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Red Riding, Channel 4, 2009.

Posted by keith1942 on March 2, 2015

Red Riding

This trilogy was produced by Channel 4 and transmitted at least twice in the 2009. I wrote this response at the time. I was immediately struck with the way that the films crossed over with serial killer films and how their gloomy style replicated the dark, dystopian world so common in serial killer films and in the film noir genre. The article contains detailed plot information for all three films.


It is best first to make a clear distinction between the labyrinth and the maze. The former is a network of tunnels, chambers, or paths, either natural or man-made. The latter is a complex network of paths or passages, especially one with high hedges in a garden, designed to puzzle those walking through it. Commonly I think mazes refer to external networks, labyrinths to internal and usually subterranean networks.

The most famous labyrinth, which has acquired mythic status, was that designed by Daedulus for King Minos of Crete. The myth tells of a monster begatted by the union of Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, and a sacred bull. The half-human, half-bull offspring, the Minotaur, was imprisoned in the labyrinth. Meanwhile Minos’ son Androgeos was slain by the Athenians. Minos won the war that this provoked and then compelled the city to send seven young men and seven maidens to Crete every nine years, where they were fed to the Minotaur. Theseus, son of the Athenian king, killed the Minotaur by successfully penetrating the labyrinth with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne.

Expressionist and noir films

Labyrinths have become potent motifs and signifiers in cinema. They usually bring their dark associations with them, providing settings for danger, violence, murder and a frightening monster. One early example would be the German expressionist horror, Nosferatu [1922]. This is one of the earliest vampire films, and the castle of Count Orlok [Dracula] presents a dark, gloomy setting, where corridors and staircases lead peril and horror. Suitably, the coffin in which the vampire Count rests is to be found below ground, in a cellar. This early example has set the tone for many of the subsequent genre films, with heroes and heroines descending into darkness and a ‘fate worse than death’.

Expressionism was a major influence on the Hollywood film noir cycle, where labyrinthine plots took the protagonists and the audience into a dark and dangerous world of chaos. A classic example made in the UK, The Third Man (1949), has a potent labyrinth. The film’s villain Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is finally hunted down in the sewers of the city of Vienna. The protagonist, Holly Martin (Joseph Cotton), tracks him down, through a series of tunnels, dark and running with the waste of the city. Their final confrontation is an apt reversal of their earlier meeting in the film, where Harry and Holly surveyed the world from the height of a Ferris Wheel.

Monster movies, whether terrestrial or alien, frequently contain a labyrinth. In Them (1954) giant radioactive ants move out of their anthill networks. By the climax of the film they are being hunted down in the storm drains of Los Angeles. The final peril is the destruction of a new Queen deep in the network.

More recently we have seen the development of the serial killer cycle, whose combination of film noir style with a psychotic killer provides the most frightening modern monster. An early example, (1930) has the child killer hunted down in an apartment store. The searchers [other criminals] comb the whole set of rooms and corridors before tracking him down in a dark storeroom. In Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) Lila Crane searches the old house at the motel, and finally discovers the monster in the basement. Clause Chabrol’s Le Boucher (1969) features a labyrinth cave with drawings by the pre-historic Cro-Magnon man: the film develops this as an association to Popaul, the butcher and killer of the title. In Silence of the Lambs (1990) Clarissa Starling has to visit Hannibal Lector. She finds him in a cell deep inside the prison, at the end of a dark, dirty basement corridor. And when she finally tracks down the actual killer he also hides in a dark and subterranean network.

Many of these serial killers/monsters hark back to the earliest example on Crete. Sexual aberrations are common. The killers devour the young and innocent. Most commonly the hunter/investigator is male and a female helper occurs on occasions. And the idea of punishment for usurping authority frequently reappears. Se7en [1995] is a classic example of the genre that presents this last aspect. John Doe resides in a lair that is all in black. And he recites the ‘sins’ for which his victims suffer, working through the seven most grievous. At the climax of the film he kills the innocent wife and unborn child of detective Mills, and fuels wrath!

Yorkshire Noir

This long-running motif has returned powerfully to the screen in Channel 4’s adaptation of the Dave Peace quartet of novels, Red Riding. The novels mix recorded events with fictionalised characters and crimes over a period of nine years. [In fact only three of the novels were dramatised; a friend who has read the quartet found the plot of the second, 1977, indecipherable]. The three stories in C4’s Red Riding offer a world of chaos, where crime and corruption are rife and where innocence is sacrificed. They do this by appropriating many of the techniques of modern US film and television noir. David Peace, in an online profile, listed Dante as a major influence. And Dante’s Inferno is a key reference in Se7en, another work singled out by Peace.


The films utilise dark gloomy lighting, dramatic and restless camera work, and muddy soundtracks, with dialogue that is frequently difficult to follow. And they rely on plotting which constructs a narrative labyrinth for the viewers, shot through with ambiguities, puzzles, teasers and unexplained events or motivations. There was one scriptwriter for all three films, Tony Grisoni, though each feature had a different director. A common narrative is maintained by the settings and by recurring characters who re-appear as the dramas move from one period to another. And most notably the narrative only offers an overall though tentative meaning at the conclusion of the third feature.

Red Riding adds another myth to that of the labyrinth and the monster: a fetish with swans. This ties into the myth of the swan maiden, found in a variety of forms. A hero sees a flock of swans, and finds they are really a group of beautiful women bathing. He steals one of the dresses on the shore, and that maiden is unable to fly away. The hunter marries her, but at some point his wife finds her original feathery dress and reverts to a swan and flies away.

Red Riding I

In the Year of Our Lord 1974 opens the trilogy. The majority of the film appears to be an extended flashback by journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield). In full noir fashion the film opens with shots of a young girl with wings followed by that of Dunford holding a gun. The plot then fills in the events leading up to a shooting, though in an extremely fragmentary fashion. Eddie is following a story of child molestation and murder near Leeds. In the course of the film he becomes the lover of the mother, Paula (Rebecca Hall), of a missing young girl, Jeanette Garland. He meets property magnate John Dawson (Sean Bean). Paula lives on the Fitzwilliam Estate; Dawson has his own estate nearby. The settings are mainly south west of Leeds from Morley to Castleford, Wakefield and the above run-down estate near Pontefract. The latter becomes familiar, as do the six cooling towers visible en route from the road.

Dunford’s colleague and friend Barry Cannon (Anthony Flanagan) dies in a road accident. Eddie then he discovers that senior police are involved in corruption with Dawson and have ‘fitted up’ an innocent man for the child murders. One young girl found dead has been tortured and raped before murder. The torture includes sewing ‘swan’s wings’ to her. It is this connection that finally leads Dunford to realise that Dawson is the monster whose ‘private weakness’ is child molestation. Dawson’s house is designed in a swan-like outline. Barry comments (rewriting Balzac); ‘behind every great house there lies a great crime!’ And we later discover one room contains a hanging swan, (evidence of the abuse).

The dialogue has frequent references to swans and wings, though the connection to the plot is not usually clear. Later features return to this as well as references to other animals. The film also provides frequent visual set-ups that suggest labyrinths, in tunnels, corridors and alleyways. Dunford is assaulted by police in a multi-story car park.  But the clearest parallel to a labyrinth is when Dunford is taking into custody after gate-crashing Dawson’s reception. We find him in a blacked-out dungeon. When the lights go up it is grim and damp: the basement below the Police HQ. The police torture Dunford, at one point introducing a line that will become familiar: “put your hands flat on the table.” And he is later dragged down a corridor into another dark room, a morgue in which lies the body of Paula.


The trio of officer involved, Detective Superintendent Bill ‘Badger’ Molloy (Warren Clark), Sergeant Bob Craven (Sean Harris), and Police Constable Tommy Douglas (Tom Mooney) will re-appear in the subsequent dramas. In Red Riding it is these police who are also monsters. The complications of Paula’s death lead to the police stuffing a loaded gun in Dunford’s pocket and throwing him out a van with the words that re-appear again and again in the series: “This is the North, we do what we want!”  Dunford convinced that Dawson has killed Paula searches his house and see the swan. He then finds and shoots Dawson. After which, and the end of the flashback, he dies in a suicidal crash with a police car.

Red Riding II

The second drama is set in The Year of Our Lord 1980. It is the height of the Yorkshire Ripper hunt, whose 12th or 13th victim has just been discovered. The opening credits feature stills of the victims and newsreel footage from the time. The key protagonist is Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine); a senior officer from the Manchester Force charged with examining the long running, and so far, failed Ripper enquiry. He brings with him two assistants, Chief Superintendent John Nolan (Tony Pitts), and Detective Sergeant Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake).

Whilst Hunter starts to examine the Ripper investigation it gradually becomes apparent that this is not the primary focus of the film. Hunter has been here before. Five years earlier he investigated the shooting at The Karachi Club in Wakefield. This turns out to be the incident when Eddie Dunford shot John Dawson. But that was followed by further shootings, including Craven and Douglas. The investigation is premised on robbery and murder by an unknown gang: Dunford’s death listed as a road accident. Hunter’s investigation remained unfinished: one complication being a short-lived affair with Helen. The events of the past still haunt him, and feature in dreams and flashbacks. They also start to turn up in the background of the Ripper investigation.

Hunter’s liaison officer in Leeds is the now promoted Superintendent Bob Craven. And the office of Hunter and his team appears to be in the same basement as that where Dunford was tortured. The passage to the office passes the pound of the barking police dogs: summoning up tones of the mythic beasts that guarded Hades. As in the first feature we have scenes frequently set in passages and on stairs, now interiors rather than the exteriors of the earlier drama. Hunter finally receives evidence that the Karachi Club shootings were carried out by police led by ‘Badger’ Molloy. The evidence is provided by BJ (Robert Sheehan), who we saw in 1974 as a source for Dunford and his journalist friend, Barry. Hunter and BJ meet in what seems like a monster’s lair: a disused garage in Preston where BJ claims that the ’13th’ victim of the Ripper died at the hands of Craven.


Hunter is already in trouble with the police establishment. He arranges to meet John Nolan in the basement office, and after Hunter has explained the new evidence Nolan tells him that Craven ‘is out of control’. We follow Hunter down a labyrinth of corridors and stairwells to a bare basement room, where lies Craven, bloody and shot. Nolan now executes the coup de grace on Hunter: backed up by his corrupt fellow policemen. The film ends, after footage of the captured Ripper, at the grave of Hunter in a Yorkshire cemetery.

Red Riding 3

The final film opens with a flashback to 1974. At the wedding of Bill Molloy’s daughter a group of policemen gather for a tête-à-tête – there is Molloy, Maurice Jobson (David Morrisey), Bob Craven, Tommy Douglas, Dick Alderman (Shaun Dooley) and Jim Prentice (Chris Walker). In the background is Chief Constable Harold Angus (Jim Carter), who clearly is implicated in the corruption. They are joined by John Dawson. Once again the audience hear the now familiar line, ” To the North, where we do what we want.” The scene explains the conspiracy that lay behind events in the 1974.

The Year of Our Lord 1983 also returns to the central plot of 1974, missing children. We see stills of a young girl, Hazel Atkins, missing from the Morley area. As with the earlier case, that of Clare Kemplay, the investigation is lead by Detective Chief Superintendent Maurice Jobson [promoted from Detective Superintendent], assisted by Detective Inspector Alderman. Jobson receives help from a medium, Mandy Wymer (Saskia Reeves). With nice irony, at one point she instructs him and Alderman to ‘put your hands on the table’. Later she leads him to remains that may be those of Jeanette Garland.

Jobson’s central role is shared with another character from earlier features, BJ. And a new protagonist, solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy), joins them. Jobson is haunted by memories of the earlier investigations and we see frequent flashbacks to that time. BJ also has memories of that period, as a victim. Piggott becomes involved at the request of the mother of Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), wrongly imprisoned for the earlier crimes. But Piggott also has memories from the past. Various characters at different times, including Myshkin, claim ‘you know, everybody knows!’

The style of the film is familiar, with a dark and drear mise en scène, disconcerting close-ups and jump cuts, and characters framed by doors, walls and passageways. We revisit haunted locations like the gypsy encampment, the run-down Fitzwilliam Estate and the disused garage in Preston. In the latter BJ unearths a shotgun: presumably a relic from the Karachi Club shooting. One flashback shows Molloy and Jobson interrogating Martin Laws (Peter Mullan), a minister seen in both 1974 and 1980. Once more a prisoner is told to ‘put your hands flat on the table’. However, Laws, whose white van was seen near the crime scenes, was given an alibi by John Dawson. It is clear that Molloy and Jobson realised that Laws and Dawson were probably guilty of the child murders. But the police corruption meant that Myshkin was ‘fitted up’ for the crimes. An enigmatic exchange between several policemen makes sense when related to the plot of the 1974: they set up Dunford to dispose of Dawson without wrecking their financial interests. The subsequent shootings were either punishments or covering up evidence: or both.

All three central characters of 1983 are caught in the past and guilt. Jobson broods over the corruption and cover-ups. His increasingly awkward questions and investigation lead to enforced early retirement. Piggott was bought up on the Fitzwilliam Estate, and his father was an ex-policeman. The father was also a member of a paedophile circle involving Laws and Dawson. A flashback offers glimpse of the abuse with the words, ‘Piggott is king today, be nice to Mr. Piggott.’ This is John Piggott’s flashback: hence his guilt. And BJ also has flashbacks with glimpses of abuse as he returns to avenge the past wrongs. The climax of the third film comes on The Fitzwilliam Estate: crosscutting between number 7, Law’s house, and an allotment on open ground above the estate.


BJ arrives at the house with his shotgun. He confronts Laws but is unable to pull the trigger. As Laws prepares to mutilate or kill BJ Jobson shoots him with another shotgun. [Also from the Karachi Club shooting?]. Meanwhile Piggott is investigating the allotment. He enters what appears to be a disused pigeon cote, full of feathers. Laws discovers Piggott and knock him down into the passage below the cote: returning to his house, [and death]. When Piggott awakens he explores the dark, subterranean labyrinth. And at the end of this Piggott find the missing girl, Hazel. As he emerges from the cellar to the waiting Jobson, shafts of light pierce the gloom, amid a ‘confetti’ of feathers. The writer, Tony Grisoni explained: “we might save one of the children. I just couldn’t have them all die. I wanted to be released from hell by the end.” (Interview in Sight & Sound, March 2009).

And indeed Piggott does carry Hazel off home on his shoulder. BJ also survives, and 1983 ends on him, ‘the one that got away’. However, as is frequently the case with film noir and serial killer films, the ending is hardly optimistic. In each of the three features a monster is slain: Dawson by Dunford: Craven by his colleagues: and Laws by Jobson. But the central monster, the focus of all the corruption and violence: whose victims outnumber the innocents saved: the Red Riding police mafia, survive or at least go unpunished. Molloy and Jobson have both retired, but others remain, including the Chief Constable Angus. This would also seem to be in keeping with the original myth: for whilst Theseus kills the Minotaur, Minos, who was ultimately responsible, survived: though he came to a nasty end later. One sub-text of Red Riding would appear to be that the Police have acquired the prerogatives of ancient royalty, both the power and the invulnerability.

David Peace’s Yorkshire

I have only read the first of the four novels from which the trilogy was adapted. I tried the second and could not follow its ‘narrative’. I then tried the final novel, but I found it very repetitious: which seems to me a common feature of Peace’s writing. The films do seem to recreate the novels fairly accurately, though they also make changes. Roy Stafford, who has worked his way through the books, thought that the female characters are more developed in the films. The books certainly use recognisable events and places from the West Riding of Yorkshire. Max Farrar, a local expert in Chapeltown, spent quite an amount of time showing the production team round places that still exist. However, in the end these are fictional characters and events set in recognisable locales.

What is interesting is how closely the novels and particularly the films adhere to the conventions of noir and serial killer movies. The labyrinths are the central and most mythic element, but there are many more. This is a world of darkness with dank interiors and bleak exteriors. The villains are ascribed believable motivations but at the same time their world reeks of what common parlance defines as ‘evil’. Moreover the chiaroscuro is not just visual – light and shadow predominate – this applies to the possible meanings, we are left with ambiguities and unresolved questions.


A friend just loaned me a Blu-Ray of the Home Box Office series True Detective (2014). I was struck by a number of overlaps between this US series and the UK trilogy: this is as likely down to recurring tropes and motifs in the serial killer genre. We have a massive and nasty set of serial killings: and there is a strong relationship to corruption in the political and police establishments. True Detective has all sorts of recognisable features and the investigation ends in a labyrinth. In relation to Red Riding I was struck by the presence of a lock-up garage, and flashback involving a young girl in a circle of abuse being led to a chair or throne. And near the end we also encounter an abused boy who has turned into a hustler.

Notes: Revolution Films produced the three Red Riding films for Channel 4. It seems Channel released the films abroad on 35mm. There was one screening of the films on 35mm in Leeds. The first film was actually shot on 16mm, the second on 35mm whilst the third used HD digital. Though filmed in anarmorphic ratio the television transmissions were somewhat hit and miss, with some broadcasts being in 1.85:1.



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24 Window Frames a Second: Trains in British Films

Posted by keith1942 on February 20, 2015

Brief opening

This article aims to offer some general comments about trains in British films between 1900 and 1950, illustrated by a few key examples.

A number of authors have discussed how the Railways and Cinema are both not only key technologies and institutions of the nineteenth century, but how they also share certain characteristics. Ian Christie comments on one of the first moving images to be projected to an audience, the Lumière’s Arrival of a train. (Arrivée d’un train en gare a La Ciotat 1896).

