The Red Shoes (1948)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 27 December (12.10 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

These days we just get to enjoy the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who seemed to spend their working lives together crafting esoteric, whimsical and often fantastic British movies that were spinning off on tangents all of their own. The rest of the world did its thing while the pair ploughed their own creative furrow, resulting in a unique body of work that includes some of the most interesting films made at the time. There’s the love letter to England that is A Canterbury Tale. Forces from the afterlife debate the future of David Niven’s soul in A Matter of Life and Death. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, British attitudes to war are covered, to unsparing and cynical, yet ultimately celebratory, effect.

At the time audience reactions to their films were a mixed bag – some were loved unreservedly, others had an alienating effect on viewers, and it’s only with the passing of time that we have learned to appreciate fully their dreamlike wonders, and to be grateful that they were allowed to get away with it again and again. Churchill famously loathed Blimp. People were baffled by A Canterbury Tale. And The Red Shoes, which was criticised for choosing a topic no one wanted to see on the screen, took some time to really find commercial favour. Once it did then it really did, becoming a major hit and claiming a couple of Oscars, but the initial feeling was less than fulsome, and you can imagine the public wondering what the hell all this was about.

Certainly, there are elements of The Red Shoes that are very daring, especially for the time it was made. Gene Kelly made a success of the in-film sequence where the plot is put to one side in favour of an extended dance sequence, yet it was a fresh idea when Powell and Pressburger inserted a 17 minute ballet sequence into the middle of their movie. Imagine the dream scenes from Hitchcock’s Spellbound being left uncut by the disparaging, controlling hand of Selznick, so that you see the full, disturbing vision instead of a short highlights reel, and you come close to what was committed to the final cut here. Essentially, we get a vision of The Red Shoes as envisioned by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, and brought to life by Julian Craster’s bewildering score and the dancing of Victoria Page. The ballet is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and teases out the nightmarish, psycho-sexual overtones of the girl who gets the red shoes she wants, but can’t control them and the shoes keep dancing long after she’s reached the point of exhaustion. As the shoemaker is portrayed in increasingly Guignolian tones, Page is still dancing as her pretty dress turns into dirty rags and the community turns her away, ignoring her plight. The painted backdrops take on a more sinister edge. The set dressings become elaborate, impossible to really be there on the stage and you realise it’s as much the product of someone’s imagination – Page’s own? The audience’s? – as it is clever stage design, Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and the production design work of Hein Heckroth building a bizarre and unsettling claustrophobia of limited space, through which Page pirouettes in ever more desperate and frantic circles, the need to rid herself of the shoes urgent and yet impossible.

The Red Shoes is the sad tale of Page (Moira Shearer), the dancer who gets her opportunity to shine when the company’s prima ballerina announces her marriage. To impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), there is no room for love in the life of a ballerina. ‘The music is all that matters‘ he tells her, a fateful warning as she beings a romance with the composer, Craster (Marius Goring) and this threatens her dancing future. Page ultimately is forced to choose – a career in Lermontov’s company, which is demanding yet professionally rewarding, or ‘earthly’ happiness with Craster, a dilemma that has tragic consequences.

As the single-minded Lermontov, Walbrook plays a monster. Dismissive of anyone who doesn’t share his vision and enforcing a work ethic that is nothing short of punishing, Lermontov is at his worst when Page’s relationship with Craster means she will never be fully his and his mood spills over into rage, a professional resentment as he found his muse and has had her snatched away. Goring, impressive in A Matter of Life and Death, gets the more straight role as Craster, asserting his musical talents and coming to love Victoria. Much of the cast was filled with real ballet dancers, which is how Moira Shearer came to the role. She had little love for the demands of working on film and would go on to make fleeting future appearances, though there’s little doubting her impact on The Red Shoes, notably in the signature ballet sequence that lays all her talent bare on the screen, the emotion and longing expressed through sheer movement. It took Powell a year to entice Shearer for the part, and she was unimpressed with his efforts to direct her and her fellow dancers, feeling he didn’t ‘get it’ and tried to treat them like any normal actor.

The picture has an overall dreamlike feel. This is partly achieved through some incredible use of Technicolor, lending everything a lush, glossy sheen. Much of the action takes place in Monte Carlo, which adds to its fleshy air of romance. Craster and Page are shown chatting on their hotel veranda; a train passes below, blowing plumes of  smoke that surround them, as though enveloping them in cloud. It’s a mirror held to the conceits of ballet, the artifice and implied sexuality displayed through dance. Shearer might have been right in sensing Powell and Pressburger were not qualified to work with dancers, but they knew how to create a mood, and the ethereal one they generated for The Red Shoes – made, lest we forget, during the difficult, lean years following World War Two – is powerful indeed.

To modern viewers, it’s impossible to ignore parallels with Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 entry about Natalie Portman’s dancer working to earn the lead role in a prestigious production of Swan Lake and the toll it takes on her very sanity. The similarities are easy enough to see. Both films are about the strains made on ballerinas, their efforts to reach the heights of performance clashing with the other demands on their lives, but the newer film has more obvious leanings in the horror genre, the obliquely expressed challenges for Victoria Page made frighteningly stark in Portman’s case. I know which of the two I prefer. The Red Shoes is powerful, beautiful and its sense of longing present yet elusive. In many ways it’s a companion piece to Black Narcissus, one of my favourite Powell and Pressburger productions, another story of earthly pleasures encroaching on a world where they have no place. By the film’s close, Victoria has become the real life wearer of the red shoes, compelled by them to dance, and dance, and dance to destruction, and watching her do so has an absurd and enchanting quality that makes the film hopelessly compelling. By the finish, just like Victoria I have surrendered to the power of the red shoes.

The Red Shoes: *****

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A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 26 December (11.55 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

“Do you often see your father?”
“No, actually, we’re just good friends.”

