A Canterbury Tale (1944)

When it’s on: Friday, 14 April (11.05 am)
Channel: London Live
IMDb Link

Over the years A Canterbury Tale is perhaps the Powell and Pressburger film I’ve returned to most often. It’s like a guilty secret, an enigmatic little entry from their catalogue that has wormed its way into my affections against more celebrated works like The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Thief of Bagdad… Not to mention A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!, Ill Met by Moonlight, and oh you know. All those titles mentioned are fine films, in some instances bloody wonderful slices of cinema magic, and rightly they are revered. And yet there’s something about the unassuming wistfulness of A Canterbury Tale that has made it essential. I think possibly it’s something to do with entering middle age, a time when it becomes permissible to stop looking forward all the time, to reminisce fondly, sometimes about things that never even happened, and engage with the film’s sense of nostalgic whimsy. Or maybe it’s simply top drawer movie making, the brief to make a propaganda piece and instead turning out something altogether more esoteric, a story that explores the links between the present and an eternal past, a love letter to England, albeit one that barely existed at the time it was made. Either way, talking about A Canterbury Tale and what makes it great isn’t easy. I know how it makes me feel, however, and I’ll try and get that across…

It opens with a scene of medieval pilgrims making their way across the countryside towards Canterbury Cathedral. One member of the party lets loose his falcon. He watches it fly, high into the sky, where it suddenly turns into a Spitfire, and when we next see the Falconer he’s become an air raid warden. We’re in wartime England, joining three young people as their train enters the little Kentish village of Chillingbourne. There’s English sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), also a Londoner who’s taking work as a Land Girl, Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), and Bob Johnson (John Sweet), a GI who mishears the station announcer and alights, thinking he’s in Canterbury and off to his posting. Alison falls foul of the ‘glueman’, an impish local troublemaker who pours glue into the hair of English girls who are caught fraternising with American soldiers while their sweethearts are away fighting the good fight. The unlikely trio team up and resolve to discover who the glueman is.

What’s set up as a crime mystery of sorts then takes several swerves to the left. Our three heroes start making friends in the village, from a group of kids who stage war games in the woods through to local workers who find common ground with Bob because carpentry techniques in Kent turn out to be the same as in Oregon. The local JP is Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), who lives in a house filled with antiquities and takes an active interest in uncovering artifacts from the days of the Pilgrim Road. The trio’s suspicion that the glueman is none other than Colpeper himself becomes mired in the reasons for the criminal’s existence, an ignoble effort to preserve Englishness at a time when the country is invaded by friendly soldiers.

And in the end that’s really what A Canterbury Tale is. In terms of plotting, it isn’t about very much and no less a figure than its director, Michael Powell, had concerns about Emeric Pressburger’s script, which he thought was too loose and freewheeling. But that isn’t the point. The film concerns itself primarily with an England that is close to being lost, not from a foreign threat but rather the necessary advance of technology and industry. As Britain modernised rapidly in order to be able to stay in the war, the green and pleasant land eulogised by Shakespeare was being compromised, Kent’s ‘Garden of England’ cut down the middle by a railtrack. Everyone knew this had to happen yet it came at a price. A Canterbury Tale takes place in a rural setting that in reality had all but gone. Chillingbourne, its main setting, was a fictional and wholly romanticised village, various places filling in to provide its pastoral idyll.

Then there are its semi-mystical elements. The Pilgrim Road is mythologised as a place on the hillside that still has links to its past. Alison walks up there one day and hears – or thinks she hears – the distant sounds of hooves, of laughter, and a lute playing. The moment might be a fantasy but the message is clear enough – the route to Canterbury still retains its power. People went there to receive penance and occasionally a miracle, and sometimes it still pulls through for the right people. Sure enough, the trio end up there too, walking the streets (much of it filmed in the real Canterbury, prominently the Westgate that formed the medieval city’s entrance, though the cathedral interiors were shot in a cleverly designed studio due to the real cathedral’s stained glasses having been removed during the war) and finding their own miracles. These range in emotional power and I won’t spoil them here, though the denouement for Price’s Gibbs touched me most. Though it’s never stated, the film suggests that soldiers enter Canterbury because it’s a waypoint before they embark for the frontline. Many of them won’t return. The cathedral thus bestows its beneficence on those who deserve it. Or at least that’s how I choose to see it.

A Canterbury Tale can put people off. It’s unashamedly twee and romantic; like Ealing’s Passport to Pimlico it takes place in a version of England that suits the film rather than reflects reality. I see it as a love letter, one to an undying sense of place no matter what time it happens in, because it endures and so do the people, and to my mind there’s nothing wrong with that. 

A Canterbury Tale: *****

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The Man from Colorado (1948)

When it’s on: Thursday, 8 September (4.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The Man from Colorado is set at the close of the American Civil War. Glenn Ford plays Owen Devereaux, a Union Colonel who is appointed Judge for his region in Colorado. His right hand man in the army, Del Stewart (William Holden), becomes Marshal and his second in command. Justice under Judge Devereaux is swift and brutal. He orders hangings on the flimsiest of evidence. Death is pronounced as a matter of course and with a straight, unscrupulous face, but Stewart knows better. He remembers an episode shortly before the war ended, when Devereaux’s detachment trapped a Confederate force into offering terms of surrender and, despite waving the white flag, the Colonel gunned them down. Devereaux gives instances of insight into his own condition, writing after the slaughter that he has no idea what’s happening to him, but the rough justice continues and drives an irreconcilable wedge between Stewart and himself.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has existed for as long as human beings. Since ancient times there have been investigations taken into the psychological effects of war, clearly one of the most stress-inducing human experiences, and as long ago as the Civil War formal medical studies into the condition were undertaken. PTSD as a consequence of World War One, especially the experience of living for weeks in trenches, was known as ‘shell shock’, a term redefined as ‘battle fatigue’ in the global war that followed. The shattered mental states of soldiers returning from Germany and Japan in 1945 spilled over into popular culture, notably in Film Noir, in which PTSD became a prominent player in attempting to explain the rationale of its damaged heroes and their struggles to adjust to civilian living. Westerns too chose contemporary issues for storylines transposed into the Old West, and in The Man from Colorado Devereaux is an obvious sufferer. One of the film’s neater themes is that lack of understanding from other people to his psychological state. Stewart recognises his friend’s ‘sickness’ and urges him to take a break from his duties, but his is a lone voice and otherwise everyone is unaware of the particulars of Devereaux’s malaise. You can imagine it really being like that, a PTSD sufferer resorting to almost psychopathic levels of violence without the realisation from him or anyone else of the reasons for his behaviour.

