The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Britain 1943

BBC 2 Sunday April 26th at 12 noon.

This is a film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; arguably the most imaginative British filmmakers to work in our mainstream industry. The 1940s was the great decade for the duo with a string of master-works that were both popular and ground breaking. The pair had their own production company, ‘The Archers’, with the famous logo of an arrow striking a target.

The ‘Colonel Blimp’ of the title was well known in war-time Britain; a character in a cartoon series by David Lowe which satirized the traditionalist British military. Powell and Pressburger transformed the character though they cleverly retained aspects of the series as with the Turkish bath sequence that opens the film.

At this point the ‘Blimp’ character, Clive Candy [Roger Livesey) has come out out retirement to manage the newly organised Home Guard. He retains traditional military attitudes which come into conflict with the modern and ruthless attitudes of a young brash regular army lieutenant. The action leads into a flashback which traces Clive career and personal life from the Boer War period.

This, the main part of the film, is partly a war story, partly a romantic drama, but also a moving portrait of ageing, devotion and friendship. The friendship is with a member of the German military, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The devotion involves a series of women, Edith, Barbara and Angela, all played by Deborah Kerr.

The cast are superb. Roger Livesey also played the lead in the later and equally fine I Know Where I’m Going (1945). Deborah Kerr was the lead in several films by Powell and Pressburger, notably Black Narcissus (1945). And Anton Walbrook played the far less sympathetic ‘’Svengali’ producer Boris Lemontov in The Red Shoes (1948).

Walbrook – Livesey – Kerr.

Whilst Clive Candy’s career and personal-life are full of interest there is also a strong thematic current. This is the critical examination of the mores of war when Clive commenced his career at the turn of the century and those now required by the current European war against the ruthless Nazi regime. The film manages to marry this critical perspective with an emotional interest in Candy and his friends and his loves.

The film runs 183 minutes, but I never found this a long film to watch. As is the case with really talented film-makers, Powell and Pressburger had a fine eye for skilled craft people. The Technicolor cinematography by Georges Perinal is excellent. The Production Design by Alfred Junge together with the Costumes by Joseph Bato are very fine. And there is clear crisp editing by John Seabourne with well-scored musical track Allan Gray.

The film has undergone two restorations over the years. Contemporary 35mm prints enjoy a high standard of colour and definition. This film is screening on BBC HD which should do sufficient justice to the original. And be thankful. Winston Churchill disliked the film but his efforts to stop the production were in vain. Whilst the British public liked the film which came fourth in the 1943 box office.

 

 

Cheer up with Ealing Comdedies

Three of the finest contributions to British cinema have been Powell and Pressburger, British Documentary and the output of this famous studio from 1945 until 1955. If you want an excellent overview then the book to read is Charles Barr’s study, [a Movie Book, 1980 and 1993, Leeds Central Library have a copy when they reopen]. This is of a comparable quality to many of the best titles produced at Ealing.

As Stephen pointed out BBC 2 is screening one of the comedy classics every day this week. Three of them are, to mine mind, among the great classics of our own film industry.

The Man In The White Suit

BBC2 Tuesday 3.25 p.m.

1951, black and white, 85 minutes.

This is a superb film which is effectively a science fiction drama. It was directed by one of the finest film-makers in Britain in this period, Alexander Mackendrick. The director also worked on the script with two experienced writers John Dighton and Roger Macdougal.

Alec Guinness, in a decade that saw a string and variety of fine performances, plays inventor Sydney Stratton, with a new miraculous cloth. There are a fine cast of supporting players including Joan Greenwood, she of the memorable husky voice, as the romantic interest; as a key mill owner; Cecil Parker, the embodiment of pomposity; and a delightful cameo by Ernest Thesiger, as a wily capitalist

The invention has both positive and negative aspects, and this fuels the drama. The research laboratory sequences are marvelous and this film is replete with not only visual but also aural humour. The finale, with the joining of forces of both capital and labour, is a subtle critique of the entire British establishment.

Whisky Galore!

BBC2 Thursday, 3.35 p.m.

1949, black and white, 92 minutes.

Another masterwork from Alexander Mackendrick and on this occasion working on the script with Angus Macphail and the author of the source novel, Compton Mackenzie. This film enjoys another performance by Joan Greenwood, accompanied by a fine supporting cast including Gordon Jackson, James Robertson Justice and, as the film’s fall guy, Basil Radford.

The population of the small island of Toddy relish their malt whiskey but wartime brings restrictions. Then a miracle; a transport ship, laden with export whisky, is driven ashore, The rest of the film depicts the ploys of the islanders to rescue and enjoy the precious liquid whilst the authorities, representing far away Whitehall, attempt to recover the salvage.

This is a different type of comedy from The Man in the White Suit. At times whimsical and at time almost farcical, this is delightful portrait of a small, intimate community. The film manages to combine some sort of moral with a celebration of Scottish island culture. Presumably there will be many member of the Scottish National Party enjoying this outing.

The Lavender Hill Mob

BBC2 Friday 3.30 p.m.

1951, black and white, 81 minutes.

This is a fine heist movie; written by one of the key writers in the Ealing of this period, T. E. B. Clarke. The film was directed was Charles Crichton; his later A Fish Called Wanda (1988) is on BBC 1 next Sunday evening.

Once again Alec Guinness stars, this time as the ‘mastermind’ of the robbery of a van of gold bulletin. He is supported by Stanley Holloway and as fellow criminals Sid James and Alfie Bass. John Gregson makes an early appearance as the representative of law and order.

The film is told in a flashback and the opening sequence features a cameo by Audrey Hepburn, stopping off in Britain on her way to Hollywood. The plotting is ingenious, in particular the method used to dispose of the stolen merchandise. And the final chase sequence has some inspired moments.

These three titles are all representative of a particular period and a particular interpretation of this ‘sceptred isle’. But they all subtly undermine this representation.

What to do on Saturday night

BBC2 (HD) Saturday March 21st at 9 pm and 10:40 pm.

Stay Home, walk the dog, watch …

My condolences to fellow cineastes, but the closure of the Hyde Park Picture House has only come forward by a week or so. And the development work will continue. So there is a future after the crisis.

Fortunately terrestrial television is still screening a few quality films and on HD channels; two of these you may have seen at the Hyde Park. Both are well worth revisiting. The two films are fairly different but both privilege performances by two of the finest actresses in English language cinema. Both were circulated to cinemas on 2K DCPs so on TV HD the loss of quality is less than with 35mm film. They were though both shot on wide screen formats so they will be reduced.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

UK, 2017.

In fact this title offers two great Hollywood leading ladies; with Annette Bening playing the earlier star Gloria Grahame as she finds solace in later life and illness in one of Britain’s most distinctive cities. Gloria Grahame was a fine and attractive actress in the late 1940s and 1950s with a persona that fitted well in film noir; think In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Big Heat (1953). This story takes place between 1979 and 1981 when Grahame, acting in Britain, starts a relationship with a minor actor Peter Turner (James Bell). Later he takes her back to his home in Liverpool. The film apparently closely follows Turners own memoir of the same title.

The story is well acted by the leads and develops real emotion. And the film makes good use of Liverpool locations and a studio recreated California. A fine drama that only enjoyed a limited release.

You can read a fuller review;

Personal Shopper

France, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium, 2016.

This film was written and directed by the French film-maker Oliver Assayas. He had Kristen Stewart in his mind as leading actor. He had already worked with her on Clouds of Sils Maria (2014); a film in which Stewart performed alongside Juliet Binoche. This was another fine film with both actors turning in excellent and convincing performances.

The ‘Personal Shopper’ of the title is Maureen (Stewart) who buys clothes and jewellery for a super-model Kyra. There are some intriguing sequences where Maureen selects commodities for her employer, not seen until late in the film. This is a situation in which a young American woman, with a strong sense of style, provides services for a wealthy and pampered celebrity. This aspect harks back to Clouds of Sils Maria.

However, the meat of the story is a dead relative and their house, apparently haunted. This is Lewis, Maureen’s recently deceased twin brother, with whom she shared both a heart condition and an interest in spiritualism. It is the exploration of this ‘other world’ that occupies most of the movie. There is though crime/thriller plotting late in the movie.

What the film does effectively is to conjure up the ‘other’ world, full of ambiguities for both the protagonist and for the viewer. Stewart is excellent; her performance here and in Clouds of Sils Maria made me go back and check out one of the ‘Twilight’ series. I was also impressed by her skills in the 2014 Still Alice.

The Guardian offered the release five stars, calling it

“uncategorisable yet undeniably terrifying”

I did not find the film at all terrifying though it does generate a disturbing air at times. But it is fascinating and fits more or less into the ‘haunted house’ / ‘ghost story’ genre. The languages – English, French, Swedish and German – have English subtitles where needed.

