Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Three Men in a Boat (both 1933)

The ongoing series of ‘Ealing Rarities’ being reissued by Network DVD aims to showcase the entire output of what was probably the nation’s most beloved film studios. Covering the entire period from when Basil Dean took over in 1929, through the Michael Balcon years (1938 onwards), then into the post-Ealing years when the name remained yet the studio location had changed, the series is a brave effort. As an attempt to show the historic development of the studios and its output, the collection is notable yet, from an entirely artistic point of view, a less charitable assessment has to be made: In short, some of the films are dreadful.

Volume 12 offers a contrast between one film that has little or nothing to recommend it (Three Men in a Boat) …
William Austin

… and one that is a bit of a surprise (Loyalties):

Basil Rathbone
In theory Three Men in a Boat had great potential: based on the wonderful and much loved Jerome K. Jerome novel, I was hopeful that this might be a long-forgotten little gem of British cinema. After all, there have been plenty in the Ealing series. But I was wrong … very, very wrong. It is truly awful.

Where do I begin? Well the cast doesn’t really inspire one, two of the three main characters (William Austin and Edmund Breon) ...

... are far too old for their roles whilst the third (Billy Milton) ...
Billy Milton

Billy Milton
 ... does nothing but smile smugly, wear too much make up and play the ukulele. And even the musical numbers he is given to perform are repetitive.

Is there anything good I can say about it? Yes, it’s short and Billy Milton wears some quite nice outfits. That’s it really!


Here’s who else who appears:

Davy Burnaby:

Iris March:

The film also offers us a sign of how much the times have changed, with Iris March telling Austin and Breon: “You look like a couple of nigger minstrels.”

Casual racism of the 1930s variety gets a much more rewarding treatment in Loyalties. Seeing the names Basil Dean and John Galsworthy together on screen was somewhat off-putting. After all, anyone who has seen the 1930 film Escape will consider those two names a combination that strikes terror into the hearts of any daring enter a cinema (or open a DVD box).

So, it is with enormous and unexpected relief that I can safely report that Loyalties is actually quite enjoyable. It’s the story of Ferdinand de Levis (Basil Rathbone) ...
Basil Rathbone
... a wealthy British Jewish man with an interest in horse racing, who struggles to be accepted by many among the strata of society he mixes with. Yes, they invite him to their house parties and engage in polite conversation, but his religion remains a subject for much underhand comment. He may be honest, but he isn’t ‘one of their own’, instead he’s ‘one of them’.
Made in period of both rising anti-Semitism and open concerns about violence of such emotions, the film is open in its criticism of the way some in modern British society continued to view Jews as outsiders. It’s contemporary setting challenged viewers to look at their own prejudices: this wasn’t just an issue from history, it was a modern problem – one that arose in a world of up-to-date apartments, cocktail parties and smartly tailored suits.

When de Levis is robbed of money whilst staying overnight with so-called ‘friends’, his suspicion immediately falls on Captain Dancy (Miles Mander) ...
Miles Mander
... a down-on-his-luck war hero with whom he is already at odds over a race horse that de Levis had purchased from him. When relationships are tested by the accusation, society closes ranks to protect Dancy, with everyone fearing a scandal more than they fear seeing de Levis being cheated. As he tells them, they are happy to “chase a man like a pack of hounds because he’s not of your breed.”
Fortunately, the film has a sense of balance: it’s not just the upper classes whose prejudices are revealed, as another character admits: “I don’t like Hebrews. They work harder, they’re more sober, they’re honest and they’re everywhere. I’ve got nothing against them, but the point is they get on so.”
Miles Mander & Basil Rathbone

After de Levis refuses to back down and publicly accuses Dancy the matter goes to court with Dancy suing his accuser for slander. In the course of the trial more is revealed about the background to the case and – no surprise – it is resolved to the audience’s satisfaction (unless, of course, the audience consists of rabid anti-Semites!).
Basil Rathbone
Basil Rathbone

It is also worth noting that Basil Rathbone looks fantastic in this film. He is supremely well-dressed, in a most simple style. His suits are well-fitting yet subtle. There is nothing caricatured about his style, with nothing that screams ‘Jewish’ at the audience. With his thick, black wavy hair, pencil moustache and sharp features, Rathbone epitomises the 1930s Hollywood star. It raises the question of whether Rathbone might easily have slipped into the role of leading man rather than forever being seen as Sherlock Holmes or in a villainous role.

Mind you, Miles Mander is also well dressed:

Also appearing are Alan Napier ...

... and Joan Wyndham ...

.... who appears in front of a rather stylish 1930s door handle:

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Yesterday’s Enemy (1959)
"The British don't do things like that."
Stanley Baker & Wolf Morris
Although Hammer are best known for their production of Gothic horrors, readers of this blog will know that it was within the rest of their output that the company’s most interesting and challenging films can be found. Ok, I’m deliberately avoiding mention of Mutiny on the Buses, but Taste of Fear, The Nanny, Paranoiac and Hell is a City are all notable films. And now, I would add to that list Yesterday’s Enemy.
Stanley Baker
The film started life as a controversial BBC television play which the author, Peter Newman, claimed was based on an incident that took place during the British retreat through Burma in 1942. Stanley Baker plays Captain Langford ...
Stanley Baker
... an officer in command of the survivors of a Brigade headquarters. He carries the burden of getting the men, including the wounded Brigadier (Russell Waters) back to the British lines.
Russell Waters
 Langford is forced to make difficult decisions after the group encounters civilians in a Burmese village occupied by Japanese soldiers. Finding a vitally important map showing Japanese positions, the captain is forced to confront the question of whether it is right to abuse prisoners and murder civilians – effectively committing war crimes – in order to decode the map and potentially save hundreds – if not thousands – of British lives? This brings him into open conflict with some of his fellow officers and does not shy away from showing the inner turmoil his decisions bring, both for himself and for the soldiers under his command.