The best thing about Ford in his performance is that Devereaux’s countenance is precisely the same as in his heroic roles – resolute, fixed, always with that undercurrent of violence behind the eyes but maintaining a sense of control. It’s terrifying at times, the sense that to some degree Devereaux thinks he’s dong the right thing, the part of his personality that caused him to question himself eradicated and leaving those around him to challenge his behaviour. The real-life friendship between Ford and Holden spills over into their acting, their ease in each other’s company and the latter’s air of disillusionment as he finds Devereaux taking a path he can’t follow. The clash and split between these two veterans who we are led to believe have been through the horrors of war together and survived should be devastating enough, yet the film adds an unnecessary extra dimension in Ellen Drew’s Caroline, the love interest for both men. Drew’s fine in the part, but the plotline seems thrown in to add a conventional layer of romantic added tension, which isn’t needed. The exploration of PTSD and its effects is enough.

A cool $1 million was lavished on The Man from Colorado, the sum showing in the film’s sprawling township set, part of which was destroyed in the climactic fire scene. Production problems were reflected in the recycling of directors, Charles Vidor being replaced by Henry Levin, which caused the shoot to be extended and costs escalating as a consequence. Whereas the former carried the more celebrated body of work, turning out the classic thriller Gilda two years earlier (which also starred Ford), the latter was a sure hand and developed the film as a Western with Noir themes, helping to show the genre as a format for reflecting prevalent issues within contemporary America. The result is a fine, tense drama, perhaps not quite all it could have been yet well paced and certainly entertaining.

The Man from Colorado: ***

Crossfire (1947)

When it’s on: Thursday, 3 March (7.10 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

Edward Dmytrk’s 1947 B-movie, Crossfire, is about as ‘Film Noir’ as cinema can get. Forget for a moment the plot. The action focuses on a group of men, two of whom are played by Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. They’re ex-servicemen, recently returned from the war. We catch them playing card games, loitering in bars, drifting through their days. They’re bored, dealing badly with feelings of frustration and resentment, whether it’s Mitchell (George Cooper) wondering how he can possibly go home to his wife and lead a normal life, or Montgomery (Ryan), spilling over into hatred and bigotry. Those who have attempted to define the appeal and rise of the ‘Noir’ style suggest that it’s all down to men coming back home after serving in World War Two, struggling to readjust after their horrific experiences whilst on duty, and few films convey that sentiment quite as succinctly as Crossfire.

Ostensibly, it’s about a murder investigation. A Jewish man is killed in the opening act and the trail leads directly to a group of soldiers who joined him for a drink in his apartment. Initially, the finger of suspicion falls on Mitchell who’s gone missing. His room mate Keeley (Mitchum) catches up with him and hears his version of events – sozzled and morose, Mitchell left the man’s place and walked out into the night, eventually coming across a barfly (Gloria Grahame) with whom he shared a ‘moment’ before she handed him the keys to her flat and he fell asleep there. The key fact from his account is told almost as a side note – as he was exiting the Jew’s place, Montgomery was already getting handy with the man, slapping him around and calling him names. So clearly the imposing Montgomery is the killer, but how to link him to the crime?

That isn’t a a spoiler. Montgomery’s guilt is made clear fairly early, the rest of the plot centering on Detective Finlay’s (Robert Young) efforts to unravel the mystery and catch his man. Young leads a brilliant cast, one of those happy circumstances when even relatively minor roles happen to fall into the laps of great performers. By this stage in his career, Young was taking on more challenging parts than the comedies in which he’d appeared countless times, and Finlay is an excellent example – endlessly patient and possessing a cool intellect. He can also identify the murder for the hate crime it is and gets a fantastic soliloquy when discussing the fate of his Irish immigrant grandfather who came across prejudice when he arrived in America. The speech transforms his character from a smart detective and into a sort of crusader, bent on rooting out bigotry, which gives his task of finding the killer a personal dimension. Cooper is good as the innocent Mitchell, clearly damaged emotionally as a consequence of his experiences and representative of the mixed up messes many of the men in similar situations must have found themselves in. By his usual standards, Mitchum turns out to be a bit on the wasted side, playing the main link to Mitchell and coming to help Finlay in his search for answers. In truth, he was still on his way to the top but added enough layers of ‘seen it all’ cynicism to his performance to be memorable in a support role.

The film is stolen by Ryan’s Montgomery, a hulking psychopath who kills from senseless hate and then kills again to cover up his crime. The scenes where he’s delivering alibis to Finlay are cool, too cool, which add a chilling edge to his character. He’s beautifully shot also, especially in his moments with Leroy (William Phipps), another serviceman who’s from Tennessee and like others has clearly been the subject of Montgomery’s bullying ways. Ryan is photographed as though constantly towering over Phipps; a perspective shot when the two men are shaving cast him as a giant compared with the much slighter Leroy.

But then, there’s even time in Crossfire’s slim running time to explore its minor characters. Grahame is a revelation as the good time girl who takes pity on Mitchell, in turns gutsy, jaded and vulnerable in the part of a ruined woman who still has enough room in her broken heart for his sob story. The appearance of her ex-husband (Paul Kelly) offers a fascinating insight into their dysfunctional relationship, which clearly goes on long after the action has moved elsewhere. His exhortations to help Finlay with his investigation, which doesn’t merit a response, indicate just another ruined and pathetic life, which has no more use to anybody.

Crossfire is fine and clever film making, which thanks to its subject matter was nominated for five Academy Awards, including supporting acting nods for Ryan (who was so effective that he would try desperately to steer clear of similar roles) and Grahame. Dmytryk was close to being ostracised by Hollywood for refusing to testify to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, at around the same time as he was Oscar nominated for directing Crossfire. I watch the film now and think that it was just a waste of sheer talent. It’s a title bristling with invention and ideas, and to think of a career that was stifled when he was capable of producing work of this calibre seems very wrong.

Crossfire: ****

The Reckless Moment (1949)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 5 January (2.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Recently, I’ve taken the opportunity to watch a couple of Max Ophuls’s films from his American period. He reminds me a lot of Douglas Sirk, his fellow German director who came to the USA and, in his work, showed a mirror up to society and found it wanting. There was Caught, Ophuls’s study of the capitalist American dream, Barbara Bel Geddes achieving it when she marries Robert Ryan’s millionaire. It quickly becomes apparent that Ryan’s a rich asshole, a megalomaniac who’s surrounded himself with sycophants on the payroll and, in his eyes, Bel Geddes carries exactly the same status. So she runs away, into the arms of James Mason’s kindly and understanding doctor, and the film’s dilemma becomes one of choosing true happiness on modest means or an empty life of wealth.

Mason’s services were retained for The Reckless Moment, a title that makes better use of his talents as it was frustrating to see an actor of his intensity and range taking on a straight role in Caught. In this entry, the character he plays is complicated and interesting, a blackmailer who falls in love with the victim because she is from a level of society to which he can never aspire. The romantic undertones between him and Joan Bennett are palpable, but I’m not sure ‘romance’ is the appropriate word; instead Mason’s character slips from turning up on her doorstep with the aim of extorting money from her to helping around the house, carrying her groceries and interacting socially with her family. His effort to impress himself on a middle class family is quietly heartbreaking. You wonder what he’s experienced previously to give up on his lot in chasing a clearly lost cause.

