Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 July (12.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

I suppose that like many 35-45 year olds, my first introduction to Ice Cold in Alex was via the aggressive marketing campaigns of branded lagers. Holsten Pils spliced Griff Rhys Jones into footage from The Great Escape. There was retaliation from Carling Black Label with a skit on the bombing scene off The Dambusters, playing on West Germany’s ability to win penalty shoot-outs by having a dam defender saving and parrying each bomb sent in his direction. Carlsberg responded with the simplest concept of them all, lifting the climactic scene of Ice Cold in Alex without edits and simply showing the bit where John Mills downs a glass of beer in a clearly branded glass. Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle and Harry Andrews look on admiringly as he finishes his drink and says ‘Worth waiting for.’

It’s a lovely advert and almost a happy accident for Carlsberg, whose name appeared on the glass because the film makers didn’t want to associate Mills’s beer with anything German, opting instead for the safe Danish brand. The commercial’s all the better because Mills looks so in need of his drink. It’s only in watching the film that it emerges this is entirely the case. The entire point of the picture, the moment is’s been building towards, even the title of the piece, refers to the perfect frosty one Mills anticipates when he reaches his destination.

Ice Cold in Alex was once dubbed ‘the ultimate British war film’ by Channel 4, and it’s therefore a surprise to find it challenging many stereotypes of the form. For one thing, Syms plays a strong, independent woman as opposed to the trapped, helpless female so typical of the genre. The love interest that develops between her nurse and Mills’s Captain Anson is a bit forced and obviously shoehorned in. Neither participant seems especially passionate about their budding romance and the whole plot development comes across as an afterthought, but that isn’t the defining aspect of her character. She mucks in with the lads and rarely lets the situation they’re all in overpower her, and it’s to both Syms’s and the film’s credit that the characterisation works. By all accounts, some of her scenes were reshot after she revealed too much cleavage in her clinches with Mills and indeed hers is a strangely buttoned down demeanour in the desert conditions of the film, but ultimately her lack of obvious sexiness adds credibility to her role.

Then there’s the depiction of the Nazis. Ice Cold in Alex takes place in the North African theatre of the early 1940s, as the battle lines shifted constantly along the Sahara desert. Mills and his fellows are driving a knackered old ambulance to Alexandria, making various detours as they attempt to avoid the Germans they fear could be waiting around any bend. As it turns out, they are – twice. And yet in both instances, the enemy lets them move on, they believe because they’re in a medical vehicle and pose no threat. The second nurse travelling with them is shot by the Nazis, but this is a result of the frayed Anson’s attempts to outrun them rather than through malice, and indeed the Germans are never made out to be the heartless monsters you might expect to find. As the story unravels, it becomes apparent that one of the travelling companions is also a Nazi, yet this character is every bit as helpful and genuinely warm-hearted as the others, and the film ends on the kind of sympathetic note that could only be struck in something made years after the war ended.

Mills does as much as any other element to subvert his own image as the clean cut British hero. Anson looks constantly ragged and strung out and is clearly teetering into outright alcoholism as a consequence of the stresses war has played on his nerves. He doesn’t always make the right choices, inadvertently killing one of the team thanks to his own reckless actions, and he shows signs of the tension overcoming him more than once. It helps that he looks tiny compared to the big men played by Andrews and Quayle, to whom he nevertheless dishes out his orders, and it’s the former’s dogged devotion to him that appears to keep Anson in charge.

The most famous moment in the film, apart perhaps from the lager drinking climax, is the team’s effort to guide their ambulance up a dune and beyond the depression they’ve traversed. The task has a futile, Sisyphusian edge to it, but it’s just one of several great bits. I especially like the passage when they cross a minefield, Quayle and Mills leading the ambulance on foot and using it as a sparring of egos between two strong men. The music stops and the long silences of the desert take over, punctuated only by the vehicle moving cautiously behind in first gear. The camera seems to track each faltering footstep, and then Quayle steps on something metal…

J Lee Thompson brought real suspense and a dry wit to the proceedings, more or less making up the minefield scenes as he went along to wring every last drop of tension from it. He brought many elements of Ice Cold in Alex to North West Frontier, made a year later and copying much of the ‘perilous road trip’ dimension despite a very different setting. Indeed, it even features a traitor within the ranks, though Herbert Lom’s nasty is a far less empathetic villain than the one depicted in this entry. It’s good fun, reminiscent of many a spare two-hour slot on the Saturday afternoons BBC2 used to fill with classic films, with excellent support from the stolid Andrews, and Quayle reining in many of his actorly excesses within a bravado-led role that could really have seen him let rip.

Ice Cold in Alex: ****

Victim (1961)

When it’s on: Thursday, 12 July (12.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Today’s matinée scheduling of Victim is a sign of the times. When it was made in 1961, this was a brave and controversial picture that turned people away thanks to its subject matter yet won critical acclaim and over time did much good.

Victim is on one level a crime film about blackmail, but it’s the people being extorted who matter. The early scenes are dominated by Boy Barrett (Peter McEnery), on the run for stealing money from his employer. Yet Barrett has little to show for his thievery and it emerges he needs the cash to pay off blackmailers. Largely shunned by those he turns to for help, the man ends up getting arrested and subsequently hangs himself in his police cell, just before the photographic evidence linking him with Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) can become public. Remorseful over Barrett’s death, Farr resolves to bring the blackmailers to justice, knowing full well that taking them to court will almost certainly spell the end of his prestigious legal career. Farr, despite his marriage to Laura (Sylvia Syms), is a closeted homosexual, and in early sixties’ Britain, ‘sexual behaviour between men’ was still very much a criminal act.

Gay people had never before been represented on the screen the way they were in Victim. Whilst the film comes across as sympathetic, what it really does is emphasise their normality, their very averageness. They present no threat to society, instead living their ordinary lives and forced to keep their sexuality a secret. As a distant study of repressed Britain, Victim pulls no punches. It must simply have been torturous to be homosexual and alive in such an era.

Bogarde wasn’t the first actor to be approached for the lead role. Jack Hawkins, who had worked with director Basil Dearden in the previous year’s The League of Gentleman, discretely turned it down. Others in the running included James Mason and Stewart Granger, and Bogarde was nobody’s idea of first choice after starring in a string of films that played up to his good, clean movie star looks. As it was, he relished the change. Bogarde was pushing 40 and sick of being offered parts for clean cut, younger men. His dignified performance in Victim – watch his face when the sympathetic Detective Inspector played by John Barrie speaks the word ‘homosexual’, the first time it had been uttered in a film – is revelatory. He plays Farr as a man weighed down with the burden of feelings he can’t express, which peels away cautiously as other characters accept him all the same.

The best bits are those between Bogarde and Syms. The pain expressed by both characters is right there on the screen, also the confusion over the fact they continue to have feelings for each other. By the end, the impression is of relief that theirs is an honest relationship, within which they can draw strength from each other.

Despite a wordy script, Dearden never lets Victim get suffocated with the weight of its political baggage. At heart, it’s still a crime flick, and whether that’s down to not overloading the audience with its ‘message’ or intending to make a thriller that just happens to focus on gays being blackmailed, the slow-burning tension is brought nicely to the boil. At the close, Barrie explains to Bogarde that he doesn’t have feelings about ‘this law against homosexuality [being] the blackmailer’s charter’, which suggests there was still some way to go before the law and, perhaps more importantly, the public attitude changed.

Victim: ***

The Moonraker (1958)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 16 May (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

England, 1951. The Royalists, rallying to the flag of Charles II, have lost the Battle of Worcester. Fleeing to the south coast with his Cavalier friends, King Charles (Gary Raymond) enlists the help of the Earl of Dawlish (George Baker), an adventurer who’s earned the smuggler’s nom de plume of Moonraker. With Roundhead Colonel Beaumont (Marius Goring) in hot pursuit, the Moonraker and Charles Stuart engage in a race against time to leave the country…

The Moonraker is a largely forgotten English take on the swashbuckler, and it’s easy to see why. Stuffing a series of sword fights, derring-do and a Civil War tilt on the Scarlet Pimpernel tale into its 79 minute running time, there’s not much that should have been allowed to go wrong. It had the cast (complemented by Sylvia Syms, John Le Mesurier and a rather shouty Patrick Troughton). The director, David MacDonald, was a veteran of budget quickies and B-movies who knew exactly how to keep the action rolling. The aim of the film was thrills, served fast and in large quantities; as Baker noted at the time, producing something of ‘a fine British Western.’

And yet forgettable it is, from the awful pop song ‘The Moonraker’ sung by Ronnie Hilton over the opening titles, to the weightless plot. The eponymous main character is quickly established as virtually invulnerable, considering the number of Roundhead soldiers he dispatches with a sword and a smile, and it seems clear he is channelling the spirit of that other English hero, Robin Hood as played by Errol Flynn. The only time he’s put in real jeopardy, as the result of a duel with Peter Arne’s Roundhead swordsman, he’s revived by Syms, here playing the betrothed of Beaumont. But she’s quickly won over by Dawlish’s charm and it becomes apparent the point of the sword fight was to place the soon-to-be lovers together. Elsewhere, the duelling is fairly perfunctory, lacking the urgency of many contemporary films and serving only to satisfy the promise of featuring them to begin with.

It’s a pity, as there’s a level of substance bubbling beneath the surface that the film seems to lack confidence in attaining. For a start, the level of historical accuracy is surprising. The fictional Moonraker might have been shoehorned into the story, but Charles’s flight to the continent following the lost Battle of Worcester really happened. He was pursued every step of the way, finding brief solace with sympathisers who gave him respite from his oncoming Parliamentary enemies. There’s a neat sense – especially from Goring and Syms – that the two sides in supposedly bitter enmity aren’t perhaps so very different; I wish this sentiment had been teased out a little more. Yet after hinting at such profundities, George Baker has another sword waved in his face, the orchestra strikes up and we’re lost once again in the action.

The Moonraker: **