Thursday, 6 February 2014

Taste of Fear (1961)
(aka Scream of Fear)
"The best film that I was in that Hammer ever made."
Christopher Lee
If Psycho was Alfred Hitchcock's reaction to Les Diaboliques, then Taste of Fear was Hammer's reply to the same. Like Clouzot's 1955 French masterpiece, Taste of Fear is set in France, features a fragile leading lady and a creepy tale of psychological horror with a watery theme ...
... and just like Les Diaboliques, it is great.
So great, in fact, that I'm not going to write much about it. After all, if I have managed to get to 2014 without discovering the ending, it's only fair that you should do the same. So you are only getting the basics:
Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg - daughter of method acting guru Lee Strasberg) is the disabled daughter of a rich man living on the French Riviera.
Susan Strasberg

Susan Strasberg
After ten years away, she returns home to discover her father has gone away on business leaving her step-mother Jane (Ann Todd) in charge of the house:
Ann Todd
With no sign of her father, the rather frail Penny begins to suspect something is wrong and is suspicious of the sinister Dr Gerrard (Christopher Lee) ...
Christopher Lee
... who seems to spend rather too much time visiting Jane.
She soon recruits the sympathetic chauffeur Bob (Ronald Lewis) ...
Ronald Lewis
... in her quest to discover the truth.
When she spots her father one night ...
... is it sign that she is going mad? Or are her family playing tricks on her?
You want to find out? Then get yourself down to a DVD shop.
If you've read this blog before you might know that the author (i.e. me) has a growing regard for this film's director, Seth Holt. Let's face it, he made one of Ealing Studios best film - the often-overlooked Nowhere to Go - before going on to make this, one of the best films Hammer ever made. Two of the most highly regarded British production companies of the post-war era: Two of the best films to come out of those companies.
In short: Seth Holt was a great director. Let's face it, with Taste of Fear he made a film that challenges so many of the casual fan's view of what a Hammer film would be like: it's not until more than four minutes into the film that we even hear a word of English spoken.
Taste of Fear has a splendid sense of isolation; Ann Todd is subtly creepy as the (is she/isn't she?) wicked stepmother;
Ann Todd
Christopher Lee is in one of his favourite films;
Christopher Lee
... and Susan Strasberg is a suitably fragile heroine.
Susan Strasberg
Splendid stuff.
P.S. Leonard Sachs - later to become famous as the compere of The Good Old Days - appears as a solicitor.
Leonard Sachs
 This poster from the Belgian release is currently available from memorabilia dealer Greg Edwards:

Monday, 3 February 2014

Flame in the Streets (1961)
Made in the aftermath of the 1958 Notting Hill riots, Flame in the Streets is the story of one family's struggles with race relations. It tells the story of trade union leader Jacko Palmer (John Mills)...
John Mills

John Mills
... as he leads the struggle to get his union brothers to accept a West Indian worker Gabriel Gomez (Earl Cameron) ...
Earl Cameron
... as a foreman in the factory. If the union accepts him, he gets the job, if not then the post goes to one of the more established white workers.
However, fighting for the rights of a black worker is one thing, but Jacko struggles to accept the situation when he discovers his daughter Kathie (Sylvia Syms) is in love with a black school teacher Peter Lincoln (Johnny Sekka):
Johnny Sekka & Sylvia Syms

The situation is further complicated by the attitude of Jacko's wife Nell (Brenda De Banzie) ...
Brenda De Banzie
... who makes no attempt to conceal her dislike for the local immigrants. In a powerful moment she heaps scorn on her daughter, describing her as "No better than the whores in the High Street."
Whilst Jacko confronts his daughter and her boyfriend, in an effort get them to reconsider ...
Johnny Sekka & John Mills
... tensions build on the streets as white gangs confront the immigrants  ...
... leading to large fight at a bonfire party:
From the pen of Ted Willis (Dixon of Dock Green creator and future Lord Willis), the story is never one dimensional. A former communist, Willis presents characters of all colours as good and bad. Jacko struggles with his own feelings and tries to conquer prejudice. At the same time Peter Lincoln admits that he also holds prejudices. When slum landlord Jubilee (Dan Jackson) ...
Earl Cameron & Dan Jackson
... is attacked by the white gang, his own people - who he has been exploiting in the appalling slum houses he rents to them - fail to intervene. Similarly, when Gomez in confronted by the white gang it's local white men who intervene to prevent violence ...
... sending the youths away. Willis, the old communist, is presenting the traditional leftist view: the real conflict is the class struggle, not the conflict between the races.
Yet the story doesn't preach. Both sides have good and bad: Jacko is a good man, but not a good husband. Some of the black men Gomez knows at the factory think he will do them favours because they share the same colour skin ...
Earl Cameron (centre)
... without realising that he just wants to win respect from everyone by doing his job properly.
Maybe the film's finest moment comes when Gomez's pregnant wife Judy (Ann Lynn) ...
Ann Lynn
... tells Kathie about the type of life she will live as the wife of a black man: life will be tough; she'll be forced to live in the worst housing; she will lose friends and be estranged from family members; people will stare at her in the street. Whilst she states that her love for Gomez is strong enough to mean she has no regrets, there is a sense of sadness in her words that suggests a pang of regret that things didn't turn out differently. It is that sense of humanity that underpins so much of the film and which gives it a genuine sense of power.
Also look out for:
Gretchen Franklin (right) with Brenda De Banzie