And that’s just one element of a great thriller that takes a step into nightmarish Noir territory, presenting viewers with the sort of unresolvable dilemma that keeps the suspense ticking until its close. The central plot hook is familiar territory to Joan Bennett, who starred in The Woman in the Window five years earlier. When not walking around in daring see-through blouses, Bennett’s character became embroiled with Edward G Robinson when the pair accidentally murder someone and then attempt to cover their tracks, something you know will be a hopeless exercise because in these films, crime never pays. Just like in The Reckless Moment, she’s blackmailed for $5,000, five gees, an impossible quandary that feels like the start of a slide into despair and ruin.

The character Bennett plays in The Reckless Moment is very different from her glamorous role in Fritz Lang’s entry. Here she’s Lucia Harper, a respectable housewife living in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Balboa. It’s a typical 1940s small community, where everyone knows each other and added to that each other’s business. The world is presented as idyllic, though the Harper family, once you peer beneath the surface, is dysfunctional and far from perfect. Mr Harper works away from home, in West Berlin, and won’t be home for Christmas. While Lucia’s son, Tom (Henry O’Neill), is just an over-exuberant teenage lad, her daughter, Geraldine Brooks’s Bea, is a different prospect altogether. She’s chosen art school over going to college and here she has hooked up with older man Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick). Believing the age gap between Darby and Bea is intolerable, Lucia goes into the city to tell him to stop seeing her, only to get an insight into his true character when he says it will cost her, five gees to be precise. Lucia refuses and returns home, but Darby follows her and meets Bea in the boathouse. Bea’s been clued in by Lucia about his blackmail attempt and brushes him off, but a tussle ensues and only finishes when she runs off and Darby is inadvertently killed. Early the following morning, Lucia discovers the body and the anchor he’s collapsed upon. You or I might contact the authorities at that point, but instead she tries to spare her daughter and the family’s reputation and dumps the corpse in some nearby swamps.

End of the matter? Yeah, course it is. The body’s discovered and the police start searching, though it’s clear that only a staggering leap of logic would lead them to the Harper’s door. Unwisely though, Darby’s loose and fast lifestyle led him into building a string of debts. He owed money to Nagel and Donnelly (Mason), and in collateral they possess a number of love letters Bea had written to Darby. The letters are incriminating, evidence of the link between the Harper family and Darby, and Donnelly turns up to see Lucia and demand five gees for their return, or he’ll take them to the authorities. Lucia flusters; she doesn’t have that kind of money. Her inability to just get rid of Donnelly is horrifying. When other family members show up and invite him for dinner or some chatter about the ‘old country’ (he’s Irish, like Lucia’s father), two things become transparent – the easy sociability of the household, in which people can only ever be there if they’re friendly, and Lucia’s rising sense of shame. And then something else – Donnelly responds. At first it feels like a ploy, as though he knows he’s an embarrassment to her and plays up to the family’s good-natured attention in order to turn the screw, but as the days pass it transpires his feelings run deeper than that. He buys her a gift when they meet at the shop. He pays and serves coffee to her at a moment of tension. Donnelly steadily becomes the husband figure in her life, ostensibly protecting her from the tougher partner, Nagel (Roy Roberts), but in truth serving as surrogate in the absence of Mr Harper. The lengths he goes to in order to protect her become pivotal when Nagel shows up and he’s forced to decide between the racket and Lucia.

It’s a fascinating study, part affection (Lucia’s a beautiful woman) but almost certainly more to do with the world she represents, a cosy and friendly environment that is obviously alien to the hard knock life he knows. This was early in Mason’s career as an American film star (he was a major British player, with certain wartime titles going on to be among the country’s most profitable at the domestic box office), but already he was establishing himself as a mature actor, lending credibility to his character and the relationship he establishes with Lucia. What could have been a straight melodrama gains heft as the dilemma they share is dealt with, as far as possible, in a relatable, adult fashion.

But it takes two, and Bennett as Lucia is simply electrifying. Having enjoyed some delicious femme fatale roles earlier in the decade (the character she plays in Lang’s Scarlet Street, again opposite Edward G Robinson, ranks among the screen’s ultimate honey traps; it’s very dark) as well as dominating the gossip columns with endless details about her private life, this role was a real gift. As a housewife for whom the family means everything, she readily shoulders responsibility for disposing of Darby’s body, deals exclusively with the blackmail levelled against her daughter (about which Bea knows nothing), maintains a busy and disorganised home, and frets over the household bills. Knowing she has to raise the five gees, she take it upon herself to visit pawn shops and loan offices, the latter almost a comic situation as she’s shoved inside a glass booth, this respectable woman, whilst in other booths we can see little episodes of anonymous financial desperation play out. She does it all practically, just because that’s her role and it what she does. There’s no collapsing under the strain; the only time we see her cry is at the film’s close when she’s been released from her predicament. Incidentally, there’s a great piece on Bennett’s real-life shenanigans over at Shadows and Satin; it’s well worth a read, particularly as it makes a refreshing change to find that she had the last laugh.

The Reckless Moment was not a success upon its release, and there’s a sense of it being hopelessly ahead of its time, its psychology too sophisticated for the audiences to whom it played. Ophuls responded by returning to Europe (he was a Jew who fled his native Germany when the Nazis arrived, and then moved across the Atlantic when his new home in France fell in 1940) and enjoyed arguably his most impressive creative period, certainly the most celebrated. The tendency to sidetrack the four films he directed in America is natural enough, but wrong. The Reckless Moment is brilliant cinema.

The Reckless Moment: ****

The Third Man (1949)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 22 December (11.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

Scheduled to mark one hundred years since Orson Welles bounded onto Planet Earth (though he was in fact a May child), it’s always refreshing to catch up with The Third Man again. This has to be a strong contender for my favourite film of all time, an exquisite treat to get to see it in its restored form in the cinema this year and a title I revisit regularly. Despite the fact Welles is in it so little, the artwork and enduring images from the film feature him prominently, and in many ways it was a perfect role for him – enigmatic, complicated, and allowing him lots of time off from the shoot. I think it’s just wonderful, from the astonishing black and white photography in post-war Vienna, to the unique Anton Karas score and its dense plotting that never feels forced, indeed it’s a miracle of economical film making from the peerless Carol Reed. I blame this one for getting me hooked into classic cinema in the first place – yes, in my eyes it’s that good.

A few months ago, I wrote a retrospective on The Third Man for Multitude of Movies, and the editors have been kind enough to allow me to use the article again here. If you’ve never read the magazine or visited their excellent website, you are encouraged to stop what you’re doing and head over there right away. In the meantime, here’s 2,000 words on why the film is essential…

The Third Man is one of the best films of all time. Its genius lies in the fact that not only does it hit all the right notes artistically but it’s also very entertaining. There are no bum notes, and the 104 minutes it occupies fly by. In researching this, I’ve read various books and articles, and re-watched The Third Man several times, including a visit to Home in Manchester to see the glorious 4K restoration on the big screen. It still dazzles, just as much as it did when I first came across it, aged 16, ready to have my mind opened to classic cinema and unwittingly catching one of its highlights. Writing these words, the melancholic stylings of Anton Karas’s lonely zither are playing in my head, and on Spotify. I can’t ever imagine being bored of The Third Man.

