Brit Noir Films by Cathi Unsworth

Cathi USE THIS ONE - May 2015 - Credit Julian Ibbitson [at] www.ibbitsonphotography.co.uk.jpg

Pic (c) Julian Ibbitson.

Brighton_RockBrighton Rock (Boulting Brothers, 1947) Hard to imagine now, perhaps, but Richard Attenborough was perfectly capable of personifying evil and the first time he achieved it was in his seemingly effortless depiction of juvenile delinquent Pinkie in the first adaptation of Graham Greene’s peerless seaside noir. Ably abetted by a young William Hartnell, often a partner in the ‘Spiv Cycle’ of films that lasted from the post-War period to the late Fifties, the 23-year-old Dickie swaggers the boardwalks with a shiv up his sleeve and the gullible young Rose (Carol Marsh) on his arm, a baby-faced killer. The film’s ending may have departed from the book’s, at the behest of the British Board of Film Censors, but still retains a wholly fitting sense of disgust and darkest irony. The well-intentioned recent remake only makes you value this classic more.

 

italwaysrainsonsunday1It Always Rains on Sunday (Robert Hamer, 1947) Ealing Studios smash hit of the year was this adaptation of Arthur La Bern’s brilliant novel by doomed genius Hamer. The director’s favourite leading lady, Googie Withers, plays Rose Sandigate, a bored housewife whose mundane but safe world crashes around her when her ex-lover and now fugitive convict Tommy Swann turns up in the Anderson shelter at the end of her garden. Faithful to its source material, the film depicts the old Jewish East End with real veracity and there is further inspired casting of Sydney Taffler as spivvy bandleader Morry Hyams, John Slater as his brother Lou and Jack Dixon of Dock Green Warner as DS Fothergill. But the film belongs to the pairing of Withers with her real-life husband John McCallum as Tommy, risking it all for one backwards glance at what might have been.

 

they made me a fugitiveThey Made Me A Fugitive (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1947) Trevor Howard is far from the romantic lead that Brief Encounter has sealed in memory in Brazilian auteur Cavalcanti’s audacious noir. As Clem, a former RAF pilot unable to adapt to civilian life, he takes up with bad boy Narcy (Griffith Jones, King of the Spiv Cycle) who runs his empire from a funeral parlour, where the coffins come in handy for all sorts of things and the signs on the wall remind everyone: It’s later than you think… This being Britain, class war soon erupts between the two over Narcy’s plan to start dealing drugs, with the result of Clem being framed for murder, banged up in Dartmoor and forced to follow in Tommy Swann’s footsteps and become the titular jailbreaker, hell-bent on revenge. The performances of the two leads, Noel Langley’s darkly humorous script, Margery Saunders’ super-fast editing and Otto Heller’s intense cinematography all add up to a dark star of post-War cinema.

 

odd man outOdd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947) Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker made dramatic use of the city of Belfast to tell the story of the last journey of IRA man Johnny McQueen (James Mason), from city centre heist-gone-wrong to docklands denouement. The doomed man’s progress is seen through the eyes of the children who find him hallucinating in a bomb-shelter with a bullet in his guts; the English nurses who try and patch him up in their terraced parlour; the cabbie who unknowingly gets him past the cops; and the drinkers in the wonderful Crown Bar (landlord: William Hartnell). The surreal beauty of the piece is further heightened by the performances of stalwart Irish actors FJ McCormick as the wily bird-seller trying to profit from Johnny’s plight, WG Fay as his humane counterpoint Father Tom and Robert Newton as the mad artist who wants to paint the last moments of a dying man – inside a crumbling mansion, while snow falls through the roof. In all, it can be safely said that 1947 was a hell of a year for British film noir.

