Elizabeth of Ladymead (1948)

Elizabeth of Ladymead

I want to live here and really feel it’s mine. Liz (Anna Neagle) lives in the beautiful Georgian mansion of Ladymead and awaits the arrival home of her husband  (Hugh Williams) who’s been away for five years fighting in WW2. They soon argue about what he must do – she’s put the house on the market with the intention of returning to London so that he can resume his career in politics, as she and her mother (Isabel Jeans) plan. He however just wants to stay at home and tend the garden. During a fight she walks into a wall she thinks is a door and drifts asleep and dreams about other women who lived in the house who have shared her name and plight. Beth, lives in 1854 London, as the Crimean War rages thousands of miles away. When her husband (Nicholas Phipps) returns he expresses disgruntlement at her ideas that she should even have an opinion about anything. The second, Elizabeth, lives in 1903, just after the Boer war. She has made the farm profitable and embarrassed her husband (Bernard Lee) by becoming a suffragette and sympathising with the Boers. The third, Betty, is a girl of 1919, the year after World War I. She has led a life of such independence she no longer requires a husband (Michael Lawrence) since she has been taking lovers since his departure. Each of the four Elizabeths emerges as a woman of independence while the menfolk are off to war and some of the men do not survive the return … Miss Nightingale is very remarkable but as a woman she’s a freak. From the husband and wife team of producer/director Herbert Wilcox and actress Anna Neagle this is an imaginative way to tackle post-war malaise and the changing roles of the sexes or as the titles inform us, The changing role of the girl he left behind. Adapted by co-star (and regular Wilcox collaborator) Nicholas Phipps from a play by Frank Harvey, the transitions from the framing narrative of post-WW2 dissatisfaction are neatly achieved, Neagle has a range of emotions to play in each incarnation and it’s very well managed from era to era, shot in stunning Technicolor. An intriguing picture of society and how women are perceived as they struggle to attain individuation as part of a married couple. We must put it down to the instability of the female

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

A Canterbury Tale

I was born here and my father was born here. You’re here because there’s a war. On the way to Canterbury, Kent during World War II, American G.I. Bob Johnson (real-life soldier John Sweet) mistakenly gets off the train in Chillingbourne, where he encounters British Army Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) and British Land Girl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), who’s working as a shopkeeper. When they’re confronted with a serial criminal who puts glue in women’s hair, and Alison becomes his newest victim, these twentieth century pilgrims are drawn into a mystery that brings them closer together. During their stay they get to know local landowner and magistrate Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman) who wants to share his local knowledge with the new residents … Sergeant! The glue-man’s out again! This almost indefinable film from the Powell and Pressburger stable is a pastoral account of Englishness, an expressive linking of past and present, city and country, displaced persons and new community. At a time of lockdown Sim’s plaintive cry is resonant:  Why should people who love the country have to live in big cities? The shooting style of German Erwin Hillier lends itself beautifully to an idea of a new Romantic era in England, piercing wartime privations with an almost bucolic sense of possibility and nodding to Chaucer. And yet it’s the story of a man who puts glue in women’s hair and how in solving the mystery of his identity three very different people find their own way to a kind of spirituality and even a miracle in the case of bereaved Sim. Sweet is terribly engaging as the figure who enables a boost in Anglo-American relations. The moment of awe is apposite – when Price plays the organ in Canterbury Cathedral after years of being consigned to movie theatres. The city has been devastated by German bombs but the music soars.  This is the point where Powell and Pressburger engage in a kind of angelic conversation and it is appropriately inspiring. Narrated by Esmond Knight who also plays a soldier and the Village Idiot. You can’t hurry an elm

England Is Mine (2017)

England Is Mine

Do you ever wake up and think, I wonder if I could have been a poet. Shy and sullen Steven Patrick Morrissey (Jack Lowden) is the unemployed and depressive son of Irish immigrants growing up in 1976 Manchester. Withdrawn and something of a loner, he goes out to rock gigs at night and then submits letters and reviews to music newspapers as well as keeping a diary. His father (Peter MacDonald) wants him to get a job, his mother (Simone Kirby) wants him to follow his passion for writing, and Steven doesn’t quite know what he wants to do. His friend, artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) a nascent feminist, inspires him to continue to write lyrics and urges him to start to perform, but she eventually moves to London. Forced to earn a living and fit in with society his income from office work permits his gig-going but Steven’s frustrations and setbacks continue to mount. Although he eventually writes some songs with guitarist Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) for the band The Nosebleeds until Duffy breaks it off, and he tries his hand at singing and enjoys it, nothing substantially changes in his life, and Steven seems at the end of his rope until another teenage fanboy who can play guitar Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) shows up on his doorstep in 1982… The past is everything I have failed to be.  A biography of The Smiths’ singer-songwriter and solo artist Morrissey before he became famous, this is hampered by the lack of The Smiths music (because the makers didn’t own the rights) but nonetheless forms another part of the puzzle that is is the man. In many respects it hymns the kitchen sink realist films that he himself paid homage in so many songs, colouring in his Irish background in the northern city of Manchester but pointedly avoiding his later songwriting and sexuality and stopping at the moment he meets Marr, the guitarist, which is where most of his fans come in. Instead it’s a portrait of a bedroom loner, a fan who fantasises about being famous and in that sense paints a fascinating picture Billy Liar-style of someone who manages to rise above their miserable circumstances and then (after the film) in protean style fashions fame from their influences and obsessions despite the apparent lack of propulsion in his life. In that sense, it’s a portrait of celebrity and how it can inspire people to escape their humdrum lives and find their own voice. The songs on the soundtrack from New York Dolls and Mott the Hoople to Sparks and Magazine are as much a part of the narrative as the arch teenage diary entries which echo the later mordantly amusing lyrics and the performance by The Nosebleeds is the most thrilling sequence in the film. Anyone who ever lived in Manchester will recognise the dreadful rainy place Morrissey wrote has so much to answer for. Director Mark Gill who co-wrote the screenplay with William Thacker gets into the head of one of the most singular talents ever produced on the British music scene and perhaps the best ever Irish band on the planet, The Smiths, the only band that mattered in the Eighties. He’s played quite charmingly by Lowden who livens up a drama that may cleave much too closely to the exhausting reality as lived in Northern England at the time. Today is Morrissey’s sixty-first birthday. Many happy returns! If there was ever a revolution in England, we’d form an orderly queue at the guillotine

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

When Eight Bells Toll

Operates best under conditions of extreme pressure. Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is a tough British Navy secret service agent called in by ‘Uncle Arthur’ (Robert Morley) to track down gold bullion smugglers after two agents are murdered on the job tracking cargo ships that have been hijacked in the Irish Sea. He follows the trail off the Scottish coast to a close-mouthed community where Greek tycoon Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins) has moored yacht off and finds the well-connected aristo is married for the second time to the stunning much younger Charlotte (Nathalie Delon). After his colleague Hunslett (Corin Redgrave) is murdered and he escapes from his Royal Navy helicopter following the shooting of his pilot, who is conducting the heists? … You can’t go round acting like a one-man execution squad. This is England! Alistair MacLean’s 1965 adventure bestseller was eyed up as a potential starter for a series to rival the James Bond franchise but that’s not what happened. Despite ample action, jaw-droppingly witty lines and a lovely lady who may or may not be one of the good guys, this isn’t quite slick enough looking to fit a 007-shaped hole following Sean Connery’s departure. Hopkins is a rather unlikely romantic lead but his scenes with Delon feel like they’re straight out of screwball comedy: The nights would be good but the days would be a drag. Morley is playing a role he’s done before but putting this portly gent out in the field and into a rowing boat is a stroke of genius – literally an outsize fish out of water in water. We’re going to prove that Britannia rules the waves. Every line hits the bullseye. This is a story about class distinction and clubbable men too:  Working-his-way-through-the-ranks type, he comments disdainfully of Hopkins. Any time the action flags a little the robust score by Angela Morley lifts it into another dimension. The only thing they couldn’t alter is the miserable grey sky. We can sympathise with Delon and close our eyes and reimagine this in the Med but for MacLean who adapted his book for producer Elliott Kastner (who had also made Where Eagles Dare) this was of course coming home. An unsung and fast-moving gem of its era with an inventive approach to the enemy lair.  Jack Hawkins had to be dubbed by Charles Gray following the removal of his larynx (nothing to do with the action here however). Directed by Étienne Périer. There’s always peril in the water

Vita and Virginia (2019)

Vita and Virginia

I’m exhausted with this sapphic pageant. Lauded author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) meets fellow author best-selling Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) in London in the 1920s when their paths cross unexpectedly since they usually move in very different social circles. Vita is a married bisexual adventuress who envies fragile Virginia’s literary abilities which have earned her a reputation as an eccentric. Vita’s public escapades with women have earned the wrath of her mother (Isabella Rossellini) who regularly threatens her with losing custody of her young sons, especially after her latest foray to France which she did while dressed as a man. Despite both of the writers being married, they embark on an affair that disturbs Virginia but later inspires one of her novels, Orlando, about a hero who turns into a heroine who turns out to be a fiction …. A fearless adventuress who trades on passion, pain and fantasy. Those famously fashionable writerly Bright Young Things Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West get a New Romantic makeover with a few disquisitions about the state of things gender thrown in for good measure and an electronic score (from Isobel Waller-Bridge to enhance the feel of a retro prism being applied. Thus are modern values impressed upon a story that commences with Vita and her gay diplomat husband Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) discussing the idea of the marriage contract on the radio. Eileen Atkins adapts her play with director Chanya Button and despite the talents involved and the ghastly Bloomsbury characters it’s a fairly stillborn affair. The big ironic trope operating across the narrative is Vita’s capacity for experience while Virginia is the only writer of the two capable of actual feeling and expressivity:  she is the more literary gifted and the one who can translate their experience (or her view of it) into something like a great book. The other irony is perhaps that the script is never elevated to the quality of Woolf’s writing. There are some horrifically camp men, terrible scenes with Virginia losing her sanity for brief periods of time (cunningly evoked by visual effects) and some nice letter-reading when Vita goes abroad and tells Virginia about the travels she has been unable to persuade her to take with her. Basically Vita is an incorrigible, conscience-free flirt and Virginia is an incredible intellect, barely of this earth, all shadow to Vita’s colours.  I have fallen in love with your vision of me, Vita tells the woman who has immortalised her as Orlando. We can see she’s not like that at all. It’s not just the men who can’t deal with women’s grey matter. With notable costume design by Lorna Marie Mugan, perhaps the most truly shocking thing about this is that Sky Cinema screened it as a 12s despite the graphic sexual content. Mary Whitehouse, where are you when you’re needed?! It’s all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words

Ladies of the Chorus (1948)

Ladies of the Chorus colour reissue

Her mother is a one-man security council. Single mother Mae Martin (Adele Jergens) and her daughter Peggy (Marilyn Monroe) are Broadway showgirls performing in the same show. But when the lead performer Bubbles La Rue (Marjorie Hoshelle, uncredited) in the burlesque walks out, Peggy finds herself catapulted to overnight fame as the star attraction of the revue. May tries to advise her about people who might try to take advantage of her, including her new socialite boyfriend, Randy Carroll (Rand Brooks) because of a similar experience that befell her back in the day. Peggy falls for him anyway, and he quickly proposes marriage. But he has difficulty telling his own mother (Nana Bryant) about his fiancée’s background and Mae decides against revealing the truth about their showbiz life when the future in-laws finally meet … When are you going to let me feel grown up? Written by Joseph Carole and Harry Sauber, this B movie was Monroe’s first big role and also her ticket out of Columbia Pictures – to looking for another studio contract. While she acquits herself reasonably well in this conventional story of the star is born variety, there is no true sign of the real-life star she would become four years later once she had taken more acting classes and perfected other facets of her screen persona:  that performance is yet to be matched to the specific look she would refine to her own inimitable affect and there are a couple of shots of her in repose that are downright unflattering. Nonetheless she gets to demonstrate her singing and dancing chops as the burlesque queen facing a dilemma. Jergens seems crazy young to be her mother (she was nine years Monroe’s senior) but her situation is explained in a flashback and she takes off her wig several times revealing supposedly grey hair beneath, to dramatic effect. Bryant gets to play the equal opportunities mother-in-law who spins a nice ending out of the setup. There’s a frankly odd number involving dolls and an utterly weird entrance by an interior decorator with a small soundalike ‘son’. Directed by Phil Karlson.  You’re never too old to do what you did