Karas seems as good a place as any to start. The film’s score is one of the elements that makes it unique. At a time when releases were soundtracked by an orchestra as a matter of course, the decision to use a single zither for The Third Man was an inspired gamble that paid off. Its director, Carol Reed, chanced upon Karas when he’d been employed to supply background music for a welcome party to the production crew in Vienna. Reed was haunted by the sound and tracked down the little musician, recording hours of material. Determined to find space for it in the film, Reed used his zither footage initially to accompany the rough edits of the film, realisation dawning that it was the perfect musical background. A reluctant and homesick Karas was persuaded to travel to England and record what would become the full score. The idiosyncratic music became a massive hit, Karas’s title track ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ turning into a bestseller among record buyers. It prompted the Austrian to embark on tours of Britain and America, and earned him enough of a windfall to pay for his Vienna bar, appropriately named Der Dritte Mann, the showpiece being Karas playing the Harry Lime Theme to awestruck patrons.

The Third Man is ostensibly a thriller, based on real-life black market racketeering in impoverished, post-war Vienna. It was written by Graham Greene, who had produced the screenplay for Reed’s previous film, The Fallen Idol, and was dispatched to Vienna by the head of London Films, Alexander Korda, to come up with a new story. Greene had already come up with the hook, that of a dead man inexplicably seen alive and well, and now applied it to a tale set in the Austrian capital. Wandering the streets with Korda’s assistant, Elizabeth Montagu, Greene was struck by the state of Vienna, ‘bombed about a bit’, jagged ruins of buildings, also the way it was managed by representatives of the four victorious powers from World War Two. Amidst the ensuing confusion, there was little wonder that criminal activity thrived, desperate people scratching out a survival by any means possible, and a meeting with The Times correspondent, Peter Smollett, introduced Greene to the victims of illegal antibiotic usage, a hospital filled with children who were dying from taking it.

The story came together, telling of an amoral character who took advantage of the poverty and city under divided rule to smuggle diluted medicine to the people. In The Third Man, military officials from Britain, France, the USA and USSR do their best to maintain control, despite the lack of mutual understanding. Vienna lies shattered, grand examples of its former glamour now faded, other buildings bombed into rubble, whilst the people remain passive onlookers, pinched and prematurely aged faces looking on as the action takes place around them. It’s the perfect environment for Harry Lime to operate in, living in the Russian sector to evade his British pursuers and using the extensive sewer system beneath Vienna to move around. When he ‘dies’, knocked over by a car, it seems the case against him is closed and he can continue his trade from the shadows, an elusive ghost who can never be caught because he no longer officially exists. But he makes one mistake, when he invites his childhood friend, Holly Martins, to travel over and work with him.

In the film, Martins is played by Joseph Cotten, a major American star who was loaned to the production by the Selznick Releasing Organisation. The Third Man was made by a collaboration of Korda and David O Selznick, who worked together to distribute it to audiences in Britain and America. The latter supplied investment, talent, and also the lengthy interference of Selznick himself. A notorious dabbler in films in which he was involved, Selznick had already earned for himself the bitter enmity of Alfred Hitchcock. The British director had been contracted to him during the forties and grew increasingly sickened by the endless string of memos issued that attempted to overrule and control him. Selznick tried the same strategy with Korda, a worthy rival who was every bit as domineering. The to and fro between the pair would go on to dog the entire production. It was Korda, a Hungarian émigré now established as a key figure in the British film industry, who came up with the idea of a film set in Vienna, seeing the creative potential of a yarn set in the defeated city that was split into four zones. Yet Selznick was equally involved, for example encouraging what became the film’s ending, Anna’s refusal to finish up with Martins because her love for Harry is too powerful and ultimately destructive. It’s moments like these that make The Third Man such a poignant experience. Anna (Aida Valli) is Harry’s former girlfriend. He sells her out to the Russians as a Czech citizen carrying false papers that he had previously made for her, yet the extent to which he’s stolen her heart makes her unfailingly loyal to him. Even when it’s clearly established that Holly has fallen for her and makes a deal to get her smuggled out of the country by the British, she refuses, preferring to face her own ruin rather than betray Harry. In the closing scene, after Holly and Anna have attended Harry’s real funeral, he waits for her, only to watch Anna walk defiantly past him and into a ruined future.

The majority of The Third Man follows Holly’s efforts to investigate the circumstances of Harry’s ‘death’.  That he’s unqualified for the assignment is never in much doubt. Cotten’s character is a writer of pulp fiction, a ‘scribbler with too much drink inside him’, falling foul of the authorities, most often the exasperated Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his dogged Sergeant, Paine (Bernard Lee). Calloway has been trying to catch up with Harry for some time and places little faith in Holly’s attempts to clear his friend’s name, but steadily the American turns up some unusual clues. Meetings with Harry’s friends produce inconsistencies about his final moments. A chat with the porter of Harry’s building reveals that an extra person turned up to help move his body after it had been hit by the car, which turns the search into a hunt for the identity of this ‘third man’, who of course turns out to be Harry himself. Cotten plays Holly as a self-pitying drunk, filled with bad memories and ruminating on personal failings. His character was based on Greene, himself bullied during his years at boarding school and scarred by the experience.

As Holly padfoots the streets, he takes in the full spectacle of Vienna’s ruined splendour in much the same way as Greene did. Extensive shooting took place in the city, though more footage was filmed in Surrey’s Shepperton Studios than is apparent. All the same, there’s little getting away from Vienna’s shattered beauty as it appears in the film, indeed the location is more or less a character in its own right, a wrecked, once thriving metropolis ‘with its easy charm’ that is the sublime backdrop for the black and white photography. Once beautiful buildings, many of which still survive in the film, now project long and eerie shadows, and those shadows contain its citizens, rifling through bins and scrabbling for succour. Reed manipulated Vienna to get the ambience just right, carefully choosing shots that would contain some evocative Gothic structure in the background and soaking the streets prior to filming in order to lend it a cold, wintry sheen. Thousands of feet of film depicting the Viennese were taken, depicting the people peering in baleful curiousity, showing the stark reality of life in this place.

