School for Scoundrels (1960)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 February (6.15 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

In School for Scoundrels, Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) regards himself as a failure. He’s overlooked for tennis matches at his club. The chief clerk at the office he manages patronises him; the staff treat him with total derision. Having run to catch up with the bus he’s missed, he accidentally barges into the lovely April Smith (Janette Scott) and asks her out for dinner, only to find his reservation at the posh restaurant has been overlooked. He goes to buy a car to impress April and winds up being sold an ancient banger by two sharks who see him coming from a mile away. Worst of all, he’s treated like a chump by rival Raymond Delauney (Terry Thomas), who charms April away from him and then thrashes him on the tennis court.

What else is a chap to do but enrol at the College of Lifemanship, an exclusive and expensive private school that promises to turn losers into winners, underdogs into top men, exhorting that if you’re not one up on the other fellow, then he’s one up on you. The college is run by Mr S Potter (Alastair Sim), who over the following weeks teaches young Palfrey how to turn any situation to his advantage, to become one up on other people. What follows is our hero going through the same situations as at the beginning of the film, only this time walking away smiling. Not only does he get the money back for his knackered car, he drives off in a racy number and ten guineas up. His rematch with Delauney on the court turns into an equally sound beating but with him on top, and of course he wins April back. But will he use the tricks he’s learned at the college to take advantage of the young lady, or be honest with her and hope she feels the same way about him?

Screened on BBC at an insanely early time, School for Scoundrels is the sort of pithy, amiable and very British comedy that simply isn’t made anymore, indeed it was rehashed in 2006, Americanised and starring Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton, and replaced the warm charm with dark humour and bad language. Nothing wrong with those things if applied to good comic effect, but there’s a crude and even cruel streak to the update that was less in evidence in the 1960 original. Thomas plays a cad and a bouncer, sure, but he’s all surface charm. When the empowered Palfrey starts to rattle him he loses his cool in short order, typified in the car horn that sounds like a wolf whistle until it’s applied more frequently and then it becomes as frantic as Delauney’s frazzled nerves.

Thomas is brilliantly cast, a bit of a national treasure of disreputable behaviour, gap tooted oily smarm present and correct. But even better is Sim as the elusive Mr Potter. The film is loosely based on the successful series of ‘Gamesmanship’ books by Stephen Potter, mocking the self-help titles of the era yet hardly an novel, so to add a string of narrative the screenplay created the character Mr Potter, who has turned to using his wiles gainfully in order to instruct others. Memorably eccentric and delivering every line in a mannered elucidation, Sim is perfect in the part and even gets to break the fourth wall in the film’s closing moments. Carmichael, in a rather typical role, is just fine and completely convincing as the nice guy who learns how not to finish last, though he remains essentially good. And then there’s Janette Scott, one of the lovelier British stars of the era, who has to do little but look and act pretty, and comes across as someone for whom it’s worth making the effort.

School for Scoundrels found a small role for Dennis Price as one of the grifter car salesmen, which ties in to the film’s original director, Robert Hamer (the pair worked together on the endlessly entertaining Kind Hearts and Coronets). Sadly for Hamer, he was suffering from alcoholism and, falling off the wagon during filming,  wound up getting sacked from the project, never to direct again. Three years later, he was dead from pneumonia, a sad and ignominious end to someone who got the opportunity to show major talent too little. Under pseudonyms, the smart script was by Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff, the latter a victim of Hollywood blacklisting.

The film might be a disappointment for those expecting ‘laugh out loud’ knockabout comedy. What it does have is effortless charm and a certain sweetness at its heart. From the moment Palfrey steps off the train to Yeovil and is made to follow signs featuring big fingers pointing the way, you know you’re in for a bit of a treat, and that word, I think, sums up School for Scoundrels as well as any.

School for Scoundrels: ****

White Feather (1955)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 February (4.45 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The similarities between White Feather and the earlier Broken Arrow are impossible to ignore. Both cast native Americans in a sympathetic light and told stories about the efforts to broker a peace treaty between them and the encroaching white settlers. Delmer Daves was involved in the two films, directing Broken Arrow and writing the screenplay for this one. Both cast white actors as Indians, Jeffrey Hunter featuring prominently in White Feather, whilst in each film Debra Paget plays the love interest squaw.

Where Broken Arrow succeeded and this one falls is in the male leads. James Stewart was brilliant in the earlier film, but here we have a very young Robert Wagner playing a civil surveyor whose path crosses with the neighbouring Cheyenne tribe. At first hostile, the tribe comes to welcome his character, Josh Tanner, into their village, just as the nearby US cavalry outpost attempts to persuade their chief, Broken Hand (Edmund Franz) into signing a deal to secure peace and move them south so that gold prospectors can move in. Things get complicated when Tanner comes across the comely Appearing Day (Paget). Though promised to another, she quickly falls for his civilised charms and leaves the tribe, bringing the wrath of the Chief’s son, Little Dog (Hunter), upon them both and threatening any chance of a lasting settlement.

Wagner’s a problem. Though his performance is fine to an extent, he doesn’t possess any of Stewart’s presence and it becomes hard to believe in his forced delivery as the film’s focal point. This weakness undermines the entire production, and it seems a real shame that the charismatic Hunter wasn’t cast as Tanner instead. The latter’s great, alongside Hugh O’Brian’s American Horse showing all the youthful exuberance of a warrior that has been lost by Broken Hand. The chief instead claims some dignity with a measured turn that exhibits all the wisdom of his years, coupled with sadness over the knowledge that the peace treaty is, in reality, a withdrawal from lands his people have occupied for centuries.

