Whistle down the Wind (1961)

When it’s on: Thursday, 4 January (6.30 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

We’re heading towards the end of this two week blitz of seasonal postings on the site, and what better film to cover than a charming slice of northern whimsy like Whistle down the Wind? Bryan Mills might be better known as a director for some of his later works, but this debut in the chair, produced by Richard Attenborough, showcasing child star Hayley Mills, and offering an early major screen role for Alan Bates, takes some beating.

The funny thing about Whistle down the Wind is that it isn’t incredibly well known, but those who have seen it tend to fall under its spell, perhaps enchanted by a film set in the shadow of Pendle Hill, Lancashire. The landmark is famous for its seventeenth century witch trials and is difficult to miss – I don’t have to travel far to see its iconic whaleback outline, isolated from the Pennines so that it stands out on the horizon. I climbed its 557 metres a few years ago, so I know what it’s like to risk a heart attack thanks to a reckless, punishing act! In any event, for a mere hill it holds a mysterious, romantic allure for visitors, while presenting a stark jab of nature into a region that grew during the Industrial Revolution. Burnley is the nearest town, once a centre for cotton production, while the hamlets that were built in the shadow of Pendle are slightly remote farming communities. It’s in the latter that the film is set.

Bernard Lee plays Bostock, a middle aged farmer whose wife died several years ago and now lives with Auntie Dorothy (Elsie Wagstaff). When irresponsible farmhand Eddie (Norman Bird) tosses a sack containing kittens into the river, they’re saved from a watery death by Bostock’s three children, Kathie (Mills), her younger sister Nan (Diane Holgate) and little brother Charles (Alan Barnes). The kids then try to find a new home for the cats, offering them to a Salvation Army official who says she can’t take them but that Jesus will make sure they’re looked after. Resigned to keeping the kittens for the present, they set up a temporary shelter in their barn, and it’s here they come across an injured and delirious man (Bates), who exclaims ‘Jesus Christ!’ when Kathie asks him who he is. He falls unconscious, and the children make the obvious leap of imagination that the stranger is none other than Jesus himself.

Over the next few days, the children bring ‘Jesus’ things to eat and slowly help him to regain his strength, letting slip their discovery to other local children so that the legend begins to spread. In the meantime, the little community is rocked by the news that an escaped wife murderer might be somewhere in the area. Police are combing the region, and Bostock tells his children not to get involved with strange men.

The story is about the formation of a myth, more specifically the ability of children to develop their own lore and in the film applying the history of Jesus – they’re taught about his miracles in Sunday School classes, led by Diane Clare’s patient teacher – that takes them out of their tough, agricultural lives to the mythology of the man in the barn. The disconnect between reality and Clare’s fantastical yarns is clear, and makes it equally obvious whether Bates is really Jesus or not, but there’s an earnest yearning among Kathie, her siblings and their friends that turns the film into an optimistic fable. For a time, imagination and the longing for something ‘bigger’ and more meaningful than themselves and their world takes precedent. The man neither confirms or denies their assertions over his identity, which adds to the mystery and allure surrounding him.

Forbes adds to the fable by linking the childrens’ meetings with the stranger to Bible tales. Their first encounter involves the three siblings, an allusion to the three wise men, and when their group extends to twelve you get the same number as the apostles. One of the kids, Jackie (Roy Holder) is picked on by a school bully to whom he claims he knows Jesus. Held in an arm lock he’s forced to deny this three times, before a train whistle sounds in the distance – the imagery should be clear enough. It’s at its most obvious in the scene where the stranger is finally arrested. Standing outside the barn where he’s been hiding and forced to stretch for a search, his silhouette against the stark white background of the sky forms the shape of the cross. All the while, the children start attributing every day acts to the power of Jesus. It starts raining and then it stops. They wonder whether he’s responsible.

Bates puts in a real star-making performance as the stranger, often communicating in little more than grunts approximating dialogue and doing the rest of the acting with his eyes, not quite believing what’s happening and having no choice but to play along with the delusion. Though a killer, there’s little suggestion that the children are in any danger from him, and the threat he represents is more implied by their blind trust rather than anything he does. Hayley Mills, the daughter of John Mills and Mary Hayley Bell (the latter wrote the novel upon which the film is based, with her daughter ever in mind for the role of Kathie), was already a star when she made Whistle down the Wind. She was Disney’s child actor of choice, but affected a note perfect northern accent and fit the part with ease, though she’s upstaged by Barnes as her little brother. Worldly wise and nasal, Barnes steals all the scenes he appears in. His catchphrase, the withering ‘It isn’t Jesus, it’s just a fella‘ could be the film’s tagline, delivered most significantly after the stranger has failed to look after his stray cat and allowed it to die. Holgate adds good value as the middle child, the focus of all those shots that depict her looking hopefully at ‘Jesus’ as though everything depends on him being the real thing. As for the other adults, Lee is fine and understated, gruff with his children yet kindly, and there isn’t a bad performance elsewhere.

Shot in crisp black and white photography, adding to the bleakness of the location while making it appear more evocative and less dirty than it deserves, and a wistful score from Malcolm Arnold that weaves in hymns and Christmas Carols, there’s a lot to cherish here. I think it’s a delightful piece of work, all about that hinterland between childhood and growing up, when you let yourself dream and hope against hope that some of it will stick. Some interpretations of the final scene suggest Kathie is left devastated by the film’s final twist, but my impression is it ends on an optimistic note, that there’s enough in what she saw and experienced to make her suspect she’ll have those feelings again some day.

Whistle down the Wind: ****

Richard III (1955)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 2 January (12.00 midnight)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Laurence Olivier directed and starred in three big screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays – there were halted preparations to film a version of Macbeth, featuring his wife Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, which sounds like it has the potential to be delicious viewing, but the legacy remains Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III. The best known of these is probably his Oscar winning Prince of Denmark, and you can sort of see why it was acclaimed at the time – must of the fat cut away, all those sweeping, portentous shots of castle staircases and corridors, but of the trio it’s my least favourite and without doubt it’s been done better elsewhere. Henry V is an astonishing technical achievement. Beginning as a contemporary troupe of actors performing it on the boards at the Stratford Globe, at some stage the ‘filmed play’ transforms into Hal and his fellow soldiers crossing medieval France and building to a genuinely breathless and superbly mounted Agincourt. It was made as a propaganda exercise, a rabble rouser for the troops, and it’s great viewing, a virtuous attempt to show how such old material can have relevance and entertainment value in more modern times. Perhaps the Branagh update, with its heavy emphasis on the sweat, grime and blood of battle, carries more resonance, but there’s a lot to be said for Olivier’s romantic and patriotic interpretation.

Then there’s Richard III, quite a different character on whom to focus and a moderate success compared with Olivier’s two previous adaptations, and yet in hindsight perhaps the best one. It’s undoubtedly my choice. Fans of the political drama series House of Cards, with its fourth wall breaking of Francis Urquhart/Underwood sharing his plans and feelings with the audience, need look no further than this one for its inspiration. Olivier’s impish Duke of Gloucester waits for the other characters to leave the scene, before turning to the camera and outlining what’s on his mind with the viewer, sometimes making to take us by the arm as he talks, as though we’re a silent witness at the court, knee deep in his machinations and sworn to keep his dark secrets. I think it’s great fun, and Olivier seems to be having fun also, playing Richard as a smiling villain, utterly without scruples in his wiping out of anyone who stands betwixt himself and the crown. Those seeking a more cinematic comparison might see Richard as akin to the charming yet murderous Louis in Kind Hearts and Coronets, narrating his schemes throughout with little feeling of remorse.

