Street Corner (1953)

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Aka Both Sides of the Law. Coppers in skirts. Pity they haven’t got something better to do.  Two London policewomen based at Sloan Street in Chelsea go about their daily lives involved in cases of child endangerment and larceny.  Sgt Pauline Ramsey (Rosamund John) and WPC Susan (Anne Crawford) deal with a woman Edna Hurran (Eleanor Summerfield) who’s rescued a boy from drowning. The surrounding publicity means she has to return to the Army from which she went AWOL to marry sickly David Evans (Ronald Howard) and must pay the price – until a reward is given to her and the newspaper story triggers the return of her first husband looking for a share:  they never divorced. A toddler wanders out on the ledge of her tenement building several storeys up. There are tense moments as Pauline saves her and then ruminates the possibility of adoption as her own child and husband were killed in a car crash and she thinks motherhood would be a better alternative to work. Then Susan finds the child’s mother, now remarried.  Shoplifter Bridget Foster (Peggy Cummins) faces a £5 fine and abandons her 15-month old son to her mother-in-law, taking up with Ray, a crim (Terence Morgan) who sees her at a nightclub. He’s involved in a heist on jewels  in a van and pawns them at Mr Muller’s (Charles Victor) but doesn’t like the price he gets and pays a return visit.  WPC Lucy (Barbara Murray) goes to get her hair done and spots Bridget which may lead her to the thieves … Jan Read’s story was adapted by Muriel and Sydney Box as a kind of followup to The Blue Lamp which had been a huge hit in England. Ostensibly a docudrama, this production cast well-known names as a kind of insurance policy – John was in several good films since wartime, while Cummins had made her name in America. There are some moments of humour in the police station – when an older woman reports a man following her, the Sergeant (male) remarks, ‘sounds like an acute case of wishful thinking’;  while a man in the raided nightclub says ‘my wife thinks I’m in Birmingham,’ which impresses precisely nobody.  There are interesting strands to the stories – the perceived fairness of the judiciary;  Muller’s experience of the Gestapo in Berlin which he likens to Morgan showing up pretending to be a policeman looking for a bribe; the issue of parenting – the child abuse of the toddler whose mother is now apparently uninterested in her welfare following her remarriage. Muriel Box’s direction is pretty rudimentary but her storytelling skill is evident and the conclusion, when all the stories are threaded together in a chase and courtroom and there is a satisfying drawing together of the various elements. How Morgan is caught is particularly good.  In the final scene sequence Cummins is outfitted in a beret so that she resembles the gangster’s moll she played in the incredible Gun Crazy but that film is in a different league to a more plodding police procedural, albeit its focus is on the female experience: working, single, marital, maternal, streetwise and otherwise.  Shot at Gate Studios, Elstree with some interesting location work on the streets of London which looks rather lacking in business in the era of rationing and is filled with blocks of modernist council flats. There’s an interesting score by Temple Abady and fun to be had spotting actors who would become better known, principally through TV roles:  Michael Medwin, Michael Hordern and Thora Hird.

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Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004) (TVM)

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In 1962 an elderly Agatha Christie (Anna Massey) is attending a party at the theatre for a decade of The Mousetrap. Questions from journalists spur memories of 25 years ago when as a younger woman (Olivia Williams) attending a psychiatrist (Stephen Boxer) she is hypnotised into recalling why she disappeared four months earlier spurring a police search … Richard Curson Smith’s docudrama is based on the intriguing real-life case of the famous author’s apparent fugue state when she was located at a spa in Harrogate, having signed in under the name of the mother of her husband’s mistress. The title alludes to the means by which the doctor engages with Christie to start the story: as a young girl (Bonnie Wright) whose father’s death changes the family dynamic, particularly when her older sister marries. She has been haunted for years by a mysterious character whom she calls The Gunman and many men of her acquaintance transform into this figure when she is under stress. Her marriage to soldier Archie Christie (Raymond Coulthard) is met with disapproval by her mother, who encourages her to write. Her time nursing wounded soldiers introduces her to Belgian refugees, one of whom inspires Hercule Poirot and her first novel. She has few memories of times when she is happy, the triggers for unhappiness make her focus on what may have occurred to prompt her flight – her discovery of her husband’s adultery with Nancy Neele, a secretary … The use of photos, pastiche photographic studios and fake home movies and newsreels gives this a patina of realism which is visually impressive. This is territory previously explored by the film Agatha and Kathleen Tynan’s book, and more recently in a faction novel by Andrew Wilson. Williams gets the lion’s share of the scenes, as a morose young woman who must confront her husband’s extra-marital liaison and his wish to end their union. Even her little daughter says it’s her mother that’s the problem. The older Christie is wiser and happier following a long marriage to a younger man, archaeologist Max Mallowan (Bertie Carvel) whose work on sites in Syria and Iraq literally takes Christie out of herself and England and also inspires some of her best books which she then produces annually. There’s a terrific scene when she comes up with the idea for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which is the book that made her know she was good. There are some technical issues with the sound mixing (you can hardly hear Massey, and some dialogue is drowned out with incidental music) but it’s a thorough and thoughtful account of an episode that’s as mysterious as any of Christie’s novels, supplying psychology to the central character in a way that the Queen of Crime disdained.

A Cry in the Dark (1988)

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Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

A Welcome to Britain (1943)

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Burgess Meredith introduces American troops to the scepter’d isle to prepare them for the bizarre rituals of the locals: this Defense Dept film was intended to smooth relations between the beleaguered Brits and the crass Yankee soldiers – with one million of them swirling around the old country up to December 1943 throwing their money around and behaving inappropriately. In an amusing series of vignettes co-directed by Anthony Asquith and star Meredith, we learn how to behave in pubs (not the same as saloons), the family home, restaurants (where there’s a variation on potato for every war-rationed course); discover the geography of the country with Felix Aylmer as ‘Mister Chips’ in a classroom; Bob Hope explains shillings and pence and Beatrice Lillie performs one of her bits. All in all fairly palatable, with the glaring example of introducing the notion of coloured soldiers which yields an exchange with a General best deemed of its time. There is some gunfire and a little action with real-life soldiers but this propaganda docu-drama is notable for having been telecast Stateside in 1944.

Man On Wire (2008)

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James Marsh’s adaptation of high-wire walker Philippe Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds is weirdly thrilling:  the story of his dance across the clouds between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Featuring interviews with the key players, dramatic reconstructions, home movie footage, old interviews and stills of the act itself, this is a monument to daring, devilry, the NYPD’s legal praxis  (Petit & Co were arrested, one deported) and an architectural wonder which was destroyed in 9/11 and is the horribly tragic elephant in the room. It all goes to show that people do incredible things.

San Demetrio London (1943)

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“I’ll do my best to steer her in the right direction but it’ll be by a guess and by God.” So says the captain of a downed merchant tanker which the crew reclaims from their lifeboat after U-boats have torpedoed it and they find it floating and on fire in the Atlantic. There are no star performances here – it’s not In Which We Serve either, a dissection of class – just a group of ordinary men, including a Yank, coming to the aid of this entity afloat. It of course serves as a metaphor for little island Britain and pluck and Allied cooperation. Robert Hamer came to the rescue of Charles Frend when he became very ill during production and they both wrote the screenplay. One of a number of propaganda films made by Ealing Studios and it makes excellent use of stock footage.