There are issues with the somewhat leaden direction by Robert Webb, better known as an Assistant Director (he won an Oscar for In Old Chicago in 1936) and here unable to build up a suitable degree of tension as the climactic fight between Little Dog and Tanner just happens after a sequence of lengthy talking scenes. There’s a degree of padding also, ninety minutes of action stretching to over one hundred as the attempt to show where the film’s budget was sunk results in long shots of ranging cavalrymen and migrating native Americans.

Veteran Western cinematographer Lucien Ballard does good work, using Cinemascope to fine effect with some lovely composition, those rich greens of Durango, Mexico, showing up beautifully as unspoiled virgin countryside before it was taken over by the settlers. I also liked the score by Hugo Friedhofer, which suggests a level of exciting, epic action not always represented by what’s taking place on the screen.

The claim that White Feather is a true story pushes its luck somewhat. Whilst it’s accurate that the Cheyenne were relocated, with the film’s 1877 dating also being correct, the rest of the story is entire fiction. What we get is a sometimes sentimental Oater that tries to be more than the sum of its parts. All the same, the ending, which goes for a low key, dignified conclusion over the typical mass battle, is rather touching.

White Feather: **

Dunkirk (1958)

When it’s on: Sunday, 22 February (2.25 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation of stranded British soldiers off the eponymous beleaguered beach from two points of view. In one, an earthy corporal, John Mills, leads a group of squaddies to Dunkirk after they’ve been cut off from their unit in embattled northern France. Pursued by Nazis, fired upon by swarming Stukas and sometimes having to cross enemy lines as the Blitzkrieg advance is often quicker than their own movements, theirs is a desperate scramble for safety with no guarantee that reaching their comrades will make any difference. Meanwhile, back in England Bernard Lee’s journalist tries in vain to persuade the public that the so-called phoney war is exactly that, convinced this is a prelude to all-out attack and yet finding complacency among his friends, not least businessman Richard Attenborough who would rather focus on his company and new baby than anything happening across the English Channel.

I’ve discussed before on this site how well the British war films of the 1950s did at deglamourising many of the events that took place. Dunkirk was seen at the time as something of a victory, a morale boosting pulling together of resources when in reality it was the tail-end of a total debacle, and it’s this the film conveys. Whilst there are no heroes, it tells us, ordinary people were capable of heroic acts, from Mills’s ‘Tubby’ Binns, forced by rank to push his exhausted troops to the coast, to Holden (Attenborough) steadily becoming more involved in the rescue by a mixture of conscience and circumstance. At more than two hours it’s overlong, too many scenes that involve Charles (Lee) cynically telling anyone he meets that the Dunkirk rescues have needed to take place through basic incompetence, generals trying to apply World War One principles to the new conflict, when the action itself should convey this message on its own. Once the film reaches the beach, thousands of soldiers waiting around for rescue whilst the German planes attack ruthlessly, the pointlessness of it all resonates to shattering effect. Some boats make it safely out of the harbour. Others are bombed, everyone on board having to leap into the sea or die. Quickly, it becomes apparent that they’re relying increasingly on the intervention of smaller boats, like those piloted by Charles and Holden (Attenborough). Their very presence at Dunkirk is as much an indictment of outmoded military strategy in a time of lightning attacks as it is a pooling of British pluck and resolve, and of course it did make all the difference.

As a bit of added research for this piece, I rewatched Atonement, the 2007 film by Joe Wright that features some pivotal action on the beaches of Dunkirk (interestingly, these scenes were filmed in my home town, Redcar, and even takes in the facade of the old fleapit, the Regent Cinema, which I frequented often as a young ‘un). Atonement does a really impressive job at conveying the chaos and despair of Dunkirk, particularly as it’s introduced in a dazzling single take that must have been technically exhausting to produce. Yet even with the standards of 2007 allowing for a grittier and more visceral scene, it’s no more harrowing than the sights confronted by Mills and Company in the 1958 film. Worst for them is the constant harrowing from the air, the random selection of victims as the planes take their victims from so many thousands of bodies on the beach, but there’s also the collapsing line over which to worry, the awful possibility that the Nazis will break through and capture or kill everyone before they have a chance to be lifted. It’s effortlessly tense because it must have been exactly that.

Director Leslie Norman (father of film critic, Barry) had been involved in the British film industry since 1930, when as a nineteen year old he was helping out with the editing process. By the early fifties he was a producer, with The Cruel Sea standing out among his credits, and Dunkirk was a directorial effort for Ealing that showed similarly the best and worst of the studio. The latter comes in the form of bulging the content, all those superfluous moments that emphasise the contrast between attitudes at home and what’s happening abroad, not to mention the budgetary limits leading to obvious use of stock footage and models.

At the same time, my admiration for John Mills grows with every film I watch. A winner at the British box office throughout this era, his ability to convincingly portray a normal man forced by circumstance into committing exceptional acts comes across really well, his frantic efforts to get his men to safety, his rising gall upon realising that Dunkirk is little better than a death trap. Great work from a fine actor. Attenborough puts in an equally good performance, wholly convincing as a coward who hopes that the war will just happen elsewhere, away from his watch, but over time pulled in to become about as heroic as anybody. The effect is helped by the actor looking older than his years, aiming to look the comfortable English gentleman at a time of extreme distress.

Sadly, Dunkirk was a late flourish for Ealing, which had expired as an independent production company after producing a series of films that made only losses. The BBC had already bought the studio in 1955 and the production team was working under MGM by this stage, still able to bear the old Ealing logo on its films but depending on the money of Hollywood distributors. An ignominious end to the Ealing career of producer Michael Balcon, who perhaps appreciated better than most that its day in the sun was ended.

Dunkirk: ***

Carry On Again Doctor (1969)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 February (3.05 pm)
Channel: ITV3
IMDb Link

Funny things, the Carry On films. I could cover one per week, such is their ubiquity in the TV schedules, yet they’re treated by most people as a running joke, a wholly outdated product of some best forgotten age. Even at the time they were being made, members of the cast thought they were far better than the material they were being asked to perform. Kenneth Williams, who would go on to make the most appearances, privately reviled the series. Another star, Jim Dale, put in his last job of work for Carry on Again Doctor (that is, until the ill fated Carry On Columbus many years later) before leaving in order to better himself, which attracted scorn and ridicule from his fellow ‘Carriers’. Dale had the last laugh, becoming the ‘voice’ of Harry Potter after recording all seven books for the American market and winning two Grammy Awards in the process.

As for this entry, it was a return to the medical profession for its source material, a further satire on the Doctor series of films that had previously brought great success to Carry On. The eighteenth episode in the franchise, by now the elements that had routinely been hits at the domestic box office were present and correct, all the usual cast members, bawdy humour and the increasing presence of comedy sound effects to enhance the slapstick moments. What it also had, which tended to be more prominent in the more successful Carry Ons, was a plot, an actual story from which the gags derived, rather than some loose clothes horse of a narrative that served to string the jokes together.

Dale plays Jimmy Nookie (I know, I know), a hapless young surgeon at Long Lampton Hospital. Fellow doctor Ernest Stoppidge (Charles Hawtrey) wants to bring him down a peg or two, whilst the hospital’s manager, Frederick Carver (Williams) needs one of his staff to go and practise at a medical outpost in the remote Beatific Islands to placate his patron and potential love interest, Ellen Moore (Joan Sims). Nookie is fingered after one pratfall too many, committed mainly in an effort to impress his girlfriend, played by Barbara Windsor, and he’s packed off in short order. Marooned on the tropical island with Gladstone Screwer (Sid James) and his six wives, Nookie turns initially to drink and despair, only to discover that Screwer has somehow invented a miracle slimming potion. He returns with the elixir and starts making a fortune as female clients flock to his practice, but Carver’s watching with envious eyes, and Gladstone isn’t going to be placated with being paid in cigarettes forever.

The cast was slotted neatly into its appropriate pigeonholes by this stage. Dale played the handsome hero, Williams added pomposity and Hattie Jacques was tailor made to act as Matron. If there’s a sense that much of it is going through the motions, then that’s because it was, well oiled motions that had hit on a largely winning formula and stuck rigidly to it. Some of the jokes and comic set pieces are rigidly terrible, others fine, and one featuring a cameo from series regular Peter Butterworth is brilliant. This wasn’t Windsor’s first appearance for the team, but it was a noticeable one as she played up to her ‘good time girl’ persona, showing up first in a tiny and notorious ‘heart’ bikini, all curves and dyed white hair. If there’s a weak link, it’s the unlikely Sid James, earning first billing despite only turning up halfway through and giving every impression that his part was shoehorned in. The signature laugh is sadly dialled down.

Behind the camera, the creative forces of writer Talbot Rothwell and Gerald Thomas directing remained intact. The former had a really interesting formative experience in comedy scripting; as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III (of The Great Escape fame) and kept awake by the incessant tunneling beneath his floor, he wrote for the camp concerts, generally featuring broad, farcical routines that were strong on double entendres. It was the perfect training for his later Carry On work.

Carry on Again Doctor: ***

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

When it’s on: Friday, 20 February (1.20 am, Saturday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Like many fans of classic horror, I first got into old monster movies via the BBC’s nighttime screenings back in the early 1980s. Typically shown as a double bill, it was possible to get a pair of ancient Universal frighteners like Dracula and Frankenstein, or a couple of hoary Hammer offerings, which by this point already looked like something from a bygone age. Needless to say, I loved them, talking mine parents into setting up the Betamax to record so I could get up in the morning and experience a blast of the sort of thrills that had little place amidst the more lurid, contemporary likes of Halloween and Poltergeist. These double bills are of course the stuff of aching nostalgia now. Whilst a minority of viewers would love nothing more than to see their return, they belong in a distant past, though one has to wonder, given those dead hours in the middle of the night, would it be so difficult to bring them back and, you never know, introduce a whole new generation to the joys of antiquated horror?

The Abominable Snowman is not being shown as part of a late night monster double, but its late, late place in the schedules teases at a return to this sort of caper; alas a tease is all it is as normal service resumes the following Friday. All the same, it’s a thing of joy to see this semi-forgotten entry from the Hammer archives given a rare outing. It’s a title I watch often, and unashamedly so. At the time, the studio was beginning to flex its creative muscles. The success of The Quatermass Xperiment, adapted for the big screen from Nigel Kneale’s BBC drama, had brought Hammer to the attention of major American players. Further horrors were commissioned. Hammer took the money, stretched the modest budgets it received and started a production line of sensational, melodramatic fright flicks that have since become the stuff of legend. In the same year as The Abominable Snowman came The Curse of Frankenstein, filmed in colour to give audiences the terrifying sight of blood that dripped often and starkly red. They never looked back.

