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)...

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