Private’s Progress (1956)

The enemy does not play cricket. He abides by no rules. In 1942 university student Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) is conscripted into the British Army where his uncle Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel (Dennis Price), himself more interested in art than army, believes he will easily graduate to officer class. Instead upon landing at Gravestone Barracks in Kent for basic training alongside Egan (Peter Jones) a far more apt pupil, he is hopeless, failing officer selection and winding up at a holding unit commanded by Major Hitchcock (Terry-Thomas) where he meets up with several miscreants. They include workshy wide boy Cox (Richard Attenborough) who skives off work regularly and Blake (Victor Maddern) who runs away regularly and is caught in Scotland trying to join the Navy. Windrush is sent to train as a Japanese interpreter and is assigned to his uncle’s raid behind German lines by mistake but the Brigadier just tells him to keep his mouth shut, We don’t want any of that Where Is The Pen of Me Aunt stuff. The real purpose of retrieving art treasures is to sell them to crooked dealers. When Windrush is left behind following an unfortunate episode with a German General he is captured by the British and has a hard time persuading them he’s one of them with all his Nazi regalia and ID card … The producers gratefully acknowledge the official cooperation of absolutely nobody. Adapted by John Boulting and Frank Harvey from Alan Hackney’s autobiographical novel, this service comedy from the Boulting Brothers is equal parts farce and satire with the usual winsome act from Carmichael as the utterly unsuitable university prof shoved into the Army during WW2. Very funny without being outrageous, there are some great exchanges and the antics in Germany (which feature Christopher Lee as a Nazi!) are extremely funny indeed. And yes, Terry-Thomas says many, many times, You’re an absolute shower! The topper is worth waiting for. The delightful score is by John Addison. Being educated sort of limits you, doesn’t it

The Blue Lamp (1950)

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An inordinately popular crime drama that begat Dixon of Dock Green, the long-running TV show – despite the fact that Dixon (Jack Warner) is killed by ambitious thug Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) while he tries to reason with him during the robbery of a cinema.  Basil Dearden was directing from a sharp screenplay by T.E.B Clarke, who adapted a treatment by Jan Read and Ted Willis (of TV fame). There was additional dialogue by Alexander MacKendrick. This was the rather parochial but BAFTA-winning production that earned the ire of critic Gavin Lambert writing (pseudonymously) in Sight & Sound of its “specious brand of mediocrity.”  And it’s certainly true that it cannot hold a candle to the noirs coming out of Hollywood at the time. Nonetheless, its value lies precisely in the cosy post-war vision of England being promoted by Ealing Studios, the documentary approach, the narrative style of interlinking stories, Bogarde’s startling impact as the glamorous crim and the lush photography of London by night shot by Gordon Dines. How wonderful to see Little Venice, the White City dog track, Paddington and the dazzling lights of the West End. Mmmm… Look out for Anthony Steel as a constable.

The Third Man (1949)

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Western pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-WW2 Vienna at the invitation of old schoolfriend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that he is just in time for his funeral. British military intelligence in the form of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) makes his acquaintance while Holly believes there was a third man present at Harry’s mysterious death and he finds himself falling for Harry’s lover Anna (Alida Valli). There are some films whose imagery is practically enamelled in one’s brain and this is one of them, regularly voted the greatest British film ever (despite the crucial involvement of David O. Selznick) with its unforgettable score, the shimmering rain-slicked streets, the chase through the sewers, the treacherous manchild, the funeral, the theatre, the appalling talk at the British Council, the cuckoo clock speech, the Prater … A combination of spy thriller, spiv drama, film noir, character study, western, romance, this was an unusually brilliant collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, whose friend Kim Philby was a source of much of the story. And this is ultimately a film about stories and storytelling. But nothing can explain this film’s legend – not even Orson Welles’ tall tales – it must be seen to feel that tangible atmosphere, those shadows, the light at the end of the tunnel, those canted angles, that amazing sense of place. My book on its complex origins, production and afterlife in radio and TV is published today on Amazon:

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Dad’s Army (2016)

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A glamorous journalist turns up in Walmington-on-Sea in 1944 and drives all the Home Guard mad with desire while she appears to write a story about them for The Lady, that wellspring of serious journalism. Since she’s that born-to-be-a-movie-broad Catherine Zeta-Jones, you can understand. This adaptation/remake/reboot of the beloved BBC series is a valiant attempt to inject new life into an old dog that doesn’t actually need it, since it’s still running on Saturday nights and nobody’s complaining, me least of all. Norman Cohen directed an earlier feature by the original writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft, here Oliver Parker is working with material devised from an early episode by Hamish McColl. It’s very well cast – Toby Jones is Mainwaring, Bill Nighy is Wilson, Michael Gambon is Godfrey, Daniel Mays is our beloved spiv Walker … and there are some good visual jokes. If it doesn’t quite plumb the anti-Establishment comic vein of the source material it’s not bad and has a nice turnabout using the women we only heard about in the show for a rather satisfying conclusion. A pleasant diversion from the outgoing US President’s declaration that reunified Germany is now the leader of the free world. Well colour me surprised. Who do you think you are kidding, indeed.

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

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British cinema is always in crisis yet has boasted its share of indisputably great filmmakers and Robert Hamer was one of them, even if nobody particularly noticed at the time. He had contributed The Haunted Mirror sequence to portmanteau horror Dead of Night a couple of years earlier and was adept at any number of genres. This Ealing production was not in the comedy idiom so beloved of moviegoers but rather belongs in the realm of poetic realism that started in France in the Thirties; we might instead call it film noir. Adapted from the novel by Arthur La Bern, by Angus MacPhail, Henry Cornelius and the director, the mainly Yiddish world of Bethnal Green carries on as  one of its inhabitants, married Rosie Sandigate  (Googie Withers), hides her ex-lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) who’s escaped from Dartmoor and taken refuge in the family’s air raid shelter. She then conceals him in the bedroom she shares with her staid older husband (Edward Chapman). It’s Sunday morning and Tommy wants to have it away with her while she tries to carry on the masquerade of housework, laundry, preparing lunch and getting her feckless adult stepdaughters out of the way. Meanwhile the police (Jack Warner, who else?) and a newspaper reporter are on Tommy’s trail and it concludes in achingly existential fashion … Enormously evocative portrayal of a certain era adorned with an intensely felt performance of stridency and eroticism by the fabulous Withers (dontcha LOVE that name) who had met and married McCallum after they appeared in The Loves of Joanna Godden. It’s shot with gleaming precision by Douglas Slocombe while Georges Auric contributes an endearingly melodramatic incidental score for an atmospheric outing in which the radio plays such an elemental role in punctuating the drama. The ensemble has such familiar faces as Alfie Bass, Sydney Tafler, Hermione Baddeley, Jimmy Hanley and Sid James (as the leader of a dance band). Hamer would go on to make one of my favourite British films, Kind Hearts and Coronets but this is a marvellous reminder of the post-war era, the meaning of ‘a couple of anvils’ and how to feel when that dangerous wideboy resurfaces in your humdrum life.

Noose (1948)


Aka The Silk Noose for American release. Carole Landis is the American journo transplanted to post-WW2 London and reports on the murder of a young woman whose body has been found in the Thames. It’s linked to a wealthy black marketeer (Joseph Calleia) and his front, a spiv (Nigel Patrick) whom Landis nicknames The Overcoat. As she and her ex-Army fiance close in with the police fast on her heels, another murder takes place and she is now the next target. Calleia somewhat overplays his role as pantomime villain – although the film concludes in quite the slapstick sequence – but Patrick is brilliant as the sharp-suited one. French Jewish emigre director Edmond Greville brings wonderful touches in terms of pace, framing and composition to this fast-moving, humorous, violent, aesthetically fascinating  and sometimes sadistic tale, adapted by Richard Llewellyn from his play. It really doesn’t seem like a British film at all. Greville would be better known for cult fave Beat Girl 12 years later  and had started as an assistant to EA Dupont, Abel Gance and Rene Clair:  he also worked as a critic before taking refuge in Britain. There’s a great supporting role for Carol van Derman, a beautiful actress who did another film with Greville the same year, But Not in Vain. I would love to know more about her. She and Landis have great fun ganging up on Calleia towards the conclusion. Landis is fantastic as the brave fashion writer who likes nothing better than to slip off her shoes whenever she sits down and her transatlantic patter amid Londoners is an ongoing joke providing some good dialogue. This was her second-last film, the last being Brass Monkey, another British production. She’d been headed for great things as a contract artist at Fox but once she rebuffed the libidinous casting couch powerhouse that was the dwarfish Darryl F. Zanuck she was condemned to B movies and he called her a slut, which ruined her reputation and destroyed her potentially A-list career. Ironically she had started as an extra on A Star is Born. On Broadway she supposedly had a relationship with Jacqueline Susann and the character of Jennifer North in Valley of the Dolls was based on her. She chronicled her wartime experiences in the USO touring with Kay Francis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair in the book Four Jills in a Jeep and they starred in the movie adaptation. When her relationship with Rex Harrison (then married to Lilli Palmer) hit the skids, she endured a horrific suicide aged just 29, which is unfortunately well documented by artiste-provocateur Kenneth Anger in the notorious Hollywood Babylon. She was really something. So is this.