Glyn Houston

Meredith Edwards
Barbara Windsor (left)
 ... and in particular, Wilfred Brambell:

Wilfred Brambell
In a piece of curious casting, Brambell plays Jacko's father. However, in reality John Mills was born in 1908, four years before Brambell who is supposed to be his dad. The age gap between Mills and Syms, as father and daughter (22 years), was an example of better casting - certainly better than in their previous appearance together in Ice Cold in Alex in which Syms was his girlfriend.
This is also one of those films where London itself is the star. The street scenes, mostly filmed around Camden, give a good impression of the times, in particular the crumbling housing stock:

Many of the street scenes, including the final fight scene, were filmed around the junction between Hawley Road and Hawley Street in Camden.
The area is now greatly changed: Here's the pub on the street corner ...
... which has now been turned in flats:
P.S. Is this cinema's first inter-racial swimming scene?

Johnny Sekka & Sylvia Syms


The Man in the Sky (1956)
(aka Decision Against Time)
Jack Hawkins
This is a rather unusual film: the story of a test-pilot and his attempts to keep a damaged aircraft in the air long enough to use up sufficient fuel to allow him to land safely on one engine, so that the problem can be fixed and the company can win an order that will stop it going out of business.
So, you say, what's so unusual about that? Quite simply this: around one third of the film is shot in real-time, the drama is played out in periods of silent tension and, when the tension is finally broken, there are absolutely no hysterics.

Anyone know the man on the left? Walter Fitzgerald, Ernest Clark, John Stratton and Russell Waters

Walter Fitzgerald, Ernest Clark & John Stratton
When the plane finally lands safely, there are no scenes of joyous excitement. The pilot, John Mitchell (Jack Hawkins) isn't carried shoulder high by celebrating airfield staff. In short, this isn't Top Gun - you'll find no scenes of back-slapping homoeroticism here. Instead, Hawkins climbs into his car, drives home, picks up the laundry ...
Jack Hawkins
... sits in isolation, argues with his wife ...   
Jack Hawkins & Elizabeth Sellars
... then telephones an estate agent to put an offer on a house. As simple as that. He an extraordinary man, with an ordinary life.

I know that Jack Hawkins is hardly one of the UK's most popular ever actors, and some critics have been very harsh about his talents, but here Hawkins is perfect. Like The Cruel Sea, The Man in the Sky is a tale of someone struggling with life in the most extreme circumstances. Everyone is relying on him and he can't help but struggle under the weight of expectation and responsibility. And that is when directors always seemed to get the best out of Hawkins.

In many ways there are similarities between the characters played by Hawkins in both The Cruel Sea and The Man in the Sky: Both are men who will do their utmost to withstand pressure, to combine doing their duty with what they consider to be right. They seem able to attain greatness but struggle to handle recognition.  Both are men who are somehow disappointed and dissatisfied with their situation: in The Cruel Sea Captain Ericson would prefer to still be in charge of a Merchant Ship, responsible only for his own crew, whilst John Mitchell is a test-pilot growing old in a world surrounded by pilots who saw operational service in wartime, whilst he was fated only to serve as a flight instructor despite his attempts to see action. In the film his assistant test-pilot is even an ex-RAF pilot who he had trained. And both Ericson and Mitchell are characters on the brink of cracking under the strain they have taken upon their shoulders.

Jack Hawkins
 In a way, the film has a continental feel to it. Don't ask me to explain that, but it somehow doesn't feel British - and certainly doesn't have an ounce of Hollywood about it. The finest point is the note prepared by Mitchell for his wife at the point he thinks he might die: although the existence of the note is pivotal, the audience finds out what he had written.

I noted from the credits that Seth Holt was an associate producer on the film. As the man who directed one of my all-time favourite Ealing films - Nowhere To Go - and two of the best Hammer productions - Taste of Fear and The Nanny - maybe it's simply that he has the magic touch (for me at least).

In many ways, it has a distinctly modern feel in the way it handles the reaction of witnesses to the incident: Understandably, the staff at the airfield come out to watch what is happening. After all, this is man they know risking his life to save the company. However, a journalist arrives but realises there will be no story unless the plane crashes. Similarly, a group a cyclist arrive to watch, only to depart the moment they realise they wont be treated to drama.

Howard Marion-Crawford
Also appearing are:
Elizabeth Sellars & Catherine Lacey

Megs Jenkins

John Stratton as the co-pilot Peter Hook (who also appeared as a subordinate to Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea and The Long Arm)

Victor Maddern & Lionel Jefferies

Eddie Byrne

Donald Pleasance (with Eddie Byrne & Jack Hawkins)
Also of note, from a period perspective, was the lack of health & safety for car passengers when Mitchell takes his children for a ride. it reminds me of the days when children could move about at will in a car:

For those interested in this sort of thing, the plane is a Bristol Type 170 Mark IIA:

In the words of Keith M. Johnston, a lecturer of film and television studies at the University of East Anglia: "this remains a fascinating film, and one that should be better known among the Ealing canon."

I agree.
 Currently available on DVD.
 This poster from the film's US release is currently available from Greg Edwards: