The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

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Black ’47 (2018)

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Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan. Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) is an Irish Ranger returning to Connemara from the British Empire’s war in Afghanistan to discover his family home destroyed like that of other tenant farmers and everyone dead from starvation, his brother having been hanged for stabbing the bailiff during the family’s eviction. He stays with his brother’s widow Ellie (Sarah Greene) and her children in the property where they’re squatting, making plans for everyone to emigrate to America, until the Anglo-Irish landlord sends in the bailiffs to remove them and Feeney’s nephew is killed.  Feeney is taken away for questioning and burns down the barracks. He returns to find Ellie and her daughter dead from exposure and swears revenge but murderous British Army vet and RIC officer Hannah (Hugo Weaving) is ordered along with Colonel Pope (Freddie Fox) to apprehend him.  Hannah and Feeney served together in Afghanistan and it transpires that Feeney is a deserter but Hannah acknowledges that his former colleague is the best soldier he ever met.  Hannah’s wiles are tested when Feeney goes on the run leaving a trail of grisly destruction behind him and when they encounter Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) they find they are the ones being chased … The peasants are all the same. No appreciation of beauty.  Described elsewhere as a revenge western, this is a generically apposite form for a story that seeks to describe the psychological wound and schematic genocide caused by the famine enforced by British occupying powers in Ireland 170 years ago as well as delivering a revisionist resistance punch to the oppressors in entertaining fashion. We see the bodies dead from starvation mounting up in corners; food is held under armed guard before being exported to Britain;  we understand that the term ‘taking the soup’ derives from people who really were served broth to convert to Protestantism in a countrywide evangelical drive.  The Famine has featured recently in British TV series Victoria but this is the first time it’s been properly dramatised on the big screen, a strange fate for such a significant disaster that lives as trauma in the folk memory. The title is based on this fact:  in 1847 4,000 ships exported food from Ireland while 400,000 Irish men women and children starved to death during a blight on the potato crop which was their sole food.  The disease affected whole swathes of Europe but Ireland’s position was far worse than that of other countries due to the geographical island location and the British occupation. Taking the action movie approach to this emotive history is smart because it immediately personalises the motivation in an easily digestible narrative that fulfills a kind of empathetic nationalist fantasy about a horrific political crime. While it mostly moves like the clappers in several action sequences, there are almost surreal expressions of violence. There are two rather irksome elements:  the decision to use subtitles that bob about distractingly all over the image; and the failure to engage a major Irish star in the lead. This may seem like cavil but Frecheville’s dour expression isn’t assisted either by a huge ginger beard that wouldn’t look out of place on Santa Claus and camouflages him. And it’s an odd choice in a film that is ultimately speaking an historical truth to power when your protagonist is Australian, no matter how good Frecheville is in the Clint Eastwood role, the ranger turncoat; but Stephen Rea does his usual thing as tracker/guide Conneely, while rising stars Barry Keoghan and Moe Dunford get extremely good supporting parts; and Broadbent is brutally effective as the vicious absentee landlord inspired by an ancestor of the notorious Lord Lucan. Weaving is typically good and the ending at a crossroads is apt for a story rooted in a nation permanently playing both ends against the middle with tragic outcomes. It’s not perfect but it’s gripping and who ever knew there were so many shades of grey before Declan Quinn photographed those Galway skies?! Some compositions could be out of a Paul Henry painting. Adapted by P.J. Dillon and Pierce Ryan from their short film An Ranger with further writing from director Lance Daly and Eugene O’Brien. Everyone’s starving and they’re putting food on boats

Jamaica Inn (1939)

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Bah, stop crying! Stop it, you little fool! Be beautiful! Oh, ply those tears if you like, but you must be beautiful. Well, you have to be hard now. The Age of Chivalry is gone! England in 1819, the reign of George IV.  After the death of her mother, young orphan Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara) travels from Ireland to the Cornish coast to live with her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney). Stranded on a windswept, isolated road, Mary meets the bumptious Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), who escorts her to Jamaica Inn. There, Mary meets her aunt and bullying uncle, Merlyn Joss (Leslie Banks) – who secretly leads a band of pirates that pilfers the goods from wrecked ships. Suspicious, Mary turns to Pengallan for help, only to discover another dark secret… Why not a toast to beauty, Sir Humphrey?  Written by Alma Reville, Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison and J.B. Priestley, this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about wreckers still has some of that book’s atmospherics despite too much staginess and the overt theatricality of Laughton’s performance. O’Hara is luminous in her first major role and along with the gripping opening wrecking scene, it’s her scenes with Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) that give this its tinge of excitement.  It’s disappointing in many production respects and Du Maurier reportedly wasn’t happy with the result.  It’s not really a Hitchcock picture – even he realised that, since it was produced by Laughton’s company – but it still has some touches of gallows humour and bright moments of dark humanity. That’s women for you – save your life one minute, frightened of you the next. I guess I’m not a very pretty sight at the moment, but I don’t bite, you know

Up With the Lark (1943)

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Don’t be so effeminate. Call me Bill.  Ethel (Ethel Revnell) and Gracie (Gracie West) lose their jobs as telephone operators when the hotel where they work is burgled. They are persuaded by the police to pose as Land Girls in the countryside where the gang of black marketeers is headquartered… This is no ordinary gaol. We take pride in making people feel at home. In which the radio comedy stars play intrepid dimwits caught up in something bigger than they are and inadvertently help catch criminals.  A true relic of its time, this B flick is done on the cheap with some very strange performances albeit Ivor Barnard’s multiple roles should be seen. Directed by Phil Brandon from a story by Val Valentine and a screenplay by James Seymour. If you can’t go cuckoo go cock-a-doodle-doo!

The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947)

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I’d like to meet the men who won’t take orders from me.  In Edwardian Britain, a young woman has three suitors who seek her hand in marriage.  When Joanna Godden’s (Googie Withers) father dies, he bequeathed her a farm on the Romney Marsh in Kent. Joanna is determined to run the place herself. Her neighbour Arthur Alce (John McCallum) laughs at her ambitions, but loves her. Choosing a new shepherd, Collard (Chips Rafferty), she allows physical attraction to a man to overcome her judgment as a farmer and her scheme for cross-breeding sheep is unsuccessful after it’s met with mirth. Her wealth gone, she turns to Arthur Alce for help – but not love. That she accepts from Martin Trevor (Derek Bond), a visitor from the world beyond the Marsh. But on the eve of their marriage Martin dies in a drowning accident. When her sister Ellen (Jean Kent) returns from boarding school they clash about everything – and then Arthur asks for Ellen’s hand in marriage …  Things look very different when you’ve someone to share them with.  Isn’t Googie Withers just fabulous? That name. That face! So open and yet complex, a mask veiled with hidden depths, filled with pleasing astringency. She can say absolutely anything and you believe her – absolutely. Here she’s the feminist farmer, a character somewhat out of Thomas Hardy but actually from Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novel Joanna Godden adapted by H.E. Bates and Angus MacPhail, a woman whose story is told through her inheritance of a farm in Romney Marsh and via the rather nasty sisterly rivalry enjoyed opposite the brilliant Kent. The swirling, sonorous score conjuring up the location’s mysteries is by Ralph Vaughan-Williams and the slinky cinematography is by Ealing’s house expert, Douglas Slocombe. Perhaps what’s best about this after the atmospheric landscape which is so vividly enlivened is that Withers and McCallum married. This also features the marvellous Chips Rafferty a year after The Overlanders as – what else – a sheep farmer!  Directed by Charles Frend who had an uncredited assist by Robert Hamer when he fell ill. We hear a lot but we aren’t told much

The Reptile (1966)

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Half woman – half snake! England in the early twentieth century. Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) inherits his brother Charles’s cottage in Clagmoor Heath following the man’s mysterious death. He moves in with his new wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel). They are not welcomed by any of the locals save for the publican Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper) who tells him Charles died of the Black Death. The local crazy Mad Peter (John Laurie) may be the only person who knows what’s going on:  a Malayan curse has turned the daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) of Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman) into a snake woman… You’re like your brother – obstinate! With a screenplay by Anthony Hinds (as John Elder), this was filmed by director John Gilling back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies for Hammer and it shares its elegance and controlled atmosphere (and some of its major cast and sets) but let’s face it, it’s fairly silly. The actors are splendid – particularly Pearce as Cobra Girl and Laurie as Mad Peter, with Ripper great as ever – and there’s a flavourful score by Don Banks, making this a most enjoyable excursion into mind control with some terrific set pieces. This was cut to avoid an ‘X’ rating and was then passed in full in 1994.  If you take my advice you won’t live there

 

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

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Please take care not to stray from the path.  In 1860 young local doctor Peter Tompson (Brooks Williams) cannot stop the spread of an epidemic in his Cornish village. He contacts his old professor Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) who arrives with his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare). She notices that Peter’s sister Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) is unwell. When the men disinter coffins and find them empty they link the plague to Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) and his voodoo practices which he learned in his time in the West Indies so when the men act against him it’s time to assemble his zombie army … Do you believe in life after death? A terrifically effective thriller from Hammer, beautifully made and endlessly influential:  the green-tinted zombie ‘mare an hour in is chillingly convincing. Screenwriter Peter Bryan had already written the studio’s Hound of the Baskervilles and The Brides of Dracula and the conventions of the graveyard standoff, the doctor’s intervention and the possessed women are all here in this restrained horror. Carson does a good vocal impersonation of James Mason. Stylish as heck. Directed by John Gilling.  I dreamed I saw the dead rise