Bait, Britain 2019

Fri 6th December at 8.50 pm, Sun 8th December at 8.30 pm and  Wed 11th December at 1.30pm and 6.30 pm

This new independent British film returns to the Picture House in a 35mm print. It was shot on a 16mm Bolex and the director, Mark Jenkin, processed the film himself. It seems that he wanted to make the film look like older titles that originated on ‘reel’ film and in the processing added some of the signs of age and usage with scratches and the like. It first circulated on a digital transfer and, to be  honest, the effects that Jenkin aimed at did not translate to that format; they looked artificial. On 35mm the 16mm original should look as intended; so this is a film worth revisiting if you have already seen it.

It is a powerful drama set in a Cornish village. The film, through the use of camera techniques such as large close-ups and a non-linear narrative develops a intense feel  and effect. The village in this film is an old fishing port which has now become a summer venue for holiday-makers. The conflicts generated by these two separate worlds are personalised in two leading characters, brothers born and raised in the village.

The form and the style of the film is at times challenging but always absorbing. It is definitely a stand out film drama from this year’s selection of British film. And, like the earlier and equally fine  Gods Own Country  (2017), finds drama and compelling characters away from the urban settings that are more common in film stories.

The Last Tree, Britain 2019

Screening on the coming Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday

This is the second feature both written and directed by Shola Amoo. It is fine production, beautifully put together. The cast are good with a fine leading performance by Sam Adewunmi as Femi. The film follows his development as a young boy with a foster-parent, through life with his actual mother up until his late teens. The setting move from rural Lincolnshire to urban inner-city London. Visually and aurally the film is a pleasure. There is fine cinematography by Stil Williams, fine editing by Mdhamiri Á Nkemi and excellent sound design by a team of engineers.

The narrative and representations are less sure. Both the supporting characters and the settings tend towards stereotypes. This is partly because they are undeveloped; for example, we never really get a proper back-story either for the foster-parent or for Femi’s actual mother. Underneath some distinctive settings and plotting there is a fairly conventional narrative.  The music is judicious but I think that it [deliberately] emphasises the conventional aspects of the story.

The script uses a number of extended ellipsis and I think this introduces an element of fragmentation into Femi’s story. This seems to me an example where the director would have benefited from a fellow scriptwriter.

Even so it is an absorbing title and is great to both watch and listen to. And the subject is both interesting with a contemporary relevance. Definitely worth going to see at the cinema as it is in both colour and full widescreen.

Performance (UK 1970)

Saturday July 27th 5.30 p.m.

This is both a cult movie and a seminal British film. Chas, (James Fox) is an East End gang member who collects protection money. When his methods result in a killing he goes on the run and hides out in Notting Hill Gate basement, where, upstairs there is a ménage à trois. Chas becomes involved in the hedonistic activities at the house and, in particular with an ex-rock musician Turner (Mick Jagger).

The film became infamous for its melee of explicit violence, sex and drug-taking. The 1970s also became infamous for the clash between adventurous film-making and conservative values, embodied in another British film The Devils (1971) and the campaign against it by an organisation called ‘The Festival of Light’.

This film was produced by Warner Brothers, who also were involved in the equally controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971). The studio executives did not know how to manage the film and enforced cuts in the finished property. The British Board of Film Censorship [as it then was] made more cuts. On release it received an ‘X certificate’ whilst in the USA it received an ‘R’ rating. It received similar certificates in other territories and often additional cuts. The USA release suffered the further indignity of having some cockney dialogue being dubbed [re-voiced]; a fate also experienced by the radically different Kes (1969).

Two people received director credits. Donald Cammell, a bona fide maverick, who wrote the screenplay and was also associate producer. He was born in Edinburgh in the ‘Outlook Tower’ later home for a ‘Camera Obscura’; how apt. Cammell started out as a painter, took up script-writing and then Performance. This is his most famous and successful film; later works have a similar combination of the exotic and the erotic, but not the acclaim.

His fellow director was Nicolas Roeg. He was born in London; and also appropriately nearly opposite the old Marylebone Film Studio, used at one point by Hammer Films. He started out as a cinematographer and indeed shot this film. He went onto direct several successful and highly praised films, including Don’t Look Now (1973), screened in a digital version here last week. He had an unconventional style of film photography. One critic, Steve Rose, remarked that his films

“shatter reality into a thousand pieces” .

His film work, as in this title, is always memorable.

The film runs 105 minutes in colour and black and white, and in the European widescreen ratio. This screening presents the restoration by the BFI from 2004 in 35mm.

The background to the film and its handling by the industry and censors will be illuminated in the Q&A that follows with Sanford Lieberson, the producer on the film. His other work includes a number of documentaries including the very fine ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime (1975). He will be accompanied by Jay Glennie who has produced a book; ‘Performance: 50th Anniversary Book’.

Red Joan, Britain 2018

Sun 2nd June 3.00 p.m., Wed 5th June 11.00am [BYOBaby] and 1.20pm

This is the story of a fictional character, Joan Stanley, who in the 1940s passed secret information to the Soviet Union. However, it and the novel from which it is adapted, are based on the life of a actual historical character, Melita Norwood. Norwood was exposed publicly in 1999 when information from an ex-Soviet agent and now-defector revealed her past activities.

The film version presents the story in a fairly conventional-style narrative [warning – plot spoilers]. The film opens with the arrest of Joan (Judi Dench) by Special Branch in 1999. Then we view a series of interrogations which are intercut with flashbacks by Joan to the 1930s and 1940s. The interrogations fill out the action in 1999 where information has led to the exposure of a senior Foreign Office official as well as Joan. The flashbacks presents Joan’s personal life and then her spy activities. At Cambridge ‘Young Joan’ (Sophie Cookson) meets glamorous European émigré Sonya Galich (Teresa Srbova) and cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes). Both are communist activists.

Continue reading

Out of Blue, (Britain / USA 2018)

Wed 24th April at11.00 a.m. [BYOBaby], 8.30 p.m. and Thu 25th April at 5.30 p.m.

This movie has received mixed reviews. But Mark Kermode, whose visits to the Picture House have been very popular, was really positive. The drama presented in this title is rather unconventional. The narrative mixes objective scenes [the audience assume we are watching a record of realistic events] and subjective scenes [a character’s internal memories and musings] and it is likely to take time for viewers to be able to clearly distinguish them. The plot also mixes actions by characters with philosophical musings by them.

The latter aspect is exemplified by the opening sequence which commences with the night sky and an astronomer speculating on the cosmos. This would appear to be a homage to the British film masterpiece, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (1946). It also sets up a treatment of the characters and their experiences which suggest issues of existential consideration.

On the surface this is a story of a murder investigation shot in a noir manner, with a world of chaos, a ‘seeker’ hero, flashbacks, triangles of relationships and nights and chiaroscuro. The setting is New Orleans and the production makes good use of the varied character of this city, which at times has an exotic tinge. It is though a symbolic city and despite location filming it is not the city seen in contemporary news. Visually the film is treat. The colours are evocative and suggestive, not just the ‘blue’ of the title but a range of tones which match the different facets of the city. The cinematography, in colour and a ratio of 2.35:1, by Conrad Hall is excellent and the title is well served in all production departments.

The other compelling aspect of the film is the performance of Patricia Clarkson as detective Houlihan, the investigator. This is a tour de force. I actually pay little attention to the Academy Awards but this performance deserves a Best Actor trophy. It is also a still rare pleasure to see an older actress with a lead role in a thriller.

This is the latest movie by Carol Morley. Her Dreams of a Life (2011) stood out amongst recent British documentaries. Mark Kermode commented that she was ‘born a film-maker’. I actually think that quality film-makers develop by commitment and hard work, attention to detail and a serious study of cinematic form. Carol Morley seems to have done all of this. And, uncommon among the ‘new auteurs’, she has mastered both the direction of film and script-writing for film.

The film is adapted from a novel by Martin Amis, ‘Night Train’ (1997) though, apparently, changing the tone and the plot. Amis’ novel aimed to be a parody, this is a fairly bleak film noir. It was mainly funded by the BBC and the BFI. This may be part of the reason that it stands out in productions by British directors working on US-based stories. Frequently such films are a disappointment and less satisfying than earlier British-based stories by the same film-maker. Here Carol Morley succeeds with a really effective treatment which also develops some of the themes found in her earlier works.

Definitely a film to see. Mark Kermode suggests it repays seeing more than once; I fully agree. If you do enjoy it there is an article, ‘Under Investigation’, privileging the female protagonist in the April edition of Sight & Sound, and followed by an interview with Carol Morley.