The first Hammer Frankenstein adventure set the studio on a course of further scary treats, taking advantage of colour, special effects, glorious costumes, make-up and set design, and an increase in heaving bosoms, all of which left The Abominable Snowman looking dated nearly as soon as it was released. It’s only more recently that opinions about it have revised and it’s since been held up as a great entry in the canon, a surprisingly low key outing for the maligned Yeti, which only turns up late in the film and is cast in a wholly sympathetic light. Like Quatermass, the film was adapted from a television drama, The Creature, again written by Kneale who returned to write the screenplay. Reliable studio hand, Val Guest, was behind the camera as director. Peter Cushing, who was on the cusp of becoming the its major star thanks to his starring role as Baron Frankenstein, reprised his role from the small screen as Dr Henry Rollason, whereas the part that had been played on television by Stanley Baker went to American actor, Forrest Tucker, as part of Hammer’s deal to have a US star in exchange for funding.

The story is set in the Himalayas, where in reality the sight of enormous footprints in the mountains’ snowy passes (identified by no less a figure than Sir Edmund Hillary on his way to conquering Everest several years earlier) had turned the mythical Yeti into a bona fide monster mystery. Rollason heads a botanical expedition that is staying in a Tibetan monastery. A second group of ‘scientists’ arrives, led by Dr Tom Friend (Tucker), which claims to be researching the possible existence of the Yeti, and Rollason is persuaded to join them, even at the objections of his wife (Maureen Connell) and the temple’s Lama. As the expedition reaches ever higher points in the mountain ranges, following possible Yeti tracks and finding itself pursued by unknown assailants, presumably those wishing to protect the creatures’ secrecy, it emerges that Friend wants nothing less than to achieve fame by capturing a live beast and returning with it to America. Tensions rise between the two men, the avaricious Friend and Rollason, motivated by nobler instincts. Other members of the company start dying, the creatures close in, and the potential that they could be cut off, stuck in some high, desolate place far away from civilisation, becomes a terrifying possibility.

The film is given an air of authenticity as those mountain passes look real enough, though as Cushing explained in his memoirs, a back lot at Bray Studios in Berkshire was covered in tonnes of salt to represent snow, whilst the production designer, Bernard Robinson, constructed an authentic Tibetan village even with the limited financial resources he could call upon. Later, the same lot would become a Transylvanian village for Dracula, Baron Frankenstein’s home village of Karlsbad, Dartmoor for Hammer’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, even India when The Stranglers of Bombay was being filmed there, an impressive recycling of props and sets for the seemingly never ending line of productions. Additional filming, the long shots of explorers traversing the mountain routes that required none of the principal actors, took place high in the Pyrenees.

Best of all is the treatment of the Yeti itself. In an era when many of Hammer’s films presented their monsters as purely evil, there’s nothing abominable about this film’s snowmen. Rather, in witnessing the follies of mankind and awaiting the human race’s capacity to destroy itself, it becomes clear the Yeti have opted for living in secrecy until this moment, and the wise likes of the Lama recognises and supports their wishes. Rollason comes across the same truth, setting up his climactic clash of ideals with Friend, and his ultimate decision to deny the expedition came across anything when he’s eventually rescued. Considering the demand for gaudy thrills, the film’s sympathetic treatment of the Yeti comes across as a nice humanist touch, though upon its release it was clear this did not chime with what the public wanted and ensured The Abominable Snowman, unlike The Curse of Frankenstein, made little impact with audiences. A shame, considering the largely successful effort to create an atmosphere of paranoid claustrophobia into which the Yeti need to make little impact.

The Abominable Snowman: ****

Hobson’s Choice (1954)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 18 February (1.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Several years ago, I bought The David Lean Collection, a set of the great British director’s films from before his international standing grew and the budgets expanded, instead showcasing his earlier directorial efforts. In many ways, the ten movies in this boxset are better than anything that came later. With less money to spend and narrower palettes upon which to craft his vision, Lean made sharper focused pictures, driven very much by their characters and working with some very fine British actors. There’s the occasional misfire; I found The Sound Barrier to be a little tedious and slow, not to mention factually inaccurate. But most are excellent, headed by the unimpeachable Brief Encounter and his definitive Dickens adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, plus the winning collaboration with Noel Coward that produced In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed.

Rubbing shoulders with these prestigious affairs is Hobson’s Choice, which maintains Lean’s high standards. It’s based on a play written by Harold Brighouse in 1915, which itself was a turn on the old expression, ‘Hobson’s Choice,’ referring to a situation where there was no real choice one could make. It had already been adapted for the screen twice before Alexander Korda approached Lean to direct this version, which he took on as a change of pace from 1952’s The Sound Barrier, a nice shift from aeronautical drama to northern comedy. Lean wanted Roger Livesey for the eponymous Hobson but got Charles Laughton instead. In hindsight a great bit of casting, and it’s difficult to picture the hoarse voiced Livesey – superb as a dramatic actor, especially for Powell and Pressburger, but less natural within comedic surroundings – as the tyrannical drunken boor who dominates the story.

As for Laughton, his career had already arced by this point. An internationally famous star, the Scarborough born Laughton had played Hobson years ago as a young man on the stage, but since then had enjoyed years of success though was beginning to wane, fortunate for the production as he had a tendency to overpower films with his presence. He was cast against Brenda de Banzie as Hobson’s eldest daughter, Maggie. Better known for her work on the stage, the native Mancunian de Banzie was perfect for the part, unwilling to be cowed by her screen father and determined to marry outside his wishes. The third major name was John Mills, almost unrecognisable as the mild-mannered shoemaker, William Mossop, but becoming more Millsian as the film progresses along with his character’s levels of confidence. Mills, again not the first choice for the role (it was originally offered to Robert Donat, who declined due to his long running problems with asthma), was uncertain about playing a Lancashire working class lad, but showed a gift for comedy and ran away with the film’s heart.

Hobson’s Choice takes place in Salford, Manchester, in 1890. Against a backdrop of satanic mills, smoking chimneys and Coronation Street accents,  Henry Hobson owns a successful bootmaker’s. We first meet him when he enters the store in the dead of night, blind drunk after another evening at the Moonraker pub, and it soon becomes clear that he has very little to do with running the shop. The boots are made with some brilliance by the unassuming Mossop, whilst it’s Hobson’s three daughters who do all the work, both within the business and for him personally. He’s not only a drunk but a terrible father to boot (sorry), declaring to his daughters that he will chose their husbands for them and showing a violent streak when the forthright Maggie opts instead for Mossop, believing that his practical skills and her business nous will make for a brilliant partnership. It does. While Will carries on doing what he does best, Maggie makes a more rounded man of him, teaching him his letters and boosting his confidence so that by the end of the film even his pudding bowl haircut has grown out. In the meantime, Hobson’s relationship with the drink continues. A brilliant comic scene sees him leave the Moonraker, pissed up, having told his drinking buddies exactly what he thinks of them, before he chases a reflection of the moon in the street’s puddles, at one stage taking a while to realise that what he’s staring at isn’t the moon at all but rather his own round face. He ends up collapsing down a store cellar and falling asleep.

The ‘choice’ refers not to his decision over the daughters’ marriages, but the precise lack thereof as he first runs into trouble with the law and, later, growing sick through his dependence on alcohol, is forced to go into a partnership with Mossop and Maggie, who resume their old duties but on far better terms. There’s a lovely moment when Mossop comes into the shop at the end and addresses everyone on equal terms, having come a long way from the lowly shoemaker confined to the cellar.

Lean was first recognised as a technically gifted director, only gaining an ability to film performers convincingly over time. By the time he made Hobson’s Choice, both sides of his talent were fully developed, with some fine realisation of the rise of Mossop from his modest roots to well-heeled proprietor. This is matched by the teasing out of his personality as he learns to love Maggie. When she first proposes marriage, he’s unconvinced, doesn’t love her and goes along with it more out of ‘knowing his place’ rather than following his heart. The scene on their wedding night, when she’s getting ready for bed and he knows he’ll have to join her and procrastinates, stoking the fire to waste time, is a delight, as much of the sight of them the following morning, when love has clearly blossomed.

Hobson’s Choice: ****

Byzantium (2012)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 11 February (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

As a History graduate, I was quite excited when I heard there was a film coming out called Byzantium, imagining an epic saga about the Eastern leg of the Roman Empire. To my shock, it turned out to be a low budget vampire flick, not even one set in glamourous Constantinople but instead the faded seaside glories of Hastings. On the plus side, it was to be directed by Neil Jordan, who had kind of gone off the radar a little after hitting his prestigious peak some twenty years ago with Interview with a Vampire, nor was this the first foray into horror by him – The Company of Wolves, made in 1984, was a visually rich effort filled with original ideas. For its time, Interview with a Vampire was a fairly novel step for the genre. The tale of a bloodsucker who has no passion for his vampiric ways, it was a major departure from the traditional concept of vampires as ruthless monsters, with varying degrees of sex appeal chucked in.

By the time Byzantium arrived, the sub-genre had developed into an outright war between those who thought vampires should be portrayed as frightening and inhuman, as depicted in 40 Days of Night, and the romantic objects of fantasy popularised for the female teenage market by the Twilight series. This is no place to rubbish the latter, not least because I quite like the Stephanie Meyer novels, even if the adaptations make for an uneven bunch, but it’s good to see people trying new directions with the mythology, exploring all facets of what vampires are, how they are created and what they do with their immortal lives.

Many stories suggest that vampires have used eternity to accrue massive wealth and live in luxury, but that is decidedly not the case in Byzantium, which tells of mother and daughter, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saorise Ronan). Whilst the blousey Clara makes ends meet by taking stripping jobs and resorting to prostitution, Eleanor is allowed to maintain the existence of a perpetual sixteen year old, endlessly writing her story and then throwing the pages away. They’re being pursued by a shadowy patriarchal vampiric order, one of whom is killed gruesomely by Clara, which prompts the pair to flee from their grubby flat and move south. They have no money and even fewer plans, sleeping rough and relying on Clara’s wiles with menfolk to scratch out a living. It’s pure luck they fall in with Daniel Mays’s lonely Noel, who just happens to own an abandoned hotel, the eponymous Byzantium, which Clara duly converts into a bordello. The possibility of settling down gives Eleanor the opportunity to enrol in a sixth form college, based in the same building where, two hundred years before, she grew up as part of an orphanage, her place funded by Clara. Here, she meets hemophiliac Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a winsome, artistically minded young man who reaches into her like-minded soul. Against Clara’s and, you suspect, the audience’s better judgement, she commits her life story to paper for him. In the meantime, the order, led by Sam Riley, tracks the women to Hastings.

Byzantium started life as a play, A Vampire Story, written by Moira Buffini, who converted it into the film’s screenplay. The play deliberately avoided vampire clichés and even suggested the characters were just women and the supernatural elements were the product of Eleanor’s imagination, and whilst the film makes it clear what they are, there’s a marked absence of fangs; they feed by extending a fingernail and piercing the victim’s vein before latching on and sucking. Over the course of the story, we learn how Clara and Eleanor became what they are. The former is a fisherman’s daughter, who one day gets picked up by Johnny Lee Miller’s nasty piece of work officer and left to exist in prostitution. Worse, he leaves her pregnant, and she is forced to give the baby up for adoption. Succumbing to tuberculosis, she’s close to death before coming across Riley and learning of an island that offers eternal life, at the expense of her mortal soul. She sees it as a price worth paying and becomes a vampire, or sucreant. Some years later, Miller turns up again to ruin Eleanor, leaving her with little choice but to take her to the island. However, this has awful consequences. Female sucreants are frowned upon and Clara converting Eleanor is viewed as nothing less than outright heresy, turning the women into fugitives.

The results on screen are spellbinding, crammed with interesting shots and absorbing roles for the two main stars. Ronan is brilliant as Eleanor, in reality almost tallying the character’s teenage shell whilst effectively conveying the two hundred year old being locked within. For sustenance, she seeks out the old and infirm, offering death as a release, and it’s easy to imagine this as a ritual, practised and perfected over the years. Arterton’s just as good. A world away from shallow roles in blockbuster movies and channeling her gutsy performance in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, her Clara is beautiful and earthy, a survivor. At times, the women appear to hate each other, Eleanor sickened by Clara’s lies and grubby existence, but the bond between them is just as thick and the possibility of being parted draws them together.

The womens’ history is woven throughout the narrative, drip-feeding us the tale of their origins, mainly via Eleanor’s memories. Equally good is the camera work, scenes filmed in a constantly imaginative way so that it never gets dull. One of the best sees Eleanor walking through a hospital and passing a ward within which lies a dying old woman. She enters, approaches the patient, and we follow from outside, the view obscured be the patterned glass. It’s obvious what is about to happen, but the way it’s filmed lends the scene a sad, discrete element that would not have been present had the death simply been shown.

Byzantium is a stylised and highly recommended film, and it’s good to see Neil Jordan displaying this sort of form.

Byzantium: ****

A Man Alone (1955)

When it’s on: Sunday, 8 February (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Films about lawless men in the American west ‘new frontier’ are ten a penny, but things can get a lot more interesting when they focus on entire towns riddled with corruption. Enter Ray Milland, the star of his directorial debut, A Man Alone, as Wes Steele, the classic wanderer who has the misfortune of entering just such a community. We first meet Wes when he’s travelling alone through the desolate wilderness. Forced to shoot his lame horse, he takes the only possessions worth keeping – a gun and rather a lot of money – and heads for the nearest sign of civilisation. Before he can do so, he comes across a looted and abandoned stagecoach. All the people in it, including a little girl, have been gunned down in cold blood. Eventually, he hits a town and discovers, to his horror, that he’s the main suspect.

Wes has just enough time to learn that the real culprit is Stanley (Raymond Burr), one of the bankers, who along with his partners Luke Joiner (Grandon Rhodes) and hired gun Clanton (Lee Van Cleef) pulled off the robbery and murder for pure profit, sure they can pin the crime on someone else as they have effectively bought the town and keep what passes for its law on their side. Joiner is appalled by the killings and is himself shot dead, another murder pinned on the luckless Wes. Pursued through the dusty, windswept streets, he manages to find refuge in a cellar, which belongs to the house owned by Nadine Corrigan (Mary Murphy) and her father, Sheriff Gil (Ward Bond), the latter suffering from a bout of yellow fever.

Over time, Wes is able to convince Nadine of his innocence, though his reputation as a dangerous outlaw precedes him and he remains an easy target for the rest of the town, which slowly closes in on him. The only choice left to him is exposing Stanley as the real perpetrator, an almost impossible assignment given the banker has been the power for some years and has everyone, the Sheriff included, in his back pocket.

If A Man Alone has a natural ancestor within the genre, then it’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and whilst it isn’t as powerful as that earlier film, it has several elements going for it. The first is Milland’s direction. Whilst his work behind the camera ensures he isn’t the best thing on the screen, Milland keeps the action moving and excels in visual storytelling; preshadowing Sergio Leone, nobody speaks for the first ten minutes, and Wes is largely silent until almost a third of the film has taken place, meaning moments like him discovering the stagecoach massacre is purely what the camera shows and musical cues. Wes’s silence makes his character enigmatic. The sight of him covering up the corpses hints at his humanity, also when he feeds the kittens in Nadine’s cellar, but there’s an ambiguity about his past that gnaws at his reputation. Just what sort of man is he? Why he has so much money on his person remains a mystery, as are his skills with a pistol, and all this adds to the way people react to his name, like he’s every bit as dangerous as they’ve been led to believe.

Raymond Burr was always a reliable villain, the Perry Mason years just ahead of him, whilst gaunt Lee Van Cleef added a nice level of juxtaposition to the well fed banker as the pinched, almost feral henchman, doomed as always to go down at the film’s climax with a gun in his hand. Mary Murphy wasn’t a star for very long. When she made A Man Alone, she was at the height of her fame following The Wild One and made for a comely heroine with a fair degree of spark. It’s her character, suppressing her more feminine trappings by storing them in a trunk in the cellar, who does more than anyone to expose the corruption within her town. She supports Wes as she begins to love him, realising that he’s being set up for the stagecoach job and in turn questioning how her father has somehow gone from abject poverty to relative wealth.