Local Hero (1983)

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How do you do business with a man who has no door?  Up-and-coming Houston oil executive ‘Mac’ MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) gets more than he bargained for when a seemingly simple business trip to Scotland changes his outlook on life. Sent by his colorful boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) to the small village of Ferness, Mac is looking to buy out the townspeople and their properties so Knox Oil can build a new refinery. But after a taste of country life Mac begins to question whether he is on the right side of this transaction …  It’s their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can’t eat scenery!  Writer/director Bill Forsyth’s greatest work will remind you of Ealing Comedy and I Know Where I’m Going: wonderful antecedents and references but not entirely true to the atmosphere of this very magical film, operating with the underlying power of a fairytale. It’s primarily a film about characters and their interactions and it’s absolutely low-key and exact, sidelining whimsy for revelation.  This is truly a fish out of water scenario, about a man learning to live to a different beat in an utterly alien landscape. Lancaster’s inevitable arrival brings a sense of transcendence to the film, augmented by marvellous cinematography courtesy of Chris Menges and a legendary score by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. I’ve been a fan of Forsyth since I nearly choked to death laughing at That Sinking Feeling so it’s sad that he never had the long career that would have been predicted. This is a romance between people and land and sky and the immensity of living a small life, alive to the wonder. The sun, moon and stars were aligned when they made it.

On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.

Straw Dogs (1971)

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If you can’t catch ’em … shoot ’em.  David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered American mathematician married to Amy (Susan George), an Englishwoman. They have relocated to the small town in rural Cornwall where Amy was raised, to a house filled with her father’s belongings. David is writing a book because he has a research grant to do a project on astrophysics.  He is ostracized by the brutish men of the village who are renovating the garage beside the cottage, including Amy’s old boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney). Eventually the taunts and lewdness escalate, their cat is strangled and hanged and two of the locals rape Amy while they distract David by taking him out hunting and leave him alone for the day on the moor. When the village idiot Henry Niles (an uncredited David Warner) winds up at their house after accidentally killing the local slut Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) following a church social, the locals come a looking and lay siege to his house and the passive aggressive David finally takes revenge …  David Zelag Goodman loosely adapted the 1969 Gordon M. Williams novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm with director Sam Peckinpah and its sustained atmosphere of unbearable tension and brutality shocks to this day. The campaign of harassment is inscribed in the titles sequence in which we open on a gravestone and children torturing a dog:  we are quickly introduced to the casual viciousness of the village, the acceptance of violence – mentally retarded Henry is bitch slapped by his brother John (Peter Arne) for playing ball with schoolchildren;  Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) breaks a glass into the publican’s hand when time is called despite the presence of the local magistrate (T.P. McKenna);  Hedden’s trampy daughter Janice (Thomsett) and son Bobby (Len Jones) watch David and Amy in bed together. The goons played by Ken Hutchison and Donald Webster are uncomplicated thugs who nonetheless question David about his familiarity with guns (the anti-Vietnam war poster and the animal trap indicate where the film is going textually). He makes it obvious that he is anti-violence. The gang rape is anything but simple:  Amy tries to pacify the first assailant because like most rape victims, she knows him and that’s what makes this so convincing, never mind that it’s brilliantly shot and constructed.  She has gone around the place without a bra – even David tells her to start dressing appropriately and stop complaining that the locals are making horrible remarks. The marital strains are echoed when the vicar (Colin Welland) gives his wife a condescending look because she doesn’t know who Montesquieu is;  Amy doesn’t understand binary numbers. The drama is then structured about the outsider intellectual amid backward yokels, of whom his wife still appears to be one;  the awful Hedden’s concern for his daughter reminds us that Amy’s father dominates her domestic surroundings and she resents David’s retreat to his study. This is where I live. This is me.  I will not allow violence against this house. This was much misunderstood upon release but it’s a genre mashup whose antecedents – the western, the horror film (isn’t this a Hammeresque village with a Frankenstein’s monster?), the home invasion movie – are delineated clearly. The crosscutting (Nic Roeg’s collaborator Tony Lawson is one of three editors, including future director Roger Spottiswoode) also clarifies the complex and ironic psychology. You simply cannot say, as many did at the time of this film’s initial release, that this celebrates violence:  the technique just does not permit it.  David’s shit-eating grin at the film’s conclusion is perhaps what bothers people but as someone who has suffered outrageous violence at the hands of my thick neighbours I can relate to his turnaround and wish I were in a position to emulate it. When I asked the local plumber what was behind it he told me an apocryphal tale which ended in the deathless words, Y’see, nobody wants someone with too much education in their neighbourhood. So when anyone asks me what it’s like to live in the countryside, I tell them, Watch Straw Dogs. As far as I’m concerned, it might be a documentary.