At Shepperton, the sewers were recreated and filmed for the scenes featuring Harry Lime running for his life through the labyrinthine passages. These were then spliced with footage of the actual sewers to make the effect appear seamless. Orson Welles, who portrayed Harry in probably his most famous acting role, refused to work in the real thing on health grounds, leaving the production with no choice but to reproduce them. The extent of Welles’s involvement in The Third Man has always been mythologised and distorted, fans of the auteur going with the suggestion that he scripted and indeed directed all his own scenes. In reality, Welles was in the cast as part of a contract with Korda, which was initially signed to fund a number of directorial efforts but by 1949 had turned sour. Welles believed he’d been messed around with and became a problem for the production, being chased around Italy largely on expenses that were met by the studio before he was finally tracked down and dragged to Vienna. The level of Welles’s chicanery was such that much of his performance was produced by other members of the crew. That isn’t his shadow being chased down the streets by Holly. Those aren’t his fingers reaching forlornly through the sewer grid.

His main contribution was the scene in which Harry and Holly finally meet at the big wheel. It’s one of cinema’s iconic moments, bookended by the famous ‘cuckoo clock’ speech, which Welles ad-libbed from an 1885 lecture by James McNeill Whistler. But the nervous energy Harry displays in this scene had little to do with keeping in character and was in fact a product of Welles’s worries about playing alongside the more accomplished actor, Cotten. The pair had a long association, stretching back to their Mercury Theatre days, and Welles knew full well how talented his collaborator was.

For all that, Welles’s glorified cameo undeniably stole the movie. His face features in all The Third Man’s artwork, despite the little time during which he actually appears in the picture. Perhaps it’s the case of an actor perfectly complementing his role, and what a role it is. Lime’s a villain, more or less psychopathic, but he’s also charming and charismatic, and it’s easy to see why Anna would fall for him so hard. Welles turned out to be ideally cast, with his ironic smile and sense of humour, and there’s no surprise that in the wake of The Third Man, the spin-off radio series followed the adventures of Harry rather than any of the other characters. By all accounts, Welles had great fun reprising his role for the wireless, writing a number of episodes as well as delivering lines and, along the way, transforming the character into something of a rogueish hero.

Many great films only become recognised further down the line, long after their initial release. One thinks of Vertigo, locked away for decades before it was re-evaluated and deemed a masterpiece. Not so with The Third Man, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and went on to be one of the biggest box office hits of the year. Critics fell over themselves to praise the filming, the cast, and especially Carol Reed, the director who overcame the battles between Korda and Selznick, the wiles of Orson Welles, the complaints from Joseph Cotton as the production ran beyond its scheduled limit. Reed had a vision for what The Third Man should be, and realised it. We can all enjoy the results.

The Third Man: *****

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 3 November (11.40 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

There have been so many Robin Hood films over the years. None to date have been as good as the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, with only Robin and Marian coming anywhere close and for very different reasons. The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, made in 1946, doesn’t make the grade. It’s much cheaper, shorter, narrower in scope and pulls up short in pretty much every aspect. And yet on its own merits it isn’t a bad little swashbuckler. We can only see it in a frankly beautifully restored format thanks to the release in 2010 of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which prompted further interest in the mythical leader of the merry men and had Sony scrabbling through the archives to reissue several hoary old efforts. This is one of the better works they dug up.

Intended as a sequel of sorts to The Adventures of Robin Hood, this one finds Robin as a much older man, played by Russell Hicks in his sixth decade and with King Richard’s pardon behind him. Now the Earl of Huntington, Robin is a veteran who’s grown old, but the revolutionary spirit within him flares when England’s Regent, William of Pembroke (Henry Daniell) proposes scrapping the Magna Carta and combining the armies of the nobility into one force to crush any rebellions. Robin disagrees, is stripped of his title and returns to his outlaw ways deep in Sherwood forest, the old gang quickly returning to him. They discover William’s plans are no more than a pretext to his real aim, which is to arrange an accident for the new king, a child, and assume the crown for himself. With the boy in custody and the Queen Mother (Jill Esmond) compelled to escape for her life in the company of Lady Catherine (Anita Louise), Robin calls on the services of his son Robert (Cornel Wilde) to help rescue the king and restore England to justice.

The film was adapted from Paul A Castleton’s novel Son of Robinhood, though due to legal issues over who owned the ‘Robin Hood’ name it was retitled and churned out as a B-movie action adventure. The castle sets were allegedly gathering dust before being brushed off for this, and it was all iced off with a slim cast, a smattering of extras in medieval costumes in order to represent olde England. Continuity with The Adventures was provided by cinematographer Tony Gaudio, who directed photography on both pictures and here helped to show the Technicolor process at its finest, adding lush vibrancy to the finished product. It looks great, though whether set designers were employed on this occasion to paint the leaves so that they would look even greener is unlikely. Cast members don’t even bother to mask their American accents in a film shot on location in California, and lazy script references to silk stockings betray a basic lack of care.

Still, comparing The Bandit of Sherwood Forest with its illustrious forebear from eight years beforehand seems ultimately churlish. It’s clear the earlier entry was a ‘no expenses spared’ affair whereas this had a quite different approach. While the plot is rather plodding, in its favour the film had Cornel Wilde, a lithe and agreeable star who graduated from the USA fencing team to become an athletic leading man in films that took advantage of his talents with a sword. Wilde’s good fun, a ‘Hood’ for lighter times who’s channelling the spirit of Errol Flynn, though bringing less of the Tasmanian’s star quality and charisma to the table – let’s be honest, Flynn as Robin Hood gushed lustful zest from every orifice. The action scenes are nicely played, even if none of Wilde’s opponents have a hope in hell against him. He simply blasts Edgar Buchanan’s Friar Tuck away, in a slightly uncomfortable sequence that proves an old, fat man is simply an old, fat man when facing Robert. Blame the script for this. Eugene Pallette was no mug in The Adventures; here, the good Friar, like the other merry men, is merely a supporting player with no room for more than one-dimensional development.

Henry Daniell makes for a fine villain, just the latest in a string of parts in which he honed a career as evil masterminds – had he been born later, his fate as a bad guy for James Bond to battle would have been sealed. He might very well be the best thing in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, a real moustache curler of a performance that deserves better than the material he was working with, and I can forgive the wild historical inaccuracy of presenting a major English figure from the age as a self-serving megalomaniac (in reality, Pembroke supported the young king, Henry III’s ascent, all the way) because he does it so well. Daniell will always have a place in the heart of this site for his regular appearances as villains in the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, which culminated him being given the plum role of Moriarty in The Woman in Green.

Of the film’s two credited directors, George Sherman had a long career helming Westerns, especially in this period micro-budgeted Oaters, and it shows in a project that at times feels like a generic Western plot that’s been transferred to Sherwood forest. There are lots of shots of horsemanship, including the old staple of tracking someone who’s riding at breakneck speed, which suggests a rather bland photographic exercise overall. But there’s also pace, the camera never lingering on a scene too long, Wilde slipping from his seduction of Anita Louise to saving peasants who are about to be hanged by firing his arrows with perfect accuracy, to fighting several guards at once with his flashing blade and a smile. It’s all heartily done, makes good use of the limited sets and never outstays its welcome. It’s weightless, matinee adventure from a more innocent age, and I had a lot more fun watching it than with many other Robin Hood capers.

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest: ***

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

When it’s on: Saturday, 31 October (3.45 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures TV
IMDb Link

As with the other titles I’ve picked this week, The Devil and Daniel Webster doesn’t fit easily into the horror genre, but it’s such a good film that I couldn’t resist including it. It’s a Faustian tale of diabolical temptation, earthly desires against doing the right thing, and it really deserves to be up there with the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life as the kind of classic morality fable that has transcended the era in which it was made to be loved and watched to this day. It’s also very good fun, slyly subversive, and has the canniness to features heroes with character flaws that of course only serves to make them far more interesting.

I can’t pretend to know a great deal about the real Daniel Webster, a prominent Massachusetts Senator and lawyer from the first half of the nineteenth century. From his Wikipedia page, the impression I get is of a conservative and elitist figure, far from a man of the people, and someone who resisted upsetting the southern States, which were sliding into Civil War, and that meant compromising on the critical issue of abolishing slavery. Quite a different man, therefore, from the figure presented in the film, one based wholly on the 1937 short story by Stephen Vincent Benet that provided the source for its cinematic adaptation. Benet researched Webster extensively and came across someone whose heart and soul remained in his native New England, essentially one of its great and treasured sons, providing fine material for the sort of great American folk hero who would chance his arm at taking on the Devil himself.

And in the story that’s just what happens. The Devil appears as a smooth operator, appearing to desperate people and offering them a deal to make them prosperous, helping all their wildest dreams come true, all at the piffling price of their souls. Critically the Devil, Mr Scratch, exhorts himself as a fellow American, really the first American, appealing to peoples’ hopes of getting rich and capturing the great American dream for themselves. In other words, he’s one side of a coin; the other, the Webster from the story, is all about fellowship and homegrown values. Natural opponents.

The object of their contest is Jabez Stone, who in the film is played by James Craig. A poor farmer, Stone is in debt to Mister Stevens (John Qualen), to whom he struggles in keeping up his mortgage payments. Living with his Ma (Jane Darwell) and wife, Mary (Anne Shirley), he tries to maintain a moral, upstanding existence, one in which church services and the Sabbath are observed, but against those is his desperation. Things go wrong. A pig he was going to give to Stevens in lieu of money breaks a leg. The crops look like they may fail, and in sheer frustration he declares to himself that he’d sell his soul for two cents. Enter Mr Scratch (Walter Huston), pictured above. In exchange for a pot of Hessian gold coins and seven years of good fortune, Stone agrees to forfeit his soul, and sure enough things start looking up. He pays off his mortgage. A hail storm destroys all the other farmers’ crops, but not his, and pretty soon he has employed everyone to work for him. Before the seven year contract has lapsed, he’s built a mansion and transformed into the sort of oligarch that Stevens could only dream of becoming. But time is ticking. Mr Scratch is willing to agree an extension, but only in exchange for the soul of his son, Daniel, at which point Stone runs to Webster (Edward Arnold) and begs for his help. This sets up the climactic courtroom battle between the legendary lawyer (‘I’d fight ten thousand Devils to save a New Hampshire man‘) and Mr Scratch, presided over by a judge and jury made up of damned Americans.

The Devil and Daniel Webster was directed by William Dieterle, a graduate of the German film industry who brought a welter of experience in the expressionist style. Given more or less carte blanche over the project, in much the same way as fellow RKO contractor Orson Welles was with Citizen Kane, Dieterle turned in a dreamlike piece of work, something along the lines of a dark folk tale. It’s stuffed with disturbing imagery, unorthodox shooting angles, peerless use of lighting and shadows. The film depicts Webster writing a bill in favour of the farmers, whilst in silhouette Mr Scratch whispers to him, explaining that if he uses it he’ll never become President. The Devil first appears to Jabez from a pool of ethereal, unnatural light, the soundtrack punctuated with a strange and high pitched otherworldly sound and the noises of animals in discomfort. As Jabez begins his slide into greedy immorality, he’s covered increasingly in shadows, echoing the darkness consuming his being. It’s no accident either that Jabez’s wife is portrayed in similar tones to Janet Gaynor’s character in Sunrise, nor that the two actresses look alike. Mary represents the good, Christian rural values; when Simone Simon’s Devil-sent temptress turns up, she’s not dissimilar to that film’s Woman from the City, corrupting Jabez with her wiles.

Like Mr Scratch, Belle (Simon) first appears in a pool of light, this time from the Stone’s fire. Though she turns up unannounced, to replace the family nurse who’s looking after Mary and her baby, it’s clear from her sensuousness and flirting with Jabez that she’s there for much more. It’s a great performance, sweet and unsettling at the same time, as she works steadily to undermine Mary’s influence over her husband and their child, Daniel, and is clearly sleeping with Jabez. Her French accent works also, adding layers of mystery and allure to her character. When she’s asked where she’s from, she replies ‘over the mountains‘, and who’s going to argue with that?

Arnold’s good also, employed as a replacement for the original choice of Thomas Mitchell, who had to withdraw when he was thrown from a carriage during filming and fractured his skull. His scenes were refilmed, which was done at great expense as much of it was already in the can. Best known perhaps as a corrupt politician in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, here Arnold is a much kindlier figure, very much a hero to the people and depicted working the fields with his own employees rather than ordering them around. But he isn’t perfect, shown enjoying his rum a little too much, even when he’s preparing to face Mr Scratch in a legal battle for Jabez’s soul.

But of course, the film is owned by Huston’s Mr Scratch, which is just how it should be. I’ve read elsewhere that many people think his is the best portrayal of the Devil ever committed to celluloid, and I’m happy to go with that opinion. In a role that demands scenery chewing joy, Huston is a sheer delight, softly spoken, charismatic and persuasive, nearly always shown with a smile on his face. There’s menace also; when Miser Stevens, who entered into an infernal deal of his own, reaches the end of his contract, Mr Scratch captures his soul, which is now trapped within a moth and goes into his pocket, his for all time. He’s such a winning character that he rightly gets the last laugh, even after his climactic legal battle against Daniel Webster. Shown chewing on the peach pie he’s stolen from Ma, he then gets up and looks around for his next victim, settling inevitably on breaking the fourth wall when he stares out of the screen, straight at the viewer, indicating that we’re next!

The Devil and Daniel Webster works hard to depict the Stone farm as an earthly paradise – even during hard times it looks like the countryside, pastoral idyll of a Constable painting – those similarities to Murnau’s Sunrise again. The meaning should be easy enough to work out. The New Hampshire in which Jabez toils and struggles is in fact the real American dream, the ideals set out by the founding fathers, honest and comradely, whereas the deal offered by Mr Scratch is the avaricious but no less salacious temptation of Capitalism, the other tower on which the country was built. It’s all beautifully worked, its points aided by the Oscar winning score composed by Bernard Herrmann. Every emotion is emphasised by the multi-layered musical accompaniment, never better than when the Devil is playing Pop Goes the Weasel on his fiddle during a barnyard dance, achieving impossible speeds on his violin as the intoxicating prospect of Jabez following Belle around the floor reaches its crescendo.