As with his two previous adaptations, Olivier cut and amended scenes from the text to produce a more cinematic and muscular movie, and to increase Richard’s Machiavellian villainy. The early scene where he courts Anne (Claire Bloom) becomes more diabolical as he tells her he plans to marry her, having disturbed her procession into the church with the coffin containing her Lancashire supporting husband, killed in battle by none other than Richard himself. As disgusted as she is by his proposal, she capitulates when he makes her choose to either run him through or marry him, knowing she’s too faint-hearted to do the former. He expedites the death of his own brother Clarence (John Gielgud), and plays a more direct role in bringing about the death of the king and his oldest brother, Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke).

In one of the film’s most powerful moments, the young Duke of York (Andy Shine) makes a joke about Richard’s hunchback, and suddenly the feigned jollity falls away; Olivier turns and fixes the child with such a malevolent glare that he physically backs away, terrified by the monster that was always there, beneath his uncle’s exterior, and now unmasked. This bit of stage direction was invented by Olivier for the film, adding layers to the character’s evil for, as we know, the Duke  and his brother are fated to be the Princes in the Tower.

For all Olivier’s cuts Richard III remains more than two and a half hours in length. It’s a meaty play, a lot to take in, and yet it’s completely compelling thanks in part to the star’s performance, the amazing way he has of making Richard a charismatic protagonist, to such an extent that you almost come to wish he won’t suffer the end that’s coming to him. He’s by some distance the most interesting character in the story, funny and engaging, despite the stoop of his disabilities someone who towers over the court, a sharp contrast with and leagues ahead of its stiff manners and bland gallantry.

Production levels were high, as London Films supported Richard III with a £6 million budget following the commercial success of Henry V and Hamlet. Most of it was filmed at Shepperton, Olivier making painstaking efforts to create as authentic a late medieval environment as possible, going so far as to change a piece of heraldry on the set when it was pointed out to him that the original decoration was incorrect. Olivier didn’t want to direct, aware of how debilitating it was to have to do two key jobs on set, and initially offered the job to Carol Reed. His misgivings proved justified as Richard III developed into an arduous shoot, particularly when the production moved to Spain to film the Battle of Bosworth scenes. Along with sitting on a horse that was suddenly mounted by another, he took an arrow in the leg (fortunately for the shoot it was Richard’s lame leg) and was so ‘in the moment’ that he checked how well the accident would hold up on film before seeing the doctor.

Richard III’s almost ridiculously classy cast was not the group of players Olivier intended to assemble. He wanted Richard Burton, Richard Attenborough and John Mills. Orson Welles was his preference for the role of the duplicitous Duke of Buckingham. Instead, he worked with the actors routinely considered the stage titans of their century – Gielgud, Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson, not to mention Olivier himself. Helen Haye, who had been acting on film for as long as there’d been a British industry, made her screen swansong as the Duchess of York. There were roles for not inconsiderable presences like Andrew Cruikshank, Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer, and Stanley Baker played the future Henry VII, while Hammer staples Michael Gough and Michael Ripper took small parts as Richard’s hired executioners, getting the ghoulish delight of drowning Gielgud’s Clarence inside a barrel of wine.

Olivier’s performance earned him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination, yet perhaps the film would have done better but for producer Alexander Korda’s fateful agreement with NBC. For a fee of $500,000, Richard III made its American premiere on the small screen as well as being theatrically exhibited. This no doubt had an effect on its box office takings, and dismayed Olivier who felt that the film’s widescreen production would not be showcased to best effect on television. Korda might have argued that Richard III wasn’t Olivier’s most cinematic offering. Until the climactic Bosworth scenes, it’s filmed as though shooting a play, the focus on the characters and their dialogue rather than interpreting the action with a screen audience in mind, as in Henry V. It’s justified because the material is so good and Olivier’s adaptation crackles, but the 1995 version starring Ian McKellen takes a more imaginative approach to the text.

