British Films

Greatness that Smacks You Right Between the Eyes

Greatness often isn’t recognized in its own time.  Think of all the memorable films that didn’t even garner an Oscar nomination while the Best Picture winner languished in obscurity after a couple of years*.

Other films (the same can be said of books, of course) are slow-burning, becoming classics long after their first run bombed or otherwise made little impact.  A literary example illustrates this beautifully: HP Lovecraft.  He was a minor writer in the literary landscape of the 1920s and 30s, who was recognized after his death as the unrivalled master of a particular brand of fiction.  Hell, as a writer, I’m not entirely certain if we’re allowed to write the word “eldritch” unless we’re doing a Lovecraft pastiche.

But some just hit you between the eyes and you have no question that it’s a great one.  In the Noir Era, The Big Sleep is one that stands out.  There is no doubt that, perhaps without breaking any new ground, it brings a certain type of film to a supremely high level.  I have yet to watch one that I think is better.

Today’s subject is one of those.

The Third Man Movie Poster.jpg

Brilliant from the outset, The Third Man is an atmospheric study of postwar morality and the awful realities of a terrible time but, unlike The Bicycle Thief, it treats the subject matter as a way to tell a great story as opposed to using it as a political canvas.

And the story holds up its side of the film.  This isn’t just an atmospheric crime movie–and it most definitely isn’t noir–but a well-blended mix of high-quality ingredients.  Acting, setting, story and darkness combine to put you in Vienna in 1947.  It is utterly perfect, and quite possibly the film that best uses the fact that it’s black and white… ever–I still have a few of the greats to watch, but color was making strong inroads by the time this one was released in 1949–because it is one of those movies which would have lost a lot if they’d been in color.

So everything comes together beautifully, and the semi-twist ending (I won’t give any spoilers here, even though both film and book are well known, as many people will have forgotten how it ends), as well as Orson Welles’ few onscreen minutes, almost, if not quite, a cameo, make it about as close to the perfect movie as I’ve ever seen.

Also, the book is quite good as well, if I remember correctly (it was assigned reading in the eighth grade, so it’s probably high time I reread that one).  A Graham Greene Classic.

If I had to watch one movie from the forties, and one movie dealing with the effects of WW2, I admit I’d probably go with Casablanca over and over again.

But this one comes dangerously close.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Jungle Lab Terror (just released–you could be one of the first readers!).  You can buy it here.

 

 

*Which, in the current “politics matter more than quality” climate, will actually happen more often.  I shudder to think of how future generations will laugh at the current Oscar dynamics.

An Alcoholic Romp

Having recently viewed Kind Hearts and Coronets, I was extremely surprised to learn that Whisky Galore (1949) was from the same studio: Ealing.  While the first of these is a meticulously detail-oriented and sophisticated black comedy, Whisky Galore seems to have been filmed by a crew who’d imbibed liberally in the titular beverage.

Whisky Galore film still.jpg

‘Romp’ is the perfect word to describe it.  This is not an understated film.  Every situation is taken to the extreme, and the production teeters on the edge of disaster the whole way through.  It’s a testament to the writers, directors (at least two) and actors that this never quite happens.  The post-shoot editing of this film is reported to have been a fraught affair, and one can see why: getting this one right has to have been a difficult endeavor.

As for how the audience receives it, I don’t recall many of the films on the 1001 movies list to be quite this fun.  Insanity, if held barely in check, is a surefire way of generating effective comedy, and it proves to be the case this time around.

Another thing that makes this one work is that the butt of most of the jokes are hidebound people who obey the rules at all costs, even when the rules are stupid or unenforceable.  In this film, they are represented by an English commander of a Home Guard unit during WWII, but he stands for everyone who upholds boring convention, especially health and safety.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any appreciable time knows that health and safety freaks are not my favorite people, so I took wicked delight in watching authority get it in the shorts.

I don’t really have a critical evaluation of this one.  It is one to enjoy without overanalyzing it.  So that’s what I’ll do here.  Just get a copy of it, but be careful–there’s a remake from 2016, and one which I’d be leery of.  Much of the comedy in this film is the kind of stuff modern filmmakers are afraid of (you don’t want to fall afoul of the politically correct thought police), so the remake might be a watered-down monstrosity (I hope not, but as I haven’t seen it, I need to issue the warning).

Anyhow, watch this movie.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose debut collection Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places holds a number of slapstick stories in among the spaceship tales.  You can check it out here.

 

Kind Hearts and Black Humorous Brilliance

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching Kind Hearts and Coronets.  I thought it would be a historical film–which can often be amazing and equally often be utter tripe.

Kind Hearts and Coronets.jpg

It turns out that this one is actually a comedy, not a drama.  A wonderfully whimsical black comedy of murder and social classes.  I love it when the murderer is a sympathetic man and we’re all rooting for him to win in the end.

I really enjoyed this one, although I’m not sure how well it would play with audiences today.

Essentially, it follows the career of a young man whose noble-blooded mother has been disinherited by her family, and his subsequent quest to murder his way into inheriting a dukedom.  The murders are the funniest part of the film, of course.  Murder, if done correctly, is extremely funny.

Along the way he becomes emotionally entangled with two women and lands on death row for murder.  The murder that gets him locked up, which I won’t spoil for you, is just another piece of delicious black comedy.

This one is seriously old-school, but I think the buttons it presses aren’t the kind of thing that will offend people nowadays (although, to be honest, I have no clue what offends people nowadays… everything?), so I recommend it heartily to everyone.  Go out and watch this one.

If you don’t enjoy it, you’re a humorless twit, and should probably join the nearest holier-than-thou social movement in your neighborhood (does the temperance movement still exist?) at once.

Normal people should love it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer currenly in Covid-19 lockdown like everyone else in Buenos Aires.  Since we’re all staying at home anyway, why not purchase his latest book, Pale Reflection?  If you look in the reviews, you’ll see that it’s been favorably compared to Stephen King.  You can buy it here.

A Fairy Tale as an Excuse for an Art Film

After watching Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death, I was utterly unprepared for what awaited in The Red Shoes, put together by the same creative and directorial team.  Both of their previous postwar films had been slightly odd, yes, but they’d also been very focused on the story.

The Red Shoes 1948

The Red Shoes moves away from that tendency quite hard.  The story and character development are just framing devices for a film where music and dancing take center stage, but which isn’t exactly a musical.  So when the girl becomes a prima ballerina and the boy becomes a composer / director and they fall in love, it doesn’t really matter to the audience, as it seems predestined from the beginning.

Their tale is a vehicle for a visual feast set in the middle of the movie in a virtuoso display of filmmaking prowess in an era half a century before CGI.  The stage becomes a fantasy world that, as intended, makes the viewer question where the line between reality and fantasy runs.  And, as intended, the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale at the center of the story spills out into reality.

Or does it?

Normally, when a film’s plot is paper-thin, I hesitate to send people around to watch it.  But this one is about much more than plot.  The eye candy is worth the price of admission, and there’s not much a reviewer can say other than that.  If you like the kind of film that transports you to a magical place despite the lack of modern effects, this one will make you happy.

So, if the above is tempting, go ahead.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work often explores that region where reality and unreal worlds collide.  The best example of this is probably his novel Outside, which you can purchase here.

Controversial Film is Nothing New

Odd Man Out - Carol Reed - Final Scene

1947.  A horrible war has just ended.  Britain is in the midst of rationing everything from petrol to food.  You’d have to be pretty brave to film a sympathetic (albeit unflinching) portrayal of the IRA just then.  Either that or somewhat mad.

Carol Reed, it appears, was precisely that kind of man, and history has repaid him for his bravery (or madness) by making Odd Man Out his best-remembered film.  It tells the story of how an unnamed (but pretty obvious) revolutionary faction robs banks to finance itself, and of the responses of the members themselves, the people they love and the rest of the inhabitants of the unnamed city as the hunt for the perpetrators unfolds.

Refreshingly (in a world where people are convinced that anyone who voted for the “wrong” candidate in the US elections is subhuman), no one is portrayed as good or evil.  Every character is shown to have their flaws and their virtues.  In fact both are taken to the utter extreme in which the characters become caricatures of themselves without turning one-dimensional in the process.  So the implacable cop does all in his power to protect people from themselves, the insane painter can see the pain of people’s souls, the poor, greedy old man, despite his need and the lack of promises on the financial end, does all in his power to help out.

Perhaps this is the reason that the only objection the censors had to this film was the violence.  The final scenes had to be toned down.  In another era, or in any other country, this one would have fallen at the first hurdle.

Odd Man Out Film Poster

Perhaps this, more than anything, is what saddens me about the current state of political dialogue.  It is important that we understand and accept that others will have different views.  That doesn’t make them less intelligent or subhuman.  Just human.  If you profess to want the best for people and then hate someone just because they voted differently and don’t care about your arguments and won’t change their vote despite all your efforts, they are not the problem… you are.

Quite a good commentary on today, considering the film is seventy years old, huh?

On a slightly geeky note and our unusual fact about this one, one of the characters in this film was played by the first doctor, William Hartnell.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer, author of the popular novel, Siege. You can buy it here.

 

 

The Erotic Lives of Nuns

England in 1947 might not seem like the best place and time to have released a film about the most secret desires of a group of nuns in a convent, but not only did the Archers pull it off, but is was successful at release and no one was lynched in the strait-laced streets of Surrey.

Black Narcissus is an unusual film.  Simultaneously ahead of its time and awfully aged, it relies on underlying themes and use of spectacular color filmography for most of its impact–the story itself is pedestrian at best.  And, of course, in 1947, you couldn’t show any nudity, even in a film about lust.

Without spoilers, a quick synopsis of the film is as follows: a group of nuns under an inexperienced sister superior (played by none other than Deborah Kerr) set up a school and hospital atop a mountain in an old harem house in colonial India which still has much of its original allusive decoration on the walls.

Quickly overcome by the sensuality of the place, the tropical pace and values of life, even the stoutest of the sisters begins to waver and doubt, eventually causing one of them to crack under the strain.

David Farrar on his Pony

Unfortunately, certain elements that would have worked well for audiences in the 1940s have had their impact lessened by time, often becoming unintentional comedy.  The most prominent of these is the initial entrance of the male object of desire.  He enters his first scene and the important agent of the general wearing exactly the wrong length of bermuda shorts and riding a pony.  As an object of female desire, I’m pretty sure this is a look he’d want to avoid in 2018.

Men were luckier.  The female sex symbol in this film was Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a local girl of the lower classes falling into disrepute before our very eyes.  Though her story is a subplot, her presence helps solidify the erotic undertones of the film by including one character whose sensuality is in no doubt.

Jean Simmons as Kanchi

The rest of the interactions occur with a look here, a word there and perhaps the laying aside of practicality for color somewhere else.  It’s done at a slow burn, which makes the suddenly frantic ending all the more satisfying.

In conclusion, this is a decent and surprising film.  It has its flaws and hasn’t aged brilliantly, but is admirable for having done what it did when it did so.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  If you’re interested in eroticism (not quite as subtle as in Black Narcissus, but definitely more in tune with 2018), his ebook story Pacific Wind is available here.

Great Adaptations

Dickens, as has been proven by countless failures of his work on screen and stage, is tremendously difficult to adapt faithfully.  Either critical events get cut from the final version, or the rapid succession of scenes removes any depth from the characters.  Dickens’ magic dies in either of these two scenarios.

In 1946, when the movie we are going to discuss today was released, the consensus was that there had been no good Dickens for the screen.

Great Expectations

Sir David Lean‘s version of Great Expectations changed all that, which is quite surprising, as the original book is a multi-scened doorstop that explicitly exposes much of the introspection of the main character.

In that sense, perhaps the adaptation was doomed from the start.  It most certainly doesn’t manage to transmit the inner thoughts of Pip, and that robs the twist ending of much of its emotional strength.

But that is the film’s only weakness.  It manages to capture the characters emotions beautifully.  Pip’s openness, Joe’s faithful, unconditional generosity and (perfectly, brilliantly), Estella’s cruel aloofness.  It succeeds on both the strength of those portrayals and in the stunning rightness of the sets they used.  The forge, the marsh and especially the decaying mansion, all work brilliantly.

I was interested to learn that the book has been filmed again, as recently as 2012.  Looking over the rankings of the more modern versions on IMDB, I’m not really surprised that most of the newer versions rate much lower than the Lean.  Despite being hampered by postwar shortages and black and white photography (although, to be honest, that seemed just right for this one), the 1946 version is still the definitive Great Expectations.

It’s not surprising, as it’s difficult to improve upon near perfection.

I’d like to take a few more moments to talk about my own experience with the film.  You see, this isn’t my favorite Dickens novel.  Yes, it was better than the maudlin Oliver Twist, but can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is David Copperfield (in fact, it seems at times a little like a light, punched-held version of Copperfield).  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a long period piece in black and white adapted from a book which I didn’t enjoy and whose twist I already knew.

It’s kind of like watching a film version of Murder on the Orient Express.  Knowing how it ends kills most of the magic.

But in the end, I liked it.  It was that good.

Weird stuff, or at least stuff that interested me, abounded in this one.

Kilroy Was Here Marker

First off, there’s a scene in which a “Kilroy was Here” appears drawn in the dust.  It’s in the final scene of the film, but I haven’t been able to get a good screenshot (if anyone has one and can send me the link in comments, it will immediately be placed here!).

Also, there was an Argentine born actress in this one: Martita Hunt.  She is long gone, but we salute her from Way Down South!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.

Taking a Mix of Terrible Ingredients and Turning Them Into Something Brilliant

stairway scen in A Matter of Life and death

When looking at the major elements that went into the creation of classic British film, A Matter of Life and Death(1946), one would never have expected it to be anything but a confusing and incoherent hodgepodge.  Let’s have a look…  Take one part Christian-based afterlife, a drop of true love and its vital importance on earth, one part straight fantasy, a good dollop of melodrama, a court scene, the possibility of brain damage to the main character, and a request from the government to create a propaganda film to foster good relations between the US and England, stir well and stand back.

But I guess one should never underestimate the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger.  The team responsible for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was certain to defy every expectation we had and mix this together in a completely unexpected way.  Accustomed as we are to Hollywood today creating only blockbusters with completely nonsensical (albeit entertaining) plots and predictable, formulaic tear jerkers for those of other sensibilities, watching the films that these guys made is a bit of a jolt.

Essentially, this film deals with the plight of a British aviator who, while he is supposed to be dead, falls in love with an American girl.  Since he’s supposed to be dead but isn’t because of a cock-up by a particular angel, a whole boatload of bureaucracy gets put in motion to get him properly killed off.

In the meantime, a group of people on Earth are moving to save him.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

It all sounds pretty maudlin, but in practice, the filmmakers manage to pull it off, and then some.  The mixture of black and white and color footage is the best use of this technique since The Wizard of Oz, and the special effects are extremely ambitious for postwar Britain.

Also, David Niven is always worth watching, no matter if he is the romantic lead as in this case, or if he’s playing a hardened commando.

This one is a keeper – even if American audiences will have to look for it under the title Stairway to Heaven (which makes it sound even dumber.  Does anyone else remember the moronic TV show of the same name).  If you haven’t seen it go out and watch it.

The curious incident from this one is that one of the character actors, Bonar Colleano, a man who was well on his way to becoming a superstar when he died, was killed in a sportscar crash returning from a gig in 1958 at the age of 34.  As you all probably know by now, Classically Educated loves all forms of high speed motorsport, the purer the better, so we salute, more than a half-century later, the passing of a fellow enthusiast.

Interruptus

Brief Encounter Film Still

The last time we delved into British cinema, we thought we’d discovered a forgotten gem.  Now, let’s look at the flipside: the film that was highly acclaimed as a masterpiece, but which I didn’t enjoy at all.

The words “realist cinema” should always act as a warning.  It’s supposed to bring a sharper focus, convey events that might actually happen to anyone. The idea was probably to move away from what had come before, to throw out both heroic tragedy and anything that happened to exceptional people out with the bathwater.  Turns out it creates films that are tawdry and more than a bit boring.

The critics, of course, loved them.

The one we’re looking at today is called Brief Encounter.  It tells the story of a bored housewife (protip: anything that tells the story of a bored housewife will be worse, all other variables remaining constant, than anything which doesn’t) who meets a man on a train and begins a platonic relationship with him.

This had the potential to turn into something interesting, except that just when interesting was about to occur, the guy’s best friend walked in on them and they decided to go their separate ways.  In order to kill the possibility of interesting things ensuing later, the man decides to leave for South Africa.  It’s a study in frustration for both the characters and the audience.

Noel coward Brief Encounter

Yes, it deftly echoes the angst and utter meaninglessness of middle class existence (the ones from 1938 in this case)… but does little else.  That’s why critics loved it, but it left me feeling empty (your mileage may vary).

That’s not to say that it’s a bad piece of filmmaking.  It isn’t.  It wasn’t hard to watch, it was well acted and well made.  The atmosphere was extremely well created and the whole “train station in the night” is truly memorable.  The problem is that it was a realist film, which meant that, being well executed just meant that, in the end, it was a bit tawdry and disappointing.  Like life itself, something only a critic can love…

The interesting notes that accompany this one are that it was based on a Noël Coward play whose plot sounds a lot more interesting than the film.

Also, a shout out to actress Margaret Barton, only surviving member of the cast that I could find.  If you’re reading this, take heart; the acting was excellent–the concept let you guys down.

The Forgotten Gem of British Film

There’s a film out there that you probably haven’t heard of, but that many critics list among their top 100, top 10, etc.  We happened to watch it because it was on the 1001 films you must watch before you die list, but otherwise, it was completely new to us.

I know Where I'm Going Film Poster

The movie is called I Know Where I’m Going, and is a lesser known film from 1945 created by the Michael Powell, whose offbeat storytelling has appeared here before, and will be appearing here again shortly, if we can get our film critic out to turn out more than a couple of posts a year (this one included).

This film tells the story of a young woman who wishes to marry a wealthy man who lives on an island in the Hebrides.  On her way there, she becomes gets stranded on a different island by bad weather… and the rest is a romp of a romantic film with music, dancing, comedy and even some action brilliantly interwoven.  A happy film created in dark times.

Had this film been made in the US, it would be a staple of late-night and Saturday afternoon network TV.  But since it wasn’t, it’s reserved for the cognoscenti, for people who compile “bets movies” lists and, of course for readers of Classically Educated!

This is one of those cases where we really, really don’t want to say too much about the plot, as it’s one that people need to discover for themselves, but suffice to say that we heartily recommend a viewing of the same.

Michael Powell

So let’s talk about Powell for a bit.  He was a man who seemed to spend the entire latter part of the war and the days immediately following creating films that were not only fun but extremely intelligently put together.  It’s amazing to think that while noir was sweeping the US–a natural reflection of the cynicism of the times the world was living–Powell was creating upbeat, fun pictures that still managed not to ignore the fact that the world was at war (more about this topic when we reach our write-up of A Matter of Life and Death, but the Colonel Blimp link above also illustrates whet we’re talking about).

A man who would do that, time and again, is one of the true greats in anyone’s book, and the fact that small-minded prudes and imbeciles essentially ended his career some time later (for creating a film that is now a niche classic) is even more reprehensible.

Finally, our notable note for this flick is that it was one of the first appearances of Petulia Clark, CBE on film.  She was a young girl then, but we’re happy to see that she’s still going strong and would like to give a shout out to her if she’s reading this!