 

ThirdManUSPosterThe Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) The second outing in this list for Reed, cinematographer Krasker and writer Graham Greene is a film which continues to haunt nearly 70 years after its release, a pitch-perfect depiction of bombed-out Vienna and its literal underworld in the aftermath of World War II. There is so much alchemy in this production it is hard to know where to start. Does its magic lie in the casting of Austrian actors Paul Hörbiger, Enrst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer, Erich Ponto and the octogenarian Hedwig Bleibtrau, all allowed to speak in Viennese dialect with no dubbing or subtitling? The distinctive zither theme by Anton Karas, discovered by chance, playing for tips in a Viennese café? Perhaps it’s the climactic chase through the sewers? The veracity of Greene’s plot about a penicillin racket run by charismatic psychopath Harry Lime, a man based upon the author’s former MI5 spymaster Kim Philby? Or Orson Welles as Harry, appearing from the shadows with a smile upon his lips? What do you think, old man?

 

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The Blue Lamp (Basil Dearden, 1949) Prompted by the murder of Alec D’Antiquis, shot in cold blood by a gang of robbers in 1947, this film tapped into public fears of a London rife with ‘cosh boys’ armed with the weapons that were so easily available after the War. Dirk Bogarde plays Tom Riley, a dark, unknowable young sadist – the sort of role he excelled at. Trying to keep the streets safe from this likes of him is Jack Warner as avuncular PC George Dixon and Jimmy Hanley, his youthful protégée, both vastly different characters from their last meeting in It Always Rains on Sunday. This could almost be an Ealing comedy, but for the sudden, shocking twist of Dixon’s murder at the hands of the coolly dispassionate Riley. Dearden – a lynchpin of British cinema for the next two decades, until his tragic death in a car crash in 1971 – uses great location shots for the car chase down Ladbroke Grove and climax at White City dog track, with the tic-tac men choreographing Riley’s impending doom. Dixon proved so popular that he was resurrected for a successful TV series, Dixon of Dock Green, that lasted from 1955-1976.

 

yield to the nightYield To The Night (J Lee Thompson, 1956) Diana Dors was Britain’s answer to Jayne Mansfield, a blonde bombshell with a wicked sense of humour. But it wasn’t until Thompson cast her as murderess Mary Hilton, condemned to death for shooting her lover, that the full range of her acting depth and talent was revealed. From the stark surroundings of her death row cell, Mary’s story is told in flashback, with many echoes of the true case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain: an affair with smooth-talking nightclub pianist that turns to jealousy, paranoia and ultimately, a smoking gun. It was to Dors’ credit that her rendering of the vulnerability under her character’s hardboiled exterior hit such a chord that the film became an effective tool in the campaign to abolish the death penalty, which had just been achieved by the time of its release. It also brought Thompson to Hollywood, where he would go on to direct one of the most astonishing noirs of all time, Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum, in 1962.

 

hell driversHell Drivers (Cy Endfield, 1957) ‘Manly’ Stanley Baker, the son of a coal miner from The Rhondda, was the alpha male of Fifties/Sixties British cinema. Even a youthful Sean Connery, appearing in one of his first roles here, seems a bit fey beside him. As ex-con Tom Yately, he picks up a job as a lorry driver for a haulage contractor, hoping just to keep his head down and gradually rebuild his life. Unfortunately, his boss Cartley (William Hartnell) is as bent as they come, and working a scam with his top driver Red (a homicidal Patrick McGoohan) that results in such cinematic luminaries as Baker, Connery, Herbert Lom, Sid James and David McCallum having to drive tons of gravel at alarming speeds down perilously narrow and winding country roads. The strange setting, amid the frantic pace of them post-War rebuilds, authentically renders the itinerant lives of the drivers, with their long days at the wheel and nights in the alehouse, and makes this oddball, gritty drama really work.

 

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Beat Girl (Edmond T Gréville, 1959) A heady cocktail of beatniks, property developers and strippers mixing it in Soho to the sounds of the John Barry Seven. Beat Girl slid in some sly social commentary amid the wild antics of the titular Jenny Linden (Gillian Hills, the English Bardot, who would ironically find more success as a ye-ye chanteuse in France) and her teenage rebel crew, who also numbered singer Adam Faith, a youthful Oliver Reed and Shirley Anne Field, without whom no teensploitation film of the period could properly be made. While Jenny lives for kicks, racing cars, playing chicken on the railway and getting involved with sinister strip club owner Christopher Lee, her architect father Paul is busy constructing the concrete City 2000 from his luxury Kensington mansion. While a stripping sequence involving a boa constrictor saw it heavily cut on release, the car chase scene was later mirrored in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (in which Hills also took a role), and John Barry’s score is still straight from the fridge.

 

LeagueOfGentlemenPosterThe League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden, 1959) We are now entering a period where most of the best British movies will involve the trinity of Basil Dearden, Bryan Forbes and Dickie Attenborough. In this, Dearden directs, Forbes writes the scathingly witty screenplay and both he and Dickie star in the gang of compromised ex-servicemen recruited by the disgruntled Colonel Hyde to pull off the perfect bank job. The ensemble cast – the awesome Jack Hawkins as the Colonel, Nigel Patrick as his louche adjutant Major Race (a man with many similarities to Harry Lime), Terence Alexander as chinless wonder Major Rutland-Smith, Roger Livesey as faux clergyman ‘Padre’ Mycroft, Forbes as feckless nightclub pianist Captain Porthill, Dickie as randy garage mechanic Lieutenant Lexy, Kieron Moore as closet homosexual Captain Stevens and Norman Bird as the browbeaten Captain Weaver – are all superb, as is every minute of the film they inhabit. Ostensibly a heist movie, this is really an inspired satire on the end of Empire that catches the mood of change in British society as the Sixties began.

 

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Sapphire (Basil Dearden, 1959) A year after the Notting Hill race riots, Dearden attempts to address the thorny topic of integration by working the problems of a socially evolving London into a murder mystery frame. A beautiful young woman (Yvonne Buckingham as the eponymous Sapphire) is found murdered on Hampstead Heath, an autopsy revealing the further outrage of her pregnancy. When her doctor brother (Earl Cameron) arrives to identify her body, detectives Hazard (Nigel Patrick) and Learoyd (Michael Craig) are startled by his blackness – Sapphire had appeared to them to be a white girl. Illusions continue to be shattered throughout the course of their investigation, which leads the blatantly bigoted Learoyd and more circumspect Hazard into the nightclubs and youth clubs through which Sapphire passed, collecting more impressions of intolerance and ignorance from all sides as they go. A real litmus test of the prevailing values of the age, it remains uncomfortable and thought-provoking viewing to this day.

 

The_Criminal_film_posterThe Criminal (Joseph Losey, 1960) Fleeing from the McCarthy blacklist, Joseph Losey’s arrival in Britain was America’s loss and Brit noir’s gain. With Robert Krasker as his cinematographer and Stanley Baker playing villain Johnny Bannion, this is arguably the first film to realistically portray the inside of a British jail, where rival gangs clash under corruptible guards and a dark streak of humour is essential for survival. Baker based his character on his friend Albert Dimes, the swaggering bodyguard of gang boss Billy Hill, and the details of his immaculate wardrobe and jazz hipster pad are as meticulous as Baker’s performance. With roughly half of the film spent on each side of the bars, Bannion leaves prison to find a bunch of upstart criminals moving onto his patch, just as, in London gangland, Billy Hills’ firm were about to be usurped by the Kray twins – though tellingly, in Losey’s film, the new breed are American. Things come to a head, as they tend to do, at a racecourse, the footage of which is ripe with real life characters, notably the black tipster Prince Monolulu who dressed as an African chief.

 

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The Frightened City (John Lemont 1961) Normally in lists of Brit noirs, Val Guest’s 1960 Hammer production Hell is a City with Stanley Baker would be up next. But Sean Connery, his Hell Drivers cohort Herbert Lom and Alfred Marks steal a march with this neglected gem, which might not have such a great title but thankfully comes with out an embarrassing subplot about the detective’s need to impregnate his wife. The Frightened City very much reflects the memoirs and pulp novelisations of Scotland Yard’s finest from this era, with a plot about protection rackets, greedy accountants and property developers that still resonates today. Connery has grown into a magnetic persona to match his saturnine looks, Lom is ever-reliable as the mastermind and Marks is superb as the owner of a Tiki bar and organiser of the local muscle. It is the villains and not John Gregson’s lantern-jawed but strangely uncharismatic DI Sayers who own this film, which is also blessed with early Britbop mogul Norrie Paramour’s evocative score.

 

Victim_1961_posterVictim (Basil Dearden, 1961) After spending the Fifties playing amiable medical man Simon Sparrow in the Doctor series of comedies, Dirk Bogarde risked all with this film. Having just left the Rank Organisation that had made him a huge star, he portrayed a closeted barrister who puts himself on the line to defend the blackmailers of homosexuals, at a time when to be a gay man was still a criminal offence. The deeper irony being, of course, that Bogarde himself was a closeted homosexual who was viewed as a heartthrob, lending the scenes between his character, Melville Farr, and Sylvia Sims as his beautiful wife Laura, an extra level of poignancy. Like The Criminal, Victim is laced with brilliant period detail: the furtive language employed by the clandestine gay community and the murky characters who inhabit the pubs and drinking dens around Charing Cross where blackmail victims are stalked. With wonderful supporting turns from the ever-urbane Dennis Price and a demonic Derren Nesbitt, this is perhaps Dearden’s finest hour.

 

_The_Boys__(1962_British_film)The Boys (Sidney J Furie, 1962) One of the best time capsules of post-War, pre-Swinging London is this courtroom drama about four young East-enders on a night out that ends in murder. Retold in flashback, two different narratives take shape as the antics of the four – routinely described as ‘Teddy Boys’, the scourge of the nation – are seen from contrasting angles. All are simply eager to escape the confines of their family homes. Ginger (Tony Garnett) an apprentice builder working on the new high rises, is dying to show off about his new job. Stanley (a mesmerising Dudley Sutton) needs respite from his dying mother. Barney (genuine bad boy rocker Jess Conrad) has an eye for the ladies and Billy (Ronald Lacy) merely wants to have fun. As they traverse the city from the condemned slums of the East to the bright lights of the West, so too do they cross all the heavily entrenched class boundaries within this literally shifting landscape. Canadian-born Furie had an eye for youth culture – he would go on to delve into clandestine biker and gay culture with 1965’s The Leather Boys, casting Sutton in another memorable role, then make the ultimate Cold War cool of 1965’s The Ipcress File.

 

the l shaped roomThe L-Shaped Room (Bryan Forbes, 1962) Forbes’ second film as director was an adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks’ novel about a pregnant, unmarried young woman adrift in the boarding house land of early Sixties London, who finds solace in the company of fellow outcasts. Transferring the book’s setting from Fulham to Ladbroke Grove, Forbes pinpointed exactly where a woman in such straits might find succor in a carved-up Victorian terrace, alongside an angry young man novelist, West Indian musician, ageing lesbian actress and a couple of working girls, all ruled over by imperious landlady Doris. Forbes wove magic casting Leslie Caron as the compromised Jane, Tom Bell as her inky-fingered suitor, Brock Peters as jazzer Johnny, Pat Phoenix as the tart with the heart, Avis Bunnage as Doris and Cecily Courtenage as the lonely thespian. John Barry’s score – particularly the scene where Johnny’s band play of the locale’s ‘mushroom clubs’ — perfectly captures both the hopeful spirit and melancholic undertow of the time and place.

 

The_Damned_1963_movieThe Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963) Hammer were so aghast Losey’s mash-up of juvenile delinquency, science fiction, Pop Art and horror that they sat on this film for two years before daring to release it. Today their fears seem absurd – this is one of the finest, most original movies ever to emerge from the Studio That Dripped Blood. Opening with a memorable, finger-clicking paean to black-leather, we are introduced to Weymouth’s fearsome bikers, a gang led by King (Oliver Reed, looking like a prototype Droog) stalking tourists lured away from the safety of the seafront by his jailbait sister, Joan (Shirley Anne Field). But this soon gives way to a much stranger and more resonant storyline about a secret nuclear research facility just across the water on the Isle of Portland, where sinister experiments have been taking place on innocents. This haunting vision of the nuclear age is was also where the first band of punk took their name

 

the small world of sammy leeThe Small World of Sammy Lee (Ken Hughes, 1963) From the opening shots of dawn breaking over the sex cinemas and beat clubs of Old Compton Street to the sound of a dustbin lorry and Kenny Graham’s mournful jazz score, this film more than any other evokes the true Soho of the era. As the strip-club compare who has 24 hours to repay his gambling debts to the local firm or have his face rearranged with a razor, Anthony Newley gives a monumental performance as Sammy Lee. Running from his brother’s shop on Petticoat Lane and back across town to the pool halls, jazz basements and powder-strewn dressing rooms of Soho in his frantic quest to raise funds by any crooked means necessary, he must also deal with a summer fling (Julia Foster as Northern innocent Patsy) who’s turned up on his doorstep looking to rekindle his fickle flame. His frantic journey is beautifully captured by DP Wolfgang Suschlitzky, with a brilliant cast including Warren Mitchell as Sammy’s long-suffering brother and Miriam Karlin as his much wise wife, Robert Stephens as sleazy strip club manager Gerry.

 

The_Servant_(film)The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963) Scripted by Harold Pinter from a short story by Robin Maugham and shot across the road from his uncle Somerset’s pad on Royal Avenue, DP Douglas Slocombe’s lens captures the monochrome Chelsea where Look Back in Anger was first staged at the Royal Court and Mary Quant set up her Quorum boutique on King’s Road. Dirk Bogarde’s memorably menacing portrayal of the opportunist Northern butler who is not what he seems and his clueless prey, louche aristocrat James Fox, mine the uneasy tensions between the classes that are about to explode with the onset of the Angry Young Men, the march of the Miniskirt and the revelations of the Profumo Affair that would bring down Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government in this year. By the end of the decade, Fox would be playing a Through-the-Looking-Glass version of his role in The Servant as the gangster Chas in Performance when society completed its spin cycle and the Swinging decade came to its murderous end.

 

_Seance_on_a_Wet_Afternoon__(1964_film)Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Bryan Forbes, 1964) The most unsettling of all Forbes/Attenborough collaborations casts Dickie as reluctant kidnapper Bill Savage, who is urged by his Spiritualist wife Myra (Kim Stanley) to snatch the young daughter of a wealthy couple in order that she can demonstrate her clairvoyant powers to help police reunite them. Once the palm-drenchingly uncomfortable abduction is achieved, their unfortunate charge is confined in a room of the couple’s suitably gloomy pile made to look like a hospital ward. But it is Myra’s mental health that rapidly unravels. Forbes, who adapted the screenplay from Mark McShane’s novel, had real difficulties casting the female lead and at one stage considered changing her sex, envisioning Alec Guinness and Tom Courtenay in the starring roles. The dynamic between his eventual discovery, Broadway actress and Method devotee Stanley, and Dickie was every bit as fractious as their screen relationship, adding a further layer of barely-suppressed hysteria to the ectoplasmic atmosphere. Although nothing so terrible befalls the innocent here, in the summer of the same year, a real woman named Myra would begin spiriting children away.

(This article previously appeared  in the French Temps Noir.)

Bio: Cathi Unsworth is the author of six highly acclaimed pop-cultural crime novels, That Old Black Magic(2018), Without The Moon (2015), Weirdo (2013), Bad Penny Blues (2009), The Singer (2007) and The Not Knowing (2005, all Serpent’s Tail). She began her writing career at the age of 19 on Sounds and has since worked as an editor on Bizarre and Purr. She has written on music, film, pop culture and general weirdness for Fortean Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, Mojo, Sight & Sound and Uncut among others. Next year will see the publication of Defying Gravity, the biography of Jordan Mooney which Cathi has authored alongside the woman known as The First Sex Pistol. More at www.cathiunsworth.co.uk

 

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