Monday, 30 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 66: Out of the Clouds (1955)

After watching Out of the Clouds, I am ready to declare that the unsung hero of the 1950s stretch of my Ealing marathon is currently Sid James. This is not to back away from my belief that Mervyn Johns is the strongest and most varied actor across these 95 films, or to take anything away from the comic performance genius of Alec Guinness, but to note that, despite often appearing for less than 5 minutes per film, James steals whole sequences with a resigned sigh, world-weary shrug, or bitter one-liner. While this ability would, obviously, be put to great use in the later Carry On... series, it does help to puncture the occasionally pompous tone of several of Ealing’s 1950s films. If you don’t believe me, I suggest rewatching The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), The Square Ring (1953), The Rainbow Jacket (1954), or The Shiralee (1957) to see what I mean.

That’s not to say that James’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in this film is the best thing about Out of the Clouds – he’s a gambler eyeing up the potential insurance payout if his wife (Barbara Leake) dies while flying – but that it sets an early comic tone in this broad airport drama that flutters uncertainty between drama and comedy throughout. James’ character is a brief portrait of one of the many people passing through the airport: Leah Rosch (Margo Lorenz) is in transit to New York where she’s marrying a man she doesn’t love; American Bill Steiner (David Knight) is going to Israel to make his fortune; an older lady (Marie Lohr) who swears by sleeping tablets for airplane travel; and her put-upon companion (Esma Cannon). On the other side, we meet a range of airport staff: cocky pilot Gus Randall (Anthony Steel) who sleeps around and engaged in borderline illegal activities; duty officer Nick Milbourne (Robert Beatty) wants to get his pilot’s licence back so he can get back into the air; cabin crew member Penny Henson (Eunice Grayson), in love with Nick and lusted after by Gus; experienced pilot Brent (James Robertson Justice) who has mechanical problems with the planes; Customs Officer Steve (Bernard Lee) who suspects Gus of smuggling et al.

The film confidently weaves its narrative threads around this disparate group of characters: Rosch and Steiner are (separately) on planes manned by Gus, Brent and Penny; Nick’s decisions allow them to spend an evening together; Gus’ pass at Penny reveals her feelings for Nick; Nick’s failure to pass a physical actually pushes him and Penny together. Basil Dearden’s direction and control is solid, prioritising the story but also throwing in some stylistic quirks that raises its creative game: a great ‘aircraft-in-trouble’ sequence, with Brent’s plane being talked down in heavy fog from the emergency control base, a room shrouded in black and lit only by the green and red tones of the instruments and equipment; a series of images of foggy London landscapes wreathed in unnatural yellow and orange tones; and a series of long tracking shots through the main terminal hall at London Airport (modelled closely on the real hall at Heathrow).
Like all portmanteau films in Ealing’s back catalogue, sections of the film work better than others, but this makes the error of opting for happy endings to all the stories (unlike the enjoyably chaotic train crash in Train of Events (1949) or the never-ending dream of 1945s Dead of Night). Therefore, the film creates psychologically interesting characters in Rosch and Steiner (that engage with post-war issues around the treatment of Jews in Britain, and the creation of Israel) but then allows their unlikely whirlwind romance to linger too long and then end happily. Equally, the fun of Steel’s Gus Randall remains his morally grey playboy status, not his last minute conversion to the forces of good when he foils an international drug smuggling racket. The nanny-ish qualities of Ealing feel at the fore here, particularly when Randall then talks about settling down, and asks for advice from the more maternal Mrs Malcolm (Isabel Dean).

Those quirks aside, there remains a lot to enjoy here: although I wasn’t a fan of his early Ealing performances, Beatty is strong here as the put-upon Milbourne. Performing the character’s desperation to get his pilot’s wings back isn’t much of a challenge, but the struggle Milbourne goes through when he realises he is a born leader to the crew on the ground is more subtle, but nicely played. The film uses colour well throughout, particularly in the sequences listed about but also picking out characters and narrative situations – such as the ‘thin red line’ of a rope that separates transit passengers from ‘Britain’ but which introduces Leah and Bill. And, although not my thing, any airplane or airport fetishists will be overjoyed with the numerous shots of 1950s Heathrow and the various aircraft that flew from the airport.

[Out of the Clouds is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, we're going back (almost) to the start, as we raise a glass to Cheer Boys Cheer (1939)...

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 65: The Big Blockade (1942)

When Ealing is described as producing a strong combination of drama and documentary work during their Second World War propaganda films (continuing the tradition set by the GPO Film Unit), titles like The Next of Kin (1942), San Demetrio London (1943), and For Those in Peril (1944) tend to crop up. These are solid, entertaining films that get their message across in no uncertain terms, but at least have the decency to clothe those messages in compelling narratives and with compelling performances. The Big Blockade, by contrast, feels like an early experiment that gets more things wrong than right.