Railways already loomed large in the common experience and folklore of the late nineteenth century. First there was the new experience of mechanical speed, both terrifying and exhilarating for those who had only known horse or wind power. Then there was literally, a new outlook on the world as it sped past the train windows. … From the carriage window to the screen was an easy transition. It’s tempting to say that sixty years of railways had prepared people to be film spectators. (Christie 1994)

Some of the earliest moving camera shots were taken from trains. ‘Phantom Rides’ were a popular early film genre, treating audiences to exotic locales in the Alps and the North American West. Closer to home British audiences could watch In the Scottish Highlands (1907) or Burnham Beeches (1909 – Fletcher 2003). An extremely popular variant was Hales Tours, where mocked up train carriages provided access to projected film scenery, a sort of reverse of the above. One of the most famous magical films by Georges Méliès, a few years after the Lumière’s pioneer actualités (actualities), is a train journey – to the stars (Voyaged travers l’impossible, 1904).

The most popular 1930s documentary from the GPO Film Unit led by John Grierson, and one of the few seen by audiences in commercial cinemas, was Night Mail (1936). There is an exciting rush as the train is

. . . Crossing the border … / Pulling up Beattock, A steady climb/ The gradient’s against her, But she’s on time.

The words of W. H. Auden and the music of Benjamin Britten accentuate the filming. (In fact, there is a low budget thriller from the year before with the same title, set on the London to Aberdeen express).

How can we explain this fascination the railroad holds for the cinema? Why does the silent film seem to privilege the train – including the trolley, elevated railway and subway – over other forms of transportation, both older (the horse, the coach) and newer (the automobile, the airplane)? Some would see the cinema’s interest in the train as that of a double: the cinema finds an apt metaphor in the train, in its framed, moving image, its construction of a journey as an optical experience, the radical juxtaposition of different places, the “annihilation of space and time.” As a machine of vision and an instrument for conquering space and time, the train is a mechanical double for the cinema and for the transport of the spectator into fiction, fantasy, and dream. It is a metaphor in the Greek sense of the word: movement, the conveyance of meaning. Like film’s illusion of movement, the experience of the railroad is based on a fundamental paradox: simultaneous motion and stillness. In both cases, passengers sit still as they rush through space and time, whether physically and visually, as on the train, or merely visually, as in the cinema. The train would then be cinema’s mirror image in the sequential unfolding of a chain of essentially still images and the rapid shift of points of view that the train and cinema experiences entail. (Lynne Kirby, 1997)

This quotation suggests how trains work in films in a number of different ways. The audience view replicates to some degree that of the passenger in a carriage looking through the window. The combination of rapid motion and relaxed observation are common to both. The promise of new places and new experiences is part of the excitement of each. And while both also promise a definite end to our journey, we expect some interruptions and changes, even shocks, en route. We think we know our destination, but the lack of certainty offers a certain spice.

The Kiss in the Tunnel 1899

The Kiss in the Tunnel 1899

The parallels and connections between these two modern technologies were apparent to early filmmakers and audiences. Filmmakers were soon using trains in the emerging narrative films that were to become the staple of commercial cinema. A popular scene for early short films was The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899). Sometimes this was a risqué story, sometimes a joke with a twist when the man kissed the wrong female – in a darkened space just like the cinema. As a space for breaching or skirting taboos on sexual activity cinemas also crossed over with trains. A filmic advertising jingle ran,

Take your girlie to the movies (if you can’t make love at home). (BBC / WGBH 1995).

Trains provided the gateway to another world, often a world where the ties of normal life could be loosened. Mitchell & Kenyon’s early films show workers taking trains to the holiday resorts in Wakes Week. In Hindle Wakes (1927) the world of the Wakes holiday is signalled by the title card, “Ecstasy, Freedom” and a train journey. And it is in the holiday resorts of Blackpool, and then Llandudno, that the heroine Fanny finds sexual freedom and pleasure. A similar situation is played out in Bank Holiday, (1937). Catherine, a nurse, has an illicit holiday weekend with her boyfriend Geoffrey in Besborough (a fictional seaside resort, the actual locations were filmed in Hastings). On the train this modern, independent miss justifies the pleasures of ‘free love’.

You know my opinions. You know I think we are justified.

In fact, apparent morality intervenes and she returns to London without spending an illicit hotel night with Geoffrey. Instead she comforts a grieving (and sexually placid) widower.

The use of suspense and the expectations of shock are evident in the 1935 film The Last Journey.

“The protagonist – engineer (Bob) … experiences overwhelming psychological distress, which he attempts to resolve by running the train off the tracks. As the train heads for collision, the shots become shorter, the frame bursts with images of furious wheels intercut with the contorted face of a hysteric reflected against stroboscopic lights and signals working with a demented force of their own. The character, however, snaps before the derailment metaphor is translated into action. The locomotive slows down, and the train pulls safely into the junction.” (Laurence Kardish, 1991)

The Last Journey

The Last Journey

The crash is averted through the bravery of a consultant (Sir Wilfred) who uses hypnotism to calm the crazed engineer.

Look, along the rails – straight ahead – that’s it, watch them Bob, watch them.”

This use of the rails for medical hypnosis returns us to the viewpoint of the early Lumière film, which begins

at that point in the distance where all lines converge.” (Kardish, 1991).

Train of Events (1949) opens with the crash of a locomotive. Then the film traces the events that led to five passengers and the driver being on that train. The passengers are all escaping from something. A composer (Raymond) attempts to end an extra-marital affair with his concert pianist mistress. An ex-German POW (Richard) tries to avoid returning to Germany. His English girlfriend (Ella), who has stolen to buy his ticket to a new life in Canada, aids him. And an actor (Philip) carries the body of his murdered wife in his prop basket. The interest is held by the set of portmanteau stories and by the desire to find out which of these characters will live and which will die. In the end the crashing train becomes an instrument of justice, and Philip and Ella are the ones who die.

Lynne Kirby explores the idea that there is a facet of railways expressing certain masculinity. And in this film, as in many railway films, women suffer disproportionately. Two of the three deaths are female.

