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Posts Tagged ‘1940s’

One of the pleasures associated with going to the vintage classics strand at the local Picturehouse is trying to predict how many other people you’re going to be sharing the cinema with. Sometimes it can be absolutely packed out, and not necessarily for the films you might expect – I recall Touch of Evil being particularly ram-jammed – and sometimes the lack of interest in a genuine classic can be really sort of dismaying (I recall a screening of RoboCop with probably less than a dozen people there). This week’s revival was Charles Vidor’s 1946 movie Gilda. This is to some extent just a vehicle for its star, Rita Hayworth, and much of the pre-screening chatter concerned the one-time Mrs Welles: ‘I’d’ve thought more people would come to see Rita Hayworth! She’s so glamorous! I guess young people just haven’t heard of her!’

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In the end there was a pretty decent turn-out for a film nearly 70 years old and we settled down to enjoy this noir-ish classic. Set in Argentina in the mid-1940s, the film is narrated by one Johnny Farrell, played by Glenn Ford (an actor probably best known to modern audiences for playing Clark Kent’s adoptive father in the 1978 Superman). Farrell has just arrived in Buenos Aires, and, being a natural grifter, migrates into the more suspect circles of city life. Soon enough he has made the acquaintance of casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready), and ends up working for him, rapidly rising to the position of de facto manager of his gambling operations. Mundson is up to his neck in something else, however, and Johnny can’t quite figure out what.

All this is put somewhat on the back burner, however, when Mundson returns from a business trip with a new bride, the beautiful and vivacious Gilda (Hayworth, of course). The only problem is that Johnny and Gilda have history together, intense and intimate history of which her new husband is completely unaware. There is, to put it mildly, unfinished business between the two of them, and finishing it could end up destroying all three members of this rather suspect triangle…

There is a lot that is noir-ish about Gilda – it has a fairly amoral sensibility, ambiguous characters, and a certain degree of low-key mayhem, to say nothing of the shimmering black and white photography – but on the other hand there is a lot that isn’t. One of the odd things about it is the way that what starts out as a crime thriller about a lowlife on the make keeps threatening to turn into something else – initially, it would appear, some sort of Casablanca knock-off. There’s the exotic foreign setting (nearly all realised on sound stages in California, of course), the American adventurer hero, and a selection of foreign types – more than that, there’s the way the script embellishes a straightforward thriller plotline with some fairly sparkling dialogue.

The film sustains this tone well past the point of Hayworth’s arrival, which isn’t that early in the story – but once she does appear, the film heavily favours her, visually at least. She rarely looks anything less than ravishing and alluring, even while her character is being depicted as an inconstant, amoral hedonist. That said, there is a striking shift in perspective towards the end of the film – to begin with, Farrell is definitely the point of audience identification, with Gilda presented as a threat to what he and Mundson can achieve together. By the end, however, the audience is strongly encouraged to see Gilda as the unfairly victimised target of Farrell’s animus – a much more sympathetic character.

This would probably be more effective were the third act of Gilda slightly better constructed. Most of the film does work very well as a noirish, slightly overcooked thriller about a clearly-doomed love triangle – but the last third of the film opens with someone faking their death and grows ever more melodramatic from there. On reflection, we’re invited to assume Farrell is acting out of a sense of guilt, feeling that he has somehow betrayed Mundson, but this isn’t quite set up or articulated well enough. That the plot partly revolves around a bizarre, obscure scheme to make a vast fortune from monopolising tungsten production doesn’t help much. A couple of diversions into musical numbers just add to the sense of a film which doesn’t quite know what it is any more – one of these is basically just filler. The other, Hayworth’s much-imitated and dare-I-say-it iconic rendition of Put the Blame on Mame (as much as someone can be said to be rendering a song when they’re dubbed by someone else), at least supports the plot, but it seems to me to be undercut just a bit by being so heavily trailed through the rest of the film.

Still, this is an entertaining and slickly-made film, especially in its middle section, and it has achieved legendary status – well, bits of it at least. Sometimes the films that last longest aren’t necessarily the best ones. There’s a lot of good stuff in Gilda, but it’s still not what I’d call a great film overall.

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When it comes to attempting to write something interesting and novel about Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca, you really are on a hiding to nothing: millions of words have already been produced about what’s quite possibly the most beloved film in the history of American cinema. Few films contain quite so many iconic moments and characters, few have spawned such an attendant industry of other films and productions that haven’t actually been sequels or prequels. When screenwriting guru Robert McKee deconstructs the perfect script to see how it functions, it’s Casablanca that he uses. This is a film as secure in its status as an unimpeachable work of art as any you could hope to find.

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And yet still, it seems, there are people around who haven’t seen it. I took just such a person to a revival at the Phoenix the other day, and as the Marseilles faded away at the end their verdict was that ‘it was really pretty good’. Oh well, can’t win ’em all, I suppose: but it nice to see a good turn-out from people of all ages for the screening. If Casablanca comes on the TV, I’ll always try to find the time to watch it if I can, but being able to see it on the big screen still felt like a bit of a treat. Nice to see others feel the same way.

The story, it may not surprise you, is set in Casablanca at the tail end of 1941, with the city something of a melting-pot: technically still under the control of unoccupied France, it is chock full of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, all desperately trying to find a way north to Lisbon and then across the Atlantic to America. The cheerily corrupt local Prefect of Police, Renault (Claude Rains), is doing his best to profit from this situation, as is the gangster Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet). Keeping himself somewhat aloof from it all is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a cynical American ex-mercenary now running one of the city’s more chic nightclubs.

But all this changes with the arrival of resistance figurehead Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his beautiful young wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), also looking for a way to the States. At the behest of visiting Nazi officer Strasser (Conrad Veidt), Renault is under orders to make sure Laszlo stays in Casablanca, but Rick has come into possession of travelling papers which will allow them to escape. The complication is that Rick is in love with Ilsa, following a brief fling in Paris the previous year, and still bitter about the way she left him without any explanation.

And so the stage is set: will the Nazis find a pretext to get Laszlo back into their clutches? Will Ilsa stay with her husband, or will Rick’s saturnine charms prove irresistible? Will Rick hang on to the papers, or will his better nature make a long overdue reappearance? And will people ever stop using the most famous misquote from this movie?

On paper, there isn’t very much to distinguish Casablanca from a great many other mid-range studio pictures of this period – there’s a (somewhat spuriously) exotic setting, a strong note of romance, some slightly overcooked intrigue, a dash of wit. But nothing to suggest the legendary status that the film now enjoys. (Complete, by the way, with a whole clutch of attendant myths – like the one that Ronald Reagan was at one point considered for the role of Rick, or that the ending of the film was ever really in doubt – the censors office wouldn’t have permitted a conclusion where a wife left her husband for another man.)

Perhaps it’s partly a result of the sheer sincerity that much of the cast brought to the film. The story is a bit hokey and sentimental, but the sentiments are powerful ones, and never more so than during the darkest depths of the Second World War. The fact that Casablanca only features three American performers is, I think, a less well-known fact than it ought to be. Many of the supporting actors had themselves fled Europe during the rise of the Nazis (including, ironically enough, some of those playing Nazis in this film), so it’s entirely understandable that they would have felt a strong sense of commitment to the film.

That said, this may be a very sincere film with a (certainly by modern standards) hokey and sentimental message about self-sacrifice and standing up for the Right Thing at its heart, but this cloaked by what at first appears to be a façade about decadent cynicism – there are a few jokes at the expense of the more naïve refugees, while in many ways the film’s most appealing character is Louis Renault, whose conversion to the side of the angels at the climax is rather more arbitrary than Rick’s. Cynically and ironically witty lines pepper the film (this is, of course, one of the most quotable films in history), and they do give the impression that you’re watching something sophisticated and fashionably worldly, even when you’re really actually not.

But then again, this is a film with – for the most part – an impeccable structure and plot (you can probably quibble about why the Germans don’t just have Laszlo arrested, and how the letters of transit are just an obvious plot device), brilliantly cast, filled with memorable moments and lines of dialogue. This is one of those films where ‘the best bits’ basically comprises the entire running time – I’ve always been most taken with the genuinely moving moment where the patrons of the club sing the Marseilles to drown out a Nazi drinking song, a sequence of real feeling in the midst of some of Louis’ best comic lines.

Mark Kermode has written cogently on Casablanca’s appeal as Exhibit A in the ‘they don’t make them like this any more’ discussion, with particular reference to how modern focus groups might object to its famously self-denying ending. Is it fair to say that part of Casablanca’s magic is that it’s the product of a less cynical, more innocent era? Possibly it is, but in the same way it’s perhaps the film’s great success at being both cynical and idealistic, heartfelt and yet hokey, important and yet trivial, which has resulted in it becoming the legendary movie that it is.

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Sometimes you look around at the best of the films of today, your Boyhoods and your Birdmans, and you ask yourself how well they are really going to stand up to the test of time – some people are already suggesting that Birdman‘s true posterity will be as the answer to the pub quiz question ‘What film won the Best Picture Oscar in the year that Boyhood didn’t?’ Will any of these films be getting re-releases in 20, 30, or 40 years time?

Some hardy perennials of the cinematic landscape do seem to have this kind of immortality. I saw Touch of Evil at the Phoenix a couple of years ago and am not especially surprised to see it making another appearance there very soon, while currently enjoying its second major revival (at least) in sixteen years is Carol Reed’s The Third Man, 66 years old at the time of writing and looking just as splendid as ever. (Clearly the message is: if you want your film to have staying power, hire Orson Welles as your bad guy – though this inevitably leads one to wonder why 1986’s Transformers: The Movie doesn’t figure more prominently on the art house circuit.)

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Apparently there are still people around who haven’t seen The Third Man (personally I’ve been watching it fairly regularly since I was a teenager), so here is how the story goes. Vienna after the Second World War is a dreary, bombed-out, desolate city, occupied by a coalition of international forces and in the grip of vicious black-marketeers. To this place comes American hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), hoping to meet up with his old friend Harry Lime. But he is distraught to find Lime’s funeral in progress as he arrives, and even more outraged when army policeman Calloway (Trevor Howard) shows little concern over the death, proclaiming that Martins’ friend was a gangster who deserved to die.

Martins resolves to clear his dead friend’s name and solve the mystery surrounding his death, despite the warnings of everyone involved that he should just leave Austria as soon as possible – even Harry’s lover, Anna (Alida Valli), doesn’t seem very supportive of his crusade, although the two of them do perhaps strike up a connection of a different kind…

Very few films, classic or otherwise, have such a distinct identity as The Third Man, and this is partly a question of sound and vision: the film’s all-zither soundtrack is justly legendary, while the streets, ruins, and sewers of Vienna are a unique backdrop. Uniquely filmed as well, as of course: the black and white cinematography of the film is by turns luminous and murky, as the story requires, while Reed’s skewed camera angles are also unmistakable.

It’s this aspect of the film that usually leads observers to link it, in some fashion, with the film noir genre, which was also enjoying its heyday during the late 40s and early 50s. But if The Third Man is noir it is noir of a peculiarly British flavour: there are no hard boiled detectives or femmes fatale here. Reed’s protagonist is a deluded, somewhat clownish figure, and the leading lady is far more vulnerable than she is brassy. Not that there is no moral ambiguity here, of course, but this too comes from a slightly odd angle – no-one, ultimately, doubts the utter amorality of Orson Welles’ villain, or that he is a vicious and unrepentant criminal, but both Cotten and Valli’s characters find it wrenchingly difficult to condemn him. They both seem quietly aware that he is a more charismatic and capable person than either of them and – to begin with – defer to him as a result.

This, I think, is the ultimate source of the atmosphere of melancholy which permeates the film – or contributes at least as much as the bleakness of the setting. ‘The dead are happier dead,’ observes Welles’ character, ‘they don’t miss much here, poor devils.’ Welles himself certainly seems to be playing the happiest character in the film – all the other major characters seems quietly consumed by their own failings and shortcomings.

This probably makes The Third Man sound like a pretty heavy-going piece of work, but as well as an examination of guilt, loyalty, and lapsed friendship (perhaps even love), it also functions superbly as a thriller, and a remarkably witty one as well: you’re never very far from a sharp line or a memorably weird character. Apparently the famous speech concerning cuckoo clocks was inserted into the script by Welles himself, as Graham Greene was at pains to point out in later years, but this film is in every way a collaborative effort.

But why has it lasted so well? Is it just a question of quality? I’m not sure; I think it may be. Certainly, this film – set, as it is, in a very particular time and place – has something about it which gives it some degree of universal appeal. Everyone has had their disappointments, I suppose, everyone has fallen in love with the wrong person at some time or other – perhaps everyone has pondered on the strange allure of bad people. The Third Man is about all of these things, and manages to tell an engrossing story about them which is also marvellous to look at. That’s the basis of it, I suspect: the rest is probably simply magic, and beyond rationalisation.

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Nice to see a sizeable turnout for the latest vintage showing which I went to at the Phoenix in Jericho; almost but not quite cheery enough to offset the news that the current poll on whether or not to retain the trial policy of assigning designated seating at weekends is currently running at more than 50% in favour. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Phoenix is still my favourite cinema in the Oxford area, but it seems like every refurbishment and renovation they’ve had in the last year has had the effect of making it less characterful, less quirky, less welcoming and less like an actual independent cinema, and the switch to allocated seats is only another part of this. Then again, the whole world seems to have accelerated its drift towards a state of consisting entirely of dismayingly irritating pointless faff, so I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised.

Hey ho. At times like this a joyous movie from yesteryear is more cherishable than ever, and on this occasion it was George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, first released at Christmas 1940, long since ascended to timeless classic status. Simply naming the main players – Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart – is almost enough to give you a warm glow inside, and you almost wonder if any film starring these three together can be good enough to live up to expectations.

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Needless to say, the tale unfolds amongst the upper echelons of east coast society. The society wedding of the year looms, with the nuptuals of Tracy Lord (Hepburn) as she marries aspiring politician George Kittredge (John Howard). She was previously married to whiskey-loving shipwright CK Dexter Haven (Grant), and he is still nursing something of a grudge against her. To this end, he agrees to participate in a bit of skulduggery where two reporters are infiltrated into the wedding party, on the pretext that they are old friends of the bride’s absent brother. (Yes, this is a slightly complex set-up, but films back then were prepared to credit the audience with a little intelligence.) The reporters are Mike Connor (Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey).

Connor is initially dismissive of the whole proceedings, affecting to despise people whom he sees as the idle rich, and wanting to get back to being a writer of substance. Nevertheless he find himself making an undeniable connection with the bride to be, somewhat to the chagrin of his own girlfriend, Liz. Meanwhile, Dexter realises that his own feelings towards his ex-wife are not entirely unambiguous, and nor are hers for him. She’s bound to marry someone in the end – but whom?

Not everything in the past is quite what you might expect it to have been. These days, for example, everyone knows that Katherine Hepburn is a bona fide Hollywood legend, unassailable star of peerless popular classics like Bringing Up Baby. Except… at the time, Bringing Up Baby was just one of a string of flops, leading to Hepburn acquiring a reputation as box-office poison, and finding it very hard to get roles. Her response was to pay someone to write a play for her to star in, and then retain the film rights in order to guarantee she would get the lead role when it was adapted for the screen.

This was as shrewd an investment as one might expect from a legendarily smart cookie like Hepburn, and it may explain why there are many scenes of the male characters singing her praises most fulsomely and at great length – and, quite possibly, also why the other characters spend much of their time talking about her even when she isn’t on screen. Not to suggest that this is entirely a vanity project: everyone gets a chance to shine, and Hepburn’s character is as flawed as any of the others.

The opening sequence of the film promises an effervescent farce, with the reporters attempting to pass themselves off as house guests, not realising the family are fully aware of their mission and intent on feeding them an entirely false impression, while – for reasons too bizarre to go into – Tracy Lord’s father and uncle are obliged to impersonate each other. This is as smart and genuinely funny a comedy as anything I’ve seen in the last six months.

However, soon the film becomes more measured and thoughtful, as the deeper personalities of the main characters become more apparent. This really is a romantic comedy, albeit a fairly peculiar one by modern standards: the modern rom-com is almost certainly as predictable a film genre as any in history, but here, for the uninitiated, it is very difficult to predict just who it is that Katherine Hepburn is going to end up marrying in the final reel. Comparisons with the modern rom-com are perhaps a little unwise, as this apparently is one of the defining examples of a very 1930s subgenre entitled the comedy of remarriage, a product of extremely strict regulations curtailing the use of extramarital shenanigans as a plot driver – hence the device where Grant and Hepburn are conveniently divorced after a very brief opening scene, thus leaving her technically available to flirt with all the other male characters.

There are a few other ways in which this is clearly a film of a different era: some jolly jokes about smallpox and domestic abuse strike a somewhat startling note, for instance. But while the film’s sensibility is that of another era, its themes are universal: what it means to be a good person, what someone’s responsibilities are to their loved ones, snobbery, privacy, the thin line between love and hate, and so on. The script alone would be a lovely thing, even if it weren’t brought to life by three of the greatest performers in screen history – to say nothing of some very striking supporting turns, particularly Ruth Hussey’s rather wistful performance as Stewart’s long-suffering girlfriend.

To be honest, it’s very difficult to identify the particular elements which make The Philadelphia Story such an outstanding film, because it genuinely doesn’t seem to have a weak link: every element of it exudes class, polish, wit, and charm. It always seems a bit fatuous to me when someone says they don’t make them like they used to – but then again, as this film shows, they really don’t.

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As you may have seen, last week I inadvertantly lodged myself on the horns of a proper dilemma. I found myself with an unscheduled afternoon off for the first time in ages, and rather than watching Ikiru, or Station Agent, or that Tony Jaa movie where his elephant gets pinched, or any of the other movies I’ve been lugging around on DVD, I decided to spend it watching Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, one of my very favourite films of all time.

Then, less than two days later, I found the weekend schedule of the local arthouse, and what should be showing, on the big screen, in a meticulously restored print? That’s right. Same movie. The one I’d watched a couple of days previously. So was I going to go and watch it again? I went back and forth on the topic for the next few days, and in the end decided that, what the hell, I was.

Partly this was because I had nothing else to do, but I suppose it was a statement of intent more than anything else – that I think a great movie is a great movie, and will always be more rewarding if you watch it in the proper environment. Especially when it’s a movie as wonderful as this one. And on the bus to the cinema I became certain I’d made the right choice, because I found myself looking forward to seeing all my favourite moments from the film again, even though it was only five days since the last time I’d watched it.

I watched it with my parents many years ago and told them it was one of my favourites, and they were clearly surprised and baffled by this news – they obviously think of me as Genre Boy as much as anyone else. Blimp isn’t really a genre movie; but so vast is its scope and ambition that it’s quite hard to say what it is. Made in 1943, supposedly as a propaganda film, the movie earned the enmity of Winston Churchill (who, the story goes, sensed a satire against him in the plot). For years it was only available in a cut-down version – but the Archers’ original vision has now been restored.

On one level this is a very odd sort of Second World War propaganda movie as one of the most likeable, and certainly the wisest character in it, is a German soldier, played by Anton Walbrook. But it is really the story of a British officer, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), and the changing world he grows old in.

The story opens in 1943 with the Home Guard due to engage in exercises with the regular army. Candy, an old man, is a zone commander in the Guard, and outraged when an ambitious young officer cheats in order to secure victory. The young man dismisses the elderly general as not living in the real world, and mocks his appearance. But Candy responds that he was once a young man too, and in the first of many brilliant transitions the film transports us back to 1902, when Clive Candy was an energetic young officer himself.

Outraged by anti-British propaganda about the Boer War, the young Clive finds himself caught up in a ticklish diplomatic situation in Berlin, and hotheadedly ends up insulting the entire German officer corps. He promptly finds himself fighting a sabre duel to settle the matter – a duel against a man whom he has never met, and one which neither man really wants to fight. (Such is the subtlety of Powell and Pressberger’s scripting that the brilliance of this metaphor could almost pass unnoticed.)

But the duel goes ahead, and in its aftermath Clive becomes firm friends with his erstwhile opponent, Theo (Walbrook). He professes delight when Theo announces his intention to marry the girl who originally drew him to Berlin (Deborah Kerr), only later realising the full extent of his own feelings for her.

This section of the film has a charming, almost fairytale quality, with the flamboyant uniforms of the soldiers and the Ruritanian qualities of the sets and staging – at one point the camera soars into the wintry skies above Berlin, just before dawn, and it’s like the interior of a snowglobe. But as the century progresses, the film’s tone darkens. We see Clive struggling to make sense of the more cynical realities of the First World War, and the strain it puts on his friendship with Theo. He marries a young girl who is the double of his lost love (Kerr, again), but it ends tragically.

And finally we see Clive and Theo caught up in the darkest days of the Second World War, a conflict Clive’s upbringing as a gentleman and a good sport has left him unable to fully comprehend. But Theo, reduced to the status of a faintly shabby refugee, understands it all too well and, in one of the film’s most urgent scenes, desperately tries to communicate this to his friend. ‘This is not a gentleman’s war,’ he insists. ‘This time you’re fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain – Nazism. And if you lose, there won’t be a return match next year… perhaps not even for a hundred years.’ Prescient indeed, given this film was made before much of the horror of the Nazi regime was widely known.

The brutal realism of the film’s approach to the conflict may be another reason why this film was not a success on its initial release. It does not connive with traditional English ideas about what it means to be English – rather, it exposes them as outdated and dangerous fantasies. And yet it does so with remarkable gentleness. It is unstintingly critical of the way in which Clive changes – or, rather, fails to change – with the passage of time, but at the same time the depiction of him is always sympathetic, always as a living human rather than a caricature.

Certainly, he is pompous, idealistic in the wrong way, with an absurd attachment to ideas of fair play and honesty in warfare – but he is also unfailingly kind and decent, a loyal friend, hopelessly romantic, and always utterly determined to do the right thing. One senses a deep regret on the part of the film-makers that the world is not the way Clive imagines it to be – but the fact remains that he is wrong, and dangerously so.

But this is a drama much more than a message movie, with moments of tenderness and comedy as well, all magnificently played by the cast. Roger Livesey – for some reason, third billed – gives a monumental performance, ageing forty years in an astonishingly convincing manner. Walbrook, with much less screen time, is, possibly, even better. Deborah Kerr handles her triple role (she also plays Clive’s driver in the final section) so deftly that it’s sometimes hard to tell it’s the same actress.

As I said, this film contains so many of my favourite moments and sequences, handled with typical audacity, wit, and playful invention by Powell and Pressberger. Martin Scorsese is a noted fan of this film and consulted on the current restoration, but many of its narrative innovations have been acknowledged as influencing Tarantino – most obviously, the tricksy out-of-sequence story structure. Beyond this there are such treasures as the duel between Clive and Theo, where, after a huge build-up, no sooner does the combat start than the camera floats off out of a window, losing interest. There is the desperate pathos of Clive and Theo’s wordless encounter in an English prisoner-of-war camp. There is Theo’s speech to immigration officials as to why he has chosen to leave Germany and come to England, virtually delivered straight down the camera lens in a single take by Walbrook, in one of the greatest displays of screen acting I have ever seen. And there are many more.

For all that there is so much that is great about this film, there is still something fundamentally conflicted about it, almost paradoxical: it’s a film about the dangers of decency and civility, but also one of the most decent, civil films imaginable. It’s a film about the great flaws in the English national character, that also happens to be one of the greatest love letters to the idea of Englishness ever made. Finally seeing it on the big screen has only made me more aware of what a masterpiece this is. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film that will surely endure as long as the memory of England itself persists.

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Ahhh, I have my life back, at least as much as it was ever mine in the first place, which means I can get back to all those things that got put on hold while I was studying for my diploma – painting Third Company Blood Angels, trying figure out how to write a novel, and getting the hang of the split stroke. And, of course, looking at some really old and obscure movies off YouTube, which may or may not connect with my other interests.

So it’s time to break out the Second World War comedy-thriller reviews! Marcel Varnel’s Let George Do It! was made in 1940, one of the (these days) less-remembered products of the famous Ealing Studios company. Made in the early days of the war, this is a film which is clearly trying hard to lift the spirits of people with a lot on their mind. Its success can be measured by the fact it was an international hit under a variety of titles – screening in the USSR under the very un-Russian title Dinky-Do. Inevitably, looking at it over seventy years later, it comes across as a bit of a curiosity.

The staff and guests at a hotel in Bergen, Norway are shocked when the resident band’s ukulele player is murdered mid-performance. (If you play the uke as badly as me, this is an occupational hazard, but this guy was supposed to be a pro.) However, there is more afoot than someone taking exception to a badly-executed triplet strum – the dead ukist was in fact working for British Intelligence, on the trail of a Nazi agent feeding shipping information to German U-boats.

Back in London the spymasters of MI6 respond with alacrity – send another ukulele-playing intelligence operative to Norway at once, to replace the dead man! The theatrical agent they are working with (yes, yes, I know this is all soaringly improbable and actually quite silly) assures them this will not be a problem. However a mix-up at the docks, involving the Dinky-Do concert party which the agent also represents, culminates in the wrong man being sent to Bergen. Who can it be? Who could possibly be the leading man of a morale-boosting, rather silly comedy thriller, and do all his own ukulele playing to boot? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr George Formby.

Formby is one of those performers who clearly does not hold with any of that ‘dramatic range’ business, as he plays virtually the same character in all of his films – a good-hearted, slightly dim, but ultimately resourceful Lancastrian bloke who can knock out a funny line with the best of them and is a master of the ukulele too (although, and I feel we should be technical here, he very rarely plays a genuine ukulele, more often choosing the uke’s more forthright cousin, the banjolele). His star has faded somewhat in the last couple of decades, but when Let George Do It! was made he was one of the biggest stars in the UK.

Anyway, once George figures out he’s in Bergen, and not Blackpool as he had been expecting, he joins forces with British Intelligence’s girl on the scene (Phyllis Calvert) and together they try to work out how the bad guy (Garry Marsh) is getting his information to the German Navy.

The film doesn’t hang about and all is done and dusted with a minimum of nastiness and maximum of cheer well inside an hour and a half. And I have to say that I enjoyed this film with a degree of sincerity that rather surprised me, because a lot of the comedy stuff is genuinely amusing even now. The resourcefulness of the many scriptwriters in extracting the maximum comic potential from the simple phrase ‘Dinky-Do’ is rather awe-inspiring, and there’s a bit where George has to go through customs with the luggage of a conjuror which is a lot of fun too. On the other hand, there is perhaps a bit too much reliance on Formby blundering into any situation and wreaking complete havoc, and some of the slapstick seems laboured and primitive now. Certainly the film gets broader and more openly ridiculous as it goes on – something which starts off close in tone to a genuine thriller concludes with George being shot out of the torpedo tube of a U-boat onto the deck of a passing ship. I don’t think even Tom Cruise would try to get away with something like that nowadays.

There are four big musical numbers, and – why am I even worrying about these things? – the film doesn’t have to stretch credibility too much to work them in, George being a ukulele player in a band, after all. The biggest of these is ‘Count Your Blessings and Smile’, a nice enough tune but one which features Formby going hands-free. I suspect a lot of people seeking this film out now will be doing so just to marvel at Formby’s legendary right-hand technique, which is given due prominence in ‘Grandad’s Flannelette Nightshirt’, ‘Mr Wu’s A Window Cleaner Now’ and ‘Don’t The Wind Blow Cold’ (yes, these really are the names of songs in the Formby repertoire). For all the naturalism of the way in which the songs are written into the script, George does spend a lot of the time winking and grinning at the camera while actually performing them, but listening to that syncopation I will forgive anything.

Other points of interest in this film include the usual appearances by latterly-famous actors in supporting roles – here, Coral Browne (the future Mrs Vincent Price) plays the villain’s girlfriend, while Bernard Lee is unrecognisable as an angry Norwegian (Lee also appeared in The Third Man, but will probably be best remembered for playing M in the first eleven Bond movies). And, there is a very peculiar sequence in which George, off his face on truth serum, has wild hallucinations – which almost appear to anticipate some of the imagery of A Matter of Life and Death – concluding in him imagining himself flying to the heart of the Reich and sticking one on Hitler. The Americans had Captain America, we had George Formby.

Let George Do It! is generally acclaimed to be the best of Captain Lancashire’s star vehicles, and I must say I’m tempted to observe that if this is the best one, I can’t imagine what the worst must be like. But that would be rather unfair, because this movie is knockabout good fun, has moments of genuine class, and served a very valuable purpose in its day. If George really wants to do it, then I would say go ahead and let him.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 12th 2004:

It’s not often I get a note from the boss regarding what to put in upcoming columns, but when I do it’s best to take heed. ‘Next week it will be our Valentine Edition – so perhaps a little romance?‘ came the words of fire. Hum, well, as attentive masochists and other regular readers will probably have guessed, the Awix tape collection is a little thin on properly romantic movies, possibly because in my own experience the merest fluttering of finer feelings is inevitably the precursor to a donkey ride to Hell [This was prior to my marriage – A]. But on the other hand the current crop of new movies are a singularly unprepossessing bunch.

And it’s equally rare that I get to review a film that I know is already guaranteed a place on the list of all-time greats. So I thought we would take a jaunt back to 1946 and cast an eye over the immortal classic A Matter Of Life And Death, just one of many great films made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Set during the last days of the Second World War, A Matter Of Life And Death opens with an RAF bomber on fire over the North Sea. Its sole remaining crewman, Peter Carter (David Niven, playing it almost entirely straight) is making what he believes will be his final radio report. Not surprisingly, the rather intense circumstances of the call results in Carter forming a strong bond with June, the radio operator on the ground, a girl he’s never met (played by Kim Hunter, who’s probably best known for her sterling work under a chimp mask in the first three Planet of the Apes movies). Believing himself to be doomed, Carter jumps from the crashing plane into a dark and foggy night sky…

…and survives, finding himself washed ashore the next morning. He seeks June out, and their happiness seems predestined. But the authorities of the afterlife have other plans. Carter was supposed to die, but his ‘conductor’ to the next world (a very theatrical Marius Goring) missed him in the fog. The heavenly bureaucracy insists that Carter must shuffle off his mortal coil in order for the books to balance – but he, quite understandably, wants to stay with his new love, whom he would never have met were it not for someone else’s error. It seems he must prove his case before the highest judge of all…

Or is all this only the hallucination of an airman more badly injured than he thinks himself to be? Certainly his doctor (the inimitable Roger Livesey) seems to believe so. Whichever is the case, this really is a matter of life and death…

To watch A Matter Of Life And Death now is to enter a different world – not simply in that this is a film made during a period of global upheaval almost unimaginable now, but in that it has a theatricality and lightness of touch films made these days simply don’t possess. But above all else this is a film of tremendous ambition and audacity.

The tone is set by the very first line of dialogue: ‘This is the universe. Big, isn’t it?’ remarks an unseen narrator over a shot of an immense starfield. And the rest of the film lives up to this conceit, happily covering issues such as love, the afterlife, the Anglo-American relationship, the difference between fantasy and reality, and British colonial history, and welding them to startling visuals like an amphitheatre the size of a galaxy, the reception area of the afterlife (where angel’s wings are handed out, wrapped in polythene), and – most famously – an vast escalator between this world and the next.

For all that they’re the central characters, Niven and Hunter don’t get a huge amount to do beyond gazing lovingly at each other and simply being immensely decent and likeable. To an actor of Niven’s natural charisma this is a walk in the park, and Hunter (suggested for the role by Alfred Hitchcock) is also quite acceptable. The meat of the script goes to Livesey and Raymond Massey, who are respectively defence and prosecution counsels in the famous ‘trial in heaven’ sequence at the end of the film. They spar to great effect as the script covers a startling array of topics in quick succession, with wit and charm. But this is a very well-cast film – it is, of course, traditional to mention Richard Attenborough’s one-line cameo as a young airman.

Powell and Pressburger were apparently commissioned to make a fairly straightforward propaganda film supporting the Anglo-American alliance, and it’s not surprisng that (not for the first time) their film was greeted with raised hackles. For all that the final outcome is broadly in favour of the (ahem) ‘special relationship’, along the way there are rather a lot of pro-American and anti-British jibes, mostly given to Massey’s character (the first American casualty of the war of independence).

But these days it’s impossible to see A Matter Of Life And Death as a particularly political film, or indeed one with any great message to deliver – certainly compared to the equally classic, but obviously desperate-to-make-its-point The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, another brilliant Powell and Pressburger film made a few years earlier. This is simply a marvellous and surreal fantasy, playing games with pictures and ideas. It’s so bubbling over with wit and charm and inventiveness that it somehow doesn’t matter that a major character is casually bumped off to advance the plot (no-one seems that bothered about it, certainly not the deceased), or that the film-makers really don’t seem to care whether Carter’s visions are ‘real’ or not (they seem to try to have their cake and eat it). One is simply swept along, something facilitated no end by the eerie score, Jack Cardiff’s photography (richly and vibrantly technicolor on Earth, and in pristine black-and-white in Heaven) and some very impressive (for their time) special effects.

All right, so it isn’t really a full-on proper romance, as most of the actual a-wooing happens inside the first half hour (and most of that off-screen). But it is a masterpiece from this country’s greatest film-making partnership, and hopefully that will excuse some of the shortfall in the hearts and flowers department. If there is such a place as Heaven, A Matter Of Life And Death will be playing in the multiplexes there.

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