The answer, naturally, is that he’s as much a part of the town’s sick underbelly as anybody, and it’s a casting coup to see Ward Bond, the fast living drinking buddy of John Ford playing the Sheriff. Bond, an ardent support of Hollywood blacklisting, supplies an uncomfortable undercurrent to this tale of bribery and moral depravity. As the endless wind whips drifts of sand through the community, it turns out that the physical desolation mirrors its very soul.

A Man Alone: ***

Earthquake (1974)

When it’s on: Saturday, 7 February (1.20 am, Sunday)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

Ah, the 1970s disaster movie. Whilst films based around catastrophes have always been around, there was something about those made in the seventies that set them apart – the style, the big budgets, all-star casts, the gleeful willingness to kill off heroes and villains alike. They focused on anything that played on viewers’ real fears – air travel (the Airport films, which kicked off the whole sub-genre), skyscrapers (The Towering Inferno), ocean liners (The Poseidon Adventure). I have the guilty pleasure of rather liking The Swarm, the Michael Caine starrer from 1978 about pissed off killer bees from Africa (obviously) that terrorise America. Looking back at them now, these films may appear laughable, with their special effects that have dated as badly as the fashions, but they were big deals, especially during the first half of the decade. From a sociological perspective, it’s possible to argue they did well due to the sensibilities of audiences, rocked by the political catastrophe that was Watergate and uncertain of their country’s future, though I think that’s hogwash and the films just made a lot of money.

The king of the 1970s disaster flick was of course Irwin Allen, responsible for some of the era’s biggest apocalyptic treats, and Earthquake was Universal’s riposte to his antics. The ante was upped as Allen could very well produce tales of tall buildings or ships running into peril, but what if calamity was to befall an entire city, and not just any city but Los Angeles? That was the premise of 1974’s Earthquake, which promised to lay waste to LA courtesy of the San Andreas fault. The notoriously angry faultline last produced a ‘mega-quake’ in 1680 and is apparently overdue a repeat performance (there’s a film due out this year, San Andreas, which will tell precisely that story). The story goes that the film was conceived as a consequence of LA experiencing the tremors from the San Fernando earthquake of 1971, the delicious premise being of a disaster movie on a far larger scale than those conjured by Allen.

Canadian director-producer Mark Robson was the creative force behind Earthquake, the culmination of three decades within the business that had seen him learn his trade from the likes of Orson Welles and Val Lewton. Robson approached no less a figure than Mario Puzo to write the screenplay, though the script was too character driven and large in scope for the film’s $7 million budget; magazine writer George Fox helped Robson to tone down its level of ambition. Big name stars like Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and disaster mainstay, George Kennedy were attached to the project.

The story follows a number of ‘ordinary’ Los Angelistas as they go about their business, oblivious of the impending doom beneath their feet. Now and then, cutaways to workers at the Hollywood dam looking a bit concerned show exactly where the film is headed towards, but we open with Stewart Graff (Heston) and his wife, Remy (Gardner). Theirs is an unhappy marriage. He’s seeing the young widow of a dead work colleague, played by Genevieve Bujold, and she has long since turned to booze and pills to cushion the pain. A subplot written by Puzo made more sense of this, going on to explain that Remy at some point in the past had an abortion, which undermined the couple’s relationship terminally; however this was cut out by the time the script made it to the screen, meaning she just comes across as an old soak and he an adulterer (and he’s the film’s main hero). Meanwhile, Kennedy plays a grizzled cop who’s insubordinate ways have just earned him a suspension. He does the obvious thing and hits a bar, which is playing funky 70s tunes, where he shares space with an uncredited Walter Matthau as a permanently sozzled denizen in a pimp hat. He’s joined by Richard Roundtree’s stunt rider, along with Victoria Principal as, well, eye candy really. She’s lusted after by Jody (Marjoe Gortner), a convenience store manager, who also happens to be a fascistic National Guard volunteer.

Of course all this is preamble, slightly unnecessary preamble as surely no one turns up to watch a film called Earthquake in order to follow character development, let alone a motley crew of largely unlikeable people and besides, the narrative of introducing the cast and then letting them handle disaster was, by 1974, entirely routine. That said, when the quake hits it’s a doozy, dealing out death and judgement to the good and bad in a ten minute sequence of spiralling destruction. Some of the effects deployed are great, such as the collapse of the freeway; others, most notably the plummeting lift with its cartoon blood splashed onto the screen in order to preserve the film’s PG rating, are terrible. To jaded twenty first century eyes, much of it looks like the clever use of models, matte paintings and simply shaking the camera that it obviously was, though a note of admiration goes to an era of film making when they couldn’t just spit this stuff out of a computer. Sure, the shots of buildings spewing masonry onto antlike people below doesn’t compare with the CGI-induced Armageddon of something like 2012, but Robson and his crew didn’t have access to anything like the current technology forty years ago, had to resort to every trick up their sleeves and did a creditable job most of the time.

What works well is the random selection of who lives and who dies. Too often, these films worked on a moral selection process, allowing the heroes to make it whilst the villains suffer a terrible death, but the quake makes surprisingly nonjudicial choices over who cops it. It builds to a surprisingly bleak conclusion, in which there are no real winners, just those left to speculate over the ruins that were once a sprawling metropolis. Heston is a solid enough lead, as always, and the corrosive spark between his and the Gardner character work better than his wooing of Bujold, perhaps because the pair had memories of a difficult working relationship on the previous decade’s 55 Days at Peking, when she spent much of her time on set drinking and subsequently earning his ‘professional’ ire. No such problems here, with Gardner (looking much older than Heston, despite the year’s difference in age between them) working hard to create a character who elicits some sympathy.