The Last Journey includes a trio of crooks and Train of Events a murderer, attempting to evade justice. Criminality and law enforcement, especially pursuit, soon became associated with trains on film. One of the earliest surviving narrative films in British Cinema, Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) culminates in a train journey. The police apprehend the thief at the end of his ride.

The films of Alfred Hitchcock, as might be expected, are rich in their use of the trains and pursuits, both by criminals and by spies. In Secret Agent (1936) the German spy, Marvin, dies in a crash, killed by the train rather than the British Agent, Ashenden. The 39 Steps (1935) has Richard Hannay on the run for a supposed murder, evading both police and enemy agents. The train provides his means of escape from pursuers. It also carries him to wild and romantic locales in Scotland. And the train enables Hitchcock to reprise an earlier film motif when Hannay kisses an attractive female, but a complete stranger, to escape detection. (Hitchcock plays another variation or homage to early film for the end of North by North West, US 1959).

Entering the tunnel, 1899.

Entering the tunnel, 1899.

In The Lady Vanishes the heroine, Iris, becomes involved in spies and intrigue on a continental express. Suffering from concussion after a suspicious blow on the head, she is assisted by kind English matron, Miss Froy. However, Miss Froy disappears and Iris, with increasing desperation, searches for the missing lady. An eccentric English musicologist Gilbert assists her. He also turns out to be a hero, climbing bravely and with agility from one compartment to another as another train thunders by. In the course of the train journey we see also kidnappings, murder, unmasking, betrayal and violent conflict. But as well as utilising the train for melodramatic events, the film also plays on the visual connections. Miss Froy is a British spy kidnapped by enemy agents. Iris and Gilbert receive two visual revelations/clues as they investigate the disappearance. One is the abducted agent’s name, seen only by Iris, traced on the carriage window. The second is an incriminating tea label, spotted by Gilbert, momentarily stuck to the restaurant widow. Both are seen fleetingly and then gone. The audience shares their visual experience in the viewing of the film as they spy these clues in the unravelling mystery.

'Froy', at the bottom of the window.

‘Froy’, at the bottom of the window.

This play with the visual affinities of film and train re-appears in a wartime melodrama, Waterloo Road (1944). Expressing similar anxieties as those found in Hollywood film noir, the hero Jim goes absent from the army because he fears his wife is being seduced by a spiv, Purvis. Prior to the dramatic climax there is a scene where the wife, Tillie, stops in front of a photographer’s window and gazes at a picture of her wedding in the display. This leads to a flashback where husband and wife board the train heading off for their honeymoon destination, and the previously barred pleasures of marriage. In contrast, the Underground in the film is clearly domesticated within the community, providing alternative communal accommodation and sleeping during the Blitz. London’s subterranean transport network provides a parallel setting in the 1928 Underground. Scenes of violence occur there but stability is represented by Bill who works on the underground and is the romantic hero opposed to Bert who works in a Power Station.

But the key film expressing this visual affinity is Brief Encounter (1945). One reason that might explain the long-lasting appeal of this 1940s classic is that it is an intensively reflexive story. It is a film about cinema. This is clear in the scene that follows the opening sequence. The film has introduced the two lovers, Laura and Alec, at the moment of their parting. This is the end of the affair and the story. There follows Laura’s train journey home. Then, sitting in her front room, lulled by the romantic chords of the Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, Laura remembers her affair. Just as in a cinema, a projection appears before her and she, and we, enter the world of romance. It is an emotional world, signalled by the powerful musical strains, plotted as a radio broadcast. Laura is a similar position to that of the audience at the cinema, who, later in the film, watch the [fictional] feature, ‘Flames of Passion’.

In this film/flashback within the film the railway and the train are key actors. The affair begins in a station bar, sparked by the grit thrown up by a passing train. The affair continues on a weekly basis, courtesy of the local rail service when Laura makes her regular Thursday visits to the market town of Milford. Just over halfway through the film Alec and Laura openly declare their love. Then, her husband Fred calls Laura back from her dream, as he turns down the music.

Laura returns to her reverie. She remembers the train journey home after that declaration of love. On the train she fondly imagines an alternative ending to the affair, one where she and Alex romantically travel across Europe. Gazing out the train window as the evening landscape passes she has “one of those absurd fantasies just like one has when one is a girl.” As she stares “into the darkness”, she imagines “Alec and me” on a journey to romantic and exotic places. And this dream is shown projected through the carriage window as Laura dreamily stares into the night.

Laura's dream/film

Laura’s dream/film

But the love affair comes to an end; mostly, it would seem, because the lovers cannot cope with the deception and the pressure of social mores. On the last Thursday, after Alec has left, Laura contemplates throwing herself under a train. This would be a similar end to that Tolstoy’s famous heroine, Anna Karenina [filmed in the UK in 1947]. However, Laura draws back from the final act and boards the train bearing her back to comfortable married suburbia. Also, at this point in the plotting, she returns from her dream of forbidden love. If it is a dream, then for much of the film it is one induced by the lulling rhythms of the train.

The 1950s were rather an anti-climax after the 1940s. And indeed, in this period the train seems to lose some of its appeal and significance. The motor car and the aeroplane were replacing the railways’ key social role. Two of the more memorable train films of this period are exercises in nostalgia. And in both the train engine is a museum relic.

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952) shows a group of train enthusiasts trying to resist the “closure of the oldest branch line in the world.” They set up an independent rail service, led by the vicar and the squire. At the climax, the rival Bus Company sabotages the engine the night before a crucial inspection. So the Titfield villagers raid the village museum and resuscitate the venerable old Thunderbolt locomotive. The film ends with this nineteenth century museum piece carrying the passengers seated in a redundant carriage, previously home to the local poacher. And the engine is driven by the vicar and stoked by his rail-enthusiast Bishop, clad in his scarlet bib.

Northwest Frontier also returns to the nineteenth century, as imperial warrior Captain Scott fends off the uncivilised tribal hordes to rescue the rightful, westernised prince. The escape is effected behind another museum piece engine, ‘Empress of India’, tended on this occasion by a loyal Indian, Gupta. In both films, the audience is invited to escape to the past.

