Thursday 28 February 2013

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg [1972]

Adapted by Peter Nichols from his own play, A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG is a British tragi-comedy that was directed by Peter Medak and originally released in May 1972, although it had been shot two years earlier.  It stars Alan Bates, Janet Suzman, Peter Bowles, Sheila Gish, Joan Hickson and Elizabeth Robillard.  It tells the story of Brian and Sheila, an ordinary middle-class couple who happen to have a daughter with cerebral palsy, a condition which has rendered her a vegetable.  As you might expect, given its stage origins, it is a very theatrical film by which I mean wordy, non-naturalistic, and largely confined to one or two sets.  It's also warm, funny, humane and ultimately very moving.

The film begins with Brian (Alan Bates) admonishing a class of unruly children at the school where he teaches.  He punishes them for their behaviour by forcing them to sit in silence with their hands on their heads.  Brian is something of an extrovert and craves attention, which may be something to do with his oblivious, self-centred mother (Joan Hickson).  He used to get total attention from his wife Sheila (Janet Suzman) but much of her time is now spent looking after their disabled daughter Jo (Elizabeth Robillard).  Brian recalls the carefree days when they were first married and how much fun everything seemed; he resents that Jo's pathetic but time-consuming existence now makes that sort of life impossible.

Alan Bates

Sheila is a devoted mother and wife whose compassion for others is total; but she too finds the strain of coping with Jo an almost intolerable burden.  She conceals her occasional breakdowns from her husband and begs her friends Freddie and Pamela (Peter Bowles and Sheila Gish) in the amateur dramatics society to do the same.  One evening after rehearsals, Freddie and Pamela drop Sheila off at home and pop in for a cup of coffee, a visit which provokes an evening of furious, passionate drama as all four characters lay bare their fears and prejudices.

Janet Suzman (L) and Elizabeth Robillard (R)

I've had this movie lurking in my collection for many years but was only prompted to dig it out and watch it having seen a few weeks ago a documentary about the British playwright John Osborne.  A featured interviewee in that documentary was Peter Nichols, whom I recognised from his acting work without ever connecting the name with his plays.  Besides this, Nichols also wrote GEORGY GIRL [1966], one of the archetypal 'swinging '60s' movies, and the much-loved British farce PRIVATES ON PARADE that was eventually filmed in 1982.  So he's actually a rather significant figure in British film and theatre, if not perhaps quite on Osborne's level.

The awesome Joan Hickson

It seems to me that this play / film is about what constitutes life.  Aside from the unavoidable question of whether Jo's pitiful existence equates to 'life' in any meaningful way, all of the other characters appear to live only partial lives.  Brian, a frustrated artist, is a bright, funny and energetic man whose life, he feels, is being stifled by his daughter, who devours all of his wife's time and energy.  Sheila is equally bright and considerably more humane and compassionate but her life is dominated not only by Jo but also by her own blind hope that Jo will eventually show some sign of recovery.  To a lesser extent, as they are less fully realised characters, Freddie's life is dictated by his narrow political views just as his wife Pamela's life is dominated by her petty but monstrous snobbery.

Sheila Gish and Peter Bowles (centre)

Brian eventually makes an attempt to reach out and grab a fuller life for himself, an act which - ironically - may require him to sacrifice someone else's.  It's an utterly selfish attempt, to be sure, but one that it's impossible not to hope succeeds.  The film ends, in a twisted reflection of how it began, with Sheila sitting in bed in silence, with her hands on her head.

In my view Alan Bates was at his best in movies like this, filmed versions of successful theatrical productions, because his flamboyant, often excessive acting style was itself essentially theatrical.  Like Richard Burton, Bates wasn't really cut out to be a conventional leading man, and certainly not an all-action, physical leading man like Sean Connery or Richard Harris.  Harold Pinter's film of Simon Gray's play BUTLEY [1974] is another good example of Bates being totally at home with theatrical material.  In that and this, his command of dialogue is mesmeric, utilising many different voices and mini-personas; one can only imagine how dynamic  he must have been to see live in the theatre.

The film features several striking fantasy sequences

I was also very impressed by Janet Suzman in this movie.  Up to now I'd rather had the impression that she is a somewhat cold and aloof, even forbidding, actress but I shall have to rethink that opinion because as Sheila she gives a wonderfully warm and touching performance that totally won me over.  There's a sequence where she and Brian are in bed, reminiscing about the time when they confessed to each other about the sexual relationships they had had before they met.  It's a wonderful sequence, totally credible and yet beautifully intimate.  Truly great acting.

Peter Bowles is a familiar face on British TV, mainly from his work in sitcoms such as To the Manor Born, Only When I Laugh and The Bounder, but he has also done some interesting film work: he's in one of the Edgar Wallace's I've seen recently - DEAD MAN'S CHEST [1965] - and plays David Hemmings' agent in Antonioni's masterful BLOW UP [1966].  As well as that he's done pretty much the full complement of delirious British TV serials, i.e. THE AVENGERS, THE PERSUADERS, ADAM ADAMANT, THE PRISONER and so on.  I should also mention everyone's favourite oddball Murray Melvin, a favourite of the late great Ken Russell, who has a cameo role as a doctor.

Murray Melvin

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Diagnosis: Murder [1975]

Not to be confused with the shonky Dick Van Dyke medical / detective daytime TV series of the same name, DIAGNOSIS: MURDER is a British thriller that was directed by Sidney Hayers and originally released in the UK in 1974.  It stars the late Jon Finch, Christopher Lee, Judy Geeson, Tony Beckley, Dilys Hamlett, Jane Merrow and Colin Jeavons.  It tells the story of an eminent psychiatrist whose wife has disappeared but is himself under suspicion because the police have received anonymous letters claiming he has murdered her.  It's a genuine rarity this one: very rarely screened on British TV and unavailable here on DVD, I was obliged to buy a Region 1 copy in order to see it as part of my recent Jon Finch retrospective.

It starts with an arresting sequence in which a woman out for a walk is menaced by a sniper with a silenced telescopic rifle; but rather than shooting at her, the gunman (wearing a very 70s and not at all camouflaged red kagool) frightens the piss out of her by shooting whatever rock she has scrambled behind for cover.  We then cut rather abruptly to a slovenly but quick-witted detective Alan Lomax (Jon Finch) getting picked up for work by his colleague (Tony Beckley) to get cracking on a missing person case.  It turns out that Julia Hayward (Dilys Hamlett), the wife of toffee-nosed psychiatrist Dr Stephen Hayward (a fabulously supercilious Christopher Lee), has disappeared and soon the police begin to suspect that she has been murdered.  The reason they think that is because they've started receiving old-school, cut-out-of-newspapers anonymous letters telling them exactly that.

A highly-camouflaged sniper

We're very firmly nudged by the director into agreeing with them: partly because it's Christopher Lee, who's always up to no good; partly because he's super wealthy (lovely pile in the country, has a speedboat, drinks a lot of scotch out of cut-glass decanters); and partly because he's got a bit on the side, in the form of his secretary Helen (Judy Geeson).  Not to be outdone, Lomax also gets his own subplot which involves his relationship with an unhappily married woman Mary Dawson (Jane Merrow), whose husband Bob has been recently been rendered a paraplegic.

The very unwell Jon Finch as Lomax

Good, old-fashioned stuff then and as such it reminded me of those EDGAR WALLACE MYSTERY THEATRE episodes I've been watching a lot of lately in that it's very English, very middle-class and very unadventurous visually.  What it does have going for it, however, is a terrific central performance by Jon Finch as the slovenly but quick-witted Lomax.  He's not a totally unreconstructed 70s copper but he is very down-to-earth and completely unfazed by anything his quarry, or indeed his colleagues, can throw at him.  You'd never catch Gene Hunt or Monkfish reading female pornography for instance; Lomax flicks through it wondering if it turns women on before absent-mindedly observing that he must be alright because it doesn't do anything for him.

Christopher Lee trying to look inconspucuous

Were it not for Finch it would be hard to recommend tracking this film down, especially given how difficult that proved to be.  It's one of those films where there is nothing going on except the plot and were it not for the fact that you want to know what the big finish will be you'd turn it off.  Like most British films from the 1970s, it looks utterly ghastly now; why does everything from that period look so damp and uncomfortable? To make matters worse there seems to be some debate about whether the version that is available on DVD (albeit in the US only) is in fact the full version.  The imdb lists it as 95 minutes as does the BBFC submission; however, the version I saw ran for roughly 83 minutes.  It's perfectly comprehensible as it stands but one important subplot does seem to have been truncated.

It has to be said that Jon Finch appears terribly unwell in this movie, looking like a drug-addled and disease-ravaged John Holmes which, despite not being the worst look in the world during the mid-1970s, can't be good for you.  And indeed there was something seriously wrong with Finch's health: apparently he was an undiagnosed diabetic and kept fainting during production.  Finch had come in to this movie off a run of several excellent films but his subsequent health problems meant that he had to take some time out and his career never really recovered; certainly he never top-lined another major British film.  That's not to say he didn't do some interesting and high-profile work - he starred in some of the excellent BBC Shakespeare adaptations and had a supporting role in the big budget DEATH ON THE NILE (1978) - but his chance at major stardom had gone.