School for Scoundrels (1960)

School for Scoundrels

Aka School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating! Lifemanship is the science of being one up on your opponents at all times. Kind but gormless twit Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) is cheated, bullied and abused by everyone he encounters – from car salesmen the Winsome Welshmen, Dunstan (Dennis Price) and Dudley Dorchester (Peter Jones ), to a restaurant head waiter (John le Mesurier) and upper-class cad Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas). Even his own employees are hoodwinking him. When the charming April Smith (Janette Scott) is stolen away from him by Delauney, Henry takes drastic action and enrols in the College of Lifemanship, run by Mr Potter (Alastair Sim) where he can learn to beat others in life through classes in Partymanship, Woomanship and general One-upmanship. Well equipped now in the means to manipulate others and get ahead, he embarks on a course of his own – revengeWe like our motor cars to go to good homes – like dogs. A sublime cast rises to the occasion for an adaptation of Stephen Potter’s books by Irish screenwriter Patricia Moyes and producer Hal E. Chester, with Carmichael going through an enlightening character arc as the hapless victim of everyone else’s ploys – until he comes up with one of his own. Sim is the usual delight while T-T is as awesomely smarmy as you’d expect. To say that Price and Jones are an utter joy as the dastardly used car salesmen is to do them a disservice. With a supremely witty score by John Addison, this is the final film directed by the great Robert Hamer who was succumbing to the alcoholism that would kill him a few years later, so some scenes were filmed by Cyril Frankel and Chester. He who is not one up is one down

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

The Pumpkin Eater

You should see the way men look at me. They still look at me. Jo (Anne Bancroft) leaves her second husband Giles (Richard Johnson) with whom she has five children in the countryside where they live in a rundown ramshackle barn and marries his screenwriter friend, Jake Armitage (Peter Finch). She moves with six of her eight children to his big house in Hampstead while her eldest are at boarding school. She soon finds that Jake doesn’t want more children and is playing around, including with Philpott (Maggie Smith), a young woman lodging with them. When he impregnates Jo, she doesn’t tell him but reveals it to her mother at her father’s (Cedric Hardwicke) funeral.  Her mother (Rosalind Atkinson) subsequently tells Jake and he asks Jo to have an abortion. Afterwards she is approached by his colleague Bob Conway (James Mason) who informs her that his wife is now pregnant by Jake …… Perhaps sex is something you feel you must sanctify by incessant reproduction. Harold Pinter’s scrupulous adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel is scalpel-sharp, lethally aimed at men who are never satisfied with women – when they have children, when they have none. And the men take no responsibility for the situation, either way.  Everything is the woman’s fault. The picture of fathers is damning but fascinating, as Hardwicke and Alan Webb’s (as the elder Armitage) scenes demonstrate. This battle of the sexes drama seems relentlessly classist yet is a universal story with a terrible message for the female of the species, forever destined to be deemed slatternly mother or hopeless whore. Bancroft is harrowing and superb as the vulnerable protagonist, but so too is Finch as the self-justifying philanderer. And what startling scenes there are – Jo being confronted by a total stranger (Yootha Joyce) in the hairdresser’s after her photo is featured in a magazine; her meltdown, in Harrods, of all places!;  her mother revealing in her bereavement to an unwitting and horrified Jake that Jo is pregnant yet again;  the meeting with Conway at the zoo when he reveals that while she was having her abortion and being sterilised Jake had impregnated his wife in yet another of his endless infidelities. The sleight of hand never stops; the loneliness and emotional violence of a fecund marriage is stripped bare; while living with someone is dramatised as a gaslighting paranoia-inducing nightmare of betrayals, lies and extreme humiliation in a society where femininity is medicalised, motherhood a branch of psychiatry, civility a very thin veneer over insecurity and terminal delusion. Eric Porter as the psychiatrist to whom Jo pours out her supposed problems has a great scene, culminating in Bancroft advising him to steer clear of Tenerife for his water-skiiing holiday. It’s absurd and ridiculous and brilliantly Pinteresque. Still a deeply disturbing narrative of men and women in what is indubitably a man’s world, equality a fairytale ending never to be. Directed by Jack Clayton. All she wants is to sit in a corner and give birth

 

A Place in the Sun (1951) Titles Sequence

A Place in the Sun poster

One of the most rousingly romantic scores by Franz Waxman introduces this superb exercise in melodrama directed by George Stevens. Mike Nichols said he learned everything he needed to know about directing by watching this over and over again. Mandy Merck wrote a brilliant book about its origins, including the anti-capitalist source novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser; a failed attempt by Sergei Eisenstein to film it; an adaptation by Josef von Sternberg; and the eventual acclaimed production written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, starring a sixteen-year old Elizabeth Taylor whose stunning beauty is matched by the legendary Montgomery Clift in scenes that literally take the breath away. If you want to remember what true star power is, watch this film. My review of the Merck book can be found here:  https://offscreen.com/view/hollywoods_american_tragedies

 

Turn the Key Softly (1953)

Turn the Key Softly

I’m saying goodbye to regulations. Well-spoken burglar Monica Marsden (Yvonne Mitchell), pretty prostitute Stella Jarvis (Joan Collins) and elderly shoplifter Granny Quilliam (Kathleen Harrison) are released from Holloway Women’s Prison on the same day and venture out in London, meeting up for an early dinner in the West End as they negotiate their first day of freedom. Monica returns to her flat where she promises her friend Joan (Dorothy Alison) not to meet up again with David (Terence Morgan), a ne’er do well for whose crime she took the fall. She secures a job in an office with a start on Monday, despite her prison record. But when she returns to the flat David is waiting for her and wines and dines her, with the promise of a night at the theatre. Stella meets up with her busdriver fiancé Bob (Glyn Houston) and promises to get a room to stay in at Canonbury but spends his money on earrings. meeting up with her former working girl friends. Granny returns to her rundown Shepherds Bush room to her beloved special friend Johnny – who turns out to be a dog – and after cooking him food visits her daughter in the suburbs to the delight of her grand daughter but they weren’t expecting her and she has to return to town where she goes for a posh dinner at Monica’s expense, champagne included. Stella takes off with a man who took a fancy to Monica on the Tube earlier, and Monica leaves in a taxi with David for an evening that she hadn’t counted on … Sooner or later they’re sure to find out. This post-war British crime drama is a fantastically atmospheric show and tell about London society and its war-damaged physicality – between rainy Leicester Square where The Snows of Kilimanjaro is playing (and La Collins would co-star with Gregory Peck within just a few short years) and the council flats sitting cheek-by-jowl with semi-derelict terraces, you can practically sniff the desperation, the spivvery and the desire for something better in the documentary-style location shooting by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Mitchell is the real star here and has the better part of the narrative which turns upon her desire for her dastardly lover who manages to deceive her once again following an afternoon in the sack;  but Harrison has a marvellous role (you just know it won’t end well) and plays it beautifully; while Collins is well cast as the good time girl who has found a decent man and she makes the most of some smartly written moments. When she makes her decision about which way to go in life there’s a decidedly odd shot at Piccadilly Circus with her former prostitute colleague featuring close on camera. It’s a terrific film for women, this exploration of an array of femininity of differing ages and types re-entering the world on its tricky terms. What starts as a kind of melodrama with a social message about stigma turns into a suspenser, high on the rooftops of a city theatre, with a rather tragic ending. Very satisfying indeed. Adapted by Maurice Cowan from John Brophy’s novel, this is written and directed by documentary veteran Jack Lee, the elder brother of novelist Laurie.