Missing from televised versions of Earthquake is the Sensurround process that came as part of the film’s box office draw. In cinemas, Sensurround used various sound devices to boost the effect of the quakes, making it feel as though the audience was experiencing tremors along with the stars. It must have been a lot of fun, certainly adding to the events taking place on the screen.

Earthquake: **

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 4 February (11.45 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

Clint sure knows how to pick ‘em. I remember reading John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a couple of years after it was published and loving its part travelogue, part murder story structure, as did many people judging from the number of weeks it spent on the New York Times Bestseller List. As a fan of true crime, ‘factional’ books at the time (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was another title I adored), it was an instant classic and also came across as resolutely impossible to adapt for the screen – the highest number of eccentric characters this side of Twin Peaks, so many pages dwelling on the sun-soaked delights of Savannah, Georgia, clearly a world removed from the author’s city living in the Big Apple.

And so it’s to Mr Eastwood’s credit that he took it on, retained much of the book’s essence and stuck with the eyewitness perspective of telling it from the the point of view of John Cusack’s visiting journalist, John Kelso. Bits were changed, characters excised or amended, the book’s four murder trials were reduced to a decisive one, a romantic subplot was shoehorned in. Fans of Berendt’s work were horrified by some of the elements that had been lost in translation and the film was a box office bomb, but on its own merits that doesn’t make it a stinker.

The plot follows Kelso, a New York journalist for the socialite magazine Town and Country, who travels to Savannah in order to write about one of the famous Christmas parties hosted by colourful millionaire Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). Kelso is instantly struck by the otherworldliness of the city, the old world manners, its unique set of idiosyncratic denizens, for instance the man who walks an invisible dog because he’s paid $15 for doing so even after the mutt has long since passed away. He’s also impressed with Williams, a self-made charming man, though the assignment he’s in town to complete changes to something else entirely when a young man, Billy Hanson (Jude Law), is shot dead by Williams in his home. It emerges the two were lovers and an argument between them turned to violence and then death, so Kelso sticks around, covering Williams’s trial as the material for a book and, in the meantime, meeting more local eccentrics and soaking up the architecture and southern charms of Georgia’s oldest city (it dates back to 1733, when it was founded by the British General, James Oglethorpe).

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a long film, running for over two and a half hours, though the length is a necessity in order to take in the range of characters and get the ‘feel’ of the place. Cusack, through whose eyes we see everything, is a fine ‘fish out of water’, his mouth often hanging agape at the cavalcade of strange sights he witnesses in and around Savannah. Being in the Deep South, there’s still an intangible dabbling in the practice of voodoo magic. Williams takes Kelso with him on a visit to meet Minerva (Irma P Hall), a local spiritualist, the hard-bitten, big city writer scarcely comprehending what’s going on as she starts writhing on Billy’s grave in her attempts to commune with his spirit. The title of the film is derived from something she tells Kelso – either side of midnight is the dead hour, she advises him; the half hour before being for good deeds, evil thereafter.

There’s a nice attempt by the film to capture some of the book’s authenticity, various people from Berendt’s text popping up on the screen. Most prominent amongst these is Lady Chablis (Chablis Deveaux), a drag queen and local stand-up comic who also happened to live with Billy and who Kelso befriends in an attempt to find out more about the young man. Chablis is effectively playing herself, a bawdy presence who has somehow been accepted within a place that seems to thrive on old style manners and still appears to have regrets over the outcome of the American Civil War.

Where it’s less certain is in the attempt to find a love interest for Kelso. Whereas Berendt remained essentially an observer, Kelso is involved prominently in Williams’s trial from the start, actively advising  and helping him whilst falling for Michelle Nicholls (Alison Eastwood), who owns a flower shop. She’s Clint’s daughter, no doubt a lovely presence, but the subplot feels completely superfluous, adding nothing to either the story or the character, and making Kelso look just awkward in his faltering attempts at courtship.

On the surer ground of exploring the intricacies of the trial (it pivots on whether Williams shot Billy in cold blood, or if he was fired at first), Kelso clearly admires the older man and wants him to be acquitted. Spacey is excellent, charming and charismatic, wearing contact lenses throughout to fit Berendt’s description of him as having ‘eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine – he could see out, but you couldn’t see in.’ 1997 was a good year for Spacey. With L.A. Confidential also showcasing his talents, he was making leaps and bounds from the oddball characters he had become renowned for in the likes of Se7en and The Usual Suspects, creating in Williams a man so instantly likeable that Kelso refuses to believe he could simply have murdered Billy.

It’s a strange concoction of a film, on the one hand trying to cosy up to book lovers by possessing much of its spirit whilst adding mainstream elements for cinema audiences. Perhaps, as has been suggested elsewhere, adapting the book as a straightforward documentary might have made it more of a success. Then again, the film contains such a strange assortment of characters that it’s impossible not on some level to be charmed and intrigued by it. The sight of veteran actor and occasional Eastwood collaborator, Geoffrey Lewis, playing a man who attaches flies to strings and lets them buzz around his shirt whilst carrying a bottle that, legend has it, he could use at any moment to poison the city’s water supply, needs to be seen to be believed.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: ***