Tony Beckley and his wonderful tanktop

Director Hayers and screenwriter Philip Levene are names that will be familiar to fans of delirious British cinema and TV, having had a hand in numerous cinema and TV productions over the years.  I'd say Hayers' best film work is NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962), a cracking occult horror movie starring Peter Wyngarde.  Levene wrote the scripts for loads of episodes of THE AVENGERS.  Christopher Lee needs no introduction of course, while Judy Geeson has her fair share of delirious movies on her CV, notably Hammer's FEAR IN THE NIGHT [1972] and Norman J. Warren's shoddy INSEMINOID [1982].  Of the supporting players, Tony Beckley was a fine character actor most memorable for his turns in two Michael Caine movies: THE ITALIAN JOB [1969] and GET CARTER [1971].  Beckley was only 52 when he died of cancer in 1980.  And while we're speaking of Michael Caine, Colin Jeavons, who plays the wheelchair-bound Bob Dawson, features as one of the hideous inbred pirates in Michael Ritchie's THE ISLAND [1980] which is as perfectly delirious a film as you're ever likely to see.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Partners in Crime [1961]

PARTNERS IN CRIME is a British B-movie thriller that was directed by Peter Duffell and originally released in cinemas in 1961.  It stars Bernard Lee, John Van Eyssen and Moira Redmond and follows the progress of a detective working on a burglary / murder case.  Although it was shot on film and intended for the big screen, this movie - like a great many other British B-pictures - ended up on television as part of the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre series.

The critical reputation of these films was never very high, particularly at the time they came out.  As they were supporting features (in the days when you used to get two films for the price of your ticket) they weren't taken very seriously, if they were considered at all.  However, more recently there has been a reappraisal of their worth by film historians and academics who recognise them as an important proving ground for young technical and acting talent.  Indeed, part of the appeal of watching them today is the spotting of absurdly young-looking stars of the future, such as a pre-ZULU and ALFIE Michael Caine.  Not only that but they provided leading roles for character actors who might otherwise have been doomed to a career lower down the bill.

PARTNERS IN CRIME is a good example of this sub-genre.  There is a very swift set up of the plot: wealthy businessman Harold Strickland (Victor Platt) has just returned home from a night out with his wife Freda (Moira Redmond) and business partner Frank Merril (John Van Eyssen) when he disturbs a burglar and is shot dead.  Inspector Mann (Bernard Lee) takes charge of the investigation.  While Mann flounders with virtually nothing to go on, the audience is made aware that the insanely ambitious Merril hired a lorry driver to murder Strickland, whose share of the business Merril wants.  We are also one step ahead of the police in learning that Merril is also conducting an affair with Strickland's wife, who is well aware of his murderous scheme.

The film progresses at a breakneck pace but is essentially a rudimentary police procedural movie.  We follow Mann's investigation from pathologist report, to footprint evidence, to ballistics, through interviewing of the 'usual suspects', until they finally get their big break when a vital piece of evidence falls into their lap.  There's nothing particularly innovative of startling about all this but it's totally engrossing and, crucially, always finds time for a splash of colour, such as a memorable supporting character, an unsual location or, for modern audiences, a nostalgic sight of English life from fifty years ago.

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any left, given my shamefully long absence) may remember my review of a German krimi film.  That sub-genre is I suppose a close relation to these British crime B-pictures (and they are almost exclusively crime stories) and the most important factor they have in common is Edgar Wallace, upon who books most of these films are based.

It seems an obvious thing to say about a film that is over fifty years old but PARTNERS IN CRIME, like most of the other Edgar Wallace pictures I've seen, is quaintly old-fashioned.  I don't mean that in a technical or period sense, because they are simply reflecting the standards of the day, but more in a moral sense because it is noticeable that in these movies crime absolutely does not pay and the detective almost always gets his man.

Bernard Lee of course is familiar to millions as the original M in the James Bond movies.  A fine actor, he could probably have played these weary detective roles in his sleep but he is a figure of tremendous integrity and reassurance.  John Van Eyssen and Moira Redmond were basically supporting players, both of whom had decent screen and TV careers.  Both have good delirious credentials too: Van Eyssen played Jonathan Harker in Hammer's 1958 version of DRACULA and was also in Joseph Losey's much grittier look at British crime in THE CRIMINAL [1960].  He eventually gave up acting and became a studio executive.  The beautiful Moira Redmond also did a turn in a Hammer production, in her case Freddie Francis' 1964 psychological thriller NIGHTMARE.  She had a long career in TV, including the seemingly obligatory appearances in DANGER MAN and THE AVENGERS.  Also in the cast, as a diligent and public-spirited pawnbroker is Nicholas Smith who lovers of dreadful British sitcoms will recognise as the officious Mr Rumbold in ARE YOU BEING SERVED?  Director Peter Duffell also worked on THE AVENGERS, just one stop in his lengthy TV career, although he did also direct one of those beloved portmanteau horrors THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD [1971].

