Monday, 16 April 2012

Alfie - More Than Just Jack the Lad

1966's Alfie is often depicted as typifying the happy-go-lucky, couldn't give a shit approach of the typical sixties' male - and Michael Caine, by association,. the embodiment of that dubious ideal.  On some levels this is true: Alfie's direct addresses to camera frequently serve to substantiate his image as the archetypal uncaring and self-seeking male with a horror of commitment.  His language and  tone back this up, especially the manner in which he refers to women as 'it', or 'they' rather than as individuals.

As the film progresses, however, and as Alfie's experienes - and those of the women with whom he is associated - become more complex and tragic, Alfie definitely undergoes a transformation from Jack-the-Lad to a more thoughtful and considerate human being.  He may not wish this change to be universally known; indeed, his to-camera speeches directly contradict this, but his experiences in the sanitorium (having contracted TB) with Harry Clamacraft (Alfie Bass) and Harry's wife Lily (Vivian Merchant), as well as his ungracious and ungrateful behaviour towards Annie (Jane Asher), cause him to reassess himself and vow to change the direction of his life.  The irony of the film is that Alfie's desire to settle down with Ruby (Shelley Winters) is confounded by the discovery that she is cuckolding him.  He is out Alfied by a woman, a turn of events he had not bargained for.

Alfie is something of an idiot savant: he knows what he knows, and he thinks very highly of himself, but once other people assert themselves, he is at something of a loss, despite all the swagger.  Yet he has learned something, even if he is not entirely sure what that is.  At the very least, a transformation has begun.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Adaptations of Adaptations: Do They Really Work?

I must be the last person on earth to do so, but I have only just got round to watching last year's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier,Spy with Oldman, Hurt, the inevitable Firth et al.  I had intended to see it at the cinema but circumstances conspired against me at the time, and I've had the DVD sitting on a shelf for weeks now waiting for a suitable moment.  I did try watching it a couple of weeks ago, but had had too much to drink (frankly) and fell asleep, not before registering some disquiet at what I'd seen.  At the time I put this down to the drink, but I was much more sober last night when I tried again, and, sure enough, the disquiet remains.
    I'll come out with it - I don't like this version.  I don't like the actors in these roles - don't get me wrong, they're all great actors, but they don't fit the characters who have been hard wired into my brain from reading the novel and then watching the BBC adaptation.  It's not just that Alec Guinness will forever be Smiley, I just can't sanction John Hurt as Control, or the ubiquitous Firth as Bill Haydon.  I've seen him too often and he's always the same character.  Bernard Hepton will forever be toby Esterhase, not this guy whose name I don't even know.  And sorry, but Jim Prideaux doesn't look like this, and, more importantly, he was shot in an ambush in the forest, not in some trendy shopping mall in Budapest, which would not have existed during the Cold War.  What's that about?
    I turned it off.  I may watch the rest when I'm feeling less combatative.  More likely I'll re-read the book again and get the BBC version out of the library.

Monday, 20 February 2012

School for Scoundrels (1960)

The poster publicity for School for Scoundrels (1960) described the film as an “hysterical British satire”.  It boasts a heavyweight cast, populated by many of the comic superstars of the day, among them Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Dennis Price, Peter Jones, Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques, Hugh Paddick,  Gerald Campion and, to top the tree, the inimitable Alastair Sim, albeit in a slightly understated performance as Stephen Potter, Principle of Yeovil’s College of Lifemanship.  School for Scoundrels, although released in 1960, is very much a film of the 1950s in terms of the attitudes and values it both satirises and portrays.  Despite its subject matter it maintains a certain decorum and gentility lacking from the crass innuendo and double entendres which were to characterise British comedy in the 60s, notably in the form of the “Carry On” series.  In addition to it being a genuinely funny film, School for Scoundrels is an interesting and informative snapshot of where a certain echelon of British society was at the point where one largely unremarkable decade tipped over into another which history has celebrated, for better or worse.

School for Scoundrels is based on the 1947 book by Stephen Potter, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or the Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating).  Indeed, the subtitle of the film is a slight adaptation of this, How to Succeed in Life Without Actually Cheating).  It is notable that the ideas upon which the film is based stem from an earlier decade, since it is certain that the world in which School for Scoundrels is set would have had few echoes for the great majority of its audience.  It is a world of swish, if snooty, West End restaurants, flash cars and exclusive country clubs.  The film manages to hold this world and its characters up to gentle ridicule whilst simultaneously evoking its attraction and the somewhat guilty pleasure in the audience that they would like to share in such a pleasant existence.

The premise of the film is simple: life is divided into winners and losers; you are either one-up or one-down.  Our hero, Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael), is decidedly the last of these.  Although wealthy, Henry is clearly a loser.  Nominally the head of a business he has inherited from his uncle, Henry role at work is limited to “signatures” rather than “decisions”; he is dominated by his overbearing chief clerk Gloatbridge (played effectively by Edward Chapman).  He is clumsy, as witnessed by the way he collides with April Smith (Janette Scott) whilst attempting to board a bus she is stepping down from and sending her flying, ruining her stockings into the process.  Initially we may believe that Henry has struck gold when April genuinely takes a shine to him and agrees to dine with him that evening.  Naturally, fate intervenes.  Gloatbridge has either deliberately sabotaged Henry’s instruction to book a table for two at the Camellia Room or got the name wrong accidentally; either way, by the time the booking for Mr. Poultry has been discovered by the overbearingly snooty maitre d’ (John Le Mesurier) it’s too late and the table has gone. 
If you thought things couldn’t get any worse, then the arrival of Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas) proves you entirely wrong.  Henry knows Delauney from the Tennis Club and the roguish, caddish Delauney takes one look at April and knows a good thing when he sees one.  Inviting the couple to share his table, he manages to monopolise April and the conversation, make Palfrey look naïve and stupid, and land him with the bill all at the same time.  Delauney and Henry agree to a tennis match the following day and Henry at least manages to fend off the rogue’s invitation to drive April home in his flash yet impressive Bellini two-seater, complete with wolf whistle horn. 
You just know things are not going to improve any time soon and Henry’s chance passing of the car showroom run by Dennis Price and Peter Jones as Dunstan and Dudley Dorchester – The Winsome Welshmen – is no disappointment.  Once more, Henry is revealed as a complete innocent, a lamb to the slaughter.  He is conned into buying an ancient 1924 4-litre Swiftmobile, built by a company, Dudley assures him, too good to stay in business.  Henry falls for the pair’s sales patter hook, line and sinker and hands over his cheque –“make it out to bearer and don’t cross it”.  The Swiftmobile is anything but that, a real Heath Robinson affair which gurgles and bubbles and smokes its way to the Tennis Club whilst its trafficators flap in and out seemingly at will.  Although Henry eventually manages to switch the engine off on arrival, the Swiftmobile seemingly has a life of its own and turns itself back on as soon as he is out of earshot.
The tennis match also proves disastrous: the innocent Henry is made a fool of by Delauney’s gamesmanship and is whitewashed and humiliated in front of April.  Henry’s extracts an agreement from her to give her a lift home, only to narrowly avoid humiliation as the three return to the car park to see the Swiftmobile in full ignoble flight.  “What sort of idiot would buy a car like that?”, she asks, before realising it might be Henry’s.  Henry strenuously denies ownership and April departs with Delauney for swimming and a spot of dinner.  As Henry attempts to drive off, the Swiftmobile runs out of petrol.
This is the impasse which brings Henry to Yeovil and College of Lifemanship.  Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Potter is characteristically wide eyed and lugubrious, masking an inner devilment which slowly exudes from his character.  You are either winner or loser, is the simple philosophy of the College, and your enemies are everyone who is not you.  Potter’s tuition begins immediately with an exercise in name calling and continues as he demonstrates how to make Henry feel guilty for asking Potter to return the pen which he has stolen.  The College’s somewhat steep fee is, however, soon earned as the students enjoy a somewhat unusual curriculum consisting of such classes as “Partymanship”, “Woomanship”, and of course “Gamesmanship” all at beginners and advanced levels.  Henry proves a marked success and, when the students take to the field with a mentor to try out their newly won skills in the real world, he is assigned no less a mentor than Mr. Stephen Potter himself.
The object of Henry’s studies has been to overcome all the slights and advantages taken of him in the first part of the film.  School for Scoundrels is structured in such a way that the second half is an almost exact re-run of the first, only with more agreeable consequences.  First to reap their just rewards are the Winsome Welshmen.  Henry pulls up outside their showroom in the Swiftmobile and parks outside where he is immediately accosted by Potter in the guise of an admiring potential buyer.  The Welshmen are most disturbed by this turn off events, particularly when Henry waves in their direction.  “Look”, says Dudley, “he’s waving!” “No he’s not,” returns Dunstan, “he’s shaking his fist!” Henry proceeds to demonstrate the transformation in himself by completely out-bamboozling them with a cock and bull story about how the Swiftmobile they have sold him is one of a few special models which runs on “one part petrol to two part meths” and is highly sought after by a famous racing driver who has been begging him to sell it to him.  Just as Henry fell for their nonsense in the first half of the film, the Winsome Welshmen are suckered in now and end up swapping the Swiftmobile for an ex-works Austin-Healey 100 Six, plus 100 guineas in cash.  The last we see of Dudley and Dunstan they are forlornly pushing the Swiftmobile to the kerb.
Gloatbridge is the next of Henry’s scores to be settled.  Henry and Potter flounce into the office, on time.  This is unusual, since Henry is traditionally late and his staff have no fear of, or respect for, him at all.  Henry immediately summons his pompous Chief Clerk to the office and demands to see the ledger.  He also insinuates that Potter is in fact the Chairman of their biggest rival, with whom he has been negotiating a merger.  Gloatbridge is initially scathing at such a suggestion, asserting that Henry’s late Uncle would not have approved of such a course of action and is shocked by Henry’s waspish retort that “since he is dead, he is hardly in a position to voice an opinion at all!”  Henry mischievously adds an additional £10 to a column of figures and then asks Gloatbridge to check them.  As they turn out wrong, the formerly self-assured employee becomes flustered and apologetic, and Henry, with menacing charm, departs the office promising that they will discuss this matter further tomorrow.  Gloatbridge promptly disappears beneath a mountain of ledgers with only a cup of tea and an adding machine for solace.
We are, of course, waiting for Delauney to get his comeuppance and this is left until last.  Henry has arranged a return match at the Tennis Club and Delauney offers to pick him up from his flat.  From here on in, Henry shines as a star pupil of the College of Lifemanship as he exacts his revenge in glorious fashion.  He makes Delauney wait and wait outside the flat until he is simmering with rage; he leads him on a delightful wild goose chase across the North London suburbs in a series of “short cuts” to April’s house, until Delauney reverses the Bellini into a wall and arrives there to find she has already departed, having left a terse note on the door; on arrival at the tennis club the neat and tasty Austin-Healey is already parked next to the spot where Delauney draws up, exhaust tied up with string.  They are of course late and Delauney triggers a complaint from the General, a crusty senior figure at the club.  Henry thrashes him with his own racket, employing all the ploys he has learned whilst at Yeovil.  April arrives just in time to witness the final humiliation, as she had done in reverse a few weeks previously.  Delauney’s last-ditch attempt to win her sympathy with a tale of an accident in the Bellini is blown apart by Henry spilling the beans about reversing into the wall.  
Henry eventually leaves with April, but not before Delauney has clocked the disguised figure of Potter, and is informed by the Club Steward that the latter has been “Mr. Palfrey’s guest” and that the two of them had been behaving strangely on the croquet lawn minutes previously.  This was the strange and foreshortened ceremony by which Henry was awarded his diploma from the College.  Delauney follows Potter to the station, hears him asking for a ticket to Yeovil, and the penny finally drops as to the stranger’s identity and explains the sudden transformation in Henry.
Meanwhile Henry has enticed Henry back to his flat and promptly utilises a ploy whereby the drink she is offered slips from her grasp, soaks her dress and gives him the opportunity to offer his dressing gown whilst it dries in front of the electric fire.  This is a classic ploy from the advanced Woomanship class.  He tries out several of the other tactics taught at Yeovil until he has April in his bedroom, in his arms, and is about to kiss her when – lo and behold! – his conscience intervenes and he is unable to go through with the deception.  As he tells her to get dressed and that he will take her home, Delauney arrives at the flat in a rage having realised he has been outmanoeuvred, with Potter in tow.  He spills the beans to April that Henry has been using his newly-acquired techniques to woo her and prepares to whisk her off.  April, however, has realised that Henry stopped for all the right reasons and this is quickly confirmed by his declaration of love.  Potter initially asserts that “we are witnessing the birth of a new ploy” but no, it is genuine, and the couple swiftly become locked in a passionate kiss as Potter bemoans the advent of sincerity.  Loud music swells in the background and Potter – or Sim – addresses the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall, and apologising for the course which events have taken, and becoming increasingly irate as he implores the “orchestra (to) cease that fearful din!”  The film ends as it has begun with a train arriving at Yeovil, although this time it is Delauney, rather than Henry, who has enrolled in the College of Lifemanship.
In the end Henry has won the girl through sincerity and by being himself, but would he have done so without his visit to Yeovil? It’s debatable.  The characters in the film are largely all caricatures: the wimpish Henry, the rakish Delauney, the sweet and innocent April, the calculating Potter.  Beneath the satire, nonetheless, lies a deeper sense of a world where wealth and privilege are still paramount and an upper class twit like Henry can still triumph – remember Carmichael went on to play Bertie Wooster opposite Dennis Price’s Jeeves later in the decade, with great success.  It is also a world where two men can fight and plot over who gets the girl, as if she did not exist, or at least have a mind of her own with which to make a decision.  In fact April does eventually tell Delauney what she thinks of him and he appears genuinely shocked, less by the fact that she possesses a mind of her own but that she has actually voiced her opinion and that it is unfavourable to him.  Indeed, this is a different world, but whilst the sixties went on to be swinging and sexual liberation came about and old morals and certainties crashed, this too was often almost exclusively in favour of males.  Very often, at least in cinematic portrayals, the girl was passive and grateful for whoever flung themselves her way.

The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

The Night My Number Came Up is a 1955 Ealing Studios release, produced by Michael Balcon and is the directorial debut of Leslie Norman, father of Barry. The story is reputedly based on real events in the life of Air Marshal Victor Goddard.  The film has a Far Eastern setting, alternating between Hong Kong and Japan, and this helps to epitomise the clash between the mystical and occult world of the orient and the rational, twentieth century modernity of the West which lies at the heart of The Night My Number Came Up. The battle between the ancient wisdom of Chinese civilisation which remains shot through with inscrutable  levels of superstition and the rationality and technical expertise of the British form the film’s main dichotomy.  It is left for the audience to determine which emerges victorious at the film’s conclusion.

The film begins with Michael Hordern’s character Commander Lindsay determinedly seeking an audience with Hugh Moxey’s Wing Commander, who is co-ordinating the search for an RAF transport plane which has gone missing over Japan with a number of VIP’s on board.  Commander Lindsay is adamant that the search be concentrated over one of the outlying Japanese islands, miles from the plane’s last reported sighting; moreover he refuses to explain to the Wing Commander his reasons for this insistence, asserting that he would have him thrown out if he acquainted him with his reasons.  Only when the Air Traffic Controller reports that a ship has reported sighting an aircraft in this region does the Wing Commander agree, against his better judgement.  Lindsay agrees to share the truth should the search prove successful.

The Night My Number Came Up is largely told in a prolonged flashback, and concerns the arrival in Hong Kong of Air Marshall Hardie (Michael Redgrave) and his aide-de-camp Flight Lieutenant McKenzie, played by Denholm Elliott.  McKenzie is a somewhat tense, tetchy character, who, it soon emerges was a Battle of Britain ace who lost his nerve big time in 1940 and who has only flown since as a passenger, and naval officer Commander Lindsay.  The officers have flown into Hong Kong on a Douglas DC-3 Dakota, and are due to fly out again shortly to Tokyo, on an unspecified mission, this time on board a Liberator.  They arrive at Kai Tak airport, having endured a somewhat hair-raising landing on the notoriously short runway 13, and agree to have dinner the following evening at the house of Owen Robinson, a colonial civil servant who has, by his own admission, so far failed to advance as far as he would have liked.

The air of mystery which has been engendered by Lindsay’s enigmatic approach to the search in the opening sequence is intensified by the shots of Hong Kong in the middle of the Ghost Festival which follow, and which preface the dinner party at Robertson’s house.  Robertson explains that the festival is one where the Chinese celebrate the return to earth of their departed ancestors, and lay on elaborate banquets for them, with empty seats and full plates, symbolising the continuity of the living and the dead.  It appears to the other guests as a fascinating display of local colour, but Robertson himself is almost unjustifiably caustic and dismissive of what he terms the medieval superstition persisting in the culture of such a long-lasting civilisation, contrasting it by association with his own pragmatism and level-headedness.  In the light of what transpires later, this is well worth noting.

The talk of superstition and omens leads to a prompting by some of the guests for Commander Lindsay to reveal the details of a strange dream he has had the night before.  Lindsay is initially reluctant but eventually reveals his dream: passengers were flying on a Dakota – thirteen of them including the crew – and the plane gets lost in bad weather over Northern Japan, eventually enduring a fatal crash landing on the beach of an isolated island fishing village.  Lindsay is quite specific about the make up of the passengers: the Air Marshall is there, along with an attractive young woman, and an important dignitary.  The story of the dream is received with a degree of levity by the guests, including those who are due to fly out to Tokyo the following morning.  After all, there are fewer than eight passengers, no girl, and no VIP.  And as Mackenzie points out, they are flying on a Liberator, not a Dakota.  Which is all fine until Hardie points out that, well, there has been a change of plan and they are due to fly on in the same Dakota on which they arrive.  The mood shifts palpably and the dinner party soon breaks up.
It emerges over a nightcap shared by Hardie and Robertson that the latter has never flown, and indeed has a deep-seated fear of flying.  They are interrupted by a late night telephone call from the Governor, who asks if Hardie will permit him the favour of allowing an important dignitary, Lord Wainwright, and his secretary seats on the morning’s flight to Tokyo.  Robertson glibly laughs off Hardie’s emerging sense of disquiet until the phone rings again and it emerges that Lord Wainwright requires Robertson’s services as a translator on the mission.  His ultra-rational approach to superstition and omens begins to crumble quickly from here on in, despite Hardie’s assertion that they are still two short and that there is no girl involved.

The next morning dawns bright and fair and the travellers prepare to board the plane.  Lord Wainwright has added a stenographer to the party, and , of course, it is a girl – Mary Campbell, played effectively by Sheila Sim. A hasty exchange between Campbell and Robertson soon establishes that the rational civil servant has made strenuous efforts overnight to have her replaced by a male.  He has also demonstrated his aversion to superstitious behaviour by avoiding walking under a ladder and desperately trying to thwart two stranded servicemen seeking to make their way back to Okinawa (Alfie Bass and Bill Kerr) from boarding the flight, since their numbers would then add up to those foretold in the Commander’s dream.  He is overruled and the plane begins its fateful ascent into a clear blue Hong Kong sky.

The first part of the flight is relatively uneventful, and those passengers who are aware of Lindsay’s dream gradually relax, although Robertson remains fraught.  McKenzie is quite preoccupied with Mary Campbell, as any red blooded Battle of Britain ace would be, and the flight towards the first night stopover point of Okinawa proceeds smoothly, for the most part.  However the structure of the film leaves the audience knowing that the aircraft will eventually go missing, so the false sense of security into which the passengers are lured cannot be shared by the audience.  Then the weather breaks dramatically, storm clouds roll in, and Hardie, McKenzie and Robertson are convinced that their number has indeed ‘come up’.  The plane shakes and rivets rattle whilst rain lashes the cabin windows but eventually they make a safe landing in Okinawa and enjoy some US-style hospitality.

The relief of those ‘in the know’ is both immense and short-lived.  Whilst in the air earlier, McKenzie has told Robertson and Hardie some further details of the Commander’s dream, which he omitted from the version told at the dinner party.  Lindsay had been more specific about the other passengers on the plane and one of them had been a very loud and flashy type, who had broken out into complete panic and the plane approached its final landing.  At least there had been no-one like that on board, they joked, in the comfort of the Okinawa mess, as, just at that moment, the loud and flashy Brummie businessman Bennett (George Rose) approaches Hardie and begs passage on tomorrow’s flight to Toke-e-oh as he is on very important business for himself and the Old Country. Hardie’s refusal is vehement, but later overturned when the Air Marshall realises that he too has been drawn into the web of doubt and superstition engendered by Lindsay’s dream.  Even worse, McKenzie has told Mary Campbell and a by now disintegrated Robertson has told the aircraft’s pilot (Nigel Stock) of the dream – probably not the best move he’s ever made.  The Air Marshall now tells Lord Wainwright the whole story, and how he thinks he should reverse his decision, only to be told by his Lordship that such an action would set civilisation back a thousand years.
The flight takes off the following morning and the whole chapter of accidents slowly begins to unfold.  Lord Wainwright has expressed an interest in viewing the ravaged cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the Air Marshall orders the plane to divert its course to take these in. Both cities are buried beneath dense blankets of fog and the diversion has taken some hours extra, a development which makes Bennett more agitated – he is due to meet important contacts in
Toke-e-oh at six – and increasingly critical of the flight crew.  The attempts of the flight crew to plot and maintain course is an interesting reminder of how relatively primitive navigation was in those days, relying on a compass and various geometrical instruments to plot a course, without, in the case of low cloud cover such as this, any real means of establishing where the aircraft truly was.

Bad becomes worse and worse becomes disastrous.  The radio fails; there is no oxygen on board because they rarely have to fly over ten thousand feet; they run into a ferocious storm which makes the previous day’s weather seem like a stroll in the park.  Tensions rise palpably, and by now, nearly all the major players know about the dream, the pilot most distressingly of all.  The intensity of the weather leaves them with no alternative but to attempt to climb above the clouds as they had the day before, only this time there is no break until they have reached an altitude where the air is so thin that it affects not only the asthmatic Bennett, but everyone else, including the pilot.  The plane is icing up and every rivet and bolt strained to its limit.  They are forced to descend with no guarantee of safety with the landing gear and the flaps lowered for added drag.  They are hopelessly lost and there is little doubt that Lindsay’s dream is coming true, a realisation made definite when the pressure upon Bennett becomes too much and he loses control completely and has to be wrestled into a seat by fellow passengers. 
The aircraft breaks cloud cover to show that they are over the sea, and they sight a ship which they try to signal too, but it is unclear as to whether they have been seen.  Within minutes the beach and the fishing village familiar to the audience from Lindsay’s dream are visible and the pilot attempts a landing on the beach only to pull away at the last moment, and put the Dakota down in a snow filled valley.  We are left with a silence broken only by the slapping of the windscreen wipers and the whistling of the wind.

The film returns to the control tower at Kai Tak and a cheerful Wing Commander accepting grateful thanks from the Governor for saving “all those important lives” by ordering a search of the remote area.  Commander Lindsay enters and reminds the Wing Commander why the search took place there in the first place. 
He reveals the story of the dream and mischievously suggests he has had one about the Wing Commander, which he refuses to reveal, except to assure him that if he ever should go missing, he will inform the authorities where to concentrate their search.

The Night My Number Came Up has been characterised as an example of those Ealing Studios films characterised by the occult.  There is certainly much within it to suggest that that is a true interpretation, and the link with the oriental preoccupation with omens and communication with the dead certainly give weight to that theory.  Clearly the behaviour of the passengers on the plane as their ordeal intensifies indicates that their rationality and civilised behaviour is a thin veneer which quickly crumbles under pressure.  That does not mean, however, that we are all bound by an inescapable fate.  The big difference between Lindsay’s dream and the reality of the flight was that the passengers survived the it, something which occurred largely because the pilot overcame the paralysis of superstition and took a professional judgement to land in the right place.  However, had Lindsay’s dream not foreseen the place of the crash, can we really believe that the search parties would have even considered that area in which to look?  Food for thought indeed.

The Yellow Balloon (1953)

The Yellow Balloon is a 1953 film by the acclaimed director J. Lee Thompson.  Thompson moved to Hollywood in the 1960s, but prior to this made a string of successful and notable films in Britain. These included The Yellow Balloon, The Weak and the Wicked (1954), An Alligator Named Daisy (1955),Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and Tiger Bay (1959).  By any standards this is a productive and versatile output and it is perhaps the serious, progressive films dealing with social issues of the time which stand out as the most memorable of Thompson’s oeuvre.

The Yellow Balloon can be viewed on a number of levels: as postwar realist drama illustrating the harshness and poverty of London seven or eight years after victory; as a gripping thriller; as commentary upon the dog-eat-dog world simmering beneath the layers of conventionality and people ‘doing the right thing’.  It is probably most helpful to examine The Yellow Balloon from each of these perspectives.  References are made throughout the film to the lack of any action on the part of the authorities to the ongoing devastation of uncleared and unguarded bombsites.  This is a world where victory against the Germans has come at a great price, and rationing was still in force until the following year.  The continuing repayment of war loans to the Americans left little spare cash for renovations, let alone reconstruction.  The “you never had it so good” world of Harold Macmillan was still several years down the road.
Thompson made a start to his film career in 1938 as a dialogue coach on Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn and reputedly spent a great deal of time studying the precise techniques of the master craftsman.  Certainly elements of The Yellow Balloon are tightly plotted and suspenseful, particularly the two parallel chase sequences at either end.  It is also true that public debates about spivs and petty criminals and good kids turning bad – often through social factors rather than inherent ‘badness’ were rife at this time, and the film mirrors these, a characteristic of Thompson’s penchant for holding progressive positions which would be repeated in his later films of this period.

The Yellow Balloon features an interesting and distinguished cast but few of the players turn in their best performances it must be said.  The undoubted star of the film and the chief element which draws the audience into the story is undoubtedly the 13 year old Andrew Ray as Frankie.  Ray was an old hand by now, having achieved prominence three years earlier as the street urchin in The Mudlark.  He later went on to play Brian in Woman in a Dressing Gown, but this is a much meatier part, which sees him on screen for nearly the whole of the film.
Bernard lee, as firm but fair archetypal bobby on the beat P.C., reminiscent of Jack Warner in The Blue Lamp.  William Sylvester turns in a reasonable performance as Len, the petty gangster who befriends Frankie once he spots the potential for extortion.  Kathleen Ryan, as Frankie’s mother, Emily, also acquits herself well as a tight-lipped and contradictory matriarch.  Kenneth More, however, in the unlikely guise of Ted Palmer, Frankie’s bus driver father, is something of a fish out of water, seeming a little bemused by the working class milieu in which he finds himself and struggles to maintain a London accent.  The film also has the interesting footnote of an appearance by Sydney James as a less than scrupulous barrow boy.

It is the innocence and vulnerability of Andrew Ray’s portrayal of Frankie that carries the film, however.  Ray exudes a naivety and acceptance of whatever he is told that is completely credible.  The Yellow Balloon is the story of Frankie’s tortuous and terrifying journey from innocence to experience in a mere 76 minutes.  Seeing a street vendor selling the eponymous yellow balloons outside the window of the family’s flat, Frankie hectors first his mother – with little success – then his more accommodating father for the sixpence required to buy one.  In his rush he loses the money down a drain, winning a promise from P.C. Crawford that he will do what he can to reunite it with its rightful owner as soon as possible.  Soon afterwards, Frankie meets his friend Ron who has a yellow balloon of his own.  Frankie mischievously snatches the balloon and runs off, leading Ron on a lengthy and precarious chase through an increasingly dangerous landscape of bomb sites and partially collapsed buildings. 

The music in The Yellow Balloon was written by Philip Green, later to become resident musical director of the Rank Organisation.  It is a crucial element in creating, building and deflating the tension which arises at various points in the film.  We are given no indication that the chase through the bomb ruins is anything other than an innocent, if somewhat risky, jape because the music which accompanies it is light and jaunty.  When Ron plummets to his death from the second storey of a crumbling building it stops completely for a while, leaving us with the image of Ron splayed lifeless on the concrete below, whilst the balloon floats neutrally off into the bright summer’s day.  Unfortunately for the hapless Frankie, the small-time crook Len has witnessed the whole things – there is no explanation of what he is doing in the bomb-ruined building, but he is clearly up to no good. 

Len immediately plants doubt in Frankie’s mind by asking him why he pushed his friend; despite Frankie’s urgent denials and protestations that it was an accident, he persists in this assertion just long enough to plant the doubt in the boys mind that not everyone might see it like this – the everyone, specifically, being the police.  Len assures him that the police are suspicious characters who are unlikely to believe Frankie’s version and that their best course of action would be to hide up for a few days.  Of course there is one drawback with this plan – Len has no money.  He exploits Frankie’s credulity by inviting him to find ways that they could rectify this problem.  Frankie is drawn in hook, line and sinker.

Len takes Frankie back home to his mother, having gained his promise that he will return to meet him in a café later that evening.  Meanwhile, a neighbour, drops in to break the news about Ron’s death to Emily, a task she accomplishes with a certain degree of morbid satisfaction, asserting that at least the is free of the horrors of this world.  The war is still causing casualties, some years after its end.  Unbeknown to the women, Frankie is listening at the door, and his terror is increased tenfold when P.C. Chapman calls at the flat, wanting a word with Frankie.  We, like the boy, are sucked in, but Chapman only wants to return the 6d, one suspects from his own pocket.

Chapman’s suspicions are aroused a couple of hours later when, following a tryst with Len in the café, Frankie is almost caught in the act of stealing the paper money from a newsvendor’s stand, not realising that she is downing a crafty beer out of sight.  “I hope it’s not another good kid gone bad,” muses Chapman.  Of course it nearly is: Frankie has, in his innocence, just stolen a pineapple from dodgy barrow boy Sid James in response to Len’s plea of hunger – a plea that is given the lie by his ordering egg and chips as soon as Frankie has left the caff.  Worse, much worse, is to come.  When Frankie arrives home late, to a mild scolding, he ignores his supper and waits until his parents are in bed (not sleeping, one suspects, from the slightly risqué preceding scene) to tiptoe from his room and perform a far more serious theft.

Early on in the film, Ted arrives home from work and hands his wages over to Emily, a common pattern in those days.  It is through this medium that we are introduced to the teapot which sits upon the top shelf of the kitchen dresser.  In those days, working class people were unlikely to have bank or savings accounts, and wardrobes, socks, drawers and even teapots were called into service to hold whatever meagre savings struggling families might manage to accumulate.  It is made plain that this is the Palmer’s holiday fund, without which they would never manage to breathe fresh air or see a green field.  It is clearly an object of great significance for the family and represents the virtues of hard work and thrift which the Palmers typify in opposition to the shiftiness and casual dishonesty of Len and his spivvy acquaintances.  A fear and desperation driven by Len’s relentless pouring of poison into Frankie’s ear prompts him to undertake the ultimate betrayal, and he takes the hard-earned five pounds from its place of safety.

Thompson gradually begins to ratchet up the tension from this point.  Frankie trips over a chair in the darkness following his theft, prompting both parents to appear in the kitchen.  He will surely be discovered, but no: dad carries him back to bed and accepts his excuse of thirst without question, despite the untouched supper and full glass of milk which the camera shows Ted noticing as he leaves the room.  It appears certain that discovery is only moments away as Ted wrestles with Frankie on the bed yet fails to find the money in his pocket, or as Emily similarly fails to do when tucking a handkerchief into the pocket of his best bib and tucker prior to sending him off to Sunday school.  Yet it is only a matter of time until his treachery is exposed to harsh daylight.

With an excellent irony, it is a petty domestic argument about whether Ted should buy a wreath for Ron as well as new shoes for himself that leads to the revelation that the teapot money is missing.  The Palmers try their very hardest to ignore the obvious: purses and drawers are searched, windows examined, other potential thieves are considered and discarded before the despairing parents are forced to acknowledge that their own son has taken their money.  Ted marches straight off to Sunday school, where the teacher has been regaling the children with the tale of Cain and Abel and God’s punishment.  The money is handed over without a word and the two Palmers return home where Frankie endures a thrashing with his dad’s belt, but will not offer an explanation as to his conduct.  Frankie leaves the house again to meet Len, who drags him further into his web.

Len’s latest plan is to rub a pub where his girlfriend Iris is working.  Frankie is to be the dupe who gains admittance whilst Len carries out the theft, although Frankie is not aware of the whole plan until it is too late.  When he realises what is happening he runs from the pub in terror, leaving behind the miniature of brandy which he has purchased for his supposedly sick mother.  Frankie is gone before Len murders the landlord, but neither the girlfriend nor Len realise this and Len sets off in hot pursuit, determined to silence the boy, having filled his pockets with the cash from the till first.

Frankie is befriended by Mary who comes across him in the street and who takes him home, feeds him, and eventually gets him to relate the whole sorry tale.  Mary’s status is not expressed explicitly, but it is suggested that she is a “lady of the night”, and certainly one who hates the police with a vengeance, as we later discover.  Nonetheless she urges Frankie to go to the police which fear still prevents him from doing.  She takes him home in a taxi but crucially fails to accompany him to the door.  Ted and Emily have gone out searching the streets for him and left the door on the latch in case he returns whilst they are out.  Guess who’s waiting in the shadows on the staircase and who locks the door again?  Frankie walks right into Len’s trap, and it soon becomes apparent that the boy, although he witnessed the robbery, knows nothing of the publican’s death.  He still knows enough to hang Len though and, in a final piece of deception, Len leads Frankie to a bomb-damaged tube station (again open to all and sundry) which he assures the boy is the perfect hideout they’ve been seeking.

And so the film spins to its gripping conclusion.  Len attempts to push Frankie down the disused lift shaft and the boy finally realises his life is in peril.  Another chase takes place, through the staircases and platforms of the station, which mirrors that at the other end of the film.  This time there is no room for doubt and Green’s music is urgent and sinister as man and boy charge through the deserted station.  A passing train driver witnesses the scene and police, already on the streets after Mary has told them Frankie’s tale, pour into the station from above and commandeer a train to approach from below.  Frankie is rescued and Len trapped in the lift shaft in a fine example of poetic justice.  He hangs there for a brief second with arms outstretched as if crucified, but his escape attempts are of course futile and he falls to a screaming death at the pit of the shaft, a fallen angel descended into hell perhaps.  Frankie is reunited with his parents by P.C. Chapman.

So order reasserts itself and the family are reunited and stronger for their experience.  Frankie has been on a journey and will never again be the innocent child who hankered after a balloon.  His naivety has flown away on the wind.  Actions have consequences and sometimes even the most innocent of them result in circumstances unforeseen and unforeseeable.  The civilisation which people fought so recently to preserve, and which visibly stands in partial ruin around them, is a very fragile thing indeed, yet one or two kind acts can still prevent its dissolution.  The Yellow Balloon is well worth seventy-six minutes of your time.

Steve Debank

Just heard sad news that Steve Debank, founder of the Britmovie website, to which I had recently started to contribute, has died.  I don't have any further details yet, and would welcome any more info.  Would just like to say what terrible news this is for all lovers of British film.  Britmovie is a fantastic website and I just hope it can continue somehow. In the meantime, deepest sympathy to all Steve's family and friends.  I will post the last three reviews I submitted to him on this blog as a tribute and in the vague hope of keeping the spirit of the site alive.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

British Film as Personal History

I admit it, I am fascinated by British films of the fifties and sixties and the older I get the more that fascination grows.  It would be easy to dismiss this as nostalgia, and in a way that's partially what it is: I am particularly engaged by films set in and around London during this period.  I was born in London and spent much of my first ten or eleven years there or in the vicinity.  In this, I think, lies the answer.  It's the settings that appeal to me: the clothes, the greyness of the fifties and the colour of the sixties, the buildings, the adverts glimsped in the background, the attitudes and especially the cars.  By the age of four I could name every car that went by or was parked on the street.  I don't know how this came about: until I was nine we didn't even have a car, my dad didn't learn to drive till then - but I knew them all.  And I still do when I watch an old British film, marvel at the lack of traffic, list the cars parked at the kerb and the ones that roll by.  In School For Scoundrels, which I watched again recently, there's a lovely seen in a car showroom where A35s and Morris Minor vans are for sale.  Somehow I don't think of them ever having actually been for sale, they're surely just things that were around and now just appear in films.  Did they really have lives of their own, just as cars do today?

Just watching these old films takes me back to a time of (for me) innocence, wionder and awe, of infinite possibilities, of a world in transition although I had no concept of this at the time.  From where to where? I know now, but when I watch a British film from the fifties or sixties, I can pretend there's still a possibility for a different outcome for us all....