The Titfield Thunderbolt

The Titfield Thunderbolt


Anna Karenina London Films 1947. Dir: Julien Duvivier, script Julien Duvivier, Jean Anouilh, Guy Morgan, from the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Cast: Vivien Leigh (Anna).

Brief Encounter, Cineguild 1945. Dir: David Lean, script Noel Coward, David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock­-Allan from Coward’s play Still Life. Cast: Celia Johnson (Laura), Trevor Howard (Alec), Cyril Raymond (Fred).

Bank Holiday, Gainsborough 1937. Dir: Carol Reed, script Rodney Ackland. Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Catherine), Hugh Williams (Geoffrey).

Daring Daylight Robbery, Sheffield Photographic Company, 1903. Dir: Frank Mottershaw, 258 feet.

Hindle Wakes, Gaumont-British, 1927. Dir: Maurice Elvey: from the stage play by Stanley Houghton. Estelle Brody (Fanny).

The Lady Vanishes, Gainsborough, 1938. Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; script A. R. Rawlinson. Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert), Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy).

The Last Journey, Twickenham 1935. Dir: Bernard Vorhaus; script John Soutar and H. Fowler Mear: Julian Mitchell (Bob), Godfrey Tearle (Sir Wilfred Rhodes).

Night Mail GPO 1936. Dir. and script: Basil Wright, Harry Watt [with material by Alberto Cavalcanti uncredited].

Northwest Frontier, Rank 1959. Dir: J. Lee Thompson; script Robin Estridge, Frank Nugent, Robert Westerby from the novel by Patrick Ford. Cast: Kenneth More (Captain Scott), I. S. Johar (Gupta), Govind Raja Ross (young prince).

Secret Agent, Gaumont-British 1936. Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; script Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Jesse Lasky Jr, Alma Reville from the play by Campbell Dixon and the stories by Somerset Maugham. Cast: John Gielgud (Ashenden), Robert Young (Marvin).

The Kiss in the Tunnel, George Albert Smith 1899; also director. Distributed by the Warwick Trading Company. 75 feet in length.

The Titfield Thunderbolt, Ealing 1952. Dir: Charles Crichton; script T.E.B. Clarke. Cast: Stanley Holloway, George Relph, John Gregson, Naunton Wayne, Godfrey Teale.

Train of Events, Ealing Studios 1949. Dir. Sidney Cole, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, script Basil Dearden, T.E.B. Clarke, Angus Macphail, Ronald Millar. Cast: John Clements (Raymond), Lawrence Payne (Richard), Joan Dowling (Ella), Peter Finch (Philip).

The 39 Steps, Gaumont-British 1935. Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; script Charles Bennett, Alma Reville, Ian Hay from the novel by John Buchan. Cast: Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela).

Waterloo Road, Gainsborough 1944. Dir: Sidney Gilliat; script Sidney Gilliat.

Joy Shelton (Tillie), John Mills (Jim) Stewart Granger (Purvis).

Underground, British Instructional Film 1928. Dir: Anthony Asquith, also scenario. Cast: Elissa Landi as Nell, Norah Baring as Kate, Brian Aherne as Bill, Cyril McLaglen as Bert.


BBC / WGBH 1995, ‘The Great Escape’ from The People’s Century 1900 – 1999, shown on BBC Television.

The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon, BBC / bfi 2005. A selection from this early UK film archive which toured Regional Film Theatres.

Tony Fletcher 2003, films from the BFI Archives presented at Location! Location! Location! Landscape, place and travel in pre 1930 Cinema, The Sixth British Silent Cinema Weekend 2003, Nottingham Broadway.

Ian Christie (1994) The Lost Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World, bfi. The book accompanied a series of programmes shown on BBC Television. [Pages 16, 17, 18}.

Laurence Kardish (1991) in Junction and Journey Trains and Film, The Museum of Modern Art. [Pages 11 and 12.]

Lynne Kirby, (1997), Parallel Tracks The Railroad and Silent Cinema, Duke University Press. [Page 2).

This article has been developed from an illustrated talk given by the author at the Redbridge Museum in Ilford, (arranged through the BFI Associate Tutor Scheme, now defunct), to accompany ‘On the Move’, an exhibition on Transport. It was originally printed in MEJ (Media Education Journal) Issue 37, Spring 2005: thanks to the editor for agreeing to posting it here.


Posted in British films, Motifs | Leave a Comment »

Hands Across the City / Le mani sulla città , Italy 1963

Posted by keith1942 on February 6, 2015

Nottola and cronies.

Nottola and cronies.

Leeds International Film Festival retrospective of his work in 2005. We saw a 35mm print of this film, made in black and white and in the 1.85:1 ratio. As usual the Italian soundtrack was accompanied by onscreen subtitles in English.

Rosi had worked as an assistant with Luchino Visconti and one can see a strong influence by this director and by the Neo-realist movement more generally on Rosi’s films. At the same time there is a strong individual development in the form and style of his films in this period. The preceding film, Salvatore Giuliano (1961), a study of politics, the mafia and corruption in Sicily in the years at the end of World War II, was an amazing experience back in the early 1960s. It combined a documentary style, with dramatic plotting and labyrinthine plot full of ambiguities. This approach was to be mirrored in later films like The Mattei Affair / Il caso Matei (1972) and Illustrious Corpses / Cadaveri eccellenti (1975). Hands Over the City offers a rather different approach: the ending of the film presents something approaching closure and the resolution of the conflicts chartered through the film are quite apparent.

A study edited by Carlo Testa (1996) proffers the term  ‘critical realism’ for Rosi’s films. The approach developed in neo-realism can still clearly be identified, but the use of drama is modified. Rosi’s films have a critical [Marxist] approach in which the distancing [reminiscent of some of the ideas of Brecht] gives a greater emphasis to the political dynamic.

Rosi comes from the city of Naples. And the screenplay was written by Rosi together with his friend and fellow Neapolitan Rafael La Capria together with Enzo Provenzale and Enzo Forcella. The city has provided the focus for several of Rosi’s films and the South is a central issue in his entire output. The South / North divide is a central contradiction in Italian history and has pre-occupied writers and artists, including the in the formidable output of Antonio Gramsci.

The story presented in the film revolves around the political elite in Naples and the question of land. The key character is Eduardo Nottola This was Francesco’s Rosi’s third feature film and one of the films screened in the (Rod Steiger), a property developer but also a council member of the city. The film opens and closes on a development site which Nottola and his associates buy from the city for lucrative developments – ‘today’s gold’ in Nottola’s words. The corruption involved in land dealings becomes a major public issue when construction work in the poor quarter of the city causes the collapse of a Jerry-built block, with injuries and deaths.

Mani collapse

Much of the film is taken up with the manipulations and trafficking on the City Council. Here three groups jostle for power – right, centre and left. Apart from Nottola another key character is a leading left councillor De Vita (Carlo Fermariello), presented fairly sympathetically in the film. The other sympathetic councillor is Balsamo (Angelo D’Allessandro), the head of a hospital and member of the centre grouping. Less sympathetic and clearly prepared to endorse corruption and profiteering is Maglione (Guido Alberti), the leader of the right grouping and Professor De Angeli (Salvo Randone) the leader of the centre grouping.

These members of the city’s ruling class dominate the film. The ordinary working people, objects of the exploitation and oppression appear only occasionally. However the film’s treatment of these episodes is powerful. Right near the beginning of the film we see the collapse of the block of flats – the local people both run for cover and then run to attempt to rescue the injured and bring out the dead. We return to this area later when the council announces a plan to clear the area for development under the disguise of health and safety. The narrow street is filed with banners and the jeering populace. A little later the armed carabinieri back up council officials as the working class residents are forcibly moved. And then at the end of the film, in one of the bravura set pieces often found in Rosi’s film, we survey the city streets on the eve of an election. The camera moves around squares and arcades as the different political factions address, even harangue, crowds at hustings.

Working class opposition

Working class opposition

What is noticeable about the scenes in the working class area is the prominence of women. In the sequence where opposition is voiced to the council plans women dominate the mise en scène. It is they who are in the forefront of agitation whilst the men are much more muted. Rosi’s films tend to focus on worlds dominated by men: in parts a reflection of the social reality of Italy. Strong and central women characters are uncommon, though they do appear, as in his version of Carmen (1984). But they do play a prominent part in the presentation of the working class: notable also in Salvatore Giuliano. Only one woman among the elite receives much attention, Maglione’s lover (Dany Paris). However she is treated rather like a pet and expected to follow him round, and be heard only when he wishes.

The mise en scène in the film is rich in motifs. A recurring scene takes place in Nottola’s high rise offices. One wall is covered in a large-scale map of the city, reflecting his relationship to Naples. One of the later scenes takes place at night and the wide span windows present the darkened city as Nottola paces the room.

The council sequences emphasise the nature of the political traffic in the city. The council chamber is frequently the site of hurly burly argument. But such occasions are constant interrupted as the different groups move to smaller, less public rooms where deals take place. As you might expect from the title ‘hands’ are also a recurring motif.

The Council Chamber

The Council Chamber

Rosi’s film relies on a dynamic camera. The cinematographer is Gianni Di Venanzo, who worked on Rosi’s first five films. The film is full of sequence shots and at times the camera dashes towards events, at other times [as in Nottola’s office at night] it prowls round a character. The collapse of the block of flats is a bravura moment in the film. Rosi and Venanzo filmed an actual demolition, using a number of cameras to record the event. The sequence shots in the night of hustings late in the film has a similarly impressive quality.

The music by Piero Piccione is interesting. For much of the time the rhythm and tonal quality is reminiscent of films dealing with criminality. One sequence that accompanied the machinations of the councillors reminded me strongly of the compositions of Bernard Hermann.

The cast presents this world of machinations and cover-ups very effectively. Rosi himself recruited Steiger for the main part. His rather different style make shim stand out in the councillors world. He is a maverick, yet dangerously effective. Other characters like Maglione and De Angeli seem as if taken from the writings of Machiavelli. Carlo Fermariello, playing Da De Vita, was actually a real-life councillor now playing his fictional counterpart. This mixing of the professional and non-professional performers is a recurring constant in Rosi’s films. And he and his production team are able to effectively weave these styles together. So several times we switch from the murky world of the council, predominantly professional performers, to the more dynamic world of the street, predominantly non-professional performers.

Thematically the film deals with the corruption of the political class. One assumes that whilst the film is fictional Italian audiences would easily draw parallels with the actual political events in Naples and in the wider Italy. The film uses the non-de plumes of ‘right’, centre’ and ‘left’, though some reviews identify actual: parties such as the Christian Democrats. This may be clearer in the original Italian than in the English sub-titles. What is clear is that when the film depicts the church it is the dominant Catholic institution in  Italy. Religious leaders are not that prominent in the film, but they are always noticeable at points of public endorsement. Thus an opening ceremony for a development includes the blessing by a bishop or archbishop. Interestingly at one point De Angeli proudly shows off his art collection to Balsamo: these include not only two religious paintings but also an actual altarpiece installed in a side-room.

The film was successful in Italy, though reviews often took contrary positions. The article by Manuela Gieri (Hands Over the City: cinema as political indictment and social commitment: also 1996) quotes two examples:

Gian Luigi Rondi in the daily Il Tempo:

No, no no. Don’t come and tell me this is how one should make movies. This is neither cinema nor healthy polemic; it is a political speech, an electoral harangue ….

Whilst Ugo Casiraghi in L`Unita:

A wonderful film, Rosi has authored his most mature work. … It is a film essay with the clarity of a limpid and documented social study.

Of course, the responses are more to do with the political; values of the reviewers than their review of filmic qualities. But in a way that speaks to the effectiveness of the film: its project is clearly delivered. The film won The Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year. Like all of Rosi’s films it successfully straddles the popular and the art film – It is engrossing and at times exciting whilst also providing the viewer with stimulation and challenges.