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Bloodlines: Legacy of a Lord [1998]

Directed by Brian Grant, BLOODLINES: LEGACY OF A LORD purports to tell the truth behind one of the most enduring and notorious missing persons cases in history, the case of Lord Lucan.  It stars Richard Lintern as Lucan, Beatie Edney as the woman doggedly pursuing the truth, and the late Jon Finch as a retired detective turned publican who worked on the case.

For those who have been in a coma for the last forty years, Lord Lucan - or the 7th Earl of Lucan, to give him his full title - was (and maybe still is) a British aristocrat who vanished off the face of the earth in 1974 on the same night that his children's nanny was murdered by an intruder at the home of her employer, Lucan's estranged wife.  His wife was also attacked but survived and later named her husband as the intruder during the inquest into the nanny's death.  The inquest took the unusual step of naming Lucan as the person responsible for the nanny's death and circumstantial evidence, along with his rapidly declining personal circumstances (he was a heavy gambler), seems to suggest that he had the motive, means and opportunity to commit the crime.

Richard Lintern as Lord Lucan

Lucan's car was found abandoned at Newhaven on the south coast of England but in it were discovered bloodstains and, in true Cluedo style, a length of lead piping similar to that which had been used in the murder.  Of Lucan himself, there has subsequently been no trace.  The location of his car has led some to speculate that he committed suicide, others that he made his way out of the country never to return.  The truth is that no-one knows what happened to him, or at least no-one is telling.  His aristocratic status has prompted suggestions that his upper-class friends and the old boy network somehow spirited him out of England and set him up under a false identity abroad.

Every so often the British media will run a story about Lucan, featuring claims that he has been spotted running a shoe shop in Johannesburg or other such outlandish nonsense.  They do however help to keep the mystery alive and in people's minds; the name Lucan has long since passed into English popular culture as a byword for the lost or disappeared.  For such an enduring case it is perhaps surprising that relatively few films have been made about it; the ever-reliable imdb informs me that the Lucan story has been told only three or four times, the most recent of which is BLOODLINES, and that's 15 years old now.

Lucan considers his options

The story is told largely in flashback, via the device of Edney interviewing Finch about his recollections of the case.  The crime itself is dealt with almost straight away and follows the generally accepted version of events as told to the inquest.  However, as Edney quizzes Finch more and more, a second narrative begins to emerge which, piece by piece, offers a second account of the night in question.  The film climaxes with a second depiction of the crime - according to the new 'evidence' offered by Finch - and its aftermath.

I won't go into exactly what the film asks us to believe but suffice it to say that the Occam's Razor principle came into my mind and I just couldn't swallow what ends up becoming a pretty outlandish, although not impossible, alternative explanation.  One final point about the film is that - as you will be able to gather from these stills - it suffers from an acute case of Bruce Surtees Syndrome, that is to say Exceedingly Dark Interiors.

Jon Finch

As fascinating as the Lucan case is, the real reason I watched this movie at all is Jon Finch.  Finch's death in late December last year was announced in the British press two or three weeks ago and very sad news it was too.  Although his salad days were long behind him, Finch was an actor of considerable talent and charisma.  His two most memorable screen roles were Richard Blaney in Hitchcock's excellent thriller FRENZY [1972] and Macbeth in Polanski's startling version of Shakespeare's tragedy [1971].  Obituaries tended to focus on these two films almost exclusively and cited Finch's easy-going lack of ambition as a reason why his career seemingly petered out almost as soon as it had begun.  However, he was still making big-budget films late into the 1970s and continued to work extensively on television into the 1980s.  He also featured strongly in a couple of Hammer horrors prior to his stardom, and returned to working for the company in their TV series HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR in 1980.  He was also cast as Kane, the ill-fated crew member in Ridley Scott's ALIEN [1979], but had to withdraw due to ill health; I'm had he been able to fulfill that notorious role, eventually played of course by John Hurt, it would have raised his profile perhaps back to where it had been at the beginning of the decade.  Another fine delirious film in which Finch starred was Robert Fuest's THE FINAL PROGRAMME [1973], an adaptation of one of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels.  A fantastic mash-up of films as diverse as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, O LUCKY MAN!, BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN and PERFORMANCE it is well worth a look if you can track it down; it's a wonderfully stylish film that also features a great delirious supporting cast.

Beatie Edney stumbles over a clue

Beatie Edney is the daughter of veteran British actress Sylvia Syms, star of stiff upper lip classic ICE COLD IN ALEX [1958] and, less impressively, shonky portmanteau horror ASYLUM [1972].  Edney had a great start to her career in Russell Mulcahy's HIGHLANDER [1986] but she never really hit the heights again, despite working steadily including a lot of TV work.