Produced in 1959, at a time when both the British and American film industries were routinely producing films portraying the glories of war, Yesterday’s Enemy is a drama that confronts serious issues about the things soldiers are forced to do in wartime. It challenges the notion of the British as the ‘good guys’, showing both the British and the Japanese resorting to the same methods in order to achieve their aims. It also challenges British history, acknowledging crimes committed in the name of the British Empire. The anti-war message doesn’t stop there, with Stanley Baker’s Captain Langford challenging the views of the Padre (Guy Rolfe) and a war correspondent (Leo McKern) who both seem to approve of war but who don’t want to see its realities first hand. As Captain Langford tells them: "Don't you preach at me, if you want  help enlist God's aid ... You don't mind when a bomber pilot pushes a button and kills a few hundred civilians. You don't mind murder from a distance, so long as you personally are not involved."
Guy Rolfe

Leo McKern
The film's subject is as dark and bleak as what we see on the screen: there is no beauty in this jungle. Instead it's a place where daylight hardly penetrates through the damp and claustrophobic canopy of trees that hangs over them.
Gordon Jackson & David Lodge
Though filmed entirely within a studio that recreated jungle streams, thick foliage and a Burmese village, this small-scale drama effectively lets you know that ‘war is hell’ without resorting to Wagner, helicopter rides, pyrotechnics and a budget even bigger than the mumbling star’s belly. The message is not necessarily anti-war but forces the viewer to confront their understanding of where war takes a man. Effectively it’s a ‘soldiers’ film – one about fighting men who are real people rather than the caricatured heroes of Hollywood. Heroism is depicted as sometimes being stupid and cowardice – whatever that means – is examined as a natural human reaction. These are men who face a firing squad, not with defiance on their faces but with fear – and tears – in their eyes. Religion also comes under scrutiny, with its moralities and formalities being shown as luxuries that have to abandoned by the fighting man. As Captain Langford tells his sergeant (Gordon Jackson): "My concern is the living not the dead."
Gordon Jackson & Stanley Baker

From its opening, the sound of a scream – that sounds human but is actually a parrot – to the final off-screen execution of the British soldiers, it was a film the director Val Guest was openly – and quite rightly – proud of.

The film includes a notable and familiar supporting cast, including:
Gordon Jackson:
Bryan Forbes:
David Lodge
Percy Herbert

Burt Kwouk

Richard Pasco

This is a film that should be watched by all those with an interest in war films, especially those jaded by the unrealistic, glory hunting epics that surged out of Hollywood in the post-war years. It is currently available on DVD:


Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Man Who Finally Died (1962)
Nigel Green & Stanley Baker
Here's a rather odd film: what is it?
As I watched at first I thought it a spy drama, then I thought this is going to be about Nazi war criminals on the run - a sort of British Odessa File. Hang on, is it back to a spy thriller? Or is it an insurance fraud thriller? Wait a moment, we're back to the Cold War. This is getting confusing!
OK, let's get back to what we know - or at least, what I'm going to tell you because there's no way I'm revealing the ending, if you want to know that you'll have to watch it.
It starts in typical spy-drama circumstances: just like in an Eric Ambler novel, the central character finds himself unwittingly thrown into an international mystery that he seems fated not to escape from. So typically, he is a fish-out-of-water ...
Stanley Baker
... in this case a dark-glasses wearing, casually corduroy jacketed jazz musician adrift in small town Germany. It a curious peaceful version of Germany, yet bubbling under the surface are the ghosts of a war that had ended just 17 years earlier. As one character puts it: "Beneath the shining chromium and neon light the pain is still there."
Stanley Baker is the unlikely son a German officer who died in the war after Baker had been sent to live in the UK. Except that fifteen years later dad appears to have died again. When Baker receives this curious news he returns home to search for the truth. Except that no one wants him to know the truth. Not his father's most-recent wife ...
Mai Zetterling
... nor his old friend ...
Peter Cushing
... the local police ...
Nigel Green

Eric Portman
... the undertaker ...
Brian Wilde
... a mysterious insurance agent ...
Niall MacGinnis
... or even his old nanny:
Barbara Everest
It's a slightly dissatisfying film: the viewer feels cheated that eventually the story seems to drag their sympathies towards some unsavoury characters. Perhaps this simply reflects the post-war, Cold War, realities of the western powers having to accept former lower-level Nazis. Yet there is a darker side: what is the truth about Baker's father? And, in particular, what kind of man was Peter Cushing's character? What crimes had he committed? We are left with these doubts unresolved. Maybe that was pertinent in 1962, but for the modern viewer, more doubts remain.
Out of interest, whilst many scenes were filmed in Germany, others were shot in the UK. Here we see Baker visit his father's grave, supposedly in Germany but actually in Highgate cemetery. Here we see him outside the entrance to the Egyptian Avenue:
This earlier view is from Highgate cemetery's official website:
And when he visits Peter Cushing it is amidst the Gothic splendour of Oakley Court, just outside Windsor (a location most famous for its appearances in a number of Hammer films):

Here's a similar view from Oakley Court's website:

You can still see these statues outside the entrance to the hotel: