Thursday, September 04, 2008

Uncle Kevin's Film Festival: part the second

Back again. This time we're going to explore the corridor of uncertainty created when you can't be sure whose side anybody's on because the reds and the greens have buried the hatchet in pursuit of a common foe, even if the enemy is themselves.

Three movies picked themselves but I had trouble with the fourth because I'm trying to avoid including any spy movies, which meant that my first choice -- the Robert Donat version of "The 39 Steps" -- couldn't be included. I almost included it anyway as the idea of being handcuffed to the young Madeline Carroll for the night isn't unpleasing. Then I realised that one of the candidates for the last of the triptych could act as the second act closer.

When you think of Ealing Comedies, what do you think of? Usually the term's meant to convey the idea of a rather twee, old-fashioned, almost complacent, gentle English humour. And boy are they wrong! The Ealing Comedies canon includes some of the most gloriously black of English comedies (you might want to do the body count in 'Kind Hearts and Coronets'). 'The Titchfield Thunderbolt' is the only one that really deserves the twee label (I suspect it's down to Stanley Holloway: 'Meet Mr. Lucifer' isn't much to write home about and there are times when 'Passport To Pimlico' gets a bit close to the bar).

film poster: The Man In The White Suit

What about my bit of washing when there's no washing to do?

When you think of Ealing you might not think about a biting satire about the impact of unthinking technological progress on the socio-economic machine. "The Man In The White Suit" is such a thing. A brilliant chemist discovers a textile that is not only resistant to wear and tear but actively repels dirt. So what happens? Pretty much the urban myth about the everlasting lightbulb. The author was against the casting of Alec Guinness as the protagonist as he didn't feel that he could bring over the ruthless single-mindedness of the character. What a good job he wasn't the casting director: Guinness captures the blinkered naivete of the worst type of research scientist perfectly (I've lived and worked with the buggers and once had aspirations to be one myself). You know the type: "I only invented the gas that melts people's lungs in trench warfare, I don't have any say in what people do with it."

An indestructible, self-cleaning textile is a good thing, right? Well, yes, so long as you factor in the social consequences of unemployment in the textile, chemical and laundry trades and the economic consequences therefrom. Capital (including Cecil Parker, always a treat, and Ernest Thesinger nearly as barmy as in 'Bride of Frankenstein') and labour join forces to try to destroy the new invention. It all leads up to a long chase through the darkened streets of the northern town, scientist Sidney constantly betrayed by his bright white suit's glowing in the dark. Nothing cosy about this: the hunt is on, the mob is baying like foxhounds and surely a lynching is in the offing? Not quite, but something almost worse.

It's one of those unpleasant ironies of history that all the vested interests would be thwarted in time. Thirty years later, the industry, the mills, and the bit of washing, were already history. And we still don't have that textile, even though it pops up as an occasional promise in the news in briefs.

It's me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself!
But it's impossible. I can't escape

scene from the film M: a shadow falls over a reward poster

Having softened you up with a jolly bit of Englishness, lets have a look at something German. It's inevitable that something by Fritz Lang should appear in this list somewhere. His films generally have disturbing edges and his use of crowds as almost-unthinking engines of destruction in 'Metropolis' and 'Fury' is superb. Which is one reason for choosing "M" as my next film: in this case the unthinking mob becomes a dangerously rational animal. "M" is a film about a child murderer terrorising Berlin in the early thirties. It's surprising just how many modern resonances there are in the terror and paranoia (the typeface may be Franken and the pages broadsheet but the shock-horror is pure tabloid). The time comes when the hysteria starts to impede police and underworld both and the hunt is on, leading to a quasi-judicial trial of the murderer by the underworld.

This film is a joy: it was a very early German talkie so there's lots of reliance on light and shadow to create mood and it really is possible to make complete sense of nearly all of it with the sound off (you'll want the sound on for the final scene, even if, like me, you have to read the English subtitles!) Echoes of Expressionism give the whole film an edgy feel. The acting is superb: we tend to forget just how good an actor Peter Lorre really was. The supporting cast is good, too, especially Otto Wernicke as the cynical and world-weary Inspector Lohmann.

Siggy Schmoltz and his drill find themselves made redundant by Scotland Yard Our third film continues the blurring of the legal and illegal establishments. "The Wrong Arm of the Law" is one of the treasures from the last black-and-white flowerings of English film comedy. Written by Galton and Simpson. Starring Peter Sellers, Lionel Jeffries and Bernard Cribbens, and with a stellar cast of supporting comic actors including Davy Kaye, Bill Kerr, John Junkin and John Le Mesurier. Nanette Newman does glamour without doing the washing up (well, except for the shower scene). Talking about supporting casts: am I the only one who perks up when he sees Mario Fabrizi and Johnny Vyvvyan in a film? (Johnny Vyvvyan used to be able to make Des O'Connor corpse just by looking at him)

Give me me watch back, you thieving nit!

The plot's pretty simple: a gang of Australian crooks impersonate policemen so as to steal from Pearly Gates' gang. The ensuing confusion disrupts the usual rules of conduct between police and underworld and they join forces to foil the "IPO" mob. One of my friends had just written a paper on the jurispridence of "M" when we watched this together. Until then I hadn't realised the parallels between the council of war in this film and that in "M." Don't get too bogged down, though, just enjoy the ride, which includes one of my favourite scenes in cinema: a petty crook, unable to cope with the new uncertainties, bursts into tears and has to be comforted by Nosey Parker.

And, of course, Siggy Schmoltz continues the German theme.

Finally tonight another slice of Ealing. I'd intended to have this in the next session but it fits in here just fine, with its dark comedy, high body count and ambiguous moralities. Yes, it's "The Ladykillers." The real one, not the Tom Hanks thing. This is the one with Alec Guinness and his outrageous twitch.

group photo of Mrs Wilberforce and the string quintet

What can I say that wouldn't be redundant? Not seen it? Hunt it, buy it, watch it with the lights out and no distractions.


No Good Boyo said...

More belters, Muzzy!

I don't know The Wrong Arm of the Law, but will track it down.

The Ladykillers is a perfect film. The scene outside where one character mentions Alec Guinness's madness is eerie and almost experimental in a Buñuel way in its use of sound and perspective.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Ta boyo.

The professor's demise in The Ladykillers always reminds me of something from the great days of European silents in its poetry.

Gadjo Dilo said...

The Ladykillers - yessss, it was so perfect now I remember! I watched The Man In The White Suit with my wife as it was (sadly and bizarrely) the only Ealing comedy they had in the British Council library here; she didn't really get it at all, but I appreciated the intended irony of all the explosions in post-WW2 Britain. I've never seen The Wrong Arm of the Law, but anything written by Galton and Simpson is ok by me. I've also never seen M, and I must, because Metropolis is one of my top 5, let alone top 12.

Webrarian said...

Katie Johnson - what a woman; what an actress!

Greg Lewis said...

Good choice for the film festival.

I seem to remember reading that Guinness based his performance in The Ladykillers on the wonderful Scottish actor Alastair Sim.

Sim was great at playing characters with an underlying touch of madness, such as his police inspector in the WW2 comedy thriller Green For Danger and the spooky copper in An Inspector Calls.

M is a classic and as noted raises many issues with which we would be familiar today. The scene where Lorre is trapped by the mob and is forced to argue for his life is wonderful.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Hi Greg,

I never noticed that but now that you've mentioned it... There are a couple of moments in Laughter In Paradise where the resemblance is uncanny.

Greg Lewis said...

Yes, and also "Hue and Cry"