The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

When it’s on: Sunday, 20 August (8.00 pm)
Channel: London Live
IMDb Link

Roger Moore passed away in May this year, aged 89. It’s a personal regret that I had the opportunity to see him during his recent ‘An Evening With’ tour and turned it down. My feelings about his acting might be mixed, but I have a great deal of affection for the man and very much enjoyed both his autobiography and Last Man Standing, a collection of anecdotes about his peers that verged on the lovably scurrilous. The impression I get is that he was a lot of fun, didn’t take himself seriously and would have been very good value on the stage, recounting memories from his storied days as a major star.

There’s an enormous body of his work from the small and large screen in existence. It’s impossible to get beyond his lengthy stint as James Bond of course, and while I feel his entries have dated rather badly the truth of it is that I grew up with him playing and therefore being 007. Before then, he was probably best known for depicting Simon Templar aka The Saint, though neither role stretched him as a performer and Moore himself noted that playing The Man Who Haunted Himself gave him a lot more to do. It’s certainly a welcome film to write about, and one that hints there was a lot more to ‘Rog’ than a pair of performing eyebrows. As he wrote in My Word is My Bond, ‘I always reflect that it was one of the few times I was allowed to act.’

Moore plays Harold ‘Pel’ Pelham, a stuffy and conservative city worker who, while driving home after work, becomes strangely possessed with a devil may care attitude and starts speeding along the motorway. A strange smile plays on his face as he weaves his Rover dangerously through the traffic. Then he crashes, and it’s serious enough for him to need life or death surgery. During the operation he dies for a moment, and after successfully resuscitating him the surgeons briefly find two heartbeats appearing on the monitor. Pel recovers. He returns to his family, his two young children and his wife Eve (Hildegard Neil), with whom he suffers the middle aged tragedy of a marriage that has long since lost its spark. In work, the business in which he’s a partner, he’s in opposition to a mooted merger, and how much it’s worth depends on the non-revelation of a top secret technical development that he’s working on. But strange things start to happen. Colleagues report on activities they’ve enjoyed with him; he has no memory of them, also they’re completely out of character. He learns that the rival firm in the merger now has his support, and worse still that he’s involved in a romantic affair with a sexy young woman (Olga Georges-Picot). He starts investigating these queer happenstances, finding no answers and only more questions as it appears he’s now leading a double life and the other ‘him’ bears no relation to his habits and attitudes.

What makes it all work is Moore himself, playing against type as an increasingly angst-ridden and bewildered lead, growing more disheveled and distressed. At one point, convinced he is going mad, he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, where he’s treated by Freddie Jones’s offbeat Doctor who tells him his predicament is a result of repressed sexual neuroses. The plot seems to be building to a rational explanation – Pel is ailing from some sort of schizophrenia, or a doppelganger is posing as him and taking over his life. However, it’s to the film’s credit that it’s going exactly in the direction it’s been hinting at all along, leading to a conclusion that is both unsettling and comedic in the blackest sense. Moore essentially takes on two roles, the unhinged man whose closed world is collapsing before his eyes, and the kind of character we’re used to seeing in The Saint, only here he’s sinister because we know something isn’t right. It’s good stuff and the actor is clearly relishing that he gets to put in a nuanced and complicated performance that’s outside his normal shtick. By the end he’s like no Roger Moore we’ve ever seen – way beyond his comfort zone, delirious, on the edge of insanity.

The Man Who Haunted Himself was not a big hit when it was released. It was a product of EMI Studios, made on a £200,000 budget with its cast and crew agreeing to take low salaries in order to reduce costs. EMI boasted about its economical approach to movie making; Moore felt this was as though it was flaunting the film’s cheapness, which served to put off members of the paying public. A shame. While it’s possible to view it as a bit of a schlocker, it’s well made and hosts some fantastic turns from a great ensemble cast – Anton Rodgers plays Pel’s business partner who’s witnessing his friend’s personality changes; Thorley Walters shows up as a bluff old cove, clearly someone Pel has tried to distance himself from previously but is now moving back into his orbit.

It’s directed by Basil Dearden, at the end of his lengthy career serving the British film industry and doing a fine job with the little he had to work with. Dearden shows us much of contemporary London, the faded glories and dark streets of Hitchcock’s Frenzy, and he keeps the action moving at a decent pace, at first just teasing at something being out of place before steadily building up the moments that plague poor Pel. If there are shades of an episode of The Twilight Zone to it all, then that probably harks back to Anthony Armstrong’s source novel, The Strange Case of Mr Pelham, which was adapted in the 1950s for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  It doesn’t suffer for its longer form here. Sadly, Dearden died shortly after making it, ironically in a car crash that took place on the stretch of the M4 where the early scenes of The Man Who Haunted Himself were filmed, these too depicting a near fatal accident.

The Man Who Haunted Himself: ***

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A Night to Remember (1958)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 August (12.30 pm)
Channel: London Live
IMDb Link

You’ve probably heard of James Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic. All those Academy Awards aside, there were the endless queues of people going to see it – I caught it twice, hopelessly swept up in its sheer spectacle and seduced by the breathless action movie it became after the ship had its fateful meeting with an innocent iceberg. There’s a sense of the film’s second half being told almost in real time, and I defy any viewer not to have their own doubts about the Titanic being sinkable, as for a seductively long time it remains afloat even as the crew are rushing people to the lifeboats and, way beneath the first class opulence, water relentlessly fills the decks.

Possible it is to think of Cameron’s sledgehammer of a movie as definitive. At the time it was by some distance the most expensive ever made and had taken a long time to put together. It took advantage of research undertaken at the actual wreck, underwater exploration – including expeditions taken by Cameron himself – that confirmed the contemporary eyewitness accounts claiming the ship had broken in half moments before it sank completely. The film did all it could to recreate the actual vessel, and while some of the computer generated effects have aged considerably over the two decades since its release there’s an attention to detail that is difficult to argue with. True, the main romantic plot that mops up all the class differences experienced by the passengers feels contrived and heavy handed, but all told it’s a likable piece of populist work that ticks most of the boxes, even if Cameron mashes his points about the social orders home with all the subtlety of a house brick.

And yet it was by no means the first time cinema attempted to recreate the events of 1912 that depicted the Titanic tragedy as a last word in human hubris and folly. A Nazi propaganda film was released in 1943; ten years later Clifton Webb and the unsinkable Barbara Stanwyck starred in a melodrama that used the fateful voyage as the backdrop to their failing marriage. Then there’s A Night to Remember, the 1958 entry that is quite possibly the most accurate version. The title comes from the book from which it was adapted, Walter Lord’s riveting minute by minute account of the sinking that drew on the accounts by survivors he’d spoken to extensively. It was a bestseller and made the film an easy inevitability. Despite the obvious technical difficulties faced by a modestly budgeted British effort and its far from blockbuster returns at the box office, A Night to Remember was universally praised by critics and for viewers it remains a straight choice between this and Cameron’s epic. The fact it can rub shoulders with the second highest grossing movie of all time is testament to its enduring appeal.

Unlike Titanic, it makes a rigid attempt to stick to the facts and tell a straight story, achieving an almost documentary drama atmosphere as the camera moves from person to person, picking out individual tales and predicaments. A Night to Remember features more than 200 speaking roles, or around a tenth of the actual ship’s complement, which is no mean feat. The star is Kenneth More’s Lightoller, Titanic’s Second Officer whose personal drama is told from before he steps foot on the ship to his efforts to shepherd passengers onto the lifeboats in an orderly and typically British ‘women and children first’ manner. But it makes clear Lightoller’s is only one voice among hundreds. There’s Michael Goodliffe as Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s builder and the first to realise the seriousness of their predicament. Laurence Naismith plays the stolid ship’s captain. Honor Blackman and John Cairney take the roles of passengers from first class and steerage respectively, showing how different their experiences of being on Titanic are both normally and when faced with a crisis. The wireless operators are Kenneth Griffiths and a very young David McCallum. Their roles in the unfolding story are crucial but until the collision they’re an afterthought, holed up in their cabin and conveying messages from the passengers that stops them from relaying all the warnings they receive from other ships about ice… In a small and rather comedic role, George Rose plays the ship’s baker, who reacts to the mounting chaos by getting blind drunk. After leaving the ship and treading water in the sea for a time he’s picked up by a lifeboat, the liquor in his bloodstream remarkably keeping him warm and ensuring he feels no ill effects from the freezing temperatures of the water. The crews of other ships near to Titanic are also shown. The RMS Carpathia steams towards it once it becomes clear that it’s floundering, but the SS Californian, only ten miles distant, its lights visible from Titanic, doesn’t respond because its radio operator (Geoffrey Bayldon) has turned in for the night.

The film’s tension is achieved from the sureness of what is about to happen, viewers waiting for the collision and what happens next as Andrews explains Titanic has two hours of life remaining. The unfortunate kiss from the iceberg takes place early, meaning the main running time is taken up with the crew fighting a battle to save as many lives as possible, at first struggling to persuade bewildered people that the ship will sink and they really need to leave, and later making efforts to stop the evacuation from turning into outright panic. It’s impressively told, the sheer number of cast members and the suspense faced by everyone up against the clock ensuring it never loses pace. The film’s director was Roy Ward Baker, later to establish himself on television and as a regular for Hammer studios, and here making full use of his powers to produce brisk and economical storytelling, capable of not short changing his characters while never over-egging their accounts. Of course, this is 1950s British cinema and so the use of models occasionally becomes obvious, but it was a necessary evil and the crew did the best they could with the finite resources available.

It remains to provide a verdict on which is the best Titanic film. The 1997 take is visually stunning and mounted on the grandest scale possible, yet it suffers from some bloat and clearly strip-mined A Night to Remember for numerous images and set pieces. The similarities of the stories being weaved no doubt made this an inevitability, but personally I could do without Billy Zane’s by-the-numbers villain and some unnecessary padding that relates to a mythical lost necklace (a purely fictional device). And that means I prefer the 1958 account, a muscular version that loses absolutely nothing in the way its told, features excellent production values and maximises its massive cast. It’s a watery delight.

A Night to Remember: ****

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: *****