The warning signs are there from the opening scene, when the narrator speaks directly to camera in a hectoring authoritarian tone about the importance of learning more about the big blockade organised by the Ministry of Economic Warfare (objective? ‘Choke the life out of German trade and industry’) The lecturing style continues, albeit over a more visually interesting montages of ships, tanks, railways lines, before jumping to images of an RAF bomber squadron taking off to bomb Hannover. And at this stage, the film takes its strangest turn, because the brief glimpses we get of the crew of the ‘T for Tommy’ bomber reveals they are well-known actors like Michael Rennie and John Mills. But then they’re gone, as the film flashes back to 1939 and the start of a series of dramatic and comic vignettes around the organisation and effects of the blockade on Britain, Germany, Italy and Russia.

This could be read as an early attempt at what, several years later, Ealing would perfect in a portmanteau film like Dead of Night (1945), but what it actually feels like is a variety show, where a series of British actors (and the occasional actress: Thora Hird has a brief part as a German barmaid) trundle onto stage, do a turn, and then get off again as quick as they can. In the space of 73 minutes, there are ‘turns’ by Will Hay, Bernard Lee, Marius Goring, Robert Morley (as a splendidly ranting authoritarian and Italy-bashing Nazi chief), Leslie Banks, Michael Redgrave and other recognisable names from British film. There is no plot to speak of, beyond hailing the achievements of the Ministry, challenging German propaganda, and making claims about how the blockade will soon bring Germany to its knees.

Angus Macphail’s script does return to certain characters: Schneider (Frank Cellier), from a Hannover sausage factory, whose beliefs in the German way of life are casually mocked, first by the British Mr Taylor (Banks) and later a Russian officer (Redgrave); Taylor, who works for the Ministry, crops up several times to reiterate the message that the blockade is good, but has no real narrative purpose beyond that; the management of a Hannover factory who end up celebrating its destruction so they have an excuse to avoid being sent to Dachau. And the crew of ‘T for Tommy’ return in the final ten minutes, successfully destroying a Hannover powerhouse and returning home. But although Macphail tries hard, there is no coherent narrative here, no recognisable characters to follow: the film is simply a series of unconnected events pulled together by its narrator.

Stylistically, the film is also a mixture of disparate elements: war reportage from Douglas Slocombe, clips of German propaganda, Wilkie Cooper’s largely flat studio-based photography (although it occasionally finds visual life, as in the Morley sequences where he is lording it over representatives of occupied countries), newsreel footage and several model sequences of plane dogfights, strafing runs on boats, and bomber raids by the RAF on the Hannover factories.

What is most amusing, and unsaid, is that much of what the film mocks in Germany, it celebrates in relation to Britain: when the German air raid official is bureaucratic and strict, it is amusing; but when British clerks and naval officers use bureaucracy to keep German ships in port, it is cunning and satirical. Equally, when Germany has a master plan, it must be stopped; when the Ministry comes up with a master plan for British victory, its big blockade is hailed as the obvious step to victory. But then that is the essence of propaganda: always tell a bigger and better story than the other side.

Ultimately, The Big Blockade throws a lot of story at the screen, but it is better understood as a misfire that Ealing would learn from in order to produce better – and more enjoyable – story-documentaries.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Big Blockade is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 2, from Network]
Next time, we stick with airplanes as we head Out of the Clouds (1955)...

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 64: Secret People (1952)

I really wanted to like Secret People more than I did. Made within a year of The Gentle Gunman (1952), another Ealing project around terrorism (although about the IRA rather than the unidentified and Europe-wide ‘Organisation’ at the heart of this film), Secret People is obviously trying to do something different with its story, but I’m uncertain it succeeds or is as morally ambiguous as it claims to be. There’s no doubting the quality of the filmmaking, or the performances, but the film just doesn’t work as a whole, perhaps because the central relationships that fuel the narrative fail to convince.

In 1930, Maria Brentano (Valentina Cortese) and her sister Nora (Angela Fouldes) are sent to stay with Anselmo (Charles Goldner), a European settled in London and running a cafe. Maria and Nora’s father, a well-known left wing writer in the unidentified European country from which they have fled (and a critic of the new military ruler General Galbern), dies in custody; while Maria’s sweetheart Louis (Serge Reggiani) has gone into hiding. The sisters are brought up by Anselmo, who helps them get British citizenship: by 1937, Maria is working in the cafe, while Nora (now played by Audrey Hepburn) has a budding career as a ballet dancer. Yet Galbern continues to intrude on their lives, however accidentally: interviews in national newspapers and, in Paris, visiting the same British exhibition as them. In Paris, Maria meets Louis again and is drawn into the mysterious terrorist / rebel organisation that he is a member of. Louis manoeuvres Nora into an opportunity at a London society party that Galbern is attending, and convinces Maria to carry a bomb into the party. When the bomb kills a waitress by accident, Maria rejects Louis’ ways and the organisation’s creed of achieving their goals any way they can, confesses all to the police, is given a new identity (Lena Collins), but is then drawn back in when she realises the organisation has recruited Nora.