Congratulations to BBC2 for screening one of the very best musical comedies starring real-life rock stars – A Hard Day’s Night, which is 89 minutes of riotous fun and great songs. Watch it and you get what the fuss over The Beatles was all about. For any of us too young to have been around when the band was still together, what we’re left with is the music and overly reverential memories from those ‘in the know’, too often focusing on the heritage they left as song writing geniuses. But the film shows us the other side, the energetic, cheeky, charming and winning personalities of the lads, which helped to turn them into enormous stars who were well worth being relentlessly chased by screaming hordes of fans. They’re an irresistible force of nature, something the film captures perfectly.

Director Richard Lester was a rising star himself at the time, and chose to shoot A Hard Day’s Night as a TV documentary, filming in crisp black and white and purporting to depict a typical day in the life of the Fab Four as they were tipping over into outright megastardom. Together with writer Alun Owen and producer Walter Shenson, Lester spent a little time with the group before the script was put together, and the dialogue Owen came up with was inspired very much by these meetings, attempting to reflect their individual personalities and allowing for a certain amount of ad-libbing. In the end, only John Lennon veered off-script to a significant extent, but the ‘freewheeling’ filming style and natural acting talent of the band members suggests successfully that the cameras were switched on in the boys’ presence and simply followed them around.

A Hard Day’s Night was filmed over a six week period in early 1964, shot as though ‘on the run’ and had a budget of less than £200,000 to play with, a slim pot that reflected United Artists’ unwillingness to invest significantly in a band that might have faded as quickly as it rose to prominence. The plot follows the Beatles as they arrive in London to play at a televised concert. Dodging their fans and trying to run away from the demands of their beleaguered manager, played by Norman Rossington, the action follows them at home, and at play in London clubs, at work attending press junkets, and ultimately performing before a theatre of hysterical youngsters. There’s a sub-plot that tracks Paul’s Grandfather, played by Wilfrid Brambell, described by everyone he meets as ‘very clean’ as a play on his famous ‘dirty old man’, Alfred Steptoe, in Steptoe and Son. Later, Ringo walks out on rehearsals for the show to enjoy the sights of the city on his own, an effort that gets him into trouble with the law, which leads to further high jinks.

Mostly however, what makes the film special and unique are the vignettes focusing on the lads’ throwaway humour, their endless reserves of charm and charisma, an intrusive peer into the perceived lives of four young men whose love for life comes across vividly on the screen. The pressures of being pursued by fans, the grind of performing on the road, the sense of rarely being allowed to stop being ‘in character’ as their professional presence took over their lives… All this was in the future when A Hard Day’s Night was filmed. At this stage, they’re very much in thrall with all the attention and happy to indulge, and that comes across in the film to delightful effect. Being a Richard Lester film, the gags come thick and fast, generally filmed as though it’s all off the cuff rather than carefully scripted. The relief after all those ‘rock star’ movies starring the likes of Elvis and Cliff, in which the delicately managed productions were mirrored in movies that lurched into fantasy, is palpable. While A Hard Day’s Night no doubt contains its own levels of artifice – check out the scene where the boys are playing cards on screen, then a song starts (I Should Have Known Better) and they’re next shown playing their instruments – its unconstrained style of filming lends it an air of authenticity that is only broken several times, and it’s all the better for that.

The film’s title and its accompanying track were eleventh hour decisions. A Hard Days’ Night was filmed as simply The Beatles, before the band and Shenson were discussing alternative names and an off-hand remark by Ringo was considered. Lennon wrote the song overnight and the following morning it was performed as a finished piece, the genesis of an iconic work that accompanies the film’s opening scenes. In it, the band are shown running away from their fans. But it’s a happy moment; the lads are laughing. George Harrison falls over and Ringo turns to laugh at him. This moment could have been reshot but Lester kept it in, as he did other gaffes – George knocks over his own amp during a recording session – to depict the Beatles’ sense of childish exuberance and knockabout fun.

Watched now, it’s the kind of film I want to start again as soon as I’ve finished it. With each viewing I pick up fresh gags, little gems like Lennon pretending to sniff from a bottle of Coke while Norm lectures the band about their responsibilities. Its sense of youthful rebellion, while clean and innocent enough, is ever present, a reflection of sniffy ‘adult’ attitudes towards their success and the concerns expressed by Lennon that the project had to essentially be on their side. He needn’t have worried. A Hard Day’s Night is a classic.

A Hard Day’s Night: *****

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 🙂

Gone with the Wind (1939)

When it’s on: Sunday, 24 December (9.00 am)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Gone with the Wind is a film lover’s film. There’s much about it that’s flawed and certainly a very great deal of material that appears woefully out of date. It’s too long, overly melodramatic, glassy eyed about a semi-remembered past that was far from happy for everyone involved, and its main characters aren’t even especially likeable. And yet, for all its shortcomings it may very well be the last word in romantic Hollywood movie making. Production levels were about as lavish as it was possible to get. The performances are universally fantastic, particularly the leads. The use of Technicolor is nothing less than exquisite, notably in the film’s first half bathing the Old South in soft, fleshy tones that give way to the red and orange tinted violence of the approaching Civil War. Clearly, making the picture was the definition of a labour of love, a drive by all involved, from producer David O Selznick downwards, to honour Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel in suitable fashion, and the result is a feast for the senses.

A couple of years ago I got the opportunity to see it on the big screen. For once, it was the chance to catch a movie like Gone with the Wind in the way it was meant to be exhibited, with all those real life  problems left outside the cinema and escaping into the idealised world presented to us… Of course it should always be like that, but this is one of those films in which you can really lose yourself. It’s nearly four hours long, much of it scored by Max Steiner’s elaborate music, which weaves in a string of tunes recalling the patriotic surge from the American Confederacy prior to and during the Civil War.  The production is sumptuous from start to finish, whilst its narrative can find resonance with just about every viewer, in particular the main plotline depicting the fall and rise of its ‘heroine’, Scarlett O’Hara, all her imperfections laid bare on the screen as her innate indomitability prevents her from falling into despair and ruin, and makes her a character just about worth cheering on. Watching Scarlett in self-absorbed action, you know Melanie is the film’s real champion, that Rhett deserves better and that a future with Ashley would be no future at all, yet she’s performed with such gusto and the camera loves her to such an extent that you end up cheering on this really quite awful woman as she pushes, schemes and cheats her way towards some ever-elusive goal. She might, to borrow a quote from Oliver Stone’s Nixon, be the darkness reaching out for the darkness, but rarely has ‘the darkness’ been this much of a joy to watch.

Mitchell’s original novel was a saga about well heeled families in Georgia on the cusp of the Civil War, the conflict that ruins their wealth and way of life, and what happens next. It was a runaway hit, optioned by Selznick as soon as it was published (despite Val Lewton, then a staff member at the studio, saying it was a bad idea) and taking three years to bring to the screen. The book was so popular that speculation about the adaptation was an ever present companion. Fans followed the tales of endless casting sessions, the search for the perfect Scarlett that seemed to take in just about every young actress available at the time, the knowledge Selznick carried that Gone with the Wind was a potential millstone – get it wrong and feel the wrath of millions of readers. For such a notable perfectionist the production could have killed him, Selznick’s notoriety for constant revisions and meddling coming to the fore as he struggled over all aspects of its development. Writers came and went. Sidney Howard earns the main credit for the script and wisely refused to leave his farm in putting it together, putting him at a merciful distance from Selznick’s orbit, but this was a screenplay that kept being dabbled with, leading to the near chaos of Selznick making further amendments while filming took place. George Cukor was the original choice as director. He would be replaced with Victor Fleming, who ended up being one of a number of unit directors as the production had so much to shoot in its race to be completed.

And then there’s the casting. Clark Gable was the early favourite with book readers for the role of Rhett Butler, its morally ambiguous yet charismatic anti-hero, but he had major misgivings about accepting the part and only came fully on board with the recruitment of Fleming, a ‘man’s director’ who in sensibility was a close call for Butler himself and who put the actor instantly at ease. Vivien Leigh’s recruitment as Scarlett took the most convoluted of developments. Numerous A-List actors were considered – Bette Davies, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn were the best known – and fascinating footage remains of the test screenings made with various people. In an alternative reality Scarlett could have been played by Lana Turner, whose test shows just how far she was from possessing the command required to fill the shoes of such a big character. Leigh was a relatively late consideration, due no doubt to the lack of knowledge about her in America. Her background, patrician English after a wealthy upbringing in colonial India, was about as far from Scarlett O’Hara as it was possible to be, and yet Leigh’s star was on the rise. A success on stage and making a fine transition to the screen in Fire Over England, she was just as famous for her real-life romance with Laurence Olivier, which would lead to the pair becoming for a time the world’s most famous couple. As difficult as it might be now to imagine anyone else playing Scarlett, for some time Leigh was an obscure outside bet, yet in hindsight most certainly the right choice and worth the Herculean effort they made in working towards her.

I’m not going to spend too much time here talking about what happens in the film. It’s one of cinema’s best known entries, something enjoyed by millions of people and while adjusted for inflation all-time box office lists throw up any number of variations, Gone with the Wind is invariably near the top.  Chances are you have already seen it, and if you haven’t then you’ll know Tara’s Theme, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘ and be likely to have a good impression of its arcs and themes – it is that famous. For many viewers it may be their favourite slice of cinema, an opinion I don’t share, indeed I wouldn’t even call it my choice of the year – in fairness, 1939 was famously a banner year for cinema, with the likes of Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr Chips and The Hound of the Baskervilles up there as personal selections.

It was certainly an enduring winner with audiences and the Academy however, until Ben-Hur remaining the record holder for the most Oscars won, a reflection of the sheer human and technical achievement it represents, and certainly on the latter score it’s a marvel. The fire in Atlanta, heralding the arrival of Sherman’s Union army, was achieved when the crew burned down sets and props from previous MGM productions; that enormous structure collapsing in flames was in a past life the massive gates from which Fay Wray was tied up in anticipation of King Kong‘s arrival. This was shot months in advance of the rest of the production, the scenes featuring the actors added in later. One of the film’s most enduring scenes shows Scarlett staring aghast into a street filled with injured and dead Confederate soldiers, thousands of them, a moment demanding more extras than the production could source, meaning some of the wounded were dummies with limbs that could be artificially moved. The complicated crane shot had to pick up the sea of human victims and come to rest with the tattered Confederacy flag in the foreground, ensuring that none of Culver City, which lay just beyond the set, was accidentally shown. Occasionally, the technical trickery doesn’t quite work. One shot has party-goers driving in their coaches along the long drive to the Twelve Oaks ranch, but they start to vanish and become translucent as the footage is spliced into the the separate image behind.

The film isn’t without its controversy, especially for current audiences. The Old South was notoriously a slave-owning culture, and its ‘darkies’ can be seen happily at work, almost certainly a depiction of the good treatment meted out at Scarlett’s home of Tara but giving little impression of the horrors suffered by slaves as a matter of routine. Scenes depicting the Klansmen were edited out, avoiding comparisons with the difficulties watching The Birth of a Nation and certainly a good thing. Selznick ordered a production that was for its time sensitive to black people, though it still leaves an uncomfortable taste, notably in its setting of Scarlett’s world as a lost paradise, an idyll that can never return in the aftermath of the Civil war, while clearly it wasn’t so for all its denizens. In the film’s favour, this is the South as seen from its heroine’s perspective, a young woman who in its early scenes is very much still a child with a lot of growing up to do, and her feelings about Rhett are also made clear here. While everyone grows excited about the prospects of war and the opportunities for gallantry it represents, only Butler, hardened and cynical, says openly that the Union will win. It’s a jaded, real world view that’s obviously right, backed up with cold facts rather than romance and honour, but it jars with the audience and with Scarlett, who’s both fascinated with Rhett and repulsed by him.

The work by Leigh and Gable aside, there’s some excellent support from Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel. The former eschews much of the glamour and beauty associated with her usual roles to play the delicate, ailing Melanie, Scarlett’s love rival for the favours of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). As Mammy, Tara’s house servant and peddler of pearls of earthy wisdom, McDaniel is absolutely memorable, with a tough veneer that cracks sparingly but those moments, when they come, are earned. Thomas Mitchell is reliable and idiosyncratic as Scarlett’s father, doomed to madness as his safe world collapses around him, and there’s a sensitive performance from Ona Munson as Belle, in the film’s early scenes a ‘fallen woman’ who secretly loves Rhett and would probably have made the better match with him, if he hadn’t in turn spent the film’s running time chasing Scarlett in this ever-spiralling game of ill-fated loves and obsessions. If there is a duff note then it’s Howard’s Ashley, not a fault of the actor but a role in which he’s tasked to play the stolid, spectacularly dull symbol of the South’s virtue. Unlike Leigh, Howard does little to cover his British accent and in terms of raw charisma and spark is effortlessly relegated into second billing by Gable. This makes something of a mockery of Scarlett’s enduring obsession with him – he just doesn’t stand up next to the mustachioed main man, but then Gone with the Wind is a film of tragedies and this is just one of them.

In the end it’s possible to see it as both a long-winded and a very long bore. It tells of a world that no longer exists, told at a time that similarly belongs in the past, and a number of the concerns expressed in the film have little relevance today. And yet it’s the sort of picture that demands that everyone watches it at least once. The first reason is for its rightful status as a cinematic landmark, something that utterly captivated contemporary audiences and is still exhibited on big screens, particularly in its ‘home town’ of Atlanta, which is no mean feat for a work that’s pushing eighty years old. There’s also a timeless quality to it, a strange statement to make of a story about the long lost Old South, yet the characters of Scarlett and Rhett, both selfish and far from heroic, have swathes of fascinating nuance, look great, and are perfectly played. Finally, for film lovers there’s simply too much to enjoy here. If for no other reason then for those iconic shots of characters in silhouette, filmed against the kind of painterly vanilla skies you never see in real life, it’s a beautiful looking movie, a testament to Fleming’s direction and the painstaking production values by Selznick. The latter, credited for a number of wildly successful film offerings and remembered as a neurotic meddler in his studio’s projects, was never better rewarded for his relentless work ethic and eye for detail than he was here, and when it comes to rendering personal visions onto the grandest stage possible that’s something worth celebrating.

Gone with the Wind: ****

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 December (6.45 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I posted a comment about The Bishop’s Wife as part of an extended ramble last Christmas on these pages. It was the first time I had seen the film, which felt like an enormous oversight because it came across as almost a perfect seasonal offering, and I was happily swept along with it. That said, in the UK at least there’s one classic slice of Hollywood melodrama that beats all others when it comes to Christmas films, so looking beyond It’s a Wonderful Life can be difficult. The Miracle on 34th Street gets a look in, though the number of people who think the Attenborough remake is the definitive version is a concern, but there’s little attention paid to the likes of The Shop Around the Corner, which is a beautiful piece of work that deserves more love, while the charm of Bing Crosby tends to sidelined into the ‘Musicals’ category rather than celebrated for its seasonal cheer. So then you get the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and a gem like The Bishop’s Wife is relegated to the early hours of a Yuletide schedule as opposed to the frequent theatrical exhibitions of It’s a Wonderful Life that show the extent to which it’s celebrated.

The Bishop’s Wife was an RKO picture made on the back of The Best Years of Our Lives, a box office bonanza and Oscar winner for Samuel Goldwyn, who ordered a Christmas movie for 1947. At the time, It’s a Wonderful Life was a commercial failure, so the project was something of a gamble, and things got worse as the A-List cast of David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant clashed on set. Part of the trouble was resolved when its male stars swapped roles, and watching the film it’s tough to picture Niven in any other part than that of the troubled bishop, a soul-troubled character whose personal demons too well reflected the recent real-life bereavement he had suffered. Young and Grant took umbrage against each other all too often, falling out over the latter’s perfectionism that slowed down the filming and the fact both preferred to be shot from the same side, making a challenge of the many scenes when they were facing each other. It’s a credit to both performers that the chemistry between their characters was intact throughout, indeed the sparks possibly helped the jarring, ‘not quite right’ on-screen relationship that depicted his romantic overtures she was unwilling to reciprocate.

In the film, Grant plays Dudley, an angel who gets assigned to help a young bishop, Henry Brougham (Niven). The bishop is striving to have a cathedral built in his town, a task that depends on the patronage of the local matriarch (Gladys Cooper), but her interest depends on his agreement that it will be an edifice to her late husband. This troubles his pure motives for building the cathedral, but the bigger issue for him is the time he’s spending on the planning, which is distancing him from his wife Julia (Young) and their daughter. Dudley reveals himself to Henry, who has natural doubts about his angelic status but nevertheless agrees to take him on as an assistant. This introduces Dudley to Henry’s entire world, not just his project but all the people in it, including his family and house staff, as well as their friends within the community. Increasingly, while the bishop attends endless meetings Dudley’s role becomes that of companion to Julia, and the pair grow closer, much to Henry’s dislike who can see the effect on his wife all this attention is having.

The romantic triangle at he heart of the film isn’t its most interesting dimension. As enchanted as Julia is by Dudley’s attentions, her heart very clearly belongs to Henry, who is portrayed as having lost his way, and then not in a way that leads him to committing any evil. He certainly doesn’t deserve to lose his wife, who gives every impression of understanding his preoccupation with the cathedral, and as a result the hints of Dudley’s efforts being to do more than ease Henry’s soul don’t really amount to much. Of far greater value is the effect his presence has on everybody else. Monty Woolley’s broken History Professor, a kindly man who has for years been devoid of inspiration for writing his book about Ancient Rome, regains his impetus thanks to Dudley’s gentle prodding. Cooper’s status in the film as its potential ‘Mr Potter’ is unmasked when the angel intervenes and gives her a glimpse of the humanity in her life that its been lacking. His interaction with the staff at the bishop’s house, notably Elsa Lanchester’s blousey maid, is quite heartwarming, and in the film’s most touching scene, he persuades cabbie Sylvester (James Gleason) to join Julia and himself in an impromptu ice dancing adventure. The scene is intended to hint at the developing feelings between the stars, but it’s Sylvester, recapturing a joie de vivre through his moment of sheer childlike joy, which leaves the most lasting impression.  It’s lovely, innocent stuff.

Of course, by the movie’s end everyone is in ‘happily ever after mode, just as they should be, and Dudley leaves having completed his mission, albeit after almost undermining it at the climax. For me, it’s a note that jars ever so slightly, the idea that an angel would gain feelings for a ‘mortal’ just because he’s played by classic romantic lead Cary Grant and he has to have that storyline, but it’s not enough to ruin the overall sentiment that’s been created. If The Bishop’s Wife has a core message, it is that everything will turn out all right in the end, and I think a Christmas picture can have no better one. It was directed by Henry Koster, who replaced the original choice and pretty much restarted the shoot from scratch, capturing the whimsical tone that had been missing from its initial filming. Whether this or 1950’s Harvey is the better of his light fantasies is entirely up to the individual viewer, but both have unmistakable charm and never fail to entertain.

The Bishop’s Wife: ****

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 9 September (4.35 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

You are left to wonder what the Hammer dream team pairing of Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson might have developed into had they been given a series of films rather than just the one. The Hound of the Baskervilles was not a box office success in America, where the studio’s reputation ensured it was marketed as a horror and left audiences confused and disappointed. Perhaps similarly wrong-footed, much of the critical appraisal was equally negative, leaving it to time and re-evaluation for us to come to appreciate it as one of Hammer’s more delicious treats.

Much is retained from Arthur Conan Doyle’s gripping source novel, with several ghoulish embellishments from writer Peter Bryan, including a guest spot from a tarantula and Maria Landi as the film’s femme fatale. Cushing, a consummate researcher and fan of the stories, tried to appear as accurately as Holmes as possible, down to bringing his own costumes to the set, which were based on illustrations from The Strand, and taking on the gaunt appearance of a morphine addict, helped along by a bout of dysentery while on holiday in Spain. The script allows him to be superior, aloof, condescending and lacking in empathy, while Cushing’s energetic performance suggests a detective who is continually thinking twenty things at once and acting accordingly. These contrasts with the far more genial, family friendly Holmes as essayed by Basil Rathbone in a  string of successful Hollywood outings shouldn’t be underestimated. The different approach was clear enough and outlined his Holmes as distinctive, closer in style to Jeremy Brett from the long running Granada series.

Another difference from the earlier films was Morrell’s Watson. While Nigel Bruce played Holmes’s biographer and companion as a bumbler and earned a lot of affection for his easy screen charm and chemistry with Rathbone, Morrell’s is a more faithful portrayal. He’s intelligent, makes useful contributions, and you can picture him standing to one side and making notes of what’s happening for his writing up of the case. Crucially the partnership with Holmes is present and correct, but here it’s more as a pair of equals, Watson’s medical knowledge and warmth filling the gaps for his detective friend, and it’s a great shame we didn’t get to see more of them together (incidentally, Cushing and Morrell were both fantastic in Cash in Demand, a minor yet brilliant Hammer entry that draws on – and is richly rewarded for – the performances of both players). You believe that Holmes is leaving Sir Henry in safe hands when he sends him home in the company of Watson, rather than getting him out of the way while the real detective work goes on.

Of the other players, Hammer used Christopher Lee in a rare ‘good guy’ role as Sir Henry Baskerville. Convincing as the patrician heir to the Baskerville fortune, Lee is allowed to put the heavy make-up to one side and presents us with a very handsome and dynamic Sir Henry. John Le Mesurier plays Barrymore, the butler at Baskerville Hall who carries around an important secret, and there’s a great cameo from Miles Malleson as Bishop Frankland, on hand to provide some brief comic respite and stealing every scene in which he features.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was directed with typical style and economy by Terence Fisher. He starts with a ten minute prologue, setting up the legend of the ‘hound from hell’, an enormous dog that killed the odious Sir Hugo centuries earlier. Not only does the prologue work in revealing Sir Hugo to be a terrible man, an entitled rapist, it’s already laying the breadcrumbs for the story to follow. We then follow Holmes and Watson being interviewed by family friend, Dr Mortimer (Francis de Wolff), who are charged with investigating the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville and protecting Sir Henry, the last remaining heir. The pair meet the current owner of Baskerville Hall, a scene that works hard to both establish the characters and leave important clues. Watson accompanies Sir Henry to Dartmoor and finds some strange goings on, while also meeting a string of characters who could potentially benefit from the end of the Baskerville line. There’s a stranger loose on the marshes, and then there’s the landscape itself, an eerie, mist-shrouded desolation that’s potted with lethal mire.

Production values are high, despite the relative lack of money spent on the project, and it loses nothing for being the first Baskervilles adaptation shot in colour – the maudlin gloom of Grimpen is just as foreboding as it was in black and white. The only sour note is the hound itself, a trick the crew tried desperately to make work and couldn’t, meaning the beast is kept safely and yet disappointingly off screen for the most part. Cushing noted in his memoir that they attempted to make the hound appear huge by substituting the real actors for children wearing their costumes. In test screenings it was obvious the illusion wouldn’t fool anyone, so as a consequence we get a rather un-ferocious dog pawing at Christopher Lee, who does his game best to look terrorised.

The question remains which is the best version of the tale, this or the Twentieth Century Fox take from 1939 that foisted Rathbone and Bruce onto an unsuspecting world? The latter I own on Blu-Ray, where the sound stages are all too apparent, but the quality of the work shines through. Slightly brisker than Hammer’s version and arguably carrying a greater number of plot-holes, there’s little to beat its effort to replicate Dartmoor as a perma-fogged, unsettlingly silent portent of doom, nor the eternal, never bettered partnership of the two stars, both likeable and perfectly complementing each other, who went on to own the roles for many years. And yet this version runs it close, very close, and remains great entertainment for a dark afternoon. The biggest regret upon watching it is the nagging feeling you get from knowing this is Cushing and Morrell’s one and only outing as Holmes and Watson. The mouthwatering desire for more of their adventures in detection is palpable, but sadly never quenched.

The Hound of the Baskervilles: ****

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

When it’s on: Sunday, 3 September (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I love history. This stems in a large part from poring through Bible stories when I was a child. The New Testament was fine enough, but it was the tales of the Old Testament – with its endless wars, suffering on a mass scale, fire and brimstone – that entranced me. God as a character was envious and unforgiving. Entire races of people were enslaved and treated like dirt. Heroes, born to beat insurmountable odds, emerged, and they dealt out death and judgement rather than sacrificed themselves for the sake of others’ sins. None of this led to a belief in Christianity, but it did ferment my supreme desire for a good yarn, and the early books from the Bible were the pages to refer to for exactly that.

It’s no surprise that people have tried to bring Biblical stories to the screen for almost as long as cinema has existed. This stuff is gold. Great tales, and for a long time the sort of fare that audiences just lapped up. Cecil B DeMille adapted the book of Exodus twice, first in 1923 that was much a fable of The Ten Commandments in contemporary life as much as it was about Moses. In 1956, he went for a more straight retelling, pitting Charlton Heston’s Moses against the Pharoah, played by Yul Brynner, to wildly profitable box office returns. I admit it’s probably one of my all time favourite movies, partly thanks to my respect for the vaulting ambition and ego of the director in bringing such a story to the screen in so emphatic a fashion. It’s incredibly powerful. DeMille had the smouldering intensity and mutual resentment between Heston and Brynner, but also storytelling on an enormous scale, and the best special effects of their day, which have of course dated over time but still look impressive now. One scene in particular stays with me. Having suffered a series of plagues, Pharoah is implored once more by Moses to free the slaves, but he’s implacable and orders nothing less than the killing of each Jewish first born son as the ultimate punishment. Unwittingly, it’s a course that rebounds. One terrible night, God takes away each Egyptian first born, his wrath personified by an eerie green mist in the sky, which develops tendrils gliding with ominous silence to earth and stealing the boys’ souls. It’s haunting stuff, a trick repeated in Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt in 1998, where the mist becomes a deadly whirlwind.

Given the above, I’m likely to view Exodus: Gods and Kings with a subjectively kind eye, looking forward to the spectacle and human drama whereas many critics have shown only scorn. Finding reasons for the latter isn’t difficult. The production was dogged with controversy, notably for its ‘whitewashing’ of the main characters. Ramses, Moses and the rest of the cast would simply not be Caucasian, it was argued, so why in a modern movie fall for the classic tradition of casting the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Egerton when more ethnically realistic casting would do? Furthermore, it’s difficult to tell the tale without turning the Egyptians into villains, greedy slavers, and sure enough the film was banned in that country upon its release. Its director, Ridley Scott, retorted that the film would never have been funded without Hollywood stars, and besides it’s only loosely a historical tale. How much truth lies in the book of Exodus is open to extreme interpretation and translating the events as dramatic representations of what actually happened. There’s some evidence that the Egyptian Empire kept the Hebrews as slaves, but nothing is confirmed. The story is wrapped in mystery, and was committed to writing only after centuries of being handed down in the oral tradition. As such it’s as faithful a source as Homer’s The Iliad – no doubt there’s a kernel of truth in there, but it’s blended with mythology and the contemporary audiences for whom it was written in the first place.

Perhaps more pertinent is to question whether the world needed another Biblical epic at all. Noah, released earlier in 2014, had not been received rapturously, more like quizzically, suggesting the clamour for Bible stories was just not there, and Exodus: Gods and Kings was already gaining an infamous reputation for the reasons mentioned above. Hardly the basis for a box office smash, which indeed it would not turn into, though the reality was it had been in the planning for several years and was something of a passion project for Scott. As expected, the devil was in the detail, the crew building sets and using computer effects to create an ancient Egyptian world that is probably as close to the real thing as you will ever see. The word here is scale. Massive statues, glorious decorations, those different coloured tribal banners billowing behind the war chariots, the juxtaposition between Ramses’s palaces and the Hebrew ghetto; it’s all there, on the screen, and it looks fantastic. And yet the concern was never about how the film looked. Scott’s 2010 entry, Robin Hood, reimagined ‘merrie England’ in fleshy, realistic tones, for all intents and purposes travelling back in time for the sake of absolute authenticity,  and yet the movie was a boring clunker, overly serious and its stars uninspiring. Not a lot of fun. Would this fare any better?

One of the biggest issues with Robin Hood was its script, written by Brian Helgeland. For this one, Scott employed Steven Zaillian, the Oscar winner (for Schindler’s List) who was faced with the obstacle of adapting Exodus for a twenty first century audience. How to bring the Pharoanic court of Ancient Egypt to life, to make it feel like a working reality and avoiding polemics? The result is a Seti (John Turturro), the old ruler who oversees the affection between Ramses (Egerton) and his adopted son, Moses (Bale) while recognising the potential for a future rivalry, emphasising their need to protect each other. Made explicit is the throne room as a nest of vipers, high ranking officials who protect their own interests, in the classical style seeing Ramses as their best bet for maintaining the status quo while Moses has a dangerously radical side to his nature. The latter has grounded views about prophecies (they’re hokum), the nation of slaves (they deserve to be treated better), and the prospect that he believes in very little. A portent about the kingdom’s future hints at Moses becoming its ruler, something that results in Ramses discovering his Hebrew heritage and casting him into exile. Moses wanders the desert for a time, before coming upon a remote shepherds’ village and marrying.

Adapting to a simple life in the wilderness, it’s clear Moses’s spirit is restless. He then meets God, personified as a small boy, who tells him to go back to Egypt and accept a mission to free the slaves. Scott made a decision to tell the story of the resulting plagues and Moses’s interactions with God in as realistic terms as he could, suggesting that the former might have been the result of natural causes and the rest exists in the main character’s head, that ‘God’ might simply be the directions of his subconsciousness. When Moses first returns to Egypt he naturally sees his role as that of a military general, harking back to the position he held before his exile. Hebrews are trained to be freedom fighters, a rather clever allusion to the state of affairs in more recently occupied countries within the region. But progress is slow. Ramses responds to the acts of ‘terrorism’ committed by Moses’s underground army by publicly hanging slaves on a daily basis, his brutality increasing with the sedition. This in turn prompts ‘God’ to intervene, via the plagues that might very well have happened without any divine assistance, though it suits the narrative to explain these as more than acts of natural disaster.

Bale committed mountains of personal research into the life of Moses as part of his preparation for the role. His is a very human performance, from the wise leader he plays in the early acts, when his position in the hierarchy is more or less cemented, to the constant doubts he’s plagued with later in the film. When I talked about Kingdom of Heaven elsewhere on these pages, I mentioned the vacuum at the centre of the film that is Orlando Bloom; Bale is far more capable of commanding the screen and forces his character’s human drama to shine through the massive scope of the picture. Egerton and Turturro, while looking nothing like Egyptians, are fine as the two Pharoahs, and there’s capable support in relatively small roles from Sigourney Weaver and Tara Fitzgerald. Ben Kingsley plays the Hebrew elder with typical stoic resolve, and Ewan Bremner provides the film with a slim, much needed sliver of humour.

As with much of Scott’s work, there isn’t much comedy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, though that seems appropriate given the subject matter. What it does have is spectacle, artistry and weighty drama. It looks incredible, with the technical departments firing on all cylinders, and while that’s normally true of films with Ridley Scott’s name attached the narrative and performances are not ignored in favour of the visuals. It’s probably as good as a modern retelling of Exodus could ever hope to be, even if the demand for it just wasn’t there, and that was reflected in its losses at the box office.

Exodus: Gods and Kings: ****

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

When it’s on: Thursday, 31 August (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Race from outer space to seven miles below the sea … with amazing aquanauts of the deep!

Anyone who thinks that movies about freak weather conditions are a recent phenomenon has clearly forgotten the work of Irwin Allen, the disaster flick connoisseur who at the turn of the 1960s was busy serving up Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a science fantasy that revolves around an environmental disaster. Sure, you could pick up any number of elements contained in the film and hold them up for ridicule. Things take place that simply couldn’t (sinking chunks of ice!) happen, but cinema’s sense of licence back then occurs still, as Dara O Briain’s expert deconstruction of the ‘science’ behind 2012 demonstrates. These were just more innocent times, with the movies to match, and personally I have a lot of affection for this sort of caper. It’s gloriously silly. Allen, in conjunction with veteran screen writer Charles Bennett, throws just about every cliche he can dream of at the screen. This means that alongside the tense submarine drama there are collisions with giant octopuses and our heroes drifting into minefields, which presumably had been carelessly left in the middle of the ocean at some point, and yet it’s a lot of fun. I don’t see much wrong with that.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea opens with a title song from Frankie Avalon, the Billboard sensation who also takes a supporting role in the film. Admiral Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) has built a state of the art nuclear submarine, the Seaview, which he is testing in the Arctic Ocean. His captain, Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) is showing a team of visiting delegates around the vessel, including Joan Fontaine as Susan Hiller, a psychologist who wants to review the mental effects of working on a submarine among the crew. Disaster strikes with the revelation that the Van Allen radiation belt circling the earth has been hit by meteors, setting it on fire and heating up the planet. The United Nations boffins, led by Henry Daniell’s German (obviously) physicist, believe the skies will return to normal once it’s burned itself out, but Nelson thinks this is folly and only a hit from one of the Seaview’s atomic bombs, delivered at a precise time and location, can save the world from destruction. Discredited and hounded out of the UN, Nelson guides his submarine towards its date with destiny, pursued by the authorities, which now consider him to be a dangerous renegade, as the crew similarly begins to doubt him.

There’s the germ of a very suspenseful thriller here. Steadily, those working on the Seaview turn against their leader, partly out of a desire to get back to their families – if these are to be their last moments, then they want to spend them with the people they love. Even Captain Crane’s loyalty comes into question as the odds start mounting, and this puts him into conflict with his wife (Barbara Eden) who also happens to be the Admiral’s PA. Only Peter Lorre’s retired scientist remains as a staunch ally, amid concerns that the old man’s propensity for playing with sharks in the sub’s tanks aren’t ovewhelming proof of his sanity. Rumours circulate about a saboteur on board, and then there’s the presence of a new age Christian (Michael Ansara) who reaches for his bag of Bible quotes with every fresh peril, each new portent of doom.

But there wasn’t the sustained interest in turning this into a serious drama. Instead, the film opts for spectacle and matinee thrills, attempting a broad entertainment that by and large works. You know what you’re getting when the Seaview stops on the seabed to attempt a communication with the American president by tapping the Rio-London cable, and falls foul of a squid that is understandably annoyed by having its slumber interrupted and attacks the captain. Later, the crew agree that the solution to being fired upon by an enemy submarine is to dive down into the Mariana Trench, the logic being that only the Seaview can go so deep and not implode due to the pressure. While all this is going on the Admiral and Lorre hole up in his quarters, poring through scientific data and chain-smoking, resolute that their theory is correct. Barbara Eden flits between them and the Captain, tottering around on high heels when not jiving to the trumpeting serenades from Mr Avalon’s firebrand junior officer.

By the end, the sense of astonishment that such a lot has been packed into the film’s 100 minute running time is palpable. A great deal happens, told in an episodic ‘the next damn thing’ way, and maybe the speed of events and the movie’s casual, almost random way of killing its cast members are enough to prevent viewers from thinking too much about the dodgy science behind it all. Certainly, the latter became the subject of many scathing reviews, though this wasn’t enough to put the paying public off. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea made a healthy profit and helped to spawn the successful TV series, which recycled both the plot and many of the film’s sets. In its favour it looks great, L. B. Abbott’s visual effects put to good use in showing us those angry red skies that seem to imprison the Earth and everybody on it. There’s a pleasing mix of contemporary storytelling and grab-bagging from the nautical yarns of Jules Verne, and besides it’s a bit of a treat to watch a film of this kind that doesn’t try to beat us over the head by yelling all this is happening because of mankind’s folly. Instead it’s a romp, a yarn, very much a tall tale, one that wastes half its cast (no really good reason for the presence of Fontaine or Lorre) but aims innocently to please, and for the most part manages it.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: ***

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 April (7.20 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit is almost the quintessential Ealing film. It’s very funny. The film was Oscar nominated for its screenplay, which is a supreme example of packing welters of story and characterisation into a script that allows a running time of less than ninety minutes. And it runs breathlessly, introducing its people and mining their nuances for comic effect, which more often than not works. But it’s also a satire, and beneath the fun rather an acerbic one, telling how capitalism pulls rank when faced with the possibility of progress that could halt its drip-feed of money.

Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a labourer in various textile mills around Greater Manchester who also happens to be a brilliant research chemist. His dream is to create an everlasting fibre, but with each job he ends up being sacked because of the materials bills he runs up. While working at Birnley Mill, he manages to land himself a research role (a dream for him, though he blithely ignores the fact it’s an unpaid position) along with the friendship of the propreitor’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). It’s she who persuades her father (Cecil Parker) to fund his research, and after several failed attempts – which result in explosions – he hits success. The fibre he invents is not only virtually indestructible, it can also repel any dirt that comes into contact with it.

Sidney, now hailed as a genius and a revolutionary for the textiles industry, has a brilliant white suit tailored especially for him from the fibre. Due to radioactive elements in the material, it has a luminous quality. But then the trouble begins. Other mill owners get wind of what’s happened and work out the obvious – that Sidney’s invention will spell the end of their industry. Over time, the suppressed workers of the mills realise this too can only have an adverse impact on their jobs. As a result they all try to stifle Sidney, first aiming to persuade him to sell his invention and ultimately resorting to keeping him locked up him before he can reach Manchester’s press offices and turn the miraculous fabric into public reality.

The film keeps its narrative light. Its first half covers Sidney’s determined efforts to continue his research, his tendency to fade into the background so that can avoid detection for as long as possible. When he’s funded, put out fellow researchers are herded into tiny, cramped rooms while he carries on, his experiments blowing up so that he can only activate them while hiding behind sandbags and wearing a Home Guard helmet. Later, as he’s kept under lock and key while the mill owners figure out what to do with them, he escapes and sparks a madcap chase through the working class streets, the night time offering no help to him as his suit glows irrepressibly in the dark. As is traditional with Ealing’s material, nobody ever gets hurt and the conclusion, while bittersweet, contains notes of optimism because it’s made clear the story doesn’t necessarily end here.

Despite that, The Man in the White Suit is a tale of complicated morality and the duplicity of big business. Sidney is portrayed largely as an innocent, devoid of any material ambitions, even to be paid for his work, because his goal is the loftier scientific ideal, and so he clashes irrevocably with the industrialists’ capitalist outlook. For their part he’s a threat, in particular when he makes it clear that he can’t be bought. Mr Birnley is the most beneficient of the mill owners, though to an extent that’s because he sees his company as owning Sidney’s contract. Also involved is Michael Gough, Daphne’s fiance and owner of a rival mill. The industrialists are led by Sir John Kierlaw, a decrepit but ghoulish figure played, in a delight of casting, by none other than Ernest Thesiger. It’s Sir John who outlines perhaps the owners’ darkest scheme, to pay Daphne £5,000 in order to make her seduce Sidney and get him to give up his secret formula. It’s a moment that’s subtly outlined in the film and no one says explicitly what they expect Daphne to do, but the underlying message is clear enough. Daphne plays along but is naturally appalled, not least with her fiance who joins the throng in asking her to go with it, putting his business interests ahead of their relationship. And of course it comes to naught. Sidney is unmoved and Daphne, relieved by his force of will, offers to help him escape.

Joan Greenwood could play morally dubious characters as she demonstrated in Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, but she’s largely straight edged here, though the glamour and especially the silky voice are present and correct. She easily outdoes the labourer, Bertha (Vida Hope), who through the smoke of Trade Union rhetoric and resentment is just as fascinated by Sidney as Daphne is. As for Guinness, in a standout role he remains single-minded throughout the story, as true to his work as he is to making it public, at no point thinking of himself but about the scientific achievement and its benefits. In some ways he’s the classic ‘little man’ battling forces much larger than himself, but Guinness wasn’t interested in playing Sidney as a straightforward hero, and added layers of nuance to his character. That’s why he can almost hide in plain sight, because he’s isn’t too conventionally good looking and – before wearing the suit – never draws attention to himself. And besides, Sidney comes across as a not altogether nice guy. He gives little back to both Daphne and Bertha, despite their interest in him, and his determination comes at the expense of any thought to others. His conscience is only pricked late in the film when Edie Martin, whose living is made from the banality of washing clothes, challenges him about where his invention will leave people like her.

Whether this is Mackendrick’s best film is tougher to answer. As with much of his disappointingly slim list of directorial credits, there’s a lot going on in The Man in the White Suit, yet it’s possible to enjoy it for its dry wit and the affection it has for its richly drawn characters without worrying overly about the darker elements dancing beneath the surface. While Mackendrick was ever at odds with Ealing Studios, especially as its fortunes faded in the mid-1950s, there’s something innately appealing about the work he did for them, the teasing at humanity, even if it’s shown in glimpses. Many argue that his masterpiece was his one significant Hollywood credit, Sweet Smell of Success, and though I’m certainly a big fan of it I think overall I might prefer the delicate balancing act between cynicism and optimism in the kindness of people that he portrayed in his five Ealing films.

And if all that isn’t enough, then consider that The Man in the White Suit was one big nose poke at the venerable Studio itself. Parker, playing Mr Birnley, was made to look like Ealing head, Michael Balcon, and asked to copy his mannerisms and even use some of his pet phrases.

The Man in the White Suit: *****

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: ***