For all his attempts at accuracy, Olivier ignore the revisionist approach that makes it clear this Richard III is almost entirely fictional. The play was written by Shakespeare for a Tudor audience and ties in with the propaganda following Henry VII’s ascendance that Richard had been a murderous usurper. Shakespeare toed the line, turning his minor physical defects into outright deformities and his circuitous route to the throne a consequence of ruthless scheming against family members. None of it is actually true, or at least it’s unsubstantiated. though at least its presentation of the villainous king as a reader of The Prince, Machiavelli’s guide book for rulers that was in circulation at the time, sounds about right. Personally, I would love to see an interpretation of the play that hints at the string of deaths as being ambiguous rather than pointing the finger squarely at Richard. There’s no doubt, however, that Olivier’s playing of him as a blood-soaked monster allows him to let rip on the character, performing Richard with twinkle-eyed glee and remaining true to his potential as the Bard’s most thoroughly entertaining baddie, leaving viewers to feel somewhat unsettled by their enjoyment while following his mounting crimes.

As a footnote, I am happy to refer to the BFI’s comment that in being screened on American network television and watched by audiences of up to 40 million, Olivier became responsible for Richard III being seen by more people than the total of its entire theatrical run since 1592. It’s a little sad that they didn’t get to enjoy the full Vistavision presentation, which we can thanks to recent restorations. I own the Network Blu-Ray, which contains a glorious print, and includes as an extra The Trial of King Richard the Third, a BBC production from 1984 that determined Richard’s guilt or innocence via the means of a courtroom trial.

Richard III: ****

The Innocents (1961)

When it’s on: Sunday, 31 December (10.00 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

One of my favourite Christmas traditions is the classic ghost story. M.R. James, the Godfather in this regard, introduced his now famous yarns by reading them orally to his friends on Christmas Eve, only later having them collected into written volumes. These later found new audiences via television and the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series by Lawrence Gordon Clark in the 1970s, which has been revived with more recent adaptations that carefully follow the filming style and maintain the tone and pace set by Clark. These offerings can be frustrating for younger viewers, used to the jump cuts and CGI of modern horror cinema, but I would argue they drip with atmosphere and have an oblique quality so lacking in the films made now. For instance, It, the most successful horror film in recent years, is terrifying in places and I enjoyed it, though the conflict is a fairly straight ‘good versus evil’ story where anything but triumph for the former would amount to cheating the viewer. James’s yarns are fascinating because their protagonists aren’t necessarily bad people, but become embroiled in situations they would be better leaving alone, often with links to some forgotten, arcane past and ancient spirits that take unkindly to being disturbed. Crucially, there’s a suggestion that all the horrible things that take place are happening entirely in the characters’ heads, that their horrific encounters are the embodiment of psychological flaws, or a naive, closed mind unequipped to deal with elements of the unknown.

All these stories relied, above all, on atmosphere, a very careful build-up of dread from quite mundane starting points, the suggestion of course being that similar things could happen to anyone. Films that work similarly hard to create this are pretty much at the top of my horror genre tree. It doesn’t get a lot better than Robert Wise’s The Haunting, but there’s the folk horror of The Wicker Man, the streets of Venice brought to dimly lit, decaying life in Don’t Look Now, and the psychological thrills of Val Lewton’s RKO films to consider. None of these films came with enormous budgets. Gore and body horror were barely present. What they had was mood, often a downbeat tone related to some personal loss, suspense to spare, and a dark pallor. The body of work produced by Lewton is celebrated now and was at times box office gold contemporarily, not because of thrills but down specially to what you don’t see, your imagination filling in those shadowy, black spaces that of course contain nothing at all.

Into this comes Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, adapted from Henry James’s 1898 story, The Turn of the Screw. The film has what in effect are two parallel plotlines. They are:

Plot One
Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is hired by Michael Redgrave as Governess to his recently orphaned nephew and niece. The children live in his sprawling country estate, a massive dwelling that turns out to be haunted by the ghosts of two recently deceased people – Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the ill-natured valet, and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), the former Governess who fell in love with Quint, carried out an open sexual affair with him often in front of the children, and committed suicide after his demise. To her dawning horror, Miss Giddens finds that Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) remain in thrall to the pair, possessed by their spirits, and resolves to free them before it’s too late.