The film was initially released in America as All that Money Can Buy to avoid similarities with The Devil and Miss Jones, also to calm RKO’s worries that audiences would turn away from a period piece about a historical figure. Their concerns were well founded. Like the studio’s other big release from 1941, Citizen Kane, it was a loser at the box office and prompted savage cuts to its running time for its reissue in 1952. Only a discovery of the full edit that had been retained by Dieterle himself allows us to enjoy the film as it was intended, and I think ‘enjoy’ is the right word. It’s an important work, not to mention wildly entertaining and featuring at least one Oscar-worthy performance (Huston was nominated). I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Devil and Daniel Webster: *****

The Stranger (1946)

When it’s on: Thursday, 22 October (7.20 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

A real curiousity of an Orson Welles picture, The Stranger is never talked about as one of the great man’s finest pieces of work. Working under severe studio restrictions and and without his usual freedom of expression, Welles turned in a film that was the closest he ever came to a standard production, hence the lack of love from those who talk about him as one of the great auteurs. And in truth it’s far from the best stuff he directed, but a film by Orson Welles is still a film by Orson Welles, with all the interesting camera angles, moody lighting and multi-faceted characters such a work entails. Would anyone else give such depth to a supporting player like Billy House’s wily old shopkeeper?

Just five years on from Citizen Kane, Welles was increasingly being seen as a pariah in Hollywood, wasteful and indulgent, and accepted the job of directing The Stranger – when John Huston left the production – in order to re-establish his reputation. Challenged to make the film in time and within its budgetary limits, he went one better and under-spent whilst taking on board RKO’s demand that he cast Edward G Robinson as the lead actor over his own preference of Agnes Moorehead. The prospect of Moorehead playing a hunter of escaped Nazi war criminals is a tantalising one, whereas Robinson appears to have stepped out of Walter Neff’s office in Double Indemnity and straight into portraying his character in The Stranger in exactly the same way. By all accounts, Robinson was unhappy with Welles’s direction, claiming he was constantly shot on his bad side, though Welles countered by wondering what his best side was exactly.

The resulting film is a fine, taut thriller shot in the Noir style and remains an absorbing watch. Welles plays Franz Kindler, a war criminal who has surfaced in sleepy Connecticut and now poses as History teacher Charles Rankin. Thoroughly absorbed into his new surroundings, Kindler/Rankin quickly establishes himself as part of the little community of Harper, volunteers to repair the damaged 300-year old church clock, and is even marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young). Hiding in plain sight, Rankin thinks he’s safe, but he’s reckoned without the efforts of Nazi hunter, Mr Wilson (Robinson), who releases compatriot Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) knowing full well he’ll lead him straight to his target. Sure enough, the desperate Meinike turns up in Harper, only to be murdered in the woods by Rankin, who buries him then and there. His nuptials with Mary take place; meanwhile Wilson is ingratiating himself within the town’s circles and the noose around Rankin’s neck slowly tightens.

Robinson is far from the most interesting thing about The Stranger. Whilst the audience’s sympathies are with him from the start, there’s something just so linear about his character – he knows what he wants and gets it, with a dogged, almost ‘Columbo’ sense of right on his side and the townspeople steadily coming round to his point of view. Young’s character is a lot more fun. For the most part, she stands by her man despite the evidence that’s growing against him, almost walking into a death trap due to her blind allegiance. Her crumbling resolve in the face of reality is heartbreaking to watch, the developing signs of guilt in everything she does nicely presaging her turn in The Accused, a great Noir flick from 1949. Even better is Welles himself, the veneer of warmth and rationality that surrounds him turning out to be just that as he realises Wilson is onto him, compelling him to take dramatic and increasingly insane steps in order to protect his identity, even if that means killing Mary, the only person who has any kind of solid clue about who he really is. And then there are the supporting characters, principally House’s Mr Potter. Running the local store feels like a front for his efforts to snoop on everything that’s happening in Hadley. His cheating at checkers, whilst mildly charming and roguish, actually gnaws at the town’s respectable and good natured sheen. You feel that if you chip away at it enough, the people are just as devious and self-serving as the Nazi in their midst.

Throw in some great photography, especially the vertiginous ladder climb up to the church clock on which Rankin works, and you have a very good pot-boiler. A long, long way from the best of Welles, yet efficiently made and with questions, not to mention a mean streak of black humour, bubbling under the surface.

The Stranger has been available in the public domain for some years – I watched it on Amazon Prime – though this does come with the usual health warning. It’s certainly worth a viewing.

The Stranger: ****

The Big Steal (1949)

When it’s on: Friday, 16 October (2.05 pm)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

Universal’s Film Noir Collection, which is a nine-disc set that I’ve never seen on sale at Amazon for anything over £20, is a marvellous introduction to the Noir style. It’s a bit ‘bare bones’ and some of the transfers aren’t fantastic, but the films are, with a couple of outright classics slipped in there, like Double Indemnity and Build My Gallows High. Unless they’ve changed the packaging, it comes in a fake cigarette packet, featuring a smoking gun on the cover, the smoke deliciously curling to form the outline of a Veronica Lake femme fatale. Fantastic.

If there’s an anomaly on the set, then it’s The Big Steal, a film that quite simply doesn’t seem very noirish. What makes it so is the cast, and the fact that the plot does actually fit the genre, only it’s told by director Don Siegel in a light fashion, almost a caper with crime elements that is framed around a lengthy car chase across the Mexican countryside. In someone else’s hands, perhaps the material’s darker elements might have been emphasised. Maybe Jane Greer’s character, for example, would become damaged beyond repair at the way she’s been mistreated and seek vengeance. And yet The Big Steal is no less for how it’s presented. It’s a lot of fun, a romp, and at 72 minutes in length it never slows down.

What it most certainly isn’t is Build My Gallows High, which is of course one of the absolute highlights of Film Noir. In contrast, The Big Steal can only come off poorly, its lightheartedness making it seem a poor cousin to the devastating emotional melodrama of Tourneur’s classic. In many ways, it’s a product of some late casting changes. Robert Mitchum at the time was about to serve a jail sentence for marijuana possession, which for anyone else might have spelled career suicide, though naturally the conviction only played up to Mitchum’s image and added to his mythos. All the same, RKO was nervous about this project. Lizabeth Scott’s agent withdrew her from the picture for fear the association would damage her future prospects, and Greer was called up as a last minute replacement. The trouble was her pregnancy, which became more obvious during the filming, though the film was shot in such a way to hide the fact from viewers. Similarly, Siegel and his crew had to work around Mitchum’s time in jail. Serving only sixty days of his year-long conviction before being released on probation, the film was nevertheless shot around him whilst the actor returned to the set noticeably slimmer than beforehand due to the exercise regime he’d undergone during his time behind bars.