That synopsis covers the bare bones, but doesn’t really get to grips with the film’s attempt to deal with larger moral issues: political assassination, rebel causes, blind loyalty, personal vs. public politics, sisterly competition. Throw in director Thorold Dickinson’s own political beliefs, his desire for British cinema to raise its artistic ambitions, Ealing Studios’ more conservative outlook, and the presence of compelling performances from European stars Cortese, Regianni and Goldner, and the film is a striking creation of disparate and competing parts (the DVD features a useful introduction by Philip Thorne that goes into more detail on the background of the film than I can here). But that heady brew is also what complicates and, I think, prevents it from completely gelling as a film.
So what works? Well, the female-centric storyline is strong throughout, with a good meaty role for Cortese, and solid supporting work from Hepburn, Irene Worth (as Jackson, a policewoman who helps Maria in the latter part of the film) and Meg Jenkins, in a smaller role as the other cafĂ© worker, Penny. Cortese goes some way to selling the more melodramatic elements of the film, notably the tempestuous relationship between Maria and the mysterious Louis, but the film requires such abrupt shifts in her character (most notably when she breaks down after the death of the waitress) that it can be difficult to keep up. Her interactions with Hepburn sell the sisterly bond well – there is a lovely moment where Hepburn, about to audition, appears to wink at the audience, yet she is actually winking at Maria, sat off to one side and reflected in the mirror – but the final confrontation between Maria and Nora is too brief to cover everything the moment needs (not least the fact that we learn Louis has seduced Nora, largely through tales of her heroic sister). Hepburn can also be a little of a blank slate at times, but then that is largely the role of the younger sister as written here. The male characters are less convincing: Louis is a one-note cipher, mysterious and willing to do anything for the cause, but with no real sense of what drives him; more successful is Anselmo, avuncular, bluff, clever and heroic in equal measure, driven to be a good man for his adopted country and his the children thrust upon him.

The film looks impressive and has its own visual style, with Dickinson and DoP Gordon Dines filling their frames with activity (there are several scenes composed in depth, most obviously in the cafe and at the society party, with a wealth of fore- and background activity to comprehend), and using subtle spatial tricks (the post-party Maria walking ‘from’ her darkened room into her memory of the garden party in one smooth shot) to highlight shifts in tone. There are also strong visual narrative touches which seem unusual choices at the time – Maria’s interrogation by the London ‘committee’ of the organisation takes place in a darkened room, where she can only hear voices and see their shoes – but which pay off well in the final ten minutes when a distinctive voice and pair of shoes return.

But with all that, the film struggles to maintain narrative or tonal coherence, particularly towards the end: the final scenes, where Maria becomes Lena, moves to Ireland, sees Nora perform, realises the organisation is back, confronts Louis again, speed past and undo much of the earlier, steady work building up these characters and situations. I’m loathe to cry censorship again, despite talk of the UK Communist party disrupting public screenings and Ealing trimming what they saw as a difficult film (the BBFC website shows a 95 minute 55 second run time passed in August 1951, which matches up with the DVD) but the rush to conclude the narrative feels just that: rushed.

Fascinating yet frustrating, the film remains a curio if only to see what Dickinson and Ealing might have produced together, after their earlier success with The Next of Kin (1943).

[Secret People is released on DVD by Studio Canal. See for more details]

Next time, Ealing's most blatant war propaganda in The Big Blockade (1942)...

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 63: Meet Mr Lucifer (1953)

For a studio whose reputation is so rooted in realism, Ealing enjoyed dabbling with fantasy, from dream sequences in Let George Do It (1941) and The Love Lottery (1954) to the more supernatural-infused plots of The Halfway House (1944) and The Ship that Died of Shame (1955) to this curiosity, a portmanteau-style film with sees Lucifer himself (Stanley Hollyway, in a dual role) trying to hypnotise and distract the world through the new technology of television.

The 1950s context of the British film industry cannot be avoided with this film, even if the film vs. television debate is more complex than the standard war/battle analogies allow. Ealing had flirted with anti-television sentiments before (a short sequence in The Titfield Thunderbolt) and had a history of radio mockery from Let’s Be Famous (1939) on. While devoting an entire film to the topic seems untypical, this is also a period where Ealing was looking more closely to contemporary events and debates to fuel screenplays: film fanaticism and media manipulation in The Love Lottery, the ‘social problem’ of youth in The Blue Lamp (1950), racism in Pool of London (1951) or the changing nature of sports and betting in The Square Ring (1953) and The Rainbow Jacket (1954).

However, there is also a sense that television could simply be a useful structural device, no more inherently evil than the fateful crash that brings together the characters of Train of Events, or the plane flight of The Night My Number Came Up (1955), portmanteau Ealing projects that this film bears some resemblance to. The single television set at the heart of this narrative could, then, be nothing more than the narrative glue needed to tell stories about age, retirement, young love, and media obsession. The film makes some broad claims about television – the devil comments that TV is ‘so much more effective than the old fashioned lodger’ in splitting up relationships, while Hector McPhee (Gordon Jackson) is described as not being the same ‘since he got television’ – but its devilish impact is never quite as intrusive or all-consuming as you might expect. In fact, given TV content shown during the film – sports, panel shows, documentary, variety, cookery programmes, news – it arguably ends up looking like an attractive technology.

As with any episodic film, Meet Mr Lucifer ebbs and flows, loosely held together by a framing structure of drunken pantomime actor Sam Hollingsworth (Holloway) who, knocked unconscious at the theatre, imagines himself descending into hell, where Lucifer demonstrates how he is trying to use television for evil. The link between this and the individual stories is a single television set that moves between three sets of owners: from retired accountant Pedelty (Joseph Tomelty) and his daughter Pat (Barbara Murray), via his neighbours, honeymoon couple Jim and Kitty Norton (Jack Watling and Peggy Cummins), to Hector, who works alongside Jim in the local pharmacy. In all three cases, the television is placed as the source of tension and trouble – yet it never appears to be a very effective catalyst, simply heightening existing tensions or tendencies. Pedelty runs up debts while entertaining the new friends he makes through his television set; Jim and Kitty split because she is distracted from wifely duties by the television (and because he kisses Pat); while Hector becomes obsessed with a television singer (Kay Kendall).

The film also neglects the comic elements that might have lifted this broad satire: despite posters describing it as a ‘devil-may-care joker’ the script is leaden when it should be light, and only Stanley Holloway (in a variety of disguises, doing the devil’s work) offers the occasional wink at camera that the film needed to disguise its flimsy structure. The rest of the performances are decent, with Cummins and Watling amusing as naive newlyweds, and Jackson moving out of his comfort zone as the steady, reliable type to play a more complex character, one whose infatuation with the TV star (and the set she appears on) presents the film’s darkest hypothesis about the impact of television. Hector’s growing obsession with the image actually changes him as a person, at first making him more accessible and happy, but gradually turning compulsive and insular: this is most obvious in a series of single shots on Hector as he watches her, a play of emotions passing over his face as the camera pushes in tighter and tighter, offering an example of television’s ‘mass hypnotism’ that Hollingsworth complains about in the film’s opening scene.

The film is also confused about more standard Ealing concerns: despite the television apparently fostering new communities (Pedelty has a house full of guests who want to watch the new set; yet they desert him when he gives the set away), the ‘true’ community remains the local pub and the theatre (television is drawing people away from the latter, where the pantomime plays to much reduced audiences). Old versus new is both supported and satirised: Pedelty’s boss Mr Patterson (a brief but magnificent turn by Raymond Huntley) ridicules him for using an abacus, despite it being as fast as a new accounting machine; yet the ‘new’ television is the butt of many jokes throughout, and 3-D (another concurrent new technology) becomes the devil’s plaything in the film’s closing scenes (where Holloway’s devil swoops out of a cinema screen and lands in the audience, ‘a Lucifer in your lap’). Sex is also central to two of the stories: Kitty (‘a much more attractive instrument of the devil’) makes a pointed off-screen request for Jim to come to bed because she’s cold (she also uses seduction to convince him to buy a TV), Pat and Jim’s sexual attraction (albeit one fostered by her adopting a more traditional housewife’s role, building a fire and offering to make him supper – which he describes as ‘throwing her sex appeal at me’), and Hector’s sexual obsession with the singer.

Despite confused themes, and problems around humour and structure, the film remains a fascinating window on Ealing’s attempt to understand this new medium – a consumerist technology, designed to foster drunkenness and profligate behaviour, and ruin marriages – yet one to which Ealing, several years later, would gratefully sell its film to raise more money to fund its cinematic productions.

[UPDATED April 2014: Meet Mr Lucifer is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 9, from Network]

Next time, politics, assassination, regret and Audrey Hepburn - in Secret People (1952)

Monday, 16 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 62: The Siege of Pinchgut (1959)

It is tempting to claim that the most striking visual element of this film (called Four Desperate Men in U.S.), is its final one: the ‘Ealing films’ logo fading to black, bringing to an end 21 years worth of continuous production under Michael Balcon. But that is arguably as reductive as Charles Barr’s statement that the film ends with ‘a return to security and the embrace of law... back from the island to the city community’ (Barr 1980, 194). With all this talk of endings, and final thematic statements, something is lost: namely the 100 minutes or so of film that lead up to them, in a film that strives for heights that it cannot quite attain.

There is an eerie quality to the film throughout, as though the urban Sydney landscape it takes place in is as actually as deserted and desolate as the outback landscapes so familiar to earlier Ealing Australian films The Overlanders (1946) and The Shiralee (1957). The opening images, of a solitary ambulance driving down winding streets into the city, through police checkpoints, and into the bigger streets, sets up this unusual visual tone that the film plays to, perhaps aided by the widescreen image that captures a lot of empty space either side of the main action. Director Harry Watt, returning to Australian production after a decade away, plays to the strengths of the location filming throughout: scenes set on the Harbour Bridge, the docksides, on and around Fort Denison, the island location where most of the action takes place. Yet Sydney remains under-populated throughout, a ghost city to match the outback ghost towns of Watt’s earlier Australian westerns – most obvious in the scenes following the evacuation, where the only movement down these long canyon streets is a single motorbike cop or army convoy.

The story follows Matt Kirk (Aldo Ray), a prison escapee helped by his brother Johnny (Neil McCallum), and fellow hoodlums Bert (Victor Maddern) and hothead Italian Luke (Carlo Giustini), to escape Sydney and, ostensibly, prove his innocence. After boat troubles, they end up stranded on Pinchgut Island, a small rocky outcrop in Sydney harbour, where the small Fort Denison is located. The fort, a tourist attraction, is home to Pat Fulton (Gerry Duggan), his wife (Barbara Mullen), and daughter Ann (Heather Sears), who the gang take hostage as they plan their escape. What follows is a convoluted narrative about Matt’s increasing anger and uncertainty, Johnny’s growing mistrust, the authorities’ desire to capture the gang by any means necessary, and the gang’s scheme to use a wartime gun battery aimed at Sydney and a boat loaded with gelignite to hold the city to ransom.

George Perry has noted that the film leaves audiences unsure who to root for (Perry 1981, 171), and it is true that neither Ray or the police/politicians are strong contenders here; the latter are certainly not as morally endorsed as Barr claims, with their regular meetings showing disarray and uncertainty rather than moral leadership. The main policeman, Superintendent Hanna (Alan Tilvern) remains a well-worn hard-as-nails cliché, while his superiors largely protect themselves and their jobs as much as the city, and the fourth estate are agog at the idea of an explosion in Sydney, falling over themselves to publish the most spectacular photographs from similar blasts. The film does tend towards an armed police fetish, with lovingly framed images of them swarming over buildings and the harbour bridge, and a final denouement that includes armed frogmen emerging from the harbour onto the island: but it also remains unsure about the use of force, given that the most innocent of the gang, Johnny, is shot by an over-eager cop early on. While there is never any doubt the film will end with an armed battle between crooks and the gang, it does wring its hands throughout as though hoping another choice will present itself.

At heart, then, this is a solid crime thriller with some decent performances, even if Ray can’t quite pull off the layers that the film wants to heap on Matt’s shoulders: is he as innocent as he claims (at one point the politicians agree he should have had an appeal; only Hanna seems certain of this, and his main evidence is that 12 men were convinced at the trial – but this comes after television vox-pops of similar men that the politicians mock), or a hardened criminal? The film cannot decide if he is the injured party, driven to desperate ends (and thus justified in at least some of his actions), or a misguided criminal, whom we want to see punished. In one sense, that moral uncertainty is indicative of a larger movement within culture towards anti-heroes and characters who inhabit grey areas of morality (Matt Kirk is a perfect late 60s hero, appearing a decade too early), but here the film simply cannot make sense of him, and ends up creating a raging monster rather than the nuanced character suggested in the first hour.

Johnny, Bert and Luke are rarely more than ciphers, despite good work particularly from Maddern and Giustini (initially stuck in a stereotype, but working hard to break out of it), and the Fultons are never more than plucky hostages, despite the film’s need to try and manufacture a relationship between Johnny and Ann.

What raises the film beyond a standard B-grade thriller is, however, its visual style. As well as the sense of spatial emptiness set up earlier – definitely a by-product of its use of widescreen and wide angle lenses – Watt and DoP Gordon Dine (also responsible for the strong cinematography of The Ship That Died of Shame, 1955; and The Long Arm, 1956) produce strong compositions on location and in the claustrophobic sets built at Elstree. Harbour cranes silhouetted against darkening skies; shots of the island framed through tree branches; the harbour bridge omnipresent, looming over the action; the arguing brothers balanced in the background around the pivot of Ann, answering the telephone in the foreground; the increasingly twisty, shadowy nature of the corridors of the fort as Matt descends into desperation and rage.
The film, then, should be viewed as more than just the last Ealing film, or one that it is imbued with some final relevance. Like many of the films seen in this blog, those contexts are there (and important), but the film deserves to be viewed in its own right as a well-produced if flawed thriller.
[The Siege of Pinchgut is released on DVD by Studio Canal. See for more details]

Next time, Ealing takes aim at a new enemy... television? Meet Mr Lucifer (1953)...

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 61: The Ladykillers (1955)

Watching this again, I couldn’t help wondering: is The Ladykillers Ealing’s most famous film? In academic circles, it is probably one of the most cited – with debates ranging over what aspect of British society it is satirising, what larger contemporary issues it might be addressing, or simply hailing the directorial work of Alexander Mackendrick – and, in popular circles, it ranks alongside the other Alec Guinness comedies Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Man in the White Suit (1951) and Ealing dramas The Blue Lamp (1950) and The Cruel Sea (1953). In the last decade, a case for The Ladykillers as the most well known Ealing film has only increased, with the unfortunate Tom Hanks-Coen Brothers remake in 2004 and the recent theatrical adaptation by Graham Linehan. At some level, it may be that this simple tale of five crooks and the little old lady who is unwittingly drawn into their robbery, is what people think of when it comes to Ealing Studios.

As a film, The Ladykillers confirms and challenges much of the ‘Ealing-esque’ character identified in several of these blog posts: conformity and community are here, black comedy is woven throughout, ensemble cast performance is crucial, location filming is crucial to the setting and narrative and there is a moral dimension to the denouement. Yet, again in common with some of the Ealing films, it can also be frustratingly abrupt and incoherent: Professor Marcus’ (Alec Guinness) descent into madness is signposted at several occasions, but his abrupt switch from controlled venom to outright homicide in the final moments can feel contrived; while the different performance styles do threaten to undermine the film (not least Frankie Howerd’s barrow boy, a moment that feels badly improvised, incoherent and overplayed by director and cast).

That the film still works is, in part, due to that collision of styles and ideas: Guinness’ gothic and twisted (mentally and physically) Professor may be the most mannered performance, but it works because it bounces off solid work from the rest of the gang of crooks: Claude / Major Courtney (Cecil Parker), Harry / Mr Robinson (Peter Sellers) and One Round / Mr Lawson (Danny Green). The fifth member, Louis / Mr Harvey (Herbert Lom), is different again: not full of twitchy movement and vocal tricks like Guinness, but an affectionate homage to American gangster types, stiff and unyielding, sardonic and aloof, always with one eye on the money and the door. And set against them all is Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), fussy and dotty and not remotely endearing, remnant of a lost age in so many ways (her house, adrift at the end of the street; her memories of Queen Victoria dying; her belief in what’s morally right). The collision of these six performances and these six characters – and arguably, the seventh, the lopsided house they inhabit for much of the film – coheres even when individual moments feel uncertain.

It also doesn’t hurt that the film looks fantastic, with Mackendrick and director of photography Otto Heller creating an off-kilter world that is one step removed from our own. The film plays with colour, offering garish purple-blues colours when Guinness first appears (and then, later, in the night-time scenes as the gang plan to kill Mrs W), and emphasising communication technologies of phone boxes and trains with splashes of red. This is a world similar to our own, but separate – much like Mrs Wilberforce herself. Barr describes the film as containing a small village atmosphere, but that village arguably owes as much to horror traditions as it does to Ealing community, with the Wilberforce house a misshapen castle out of time and out of place at the end of its long narrow cul-de-sac, a potential monstrous location best avoided. Although she may think she is, Mrs Wilberforce is never at the centre of this community – the film depicts her as much of an intruder into these social spaces as the gang, distracting the police (who are politely dismissive of everything she says, with Jack Warner notably playing up to – and satirising – his reliable police presence as the superintendent who ushers her quickly back out into the street) and causing chaos in the streets. Mrs W may be the closest the film comes to a moral centre, but the film encourages audiences to see that morality as skewed and uncertain as the gang’s criminal perspective.

Despite all this playful and blackly comic misdirection, The Ladykillers still works as a broader comedy: the film never misses an opportunity to stress their childish behaviour (fighting and climbing over each other to get into a phone box) and the slapstick of the gang’s inept failure to capture a parrot presages their incompetence when it comes to killing Mrs W. Performances capture small comic touches that bring the characters to life: Lom handling his violin case like it contains a machine gun (and holding his violin like he’s about to clobber someone with it); Guinness’ impatient tug at his scarf every time Mrs W treads on it; Sellers’ unhappy expression when faced with killing Mrs W; Green hopping around the room, legs wedged in a broken chair; Parker, bouncing off the walls of a phone box as Mrs W seems set to undermine their plans. Different comic styles, modes of performance, and narrative elements all collide in The Ladykillers and, often despite themselves, create a film that remains compelling and enjoyable.

[The Ladykillers is released on DVD by Studio Canal. See for more details]

Next time, we head back to Australia for Ealing's final film, The Siege of Pinchgut (1959)...

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 60: The Proud Valley (1940)

The Proud Valley seems to be a film that is required to stand for a lot of different opinions, historical developments, and ideologies: perhaps understandably, given this is an Ealing film with black American actor Paul Robeson in the lead role, about a mining village’s attempt to self-govern their own mine, a plan which (both in terms of the film’s fiction and the film’s production) changes due to the advent of the Second World War. It is easy to discuss the film in terms of key themes – notably the power of community, or the need for national (British) unity in wartime – but I wonder if that dilutes the film's ability to question such easy ideas. 

Pen Tennyson’s second film for the studio, The Proud Valley is seen as a key film in Ealing’s move towards ‘projecting Britain’, something that (as the blog has explored) is key to the identity of the studio during wartime and beyond. Tennyson, often seen as one of the studio’s ‘might have beens’ (he died in a plane crash while in service), is also credited with introducing non-professional actors and more authentic accents to working class depictions at Ealing. Certainly, one of the strengths of the film is its depiction of the village around the Blaendy pit, into which outsider and itinerant ship’s hand David Goliath (Paul Robeson), arrives. At least in part because of David’s amazing singing voice – the pit has a male voice choir about to compete at the Eisteddfod – foreman and choir conductor Dick Parry (Edward Chapman) gets him a job down the pit. 

Barr and Perry’s accounts of the film are, understandably, interested in the later developments of the story: an accident at the pit claims Parry’s life, the pit is closed, the village struggles to survive, Parry’s son Emlyn (Simon Lack) organises a march to London with a plan to reopen it, war is declared and they are given the chance to reopen Blaendy. The focus on the relationship between capital/bosses and labour/workers – combined with the fact the original script originally ended with the mine run as a miner-owned collective – tends to privilege this reading, but it works from the idea that the village is consistently presented as a coherent community. In fact, one of the strengths of the film is its ability to undercut simple ideas around ‘them’ and ‘us’, around the image of two different maternal figures, Mrs Owen (Dilys Davies) and Mrs Parry (Rachel Thomas). 

Mrs Owen is the local shopkeeper and postmistress, ostensibly a central figure in the community. Mrs Parry is a housewife, married to Dick, mother to Emlyn and four other children. They are linked through their children: Emlyn and Gwen (Janet Johnson) are in love and, with Emyln training to be a pit manager, planning to be married. It is clear Mrs O believes herself superior to others in the village – she doesn’t like dirty mine workers in her shop, can’t stand the Parry’s children’s swearing, she steams open people’s post to keep ahead of the news – yet when the pit closes, she is also flexible with payment and gives products on tick to the locals. This uncertain balance ends with an outburst at the Parry’s house, where Mrs O notes she owns her own shop, has money in the bank, and accuses Emlyn of being ‘a boy on the dole without a penny to his name’ saying Gwen won’t be dragged down by him and the ‘poverty-riven hole’ they live in. While Gwen chooses Emlyn, and his plan to reopen the pit, over her mother’s plans, Mrs Owen remains a problematic figure within the film: are we supposed to read her as too capitalist for this communistic narrative? She disappears shortly after this, seemingly absent from the community that joins together – visually and in song – at the end of the film (a community that, crucially, Mrs Parry, is a central part of), but her presence cannot be denied. 

Yet all this talk of competing maternal figures runs the risk of ignoring the film’s star, and its central masculine figure: Paul Robeson. From the moment he strolls onto screen, snatching a ride in a train wagon, belting out songs in rich bass tones (‘like thunder from a distance’), and mining coal stripped to the waist, it is clear that Robeson is the centre of this film. True, the film aims for an ensemble feel, but Robeson (a tall, handsome black man with an amazing voice) stands out visually and aurally in every scene. It is a casual performance, open and confident; never trying to steal a scene, but walking away with it nevertheless. Perhaps the main problem is that his character has little to do in the film, and ends up as little more than a magical figure that wanders in, revitalises the village and encourages Dick and Emlyn to pursue their dreams. He is brave, kind, strong, moral... but there is no sense of why he does anything he does in the film, not least the final self-sacrifice he makes to save a group of trapped miners. Given the film ends with Robeson’s voice on the soundtrack as the film tracks over images of an idyllic Welsh landscape to a perfect sky overhead, is it too much to see him less as a magician, and more as a heavenly visitor, a precursor to Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)? 

The Proud Valley remains a fascinating, often contradictory film, but is worth watching for the performance of Robeson and the narrative’s ability to draw you into its small village atmosphere.

[The Proud Valley is released on DVD by Studio Canal. See for more details]

Next time, we call in at Mrs Wilberforce's to meet up with The Ladykillers (1955)...

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 59: For Those in Peril (1944)

For Those in Peril is a perfect example of the story-documentary approach begun in the British documentary groups, and developed through Ealing projects such as San Demetrio, London (1943) or Convoy (1940). Here, the film uses strong documentary filming techniques around life at port and on Air-Sea Rescue launch 183, and balances that with character-based work that explores the relationship between Flight Lt. Murray (David Farrar) and new officer Rawlings (Ralph Michael), who is vocal in his dislike of his new role in the Air-Sea Rescue unit (Rawlings believes he should be flying planes for the air force, making a ‘real’ difference rather than messing around in boats).

In the first half of the film, we see Murray and his men working and playing together, setting up a cohesive team – and one that is less tradition-based, less stuffy about the kind of pomp they see in their Navy colleagues (although this quickly becomes togetherness and ‘good old navy’ when they need help from the bigger ships). So, the crew of launch 183 play snooker and darts, sing on board the boat, eat sandwiches, joke about different ways to cook spam, and drink tea together, all under the watchful eye of a stern but amused Murray. Rawlings is a tense and cynical addition for much of the film, learning the ropes but unhappy with his lot. When the launch is caught in a firefight with a German ship and aircraft, Murray is killed, and it is up to Rawlings to take charge of this team and prove himself.

The story, then, is another exercise in male camaraderie and teamwork, largely based around officers, but also drawing in the lower decks through characters like Wilkes (John Slater) and Griffiths (Robert Griffith). The film’s style is a curious mix of verisimilitude (featuring a lot of filming on real ships and launches, combining Slocombe’s documentary heritage with the participation of the Admiralty and Navy in filming), solid performances from Farrar and Michael, and occasionally jarring process work placing those actors against violent sea-faring backdrops. When the film works – such as tense sequences where a rescue plane touches down in a minefield, or where the launch tries to manoeuvre out of the same minefield – it is compelling; but the battle with the German ship is less convincing, and the effects work on some of the aerial dogfights is more jarring.

George Perry believed this was the closest Charles Crichton ever got to ‘documentary realism during his long Ealing career’ (76) but the film might be a stronger evocation of Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography than Crichton’s directorial touch. Slocombe had come to Ealing through wartime documentary experience, employed by the Ministry of Information to ‘shoot propaganda footage on destroyers and convoys’ – as Ealing produced many of those films, they gradually assimilated him into the studio, and he became a fully-fledged member of the main studio team by the end of the war. (Pavlus 2002, 90) Along with Cavalcanti, Slocombe was crucial in Ealing developing the blend of documentary footage and studio-produced drama that is on display here. As in San Demetrio, London, on which she was also credited, the dramatic pacing of the camerawork and editing is well supported by sound cutter/editor Mary Habberfield, one of Ealing’s unsung production heroes through the 1940s.

Perhaps the one uncertainty around this film – which is otherwise a solid and straightforward piece of drama-doc – is the abrupt way the film ends. While there is a disparity over length between IMDb (77 minutes) and the DVD release (64 minutes) there is no evidence of the film being edited or censored (unlike the The Goose Steps Out (1943), as discussed a few weeks ago). Instead, there are missed narrative opportunities to pursue Rawlings’ uncertainty over taking on Murray’s command, or even a brief exploration of how he deals with a crew more used to Murray’s leadership style. In place of this, the film cuts from Rawlings taking charge to him in a pub, several weeks later: a scene that mirrors an earlier one where Murray introduced Rawlings to the same pub. The message is clear: Rawlings has learned from Murray and can now comfortably replace him. There is no psychological need to explore how Rawlings learned this, or if he struggled: it is wartime, he is British, so it just happened. The propaganda message is clear: Britain fights on, in whatever job or form it can.

[For Those in Peril is released on DVD by Studio Canal. See for more details]

Next time, we head to Wales and enter The Proud Valley (1940)...

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 58: The Shiralee (1957)

The fourth in Ealing’s five Australian films, after The Overlanders (1946), Eureka Stockade (1949) and Bitter Springs (1950) – and the first produced by Ealing Films, with financial backing from MGM – this is an episodic film that struggles to effectively dramatise the life of ‘swagman’ Jim Macauley (Peter Finch), the woman and friends he has made (and lost) in his years on the road, and – centrally – how he copes when his independent, free life is challenged by the addition of his young daughter, Buster (Dana Wilson), his ‘shiralee’ (burden).

The film, like most of Ealing’s output, is never bad, features solid direction from Leslie Norman, and contains moments of strong performance from Finch: yet it is continually uncertain if it is celebrating the free spirit of the swagman and the rural communities and people it depicts, or if this is a criticism of that breed of man through the treatment and experience of this child. It seems important that Buster spends most of the film as an annoyance for Macauley, but at dramatically useful moments suffers from fever, or is unconscious after being knocked down by a truck. The film has been praised for not being mawkish or saccharine (although it actually drifts close to both), but that could largely be because Finch’s brash, base performance as Macauley dominates so much of the film there is little room for Wilson.

Macauley is curiously unmotivated throughout – again, a trait which can be read as criticism or valorisation – his aimless life moves him from farm to farm, itinerant job to itinerant job, fight to fight, town to town; his decision to take Buster on the road (after discovering his wife, Marge – Elizabeth Sellars, wasted in a thin role – having an affair) is a spur of the moment thing, but seems motivated by spite, and plot necessity. As the film progresses, we learn that Macauley has slept his way around Australia, and that Buster might not be the only product of that lifestyle – and the women he leaves behind, notably Marge and Lily (Rosemary Harris), are scarred by the encounter. The film’s moral perspective on this remains opaque: Macauley gets to keep custody of Buster through blackmail, not parental excellence; indeed, Buster ends up in hospital because Macauley was chatting up a shopgirl, having left his daughter in the company of a swagman they’d met five minutes before, despite his uncertain mental status; equally, Lily accepts Macauley back into her life, seemingly because Buster reminds her of the baby (Macauley’s) she lost, years ago. Macauley ‘wins’ in all of these encounters, coming out on top largely through inaction or the charitable actions of others – yet what are we supposed to make of him, or his life?

The only woman Macauley doesn’t seem to have tarnished is Bella Sweeney (Tessie O’Shea), but she is a traditional matronly/maternal figure, married to Luke (Sid James), and the only positive sign of heterosexual pairings throughout: yet these characters have only a slim role in the film, largely as comic relief, or as a sense of what ‘proper’ parenting might look like. Like the film itself, they seem to accept Macauley as he is, without comment or challenge.

Marge isn’t so lucky, as she becomes the film’s main representative of the city, the urban, as a contrast to Macauley’s rural freedom. Rural trumps urban every time here: it is violent (Macauley beats up Marge’s new man, Donny (George Rose), and later is beaten up by Donny’s friends), sexual (Marge sleeps with Donny because he knows how to treat a woman, Marge is pictured in form-fitting lingerie in the bulk of her screen appearances), deceitful (Marge’s infidelity, Donny’s desire to maintain proper public appearance), and complex (lawyers, child custody, and divorce proceedings). The association of Marge and the city is particularly problematic, as she – like the other women in Macauley’s life – is depicted as weak, needing men to control and guide her, a bitter shrew who shares many characteristics with Lily, but does not get the suggestive redemption of Lily’s, standing with Macauley in the hospital in the final scene, agreeing to help look after Buster.

These issues don’t stop the film being entertaining and suitably dramatic in places, Finch and Wilson are solid performers (although Sid James’ lighter touch is welcome, if brief), while (as in Ealing’s other Australian films) the landscapes sell the scope and scale of the country that Macauley and Buster meander through. But that episodic nature, and the lack of characterisation around why Macauley does what he does, means the film feels incomplete and unsure what it is trying to say about this man, and his life.

[My thanks to Studio Canal,, for making a screening copy available to me for this blog]

[UPDATED April 2014: The Shiralee is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 5, from Network]

Next time, back to the war years in For Those in Peril (1946)...