Cinema and Film Heritage

This Sunday, September 10th, film fans have a chance to explore the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Heritage Open Day. Between 1000 and 1500 they can enjoy the beauty of the cinema auditorium, one of the finest surviving examples in Britain, with its distinctive gas lighting. There will also be conducted tours of the Projection Room every half-an-hour: including the 35mm projectors, fine specimens of a species that is in danger of extinction. These tours will be a little like the recently screened German silent film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927:  just as the Berlin of 1927 is no longer, the Picture House will soon be remodelled thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund Award.

Appropriately there will also be a screening of 35mm films. There will all be the work of the ‘Poet of British Cinema’, Humphrey Jennings. His films are beautifully crafted and imaginative portraits of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s.

There will be Spare Time (1939, 13 minutes) a film that reflected the work of Mass Observation, a pioneering sociological research movement of the period. The film visits several regions in 1930s Britain to examine the culture of ordinary working people. The commentary is by Laurie Lee, another poet. I especially enjoy the sequence with the Welsh choir.

Then the wartime film Words for Battle (1941, 8 minutes): documentary footage of Britain during the Blitz is accompanied by a selection of poetry and prose read by Lawrence Olivier.

The Silent Village (1943, 36 minutes) is a retelling of the massacre by the Nazi occupiers of the villagers of Lidice in 1942. This was notorious event early in the war. The film relocates the story to Wales to increase the immediacy of the barbarity.

And finally Listen to Britain (1942, 20 minutes) is one of the true masterpieces of British cinema. Jennings weaves a tapestry of documentary footage, dialogue, sound and music to present the Home Front of a Britain at War.

All these films are in black and white. Note that the last three all enjoy the editing of Stewart McAllister, not always credited but a key colleague in Jennings’s film work. Also important are the regular cameraman H. E. Fowle and the sound engineer Ken Cameron. All contributors to these heritage classics.

Dunkirk, Netherlands, UK, France, USA 2017

Opens on Friday  July 21st at 6.15 p.m.

This is the new film directed by Christopher Nolan. He is not only an extremely talented filmmaker but also one who appreciates the superior qualities of ‘reel’ film. In an interview in Sight & Sound (August 2017) he explained that

“The entire film is shot on 65mm film. Seventy per cent of the film is 15 perf IMAX 65 and the other 30 per cent is 5 perf 65mm [‘perf” refers to the number of perforations on the print: the IMAX format runs horizontally rather than vertically]. …

Also, the entire film is finished photo chemically and so where we’re doing 70mm prints and were doing reductions of the IMAX photography, those are done on an optical printer. [A device for copying or altering film prints].”

However, the 70 mm version does not appear to be screening in West Yorkshire and the IMAX screenings all seem to be digital. So the screening of a 35mm print at the Hyde Park is definitely the best version on offer locally.

The epic of Dunkirk, a ten day military disaster that somehow is presented as a victory, looms large in the British psyche. And it also figures frequently in British cinema.

The Foreman Went to France (Ealing Studio 1942, in black and white) presents a parallel story about the evacuation of vital machinery from France to Britain.

A fictional treatments of the actual evacuation appears in a Hollywood product, M-G-M’s Mrs Miniver (1942 in black and white) with Greer Garson holding up the home front whilst husband Walter Pidgeon joins the heroic armada rescuing British and allied soldiers.

The definitive version to date is Ealing Studio’s Dunkirk (1958, in black and white and standard wide-screen) with John Mills, Richard Attenborough and Bernard Lee leading a familiar cast of British characters. This is very much in the mould of the low-key British war movies. It combines scenes of military action with the intervening moments of the troops waiting and watching as the evacuation proceeds.

Intriguingly there is a French treatment, Week-end à Zuydcoote / Weekend at Dunkirk (Paris Film Production, 1984 in colour and a scope format). This deals with French troops stranded on the beaches.

More recently Atonement (Universal Pictures and Studio Canal 2007, in colour and standard wide screen) has a fine sequence as James McAvoy’s Private Turner waits and dies on the crowded beaches.

Most recently Their Finest (BBC Films, Pinewood Pictures , 2016 in both colour and black and white and a scope format] offers a film-within-a film [The Nancy Starling] celebrating the event, whilst the main narrative celebrates British filmmakers of the period with a certain amount of irony.

It will be interesting to see where the treatment by Nolan and his team fits into this cinematic discourse.