Plot Two
Miss Giddens is an inexperienced Pastor’s daughter hired by Redgrave as Governess. Redgrave’s man about town cares only that someone is present to fill the role and therefore ignores Miss Giddens’s naivete, giving her full authority over the Bly spread. Despite being advised by the housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins), that the children have a habit of running rings around people, the new Governess finds them both delightful and indulges them. Practically alone with the children in an enormous stately pile, away from the confines of her small home and with little beyond her cossetted upbringing to reply upon, she starts seeing things, picturing spirits of the dead. Her grip on reality slips as she hectors Flora and embarks on a relationship with the apparently ‘mature’ Miles that borders on the inappropriate, while around her the house shows signs of the decay that reflect her own fraying nerves.

You can choose either version of the events. The film simply throws out the clues and leaves the rest for the viewer to decide, and a deliciously constructed conundrum it is. I’ve watched The Innocents many times and can’t make my mind up entirely, however it’s a personal favourite and one to enjoy late at night, all the lights switched off so that the weird, off-kilter dreamscape it presents can take full effect. It’s worth bearing in mind that before this was released, haunted house movies were made more as bits of fun, loaded to ensure that things went bump in the night and offering audiences a good scare, so to make such a serious-minded film was a gamble by 20th Century Fox, who invested a not miserly $1 million in getting it made.

The studio’s backing came with a stipulation that The Innocents be shot in Cinemascope, which presented a challenge as Clayton – who thought the claustrophobic atmosphere he wished to create would be diminished – then had to work out what to do with the edges of the screen. Director of Photography Freddie Francis came up with the idea of using lighting to blur those edges, forcing the viewer’s focus to remain on the screen’s centre so that when things take place away from it – or do they? – there’s a feeling of disorientation. Photographed in black and white, and beautifully shot throughout, the film makes virtuous use of its many shadows, those scenes showing Kerr wandering around the house at night holding a candle and suggesting things following in the blackness around her. The Sound Design department deserves credit also, surrounding Kerr with the lamenting cries of Miss Jessop, real or imagined, and a host of effects that keep both the character and audience off balance.

More often and in a change from the usual, The Innocents’ horrors come during daylight. The garden is depicted often, gorgeously landscaped but teasing at corruption, such as the shot of a beetle crawling out of the mouth of a cherub statue, and more obviously the sights Miss Giddens has of her predecessor, standing in the reeds and watching her, silently and with malevolence.

It takes almost half an hour before the film’s first ‘haunting’ makes an appearance, but already Miss Giddens shows signs of mental unravelling – her persistent questions to Mrs Grose about Quint and Miss Jessel, the unsettled way she reacts to the children keeping secrets from her, her feeling that Miles and Flora are mature beyond their years, and her conclusions about why that might be. When she does see ‘ghosts’, she is looking in that direction before they appear, further raising the suggestion that her mind is filling in the blanks.

The Innocents’ original screenplay was written by William Archibald, adapting it from his play of the same title and based on this rather than directly from James’s source novella. In the play it’s very obviously a ghost story, but Clayton was unhappy with this interpretation and hired Truman Capote to work on the script. Capote realised the book had very little in terms of plot and practically started from scratch, inserting the Freudian subtext that focuses on Miss Giddens’s sheltered upbringing, her frustrated sexuality and thus her dealings with Miles. In one of the film’s most infamous scenes, Miles reaches up to kiss the Governess, but it’s an adult kiss and she fails to break it, despite the shocked expression on her face. It was this relationship, verging on the obscene, which handed the film an ‘X’ certificate.

Kerr gives one of her best performances as the beleaguered Governess, out of her depth and over the course of the film dressing increasingly like Miss Jessel, the virginal white dresses giving way to black as her innocence also is brought into question. Aside from the frankly creepy acting from Stephens and Franklin as the children, the ‘innocents’ of the title – or are they? – the whole production rests on Kerr, eyes wide, terrified, steadily falling apart as the story edges towards its shocking conclusion. Kerr was almost certainly too old for the part, and yet is absolutely convincing as the cloistered Miss Giddens, buying into the ambiguities of the story so that it’s never quite certain whether what’s happening to her is really taking place, or if it’s the product of her fevered mental state. Kerr would go on to add that ‘I played it as if she were perfectly sane – whatever Jack wanted was fine; in my own mind, and following Henry James’s writing in the original story, she was completely sane, but, because in my case the woman was younger and physically attractive it was quite possible that she was deeply frustrated, and it added another dimension that the whole thing could have been nurtured in her own imagination.’

The result is one of the most intriguing, interesting and imaginative ghost stories committed to film. Atmosphere takes precedence, as it should, and without even attempting to answer the film’s central question it’s perfectly possible to enjoy The Innocents as a spine tingling exercise in dread, indeed that might well be the best approach to take. It certainly holds its own as a haunted house movie taken straight from the top drawer, beautifully constructed and performed, and in the tradition of the classics of its genre. Don’t have nightmares. Do sleep well.

The Innocents: *****

Scarlet Street (1945)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 December (8.55 am)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Some time ago on these pages, I covered Ms Joan Bennett and her luminous starring role in Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment. Both in real life and on screen, Bennett was a compelling and fascinating lady, capable of adapting her talents to various guises just as her world away from film spun through a series of controversies and scandals. You can imagine her acting ability being put to good use as she switched from delicate victim to femme fatale, always with her survival instinct present and correct.

Before Ophuls cast her as a compromised middle class housewife in his 1949 movie, Bennett was perhaps best known for the two films she made with Fritz Lang in the middle of that decade, The Woman in the Window followed by Scarlet Street. Both feature the same cast members – downtrodden, broken Edward G Robinson and thuggish spiv, Dan Duryea – but it’s Bennett who takes two very different parts. In the earlier film she’s classy, but in Scarlet Street she plays Kitty, a low rent tramp, tied to petty conman Johnny (Duryea), who she loves despite suffering physical abuse from him. Though the script never states it Kitty is almost certainly a prostitute, or at least ‘fallen’ enough to use sex casually, and as a consequence she’s beautiful, brassy and in her manner and speech as pure as the driven slush. It would take a true sap to see anything in her beyond irredeemable white trash, and into her world slopes Chris Cross (Robinson), middle-aged, subservient, his soul crushed by life, and yet hopeful.

Through Dudley Nichols’s screenplay, Lang’s direction and a top notch performance by Robinson, Chris is one of those characters who appears to have stumbled into the film from bitter reality. He represents everyone’s broken dream. His lowly cashier’s job pays little and offers nothing, and yet he’s just completed 25 years’ service. He’s married to a lady who dotes on her former late husband, his portrait hanging in pride of place within the parlour to put Chris squarely in his place. Chris works and does the domestic chores while spending his scraps of spare time painting, a release from the dirge that offers him some tiny sense of pleasure. He knows his attempts at art aren’t very good, but that isn’t the point – he loves doing it, despite his harridan wife (Rosalind Ivan) complaining about the smell of paint and threatening to throw all his work away.

In Kitty – who he chances across one night – he sees a chance to turn his life around. She seems to show an interest in him, and that morsel of attention is enough to compel Chris to begin lavishing her with money and gifts, but the entire relationship is based on misconceptions and assumptions. He refuses to let the shades fall away and see her for what she really is, choosing to ignore shady Johnny who always appears to be around while claiming to be just a friend. As for Kitty, her initial meeting with Chris happens when he’s returning from a night out – he’s dressed opulently and is taking about £50,000 art purchases, which suggests to her he’s loaded, a big shot. Johnny tells her to exploit this, which she does half-heartedly. She doesn’t want to take their plan of swindling Chris out of his money too far, but it isn’t long before she’s in over her head. While Johnny starts selling Chris’s paintings to make a bit on the side, the pair have no idea that his largesse is coming from robbing the work safe, that he thinks it will all be worth it because it will ultimately lead to marriage with Kitty and some half grasped happily ever after.

The result of all this scheming and dreaming is an inevitable spiral towards destruction and doom for Chris, Kitty and even Johnny. Each character is punished in some poetic fashion, and while The Woman in the Window came with a final twist that suggested redemption and lessons learned, there’s no such optimistic coda to be found here. It’s as though Lang was robbed of taking his earlier feature to its natural conclusion by a studio fearful of such downbeat storytelling, but was allowed free rein on Scarlet Street and seized the opportunity, handing his characters their just desserts in various degrees of bleakness. As a cruel irony, Chris’s paintings happen to be spotted by a prestigious studio and go on to sell for thousands, though thanks to Johnny’s machinations by then the pictures bear someone else’s name. It’s a satirical note, a comment perhaps on the whims of fate, or a wink back in time to the director’s own early years as a struggling artist before entering the German film industry and becoming part of the Expressionist movement. In any event it shows the possible ‘happy ending’ Chris wishes for, but has long since pulled it from beneath him.

Scarlet Street builds to one of the most pessimistic and indeed depressing finishes I remember seeing on film, certainly where romantic Hollywood cinema is concerned. It brings a European ethos to bear, the sensibility that stories in which people do bad things won’t necessarily lead to an ending where the characters are compensated but instead face ruin, whether through death or forced to live, destroyed morally and haunted by the ghosts of the past.  It isn’t an easy film to stomach, but it successfully holds a mirror to the attitudes of the period, the Noir ethic reflecting society’s sense of uncertainty as the horrors of war and endings that held no satisfactory note were all too real. There’s a hint of unfairness about Chris’s fate, that his only real mistake was to fall in with a ‘bad crowd’ and allow himself to be duped, but hey, bad things happen to people who don’t necessarily deserve it and Chris, who lets himself be manipulated and has no right to imagine a future with Kitty, sort of has it coming. While Lang does offer a note of pity in his instance, it doesn’t really amount to much and the character, shattered and in the grip of a complete mental breakdown, is left to shuffle off into the void of his own making.

So why watch it at all? The reality is Scarlet Street is masterly film making and that ought to be reason enough. Lang was a perfectionist, slave driving his cast and crew to put his personal vision onto the screen, and in this film he spared no effort in capturing it. Milton Krasner, the cinematographer who would be rewarded with an Academy Award for Three Coins in a Fountain a decade later, applied Lang’s visual language with some stunning imagery. The way Chris sees Kitty, bathed in white and angelic, utterly at odds with reality but emphasising his ironic perception, is bathed in soft white light. Later, as our ‘hero’ embarks on his walk of ruin, the shadows creep into the frame more. He’s living in a pathetic hovel, light offered harshly by a neon sign outside the window, which leaves most of his room shrouded in darkness. Chris hears the voices of Kitty and Johnny, his ‘Hello, Lazy Legs‘ and her whispered, sexy ‘Jeepers Johnny, I love you‘ taunting him, presumably for the rest of his days, and the camera all but suggests that those black corners contain their spirits.

Robinson is absolutely believable as the film’s victim, to such an extent in fact that when I picture him it’s as this character, all those years playing hoodlums and the likes of Keyes in Double Indemnity playing support to his role in Scarlet Street. The same with Bennett. Lang saw in her the beautiful woman who has lived and those years of blows, bad choices and bitterness have created the jaded character of Kitty, in her own way every bit as pathetic as Chris, trapped within a destructive relationship and heading in just one direction. There aren’t very many film roles, especially for females, from the classic period that hinted at such a complicated back story for their characters, honing them into the people they are in the movie, but Scarlet Street suggests exactly that and without slapping minutes of exposition onto the screen. The result is a pessimistic work, but a masterpiece in the telling and execution.

Scarlet Street: *****

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 December (2.10 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

I confess I had never heard of The Holly and the Ivy before watching it for this piece, and it’s easy enough to see why the film slipped gently into obscurity. Its British middle class setting has little resonance in an era that was being taken over by the kitchen sink, while World War Two, though mentioned in the film, was better remembered in a string of compelling releases throughout the 1950s. Moreover, it’s an adaptation of a play by Wynyard Browne, ensuring the story takes place for the most part in a confined set and focuses on characters talking at the expense of any real action. Relatively short at little more than 80 minutes in running time, there’s an air of lightness, even of whimsy, and a suggestion that the film is inconsequential and eminently missable.

My main reason for acquiring a copy was for the presence of Celia Johnson, one of those actors whose name on the bill guarantees my interest. I haven’t seen many films starring her, principally because she made limited appearances on celluloid and favoured the stage, however she’s always a treat. Best known for Brief Encounter, Johnson was the epitome of that tragic English lady, saddled with duty and what’s expected of her while her emotions and longings are buried as well as they can be. In her case, the feelings would be expressed in her lamplight eyes, the little jawline set as she looks on to some distant horizon to which her dreams are vanishing, wanting to follow and knowing she cannot. In The Holly and the Ivy, she plays Jenny, the eldest daughter of Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), trapped in a life of serving him dutifully while wanting to marry David (John Gregson) and go with him to his job in South America. The contract runs for five years, which means if she doesn’t go then her opportunity for wedded bliss will be over. It’s the quintessential Johnson role in other words, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Her story is one in a sequence of dramatic threads that play out over the course of the narrative. The family is returning for Christmas to the little Norfolk town where Martin lives in his parsonage. For some, like Aunt Lydia (Margaret Halstan, reprising her role in the play), it’s a reprieve from her widow’s existence of living in hotels. To others, the cossetted little world to which they return holds little meaning, as it does for Margaret (Margaret Leighton), Martin’s other daughter who works as a fashion journalist in London. Margaret appears to be the the classic ‘flown the roost’ child who’s moved on to bigger and better things, but she carries a dark side, lapses into alcoholism, which has its origin in a devastating secret that she’s kept for some years. As the family gathers for a happy time together, the demons and resentments they carry will be prised out, and reveal much about how everyone is playing a part so that they don’t upset the Pastor in his Christian and supposedly limited world view.

The comment on tensions between family members at Christmas strikes a note that can resonate with everyone, and there are references to the time it was made that add to the charm. The Holly and the Ivy is set in early 1950s Britain, still an era of post-war austerity that affects everyone, even this middle class family that can’t afford the services of a housekeeper for Martin, in which post-dinner cigars are handed out as a rare treat rather then the norm. Martin’s son, Michael (Denholm Elliott) is in the army, a temporary move he has made to put off his decision over whether to go to Cambridge University, which he knows will be costly. The family’s relationship with their head of the household Pastor is one of falseness, a series of bland pleasantries in which their paramount sensibility is not to upset his beliefs and values, yet withholding information from him is doing him a disservice. As Michael points out, his role isn’t only to provide sermons but to help people, and that includes his own family.

The story therefore builds up to a happy conclusion of sorts, one in which the sources of stress are largely resolved and point to a more hopeful future. In that sense it’s a little pat. The most tragic element of kitchen sink dramas is that there was often no happy ending. No matter what was overcome during the course of the film, the troubles of a difficult working class life remained and always would, so the neat climax as shown in The Holly and the Ivy was simply one battle won in a war of endless attrition against poverty and privation. And in that sense, you can see how this one carries little that can be identified with. That however isn’t the fault of the film, which is set within its own circumstances and remains a nicely acted drama, its characters largely drawn well and calling on memorable turns notably from Johnson, Richardson, Leighton, and Maureen Delaney as a caustic, well meaning Scottish Aunt, played largely for comic effect.

It’s certainly worth a watch, for its ultimate message of hope and its fine acting, also because it’s been very nicely restored and looks good. Fans of Celia Johnson will have much to enjoy; I know I did. As a drama it’s refreshingly adult in tone, one that dwells not at all on fantastic elements or those appealing to children, but rather on the theme of Christmas as a family time, with all the problems and potential for optimism that comes with it.

The Holly and the Ivy: ***

Just to wish everyone who reads these pages a very happy Christmas! Thank you for your support and for reading – love and peace to you all 🙂

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: ****