Despite the countless issues Siegel experienced with Mitchum during filming, his bad boy lifestyle and frustrating attitude he had towards learning his lines, there was just no doubt the man had star quality written all over him. Whether involved in a dark, moody piece like Build My Gallows High or this, he essentially played the same character – laid back, laconic speech, good in a brawl, an all-round cool dude. Greer meanwhile had a much fuller starring role. Smart and resourceful, her character in The Big Steal can charm men with some well thought out words and it helps that she can speak Spanish fluently, a fact that makes for great comedy between her and Mitchum as his knowledge of the language is at best limited.

The film really boils down to a series of extended chase scenes. Mitchum and Greer are pursuing Patric Knowles’s smooth, handsome grifter, who’s swindled her out of two grand and later stolen much more from him. Every time they catch up with him, he wriggles his way out of their clutches and back onto the road, leading to a further pursuit. On Mitchum’s tail is William Bendix as his army superior, convinced he’s stolen the money for himself. Bendix is great, playing up to his bulk by appearing as a human hurricane, pushing aside people who get in his way on the street, trying to intimidate a herd of goats into shifting by bellowing at them. Overseeing all this is Ramon Navarra’s Mexican police inspector, who has an uncanny knack of placing himself in exactly the right place to follow the action. Indeed, the Mexicans as a whole come across quite well. Whereas there are criticisms of the film as being somewhat patronising to Mexican people, appearing to portray them as slow witted and moving at a pace never more than lumbering, in truth they’re depicted as knowing a good cause when they see one and quite understandably respond badly when a surly American is barking ‘Pronto! Pronto!’ at them, as though this will make them move any faster.

This was an early film in Siegel’s long directorial career. While this would find its ultimate expression in the much later Dirty Harry, there isn’t in truth a great deal of difference between Eastwood’s Callahan and Mitchum’s Halliday in the way they’re both men of action, preferring to do rather than think, and making for a picture that moves at pace and doesn’t let up. It’s very entertaining.

Having checked the Movies4Men listings, I can’t tell whether they will be screening The Big Steal in its original black and white or the ‘colorized’ version. It does seem that those of us with Region 2 discs only have the latter to watch, and I can’t say I’m a fan of the process – the colour looks washed out, there’s plenty of bleeding, suggesting a painstaking effort for very little gain. A shame.

The Big Steal: ****

Hue and Cry (1947)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 August (6.05 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

If there’s anything more perfect for a work-free, lazy Saturday morning than some light, classic fare from Ealing Studios, then I don’t know what is. Today, BBC2 presents Hue and Cry in its early slot. Credited as the first of the imperial phase Ealing comedies, it’s a rather lovely and whimsical hour and eighteen minutes of your time, deftly put together by a team of people that had already found its feet – producer Michael Balcon, writer T.E.B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke and Charles Crichton on directorial duties, and sporting a cast that mixed youthful unknowns with sure hands like Alastair Sim and Jack Warner. Nothing could go wrong with this lot, and nothing did, as the cast and crew put together a winning slice of entertainment that was thoroughly British in its execution. The glory days of Whisky Galore! and Passport to Pimlico were still a couple of years away, but Hue and Cry had already set the template for what was to follow.

The film follows Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler), a senior member of the ‘Blood and Thunder Boys’ of kids that wander freely through the bombed out streets of post-war London. Too old for school and the dubious attractions of the church choir, Joe nevertheless remains a regular fixture amongst the urchins, as addicted as they are to the pulp crime stories exhibited in weekly comic, The Trump. Harbouring pretensions to join the police or to get involved in some sort of life fighting crime, the imaginative Joe thinks he’s leapt on an opportunity when the stories he reads about appear to be re-enacted by a real-life criminal outfit, but his claims are dismissed by the police and he’s soon set to involve himself in the world of work, as assistant to grocer, Nightingale (Warner). He refuses to let go of his suspicions, however, drawing both the gang and the stories’ writer, Felix Wilkinson (Sim), in uncovering the correlation between the comic’s tales and petty robberies taking place in the area. Soon enough, Joe finds out that not only is his hunch correct but that the adult world is one of corruption and complacency, grown-ups like his parents refusing to get involved whilst other alleged pillars of the community are mired in the crimes he is attempting to foil. Wilkinson turns out to be little more than a coward, happy enough to take the shilling for his work whilst wanting nothing to do with the actions his stories are inspiring.

It’s pure boys’ own stuff, the action culminating in kids from across London being encouraged to converge on the the criminal activities and put a stop to them. But there’s also a well worked, darker side to Hue and Cry, the figures of authority becoming villains, the sexy blonde (Valerie White) who’s involved, the tense fight for his life that Joe becomes involved in at the film’s close. It isn’t afraid to hint at real danger when those moments are required, the sense that whilst it’s unlikely the film’s young heroes will come to any real harm they are all the same entering situations of genuine peril. There are laughs too. The cool blonde treats the kids with disdain, refusing while captured to divulge the criminals’ activities, before she’s brought low when a boy’s pet mouse clambers onto her leg. One chase scene culminates in the heroes escaping into the sewers and, surrounded by scum, thinking nothing of piling through the oily water to reach safety.

What really makes it work is the setting. Hue and Cry takes place in a city that’s witness to real poverty. The Blood and Thunder Boys hang out in buildings that have been reduced to rubble strewn shells, and nothing is made of the fact. That’s home. Former people’s houses have become their playground, their dens. Any sense of community spirit comes from the children. Joe takes a lead role, but there’s the Scottish kid (Douglas Barr), the barely tolerated girl member, played by Joan Dowling, and the lad who never speaks but instead emits a string of noises (bomber planes, bird sounds) in order to make his presence felt. Whilst there’s an element of the film’s plot keeping real world troubles at bay, these are often hinted at, as shown in the scene between Joe and his parents, who give the impression of being long-suffering listeners to his daydream-fuelled stories.

Hue and Cry retains an adorable quality, irrepressible children defeating jaded adults through the use of their wits and sheer weight of numbers. It’s nicely photographed too, recent restored versions of the film cleaning up previous editions that had been horribly damaged and showing off all those stark London locations to fine effect. I’m also a big fan of the score by Georges Auric, which adds atmosphere and a sense of mystery to the unfolding yarn. Auric had just completed La Belle et la Bete when he took this job on, and would go on to provide memorable and equally mood-driven music for The Wages of Fear and The Innocents. As for the cast, whilst the adult performers claimed the headline roles theirs were in truth subservient parts to those of the children (Sim really has little more than a cameo appearance, albeit one that’s a great showcase for his deliberate and enunciated delivery). Fowler went on to have a long career in film and television before his death, aged 85, in 2012. The same could not be said for Dowling. Both were in fact young adults when they appeared together in Hue and Cry and they wound up becoming a couple. Fowler turned to philandering and Dowling to a suicide attempt in order to frighten him into stopping. Tragically the attempt was successful, the actor’s blossoming career ending at the too-young age of 26.

Hue and Cry: ***