were true, Hitch is supposed to have confirmed it (I can believe that much), and said that he had used this technique on a number of actresses.






For the record, Madeleine Carroll is awesome in THE 39 STEPS, and I don’t believe such a technique would be either necessary or productive, to say nothing of the legal implications. Hitch did claim to have pranked her mercilessly, partly for fun and partly to get her to, er, unstiffen. That’s almost certainly true. But the story of the nob, which Matthew Sweet seizes upon so eagerly in his book Shepperton Babylon, strikes me as a stretch.

Also, it reminds me of Churchill’s comment when told his fly was undone: “Dead birds don’t fall out of nests.”

The Chills #3: “Look out!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2008 by dcairns

Some scenes make you feel like your brain has been extracted, and carved into a crude trumpet, and some Jazz Angel is blowing the most beautiful celestial music through its neural passages. It is then that we speak of The Chills.

Roger Livesey goes to heaven.

Regular Shadowplayer Alex Livingstone nominates this classic sequence from Powell & Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (AMOLAD for short), which ably shows off Pressburger’s superb story construction (one thing Powell definitely needed help with), Roger Livesey’s authoritative-but-loveable performance, Jack Cardiff;s cinematography (with Christopher Challis shooting second unit on the bike crash) and oh, many many other things. Alex wrote:

i nominate the bit in a matter of life and death where roger livesey crashes his motorcycle and dies, only to turn up in heaven and save the day. i can’t watch it without my breathing getting disrupted – i always wind up gasping and a bit wet-eyed, as if i’ve stuck my head into a supermarket freezer and inhaled really hard

on a more puerile note, when marius goring meets roger livesey for the first time he makes a little noise of agreement like someone honking a clown’s nose

Into each film some rain must fall, and I would regretfully note that Bob Arden’s scene in the ambulance with Kim Hunter is maybe one of only two ropey performances in P&P’s oeuvre — but hey, he’s in good company, the other is Laurence Olivier in FORTY-NINTH PARALLEL as a French-Canadian trapper with what sounds like a Pakistani accent. It’s a cameo that makes P&P fan David Mamet thank God that Olivier was prevented from starring in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (because Winston Churchill didn’t approve of the script).


Arden was later thrilled to be cast in MR ARKADIN by no less than Orson Welles (according to my friend Lawrie Knight, a drinking buddy of Arden’s), then less than thrilled when the film took years to open in the UK, and even less than less than thrilled when his own performance in it was singled out for unflattering comment. But Arden is arguably effective in that role: for whatever reason, Welles seemes to have aimed to make Arden’s character as unappealing as possible, and he exploits all Arden’s worst qualities, both physical and performaive, to do it.

Arden never became a star, but he earned a regular living playing Americans in British films for the rest of his days.


Roger Livesey is terrific in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, but really he owes Powell his place in cinema. Nobody else would cast him at first — extraordinarily, they didn’t like his voice.

Lawrie didn’t really have warm memories of Livesey. When they met, Lawrie was a junior assistant on AMOLAD and Livesey asked him what he’d done in the war. When Lawrie said he was in the air force, Livesey ‘sort of made a face, and said “That explains it.”‘

Lawrie never knew what was behind this hostility, but I just found out. Good old Wikipedia:

At the outbreak of World War II, Livesey and Jeans were among the first volunteers to entertain the troops before he volunteered for flying duties in the R.A.F. He was turned down as too old, so he went to work in an aircraft factory at Desford aerodrome near Leicester to “do his bit for the war effort”.

The rejection must have rankled! Poor Roger. But that failure to attain active service is what made him available to star in COLONEL BLIMP, and thence to IKWIG and AMOLAD. And thence to immortality.

After all, what do you want?

More suggestions for pulse-pounding, spine-tingling moments of cinematic greatness will be cheerfully received.