Sunday, 24 January 2016

Murder in Soho (1939)
With it's opening montage of London scenes: Piccadilly Circus ...
...gamblers ...
... prostitutes ...
... and the inevitable drunks ...
... the audience is inevitably drawn into one of the city's more notorious quarters: Soho.
For so long a mecca for thrill seekers and a centre for criminality and prostitution, the Soho of the 1930s was a genuinely dangerous place. The sanitised version of the 21st Century is a far cry from the world where readers of the News of the World were treated to regular updates of the scandals lurking in the very heart of London. So it comes as no surprise that film makers would want a piece of the action - especially since the industry itself was based on Wardour Street which runs through the heart of the district.
Therefore, it comes as a surprise that this late thirties feature is something of a mixed bag. Yes, it's the story of an American gangster come nightclub owner (Jack La Rue) ...
Jack La Rue
... and comes complete with vicious sidekicks ...
Arthur O'Connell & Esmon Ryan
... and double-crossing villains ...
Francis Lister
... but the film seems uncertain of its direction. The villainy is acceptable by the period's standards but there is a heavy dose of humour running through the film, such as a recurring comedy drunk ...

... and even a food fight featuring the comically named 'Miss East India Dock Road':
This dose of humour also includes Googie Withers in an early role as a comically tarty half of a duo of nightclub entertainers:
Googie Withers

James Hayter & Googie Withers
This emphasis on comedy certainly increases the entertainment levels but leaves one imaging what the filmmakers might have done with a genuinely gritty expose of Soho lowlifes of the interwar years. it also leaves a modern audience wondering whether the censors were sensitive about a graphic interpretation of the area.
The film's female lead is the wonderfully named Sandra Storme:
Jack La Rue & Sandra Storme

She made just five films between 1937 and 1937, then made two early TV movies (including a version of Patrick Hamilton's play Rope). She married in 1939 and appears to have stopped acting. In 1949 she married for a second time to a man with what appears to be the world's longest, and possibly most ridiculous, name: Richard Francis Roger Yarde-Buller, 4th Baron Churston of Churston Ferrers and Lupton.         
Also appearing are:
Bernard Lee
Drue Leyton
Martin Walker
Robert in his second onscreen appearance:
Robert Beatty & Sandra Storme
Despite the film's internal confusion over whether it wants to be a crime drama or a comedy, it is a very easy film to watch and is genuinely entertaining in a sort of 'lazy weekend' way.
It is currently available on DVD:
His Excellency (1952)
Eric Portman
His Excellency is an interesting film that is wholeheartedly of its time. No, let me rephrase that: His Excellency is a film that is wholeheartedly 'of its time' when it was in production but which, by the time of its release in 1952, was a year too late. With the return of a conservative government in October 1951, this tale of an ex-docker George Harrison (Eric Portman) ...
... appointed as the governor of a British colony, the film was already out of date. The idea of a Labour government appointing a 'man of the people' to oversee a troublesome colony was a relevant comic device that would have resonated with audiences in the late 1940s.
The film starts out as a light hearted 'fish out of water' comedy: put a man in a place where he is unsuited to the lifestyle and then watch as he becomes a tool to expose the hypocrisies of those around. It's a device used in films as diverse as Mr Deeds Goes To Washington or Crocodile Dundee. Here we have the socialist thrown into a world of grand offices ...
Eric Portman
... and having to deal with Sir James Kirkman, a diplomat from the Colonial Office (Cecil Parker) ...
Cecil Parker & Eric Portman
... who has his own ideas about running a colony. They are from two separate worlds: when Sir James tries to warn Harrison against addressing a group of striking dockworkers he tells him: "They wont' be like a British crowd." To which Harrison replies "Ever been to a Clydeside meeting?"
Harrison is also an ex-soldier - a sergeant in the First World War - who now inspects the garrison alongside a general ...
... and finds himself suddenly having the power to order the arrest of the admiral (Edward Chapman):
Edward Chapman & Clive Morton
When Harrsion decides to get the troublesome admiral transferred, he knows he can do it because - although he didn't go to Eton - he and the current head of the Admiralty did claim the dole from the same office back in 1931. It's the 'old boys' network turned upside down.
Filmed in Sicily, the story is set on a fictional Mediterranean island called 'Arista' although with its naval dockyards and military garrison it is clear that the film is supposed to represent an amalgam of Gibraltar and Malta.
The film's problem is that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. The promise of a 'fish out of water' comedy is soon lost. The observations of the ladies of the local English tea rooms ...
... soon expose the problem of a socialist straying into their world. If the governor has to be a socialist, he should at least be one of the right sort - like their friend's son who "picked up a lot of odd ideas" at university: "you at least know what stable he came out of." However Harrison isn't one of the right sort, its as if his character challenges not only theses genteel ladies but also challenges the film makers: he's a difficult character and they don't know what to do with him. So instead of continuing the comedy the film changes direction and heads off to look at the challenges of the post-colonial world.
In many ways Harrison can be seen as a later version of the role played by Eric Portman in the 1944 film Millions Like Us: an idealistic socialist Yorkshireman with clear ideas of what the world's future should look like. The questions he raised in that earlier film have now been answered and he has the ability to help change the world for the better. it's an optimistic message for what were optimistic times.
Harrison is a socialist who is, in the eyes of the world, the oppressor of his colonial subjects. Yet he has no sympathy with the island's tax-avoiding elite who seem destined to take control when the inevitable happens and British rule comes to an end. Instead, he sympathises with the local workers ...
... who are struggling to make ends meet and agitating for an end to British rule. The film strays into deeper territory when it exposes the corruption of local trade union leader, Morellos (Geoffrey Keen):
Harrison's direct appeals to the workers, in which he presents himself as being on their side rather than against them, ...
... are a challenge to the notion that colonial control cannot be for the best. His situation also raises the question of the how colonial control should best be ended: who is best qualified to set the agenda for a future independent state? Its own reactionary elites or a distant colonial, but forward thinking, overlord?
Unfortunately the film raises more questions than it answers.
Also appearing are:
Howard Marion Crawford:
Victor Maddern:
Susan Stephen:

 John Salew:
Gerard Heinz:

Helen Cherry:

His Excellency is currently available as part of Volume 10 of the Ealing Studios Rarities Collection. It's one of the best of the collection since it features the wonderful but long-forgotten Saloon Bar and the emotionally draining The Divided Heart:
This poster is currently available from 'Rare Film Posters':


Saturday, 23 January 2016

Guns of Darkness (1962)
Even the most ardent fan of cinema should be aware of how many 'forgotten' films are out there: there are the films you have seen; the films you are expected to have seen; and the films that no one ever seems to remember. Guns of Darkness falls into that final category. Set in the South American 'Republic of Tribulocion', this is a would-be 'big film' that has left a small impression.
It's the sort of film whose title would make a 10 year old boy sit in front of television on a Tuesday evening in 1975, filled with excitement, only to be bored within five minutes. I probably was that ten year old, but - if so - it's not a film I can remember.
Guns of Darkness suggests plenty of action - instead we get the story of a couple, Tom and Claire Jordan (David Niven and Leslie Caron) ...
 ... who are bored each and bored of their life. He drinks too much, whilst he moans about her smoking:

His lack of ambition, her lack of children, their expatriate lifestyle in South America, where life revolves around parties where they see the same old faces, doing the same old things, in a tired routine of mimicking the life back home, has left them on the brink of splitting up. As Claire tells Tom: "You used to be funny and alive - Now you are just drunk and bitter."
Redemption comes in the form of a coup against President Rivera (David Opatoshu) ...
... organised by an army officer, Hernandez (Derek Godfrey):
With the other British expats too concerned about their position within the country, and frightened of upsetting the new leadership in case their business interests are seized, it falls to Tom and Claire to rescue the president:
There is little action, however the film does offer Niven and Caron to play characters that are quite reflective of reality: both are actors past their prime, playing characters whose lives are directionless. Niven is no longer the dashing young lead whilst Caron is no longer the vibrant youth who so captured the imagination in Gigi.
By the end of the film, their efforts have paid off. Regardless of what happens to President Rivera or his country - regardless of whether the other British residents of Tribulocion are going to be safe - Tom and Claire are bought closer together and realise there are more important things in life than their personal problems:
The roles suit them; he doesn't try to be an action hero and she doesn't try to be a siren. They are ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. The trouble is that there relationship is more interesting than the rest of the film. As a film about Brits caught up in a South American revolution, I think I'd rather have watched Morecambe and Wise in The Magnificent Two.
It's currently available from Network DVD: