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Gritty and thoughtful melodrama
This film is based upon an original screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, famous for his scintillating screenplays for THE MUDLARK (1950), MY COUSIN RACHEL (1952), and THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957). The story must have had a great deal of personal importance for him, because he chose to direct it (it was one of 8 films which he directed between 1954 and 1960). However, Johnson was not a great director, he was somewhat uninspired in that department and had few dynamic camera angles or sense of how to heighten drama visually, and in my opinion, he became too close to this story and material, so that he lost perspective to a certain extent. The film made a big hit when it came out, largely because Gregory Peck was the star. But the film addressed a number of pressing social and moral themes in a direct and sometimes brutal manner, which was unusual for the fifties. And some of them are timeless, such as Peck's despairing comment about his wartime exploits as a Captain of a Parachute division: 'I killed seventeen men. Not people in the distance, but men I could look at and see, including a young soldier whom I stabbed to death so that I could take his coat.' By addressing the issue of the traumas of the returned soldiers, haunting them still ten years after the end of the War, this film was very topical, and touched on the very themes which lay at the bottom of all the American film noir of the late forties and the fifties. Another reason for the interest in the film at the time was because of the unusual treatment of Peck being employed in the newly created television industry, a job you went to in Manhattan in a suit which was, often, grey flannel (hence the title). Jennifer Jones plays Peck's wife. Her role is surprisingly small, but most of it consists of her doing hysteria with tormented and streaming eyes, in the way she always did so well. Her husband Daryll Zanuck produced the film. There are good supporting roles for Lee J. Cobb, Keenan Wynn. Arthur O'Connell, Henry Daniell, and Gigi Perreau. (James Mason's daughter Portland Mason appears as Peck's daughter, but has little to do.) The Italian actress Marisa Pavan is excellent during a flashback section of the film as the sweet Italian girl with whom Peck has a love affair in Rome in 1945. She was the twin sister of the actress known as Pier Angeli (their real surname being Pierangeli). They both specialized in being the innocent Italian girl with the big trusting eyes who was capable of a great love, and there are some Italian girls who really look like that and really are like that, though less now than formerly. There is a third sister as well, Patrizia Pierangeli, 15 years younger than the twins, who appeared in eight films between 1972 and 1985. The other major role in the film is played with his usual dignity and thoughtfulness by Frederic March, as the rich head of a broadcasting corporation who hires Peck and whose arid and troubled private life is a major part of the story as well. (The major theme there is his sacrifice of a personal and family life in order to become a business moghul.) This film sprawls both in time and in space. Numerous major plot issues are walked away from at the end of the film and left entirely without any resolution. It is as if Johnson really needed a TV mini-series to get his complex stories told properly, and just had to cut it short. As it is, the film is a mammoth 2 hours and 33 minutes long. I would say that this was a well-meaning and deeply-felt project which partially failed, but its partial success is worthwhile. After all, films with a message are never that common at the best of times, and this was in the fifties era when so many issues were dodged by the social hypocrisies of the time. Congratulations, therefore, to Nunnally Johnson's ghost, for having tried very hard indeed to get serious about matters which were just not faced back then.
The Gatekeepers (2012)
The spy chiefs vent their fury at the politicians of Israel
This amazing Israeli documentary is certainly unique in world cinema history. A group of spy chiefs have come together to complain about their own politicians and express their concerns about the future of the Middle East. All six surviving former heads of Israel's Shin Bet internal security agency (not to be confused with Mossad, the foreign intelligence agency which is not discussed) have clearly made an agreement amongst themselves to put their case to the world public and call attention to the very real dangers of the present situation, which they believe can only get worse. They complain about the spinelessness and lack of leadership of Israeli politicians. (They politely omit to mention the present ones, attacking only the retired or dead ones.) However, all of them strongly supported and admired Prime Minister Rabin, saying that his assassination by a fanatical orthodox Jew destroyed the chance for peace between Israel and Palestine. They all clearly hate and despise the ultra-orthodox Jews whom they call 'the settler movement' and complain that their own politicians have refused to restrain the excesses of those Jewish fanatics. They say that the ultra-orthodox Jews want to bring on Armageddon because they have a mystical conviction that then the Messiah will come. It is obvious that they believe that the ultra-orthodox Jews are totally insane. The Shin Bet aborted a very advanced plot by the ultra-orthodox Jewish fanatics to blow up the mosque on top of the ruins of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. But when the leaders of the plot went to prison they were released very quickly and the politicians were afraid to offend them. The former Shin Bet leaders are all very gloomy and believe that there is now no hope for peace. This film seems to be their last and most desperate attempt to change the situation by going public with their worries. They speak very frankly about the security situation and give many specific examples of operations, with a lot of revealing film footage. An enormous number of secrets are revealed in great detail. The film was directed by the Israeli director and cinematographer Dror Moreh and was nominated for an Oscar. Never has such a film been made before, and I wonder if any will ever be made again. Everyone interested in world affairs should watch it. It also offers enlightenment as to how despairing the heads of security agencies, who view themselves as 100% professionals, are about the politicians to whom they are required to answer, and whom they mostly regard as idiots or fools. When Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, an early CIA whistle-blower, published his controversial book THE SECRET TEAM in 1974, revealing that the American intelligence agencies routinely gave false briefings to American presidents, feeding them with misinformation and manipulating their decisions, we had an early taste of American spy chiefs' contempt for their own politicians. Here we see no less than six successive security chiefs speaking in unison in the same manner. But whereas the American examples tended to be aimed at prolonging wars (such as in Vietnam), the Israeli spy chiefs on the other hand seemed to be more interested in ending wars and making peace. They say many flattering things about the ordinary Palestinian people and apparently believe that the Hamas terrorists are harming the Palestinians more than the Israelis. The film presents a picture of Israeli spy chiefs which is just about as far from what one would have expected as can possibly be imagined. All of these men clearly regard themselves as liberals. If you want to be surprised, try watching this.
The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)
Delightful romantic comedy with witty script and excellent performances
This is a superb example of a thirties romantic comedy. Merle Oberon, who the following year would dazzle the world in WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), here pre-dazzles the world with her witty charm, big eyes, and mischievous smiles. Gary Cooper is the tall (very tall, compared to Oberon, whom he cannot kiss without practically bending double) innocent cowboy whose favourite gal is his mare Bess. Oberon is the rich and cocooned daughter of a politician who wants to become President of the USA, and uses her to host his dinners just as the bachelor President James Buchanan used to do, when his daughter became 'the First Lady'. Early in this film Oberon is even toasted at one of the dinners as 'America's future First Lady'. (Her father is clearly a widower, though this is never stated.) This film had more writers than any film I have ever encountered. There were seventeen of them! The main screenplay appears to have been written by the well-known playwright and screenwriter S. N. Behrman. But he must not have done a good enough job, because 16 other people had to be brought in to pep up the script. They included such famous figures as Anita Loos and her husband John Emerson, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Robert Ardrey. With all that talent thrown into the soup, it is no wonder that many witty lines appear throughout the film, many of them doubtless having come from the acerbically mirthful Anita Loos. The film also had three directors, H. C. Potter being credited but the other two, including the famous William Wyler, not being credited. The reason for this deluge of talent was due to confusion on the part of Samuel Goldwyn. As several reviewers have pointed out, Goldwyn started with a title he liked and then tried to find someone to write a story for that title. Talk about top-down instead of bottom-up! There had already been three films made with the title THE COWBOY AND THE LADY. The first was a 1903 short, apparently lost. Then there were two silent films of the same title, made in 1915 and 1922, both based upon a play by Clyde Fitch. Both these films are also apparently lost, and neither had any relation with this 1938 film except for the title. Probably Goldwyn knew the title, whether consciously or subconsciously, from the 1922 film, it stuck in his mind and he got fixated upon the possibilities which it gave for an entertaining story. The juxtaposition of a cowboy and a lady was ready-made for comic possibilities, especially in America, where cowboys resonated with the public in contrast with the stuffy New England Establishment. The film succeeds in being very amusing and entertaining, and in this case too many cooks did not spoil the broth.
When is affinity real?
This is another superb film directed by Tim Fywell, based on a novel by Sarah Waters and with a script by the noted Andrew Davies. The film is dominated by a superb central performance by the young actress Anna Madeley. It is an eerie tale set in Victorian London, and the directing and art direction are a bit high Gothic intentionally, to heighten the sense of the supernatural. For me, the high point was a personal one, for it featured one of the last film performances of my old friend Domini Blythe, who died not long afterwards of cancer. The first time I met Domini, John Hurt and I were in the Flask pub across from his little house in Flask Walk in Hampstead. It was a hot day and we needed cold beers. Then an amazingly beautiful girl entered the pub, in search of a cold beer for herself. John and I agreed that she was so beautiful that we must try and pick her up, if only to find out who she was. We got her name out of her, but John was otherwise getting nowhere and so I decided to try a chat line of asking her if she were related to Blythe the stage hypnotist, and said I was fascinated by his technique of being able to exercise mind control by speaking through a loudspeaker attached to a large balloon which he floated above crowds of people outdoors. When Domini realized I knew of and appreciated her grandfather (her father was Peter Blythe the actor), she instantly made me a blood-brother, and she fastened her magnetic eyes on me and began speaking to me in her low, sultry, mesmerising tones so that I was quickly entranced. Later, her favourite thing to do with me was to 'become a python'. She would make me stand in the middle of a room, preferably with an audience of friends, and she would slither over my shoulder, down my back, under my arms, under my legs, and eventually come to rest on my shoulders, hanging her down down in front of my chest and look up at me with a penetrating hypnotic gaze. During all of this performance she never once touched the ground, and appeared to defy gravity. She later became part of the original cast of the hit show OH, CALCUTTA!, which was written by the weird Ken Tynan, who was married to Claire Bloom. That was back in the days when we were all young together. She went on a long Shakespeare tour of Canada and didn't come back, so we were out of touch for many years. In the last months of her life, as she was desperately ill, my wife and I exchanged loving emails with her, having by chance discovered how to contact her. Her brother told us how much it meant to her that her old friends had not forgotten her, and it gave her some comfort in her last days. Another actress in this film who was also near the end of her life and would die of cancer at practically the same time as Domini is Anna Massey. I did not know her nearly as well as I could have wished, but she was one of the most fascinating women in London. If you wanted real conversation, then going to her house and talking to her and her scientist husband Uri could not be bettered. I shall never forget the moment when she handed me a dull grey rock and told me that it was from South Africa and was called kimberlite. She kept it on inconspicuous display in her sitting room at the front of the house. She told me to look at it more closely. I saw that it contained a raw diamond. Apparently, that is how they occur in Nature. Probably it was the only such specimen in London apart from the Natural History Museum's mineral collection. And now they are gone, such amazing and irreplaceable souls. Anna Madeley, however, remains, now has 41 credits, and was even in A FANTASTIC FEAR OF EVERYTHING (2012, see my review), part of which was shot in my office. The other young female lead in the film is Zoe Tapper, whose treacherous allure is enough to lead many astray, which is what happens to poor Anna Madeley. For this film is about spirits, séances, lies, treachery, crime, redemption, and girls liking girls. And there are lots of jangling prison keys and cell doors and female wardens. So it is quite a heady offering. And watch out for Peter Quick! Oh yes, there is the comforting and soothing presence of Anne Reid as Mrs. Brink in the film, who seems prepared to reach out of the screen and wipe any anxious brow.
One Night (2012)
Dramatically overwhelming mini-series with exhilarating performances
This mini-series is a brilliantly-constructed interlocking puzzle, showing in four successive episodes the events of the same night from the points of view of four individuals who all get caught up in the same dramatic and tragic events in entirely different and conflicting ways. The most startling thing of all, however, is the discovery of a truly brilliant child actor named Billy Matthews, aged 8. He really carries the entire mini-series. What is all the more astonishing is that for a great deal of the time he remains stoically silent while under questioning by the police, and I don't think any actor has been as good at acting while saying nothing since the days of the silent films. He truly has a genius for acting. As for why he remains so silent, we eventually find out why his eyes in the police interview room are glued to the clock. Only he knows why he cannot dare to speak until the clock hands show a particular time, and when we figure it out, it is really a devastating revelation. For an 8 year-old boy to pull off such extreme tension over the course of several episodes is an incredible achievement. IMDb does not really inform us who this boy is or where he comes from. Another incredibly intense performance is given in Episode One by Douglas Hodge, one of Britain's finest actors at portraying extreme stress to such a harrowing degree that I can imagine some people requiring tranquilizers just to sit through one of his performances. He already proved his skill at this type of thing with his early triumph in the 1992 mini-series A FATAL INVERSION (see my review). In 2013 he played Paul Burrell in the film DIANA, which I did not want to see, but I am sure he must have been marvellous. He is one of quality British television's most dependable and solid actors, always good for a sterling performance in some classic series or production. Another spectacularly sympathetic and riveting performance is delivered by Georgina Campbell as the girl Rochelle, but she is an actress about whom nothing whatever is known on IMDb apart from her credits, not even her age. She must be the shy type! But she exudes charm as easily as a shaggy dog sheds hair. It was good to see Saskia Reeves providing excellent backup to Douglas Hodge in episode One, as his wife who tries with increasing desperation to cope with her husband going over the edge. I have been an admirer of her work ever since I saw that magical film by Syd Macatney, THE BRIDGE (1992), which was one of her finest performances, and she is by the way just as good on stage as she is on screen. This mini-series was written by Paul Smith, and it is a triumph of inventive, ingenious, and powerful writing. The director was David Evans, who has subsequently directed six episodes of DOWNTON ABBEY. Evans is a subtle, sensitive, and imaginative director who knows how to get incredible performances out of his actors, and especially young actors. Every actor in this mini-series does a wonderful job and it is impossible to mention them all, as there are too many who shine. This mini-series is an incredible achievement. It analyses coincidences and misunderstandings with the expertise of a brain surgeon,. The level of dramatic tension is kept at fever pitch for the entire four episodes. If only there were more things like this on television! The mini-series also has powerful social messages and insights to which we should all pay heed, and I do not believe anyone can watch it without learning deep truths and coming to understand many puzzling aspects of today's society which seem never to have made sense until they were all so dramatically explained by this fabulous production which is so gripping and so informative at the same time. As for the human tragedies revealed, some of them are deeply heart-breaking, but the positive side is that if we only try to understand people better we might all get on so well despite what appear on the surface to be irreconcilable differences. Perhaps it should be mandatory for everybody to see this mini-series, and then the level of social tolerance in Britain would rise considerably.
I Capture the Castle (2003)
Capturing our hearts as well
This is a superb romantic film strewn throughout with light touches of delightful and eccentric comedy. It was directed by Tim Fywell, one of Britain's finest directors, and is adapted from a novel by Dodie Smith. The lead role is played by Romola Garai, then aged 18, and she is utterly charming and, dare I say, thoroughly spell-binding. Despite her youth, she had already been acting in films for three years, so she had mastered the art of relating to the camera already. The film works like absolute magic. Bill Nighy as Garai's eccentric father is kept well under control so that he does not overact or over-tic, and he therefore carries off his key role superbly. Garai's even more eccentric mother is played by Tara Fitzgerald, and she too is just right for the apart. After all, she has never been 'as others are', as I learned when she was 14 and we won at hockey on the Harris's lightly snow-dusted tennis court one Christmas. That was before she ever acted, except in real life of course! She has lent her magic to many a fine film and TV series, and will doubtless continue to do so with her special touch. See her in THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL BUT CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN (1995, see my review), ANGLO-SAXON ATTITUDES (1992, see my review), and THE CAMOMILE LAWN (1991, see my review) for three of her very best roles (of her 48 credits). This film of an impoverished Bohemian artistic family who live in a rented castle, wondering how they can pay the rent or even eat their next meal, exudes charm from every sprocket-hole, and treats love romantically, rather than as an occasion merely for grunting and rutting on screen, and that is so unusual these days. Anyone who wants to be delightfully entertained need look no further for a congenial DVD than this.
The Inner Circle (1991)
The amazing true story of Stalin's cinema projectionist
This is a strange insider's tale, that's for sure. A man named Ganshin was the NKVD's cinema projectionist (called the 'KGB' in English, but that is just a simplification of course for people who never heard of its predecessor) and was suddenly coopted to start screening movies for Stalin and his 'Inner Circle', which included the spy boss Beria. This is therefore an extraordinarily interesting and revealing film of that man's tragic story. Ganshin is played in the film by the American actor Tom Hulce, best known for playing Mozart in AMADEUS (1984). He does an excellent job, far better I must say than he did with Mozart. He has just the right amount of naïve credulousness and open-eyed faith in Stalin and the system to be convincing. He, like so many millions of others at that time, was a 'true believer'. Such people genuinely believed that Stalin was a kind and loving Father of the Nation. Such was the extent and success of the brainwashing at that time! Indeed, Stalinist Russia was so like today's North Korea that the resemblances are eerie. The personality cult of Stalin was all-encompassing, and the mystique of his invincibility and superhuman wisdom was wholly accepted by the mass of the public. This is why the portrayal of Stalin in this film by the Russian actor Aleksandr Zbruev is so incredibly effective. Zbruev himself was the son of one of Stalin's ministers! But in 1937 the father was arrested and executed for being 'an enemy of the people' in the Great Purge. Zbruev here plays the man who ordered his own father's execution. He plays Stalin as a quiet, modest and straight-talking man who very softly, like a priest or a sophisticated gentleman, orders millions to be killed. In other words, as a psychotic, Stalin did not rant and rave, he quietly killed people by the millions as if he were putting a baby to sleep in a cot. The total terror inspired by the man amongst his immediate associates is better understood when we realize that they were dealing with a quiet psychopath, who smiled gently at those whom he intended to exterminate minutes later. As for Beria, he is played with great subtlety and terrifying menace by Bob Hoskins. The film was shot in Moscow, using a number of the real buildings as locations, and directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy, one of Russia's most brilliant directors, who has also worked a lot abroad. He is known for SIBERIAD (1979), RUNAWAY TRAIN starring Jon Voigt (1985), and SHY PEOPLE (1987), which is set in the bayous of Louisiana. His film RAY will be released in 2016, so that he is still very hard at work despite the fact that he is 79 years old. Hulce's wife is played by the Canadian actress Lolita Davidovich. Her acting is very intense and effective in the latter half of the film, where her situation has become so desperate. There are wonderful Russian character actors in the film, such as Feodor Chaliapin, Junior, aged 85, playing the old professor who insists that 'Satan is in the Kremlin'. The story of this film is a hair-raising one and not easily summarised. The many tragedies are heart-breaking, but then very many millions of hearts broke under Stalin, not to mention the many millions of hearts which stopped beating altogether under his gentle policy of looking after his beloved people by means of mass murder. One is left with the big question to which there has never been an answer: why is it that most of human history has been defined by psychopathic leaders who commit mass murder? Why has this scenario recurred throughout all the thousands of years of recorded history with unerring similarity? A maniac gets control of a country and starts killing everyone and no one stops him. Millions die. Still no one stops him. Even more millions die. And even then no one stops him. Does the blame lie with those who let him rise to power? Does it lie with those who suffer quietly under him and sometimes worship him while the blood in the street rises up the level of their necks? Why is it that so many political leaders are psychopaths anyway? (There are plenty of them spread around the world at the present time.) This is a question which people ignore at their own peril. This film is a useful lesson in how homicidal maniacs seize and use power, and keep it by means of inspiring sheer terror.
It certainly has 'it'
This is a wonderful film which I have just seen for the third time. It is made glorious by the starring role of Clara Bow. This and WINGS (1927), made later in the same year, were the two memorable classics of her career. She was one of the most charming and irresistible female stars in the entire history of the cinema. Her infectious and mischievous enthusiasm and energy were unrivalled. She naturally made all the other female stars of her day nervous, because by comparison with Clara Bow they were all made to look like lazy lumps. Clara Bow's life story is extraordinarily harrowing and tragic. Her origins were so horrifying that it is a miracle she even survived, much less went on to have a glittering career as a film star. The Hollywood Establishment was always against her, because she was far too 'real' for them to cope with, and her very existence and success constituted an implied rebuke to the phoniness of so much of the Hollywood dream-factory. This film is named after a best-selling novel written by the notorious Elinor Glyn, called 'IT'. The novel's story is not the story of the film, however, but is the story which many of the characters in the film are reading. The real life Elinor Glyn was the co-producer of this film and she actually makes an appearance in it, which is a fascinating filmed record of what she was really like. She appears as herself, not as a character. The film therefore has several amusing layers to it, blurring the distinctions between fiction and reality in an intentional way. I tend to know rather more about Elinor Glyn than most people, due to the fact that her great-granddaughter Caroline Glyn was my intimate friend and girlfriend when I was young. Caroline published her own first novel, a best-seller, at the age of 14 and published many thereafter. She died tragically young of a congenital heart defect which was probably caused by the fact that her parents were first cousins. The story of Caroline's brief life is in my opinion more interesting than the story of Elinor's long one. Caroline used to love to tell me the jingle about her great-grandmother, which she thought was so funny: 'Would you like to sin with Glyn on a tiger skin? Or would you prefer to err with her on another fur?' But enough of melancholy memories, and back to the film. The story is an amusing and entertaining one, but the film would have been mediocre without the presence of Clara Bow, who brings it alive with superhuman amounts of 'zing'. You have to see it to understand what I mean. The film was made in the penultimate year of the silent film era, and will always be one of the 'great silents' of film history. It is very well directed, apparently by Clarence Badger if you believe the credits, but it was actually completed by the great Josef von Sternberg, who was uncredited for it. The film was restored in the 1990s as part of the Thames Television series of restored silents done in association with the British Film Institute, and with an orchestral score composed by Carl Davis. The producers of this effort were David Gill and the famous film historian Kevin Brownlow, an old friend of mine from yesteryear. Although he is not credited, I expect another old friend, the film historian Dave Shepard, must have been connected with this project as well in some way. Those of us who love the great silent films can only regret the passing of the company Thames Television, which lost its ITV franchise in Britain long ago, so that their series of magnificent silent film restorations which were guaranteed television airings came to an end. We now live in an era where barely anyone under the age of 40 has ever seen a silent film, and an entire genre of creative human achievement is threatened with becoming as extinct in human consciousness as the dodo. Soon all the joys of silent film will become as evanescent as the grin of the Cheshire Cat, and no one will be left alive who knows or cares anything about them. This is all part of the Decline of Western Civilisation, which is well underway. It is also called Decadence, which always accompanies and indeed causes terminal cultural decline. As the West loses its cultural nerve and collapses from within, let us hope that the barbarians who will gnaw on our remains preserve one or two great classics of the silent cinema just out of a sense of whimsy, and in some long-distant future, two or three may emerge, just as a few of the Greek tragedies were preserved by the Byzantines for linguistic purposes. In this film, the young Gary Cooper goes unnoticed and uncredited as a reporter, though in WINGS a few months later he plays Cadet White and gets proper attention. As for Elinor Glyn's invention of the word 'it' to refer to sex appeal, 'it' was a hot topic with the public at the time, when sex was not meant to be mentioned in public. So 'it' was certainly one of the world's most famous euphemisms. The fact that this film was made with Clara Bow, who had more 'it' than all her competitors combined, helped hype up the euphemism, Elinor Glyn, her novels, the subjects of sex and sex appeal, and all that goes with it, such as why were people so coy about even mentioning the very existence of these fundamentals of human existence. Could this be anything to do with the hypocrisies of human societies? This film therefore had a galvanizing effect upon social developments, manners and mores. It probably had as much social impact as any other film ever did in its time. And it is still a wonderful film to watch, for Clara Bow's charm has something of eternity about it.
My Old Duchess (1934)
A no holds barred farce of the vanished music hall days
This long forgotten British comedy MY OLD DUCHESS has recently been released as a DVD under its original title of OH WHAT A DUCHESS! and can now be seen by the public for the first time in 85 years. It was directed by Lupino Lane (1892-1959), whose real name was Henry Lupino, and Ida Lupino's father Stanley was his first cousin. (The Lupinos were a well known British theatrical and music hall family and there were plenty of them, lupino-ing all over the place in the old days. They all tended to live in Camberwell, then a favourite area of London for music hall entertainers to live cheaply, with several music hall theatres within walking distance back then. All of that is completely forgotten today.) The film is a marvellous filmed record of the spirit of traditional British music hall, or vaudeville, comedy. It even includes a music hall comedy sketch written by the legendary Fred Karno (1866-1941). Karno founded and ran the famous Karno Company of comic theatrical players. Three young members of his troupe were Charlie Chaplin, his brother Sydney Chaplin, and Stan Laurel. When the Karno Company crossed the Atlantic for an American tour, the Chaplins and Laurel remained behind in America, thus making film history. George Lacy plays the lead in this film, which is the only film in which he ever acted. He was Britain's most famous female impersonator, and he spent most of his life (he died aged 85) playing 'pantomine dames' on stage. The only survivals of music hall theatre today in Britain are seasonal, namely the Christmas pantomimes. A few days ago I saw the panto of Cinderella, a hilarious experience. It features two pantomime dames (men dressed as outrageous women). Hayley Mills played the Fairy Godmother, and who could be more perfect for that, considering that she is a real fairy and she looks perfectly natural with a magic wand in her hand (despite the fact that for comic effect at one point she accidentally breaks it). In his film Lacy plays a young man (which is what he was) who is continually throughout the story called upon to impersonate an elderly duchess, which he does with wonderful comic effect. The film is full of the usual corny jokes of British music hall, many of them hilariously silly, and is played as affectionate broad farce. It is written as a film and is not just a filmed stage show, although it has sections where the leading characters, who are a theatrical troupe, are seen onstage in comic scenes. Anyone who likes good old-fashioned broad-stroke humour mixed with slapstick and over-the-top farce should find this very funny, as I did. The central performance by George Lacy is a priceless historical record of a type of comic acting which barely survives today. The music hall shows were what entertained the mass public in Britain before television came in. And they left their legacy in the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy and indeed all the comedy of the silent era of American films. Many of the famous older comedians of British television also cut their teeth in music hall comedy. But if you want to see something very close to the real thing, try this.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)
One of the finest films of the late 1960s, a true classic
I have just seen this wonderful film for the third time. For many years it was unavailable on DVD, and could only be obtained on a very old video tape of 1985, which I have. This film and THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (1952) are the two great classic films based on novels by Carson McCullers (1917-1967), whose tales were set in her native state of Georgia in America's Deep South, and are drawn from her early experiences. Carson McCullers was a far greater writer than the Deep South writer Harper Lee (born 1928), of whom so much more fuss is made. This film is a heart-rending study of the loneliness and desperation experienced by several people simultaneously, whose private sufferings are largely unknown to and unappreciated by the others, in a small Southern town, even though they all know one another. The lead character is Mr. Singer, a young deaf mute man played by Alan Arkin with such astonishing brilliance that it goes way beyond Oscar calibre and is probably the finest thing he has ever done. The other lead character is the young girl 'Mick', a lonely and poverty-stricken tomboy waif aged about 16, played in her first film role by Sondra Locke, then surprisingly aged 23 but not looking it, and whose Tennessee upbringing enabled her to speak like a convincing Southerner. Her performance is also spine-tingling in its pathos, and she proved herself overnight in her debut to be a major screen actress. Locke however later became famous for other reasons. In 1975 she moved in with Clint Eastwood and lived with him for 13 years, starring in six films with him. The story of their spectacular bust-up and the three lawsuits which arose from it are extremely tragic. It is impossible not to sympathise with Locke in her struggle against Eastwood, who appears to have been what is called 'a control freak', and the Hollywood Establishment. The details of all this sad saga, sadder even than a Carson McCullers novel, are widely known. Perhaps only McCullers could have done it justice in a fiction format, and expressed what the unfortunate Locke must have gone through. If there is a moral to the story, perhaps it is that girls from Shelbyville, Tennessee, had better watch their backs when they go to Hollywood, as no good can come of it. She did survive to direct four films and recover from breast cancer, but was shunned by many people who did not want to alienate Clint. As for the other performances in this film, they are all spectacularly good. The most impressive of all is probably that by Chuck McCann in his first feature film (he now has 151 acting credits) as Spiros Antonapoulos, a Greek immigrant (and there were many of them across the South in those postwar days who came over because of the Greek civil war, like the Syrian emigrants to Europe of today) who suffers from a strange and extreme form of autism whereby he has constant euphoria, compulsive eating habits, and total oblivion of his surroundings except for his one pal, Arkin. Arkin has spent years looking after him and has become his legal guardian, and in his own loneliness he has taken on McCann's as well, and they have become two lonely peas in a pod. But a tragic ending is inevitable, due to McCann's uncontrollable behaviour and his need to be institutionalised. All of these dramas are playing out without the knowledge of any of the other characters with whom Arkin interacts. He befriends an embittered black doctor in the Georgia town's 'bucktown' who hates all white people, played by Percy Rodrigues, and whose impassioned and rebellious daughter is played by Cicely Tyson. Rodrigues and Tyson are both explosive screen presences as well. The film is so packed with performances which are way off the scale in terms of talent that it is a real showcase for acting at the highest level. Thomas C. Ryan, who only scripted two other films, wrote a magnificent screenplay. He had written two scripts in the two preceding years, he then also produced this film, and then he mysteriously vanished from the film business. There must be a story there. He died in 1986. Apparently he assisted Otto Preminger when younger and came from Minnesota. That's all I know. Minnesota is a cold place, so maybe he got cold feet. This film was directed by Robert Ellis Miller, who later directed REUBEN, REUBEN (1983, see my review), who had spent 8 years directing for television before breaking into features two years earlier. This film is probably the crowning achievement of his entire career. It is so sensitively directed that Miller proved his higher abilities, if failing to achieve the higher status to which his talent alone should have entitled him in a just world. Sometimes in life, if you make only one great film, whereas your others have been good but did not set the world on fire, you have still succeeded at accomplishing what everybody else wishes they could do but never pulled off. Miller retired from directing in 1996 with 56 directing credits. If he will be remembered in the halls of fame, it will be for this early masterpiece. My advice to the unwary is, however, be ready to cry. But the ultimate point of this film is what is teaches us about human kindness and compassion. Mr. Singer, an obscure and ignored 'dummy' who communicates by holding out a card in his hand saying 'I am a deaf mute', becomes a hero of immense stature, not only in the story, but to all of us, because of what he gives to others, while having nothing for himself. He even buys a gramophone and plays classical music in his rented room so that Mick can overhear it, though unable to hear it himself.