Poet of Civic Courage The Films of Francisco Rosi, edited by Carlo Testa, Flicks Books 1996.

Posted in Italian Film, Short films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Angry Silence, UK 1960

Posted by keith1942 on January 29, 2015

Angry silence

I wrote this piece to accompany a viewing for students. The focus on the film was in terms of Identification and Positioning. It was fairly clear that all of the viewers identified quite strongly with the Tom Curtis character (Richard Attenborough), who in this narrative appears to embody the message of the film – the individual against the group. Here I just wanted to note some of the ways that I felt the film attempted to ‘position’ the audience.

The film is set in a northern factory. Tom Curtis (Richard Attenborough) is a worker there. His close friend, also working at the factory, is Joe (Michael Craig): he lodges with Tom and his family. Tom is married to Anna (Pier Angeli); an Italian migrant and they have two young children. A dispute erupts at the factory and the workers, led by the shop steward, Connolly (Bernard Lee), come out on strike. However, Connolly is ‘guided’ by a visiting agitator, Travers (Alfred Burke): dialogue suggests that he is a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but this is never explicitly stated. During the strike some of the workers carry on working, including Tom, and become targets of abuse and violence as ‘scabs’. The film’s climax involves violence against Tom himself [the culprits include Mick played by the young Oliver Reed]..

Firstly, the narrative is centred on Tom and his family; it is their lives and emotions that we see at close quarters. The film’s structure emphasises this, while there are a lot of quite short scenes (e.g. between Connolly and the manager, Davis – Geoffrey Keen) there are a number of lengthier scenes which portray the traumas of Tom, Anna and their children.

Characterisation is also important, I think the film fairly successfully creates a picture of working class life, and the script cleverly uses moments of inarticulateness to make its points. The casting of an Italian actress as the wife allows space for more emotional scenes than is usual in British films of that period. Note the first time we meet Anna she is listening to an Italian tune on the radio. And there is the way her hair (normally up) is let down for her most dramatic scene, the confrontation with Joe.  Joe is the character who changes his mind and sides in the confrontation: the film rewards him for this.  Earlier we had seen Joe unsuccessfully trying to date Pat (Penelope Horner), a clerk in the factory office: but we see her follow him as he leaves the final union meeting.

The camerawork and montage is very effective for a British film, there are a lot of close-ups, always more emotive and with greater impact. The camera is also used for point-of-view shots (when we see a character or scene as a film character would see this). One noticeable one it the point-of-view shot as Joe sees Anna in their quarrel, with the camera looking down on the distraught and anguished Anna.

The mise en scène or settings reinforces the story, characters and use of camera. The use of large spaces to place the characters in a threatening and lonely situation, as for example Anna lost in the great school playground as she desperately seeks her son Brian. Or Tom in the factory, shown with a depth of field, which places him in relation to his work-mates: after the strike he is cut off by space and obstacles.

A combination of camera and setting is exemplified in the opening sequence, which accompanies the titles – the arrival of Travers The train sounds and the station are unsettling, places of passage rather than rest. As Travers crosses the station he is shown at one point behind a metal barrier, a frequent device for setting people apart. In the station car park waits Connolly, and the manner in which he flips away his cigarette and starts the car reminds me irresistibly of Hollywood gangster movies, a comment on both him and Travers.

The music is very interesting. There are only nine pieces of music spread through the film and one of those just a drum roll. Apart from the titles music signals and accompanies the key dramatic moments of the film, like the closing down of the factory. At this point a theme accompanies the little group who are working on, a theme that recurs later and is noticeable for the trumpet playing in a high register. This theme returns with other factory scenes, and when we hear it for the last time, accompanying the crane shot that gives us a bird-eye view of the final meeting, it has become a wishful, dying tone reminiscent of the Last Post.

The film also makes effective us of soundtrack, note the brief shot that signals the attack on Tom – night-time, a dog barks, running steps, a whisp of wind – cut to the next scene.

There are lots of other devices (or use of film language) in this film, many of which not only develop the story but also seem to aim at affecting the responses of the audience to the story and the characters. If, as I argue, the story carries the side in an argument, then these devices can be seen as trying to place or position the audience vis-à-vis that argument or message.

The film was produced by Beaver; a company set up by Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes in one of a number of attempts to develop a successful independent British production facility. Bryan Forbes produced the film that was directed by Guy Green with the story co-written by Michael Craig and Richard Gregson. The film was nominated for both an Academy Award and a BAFTA.  Critics were generally positive: Dilys Powell commented “A film made by people who care about the screen and care what they are saying on it.” Like the majority of the British critics she appeared to endorse the values embodied in the film. The early 1960s saw another of the recurring media attacks on working class militancy. In this case there was frequent publicity about people who ‘scabbed’ [worked during a strike) being disciplined, often informally – the most quoted examples were being sent to Coventry, i.e. none of the work-mates would talk to the culprit.

The British media tended, as they still do, to support the values of the capitalist class and working class actions were perceived as ‘rocking the boat’. The film certainly seems to reflect this set of values.

Black and white, 94 minutes, 1960.

Posted in British films, Movies with messages, Political film | Leave a Comment »

To the Commissioners of To the Editor of Amateur Photography

Posted by keith1942 on January 22, 2015


The film in question was commissioned by the Hyde Park Picture House and the Pavilion Visual Arts Commissioning Organisation in Leeds. The film was premiered at the Hyde Park in November 2014. There have been a number of screenings since and on Saturday 10th January 2015 there was a screening followed by a discussion involving the filmmakers, the participants and audience members.

The film is a study of the first period of the Pavilion Art Project in the 1980s, using archive documents, photographs, interviews with women involved in the project at that time and filming carried out during the production. The Pavilion started out as a project around women’s photography but over the years, partly due to funding pressures, the project has changed and developed and it is now an art commissioning project. The original venue of the project was a disused one storey building in the Hyde Park, alongside the Leeds University campus. I remember it chiefly for interesting exhibitions in the 1980s, though there were also seminars and other events

The basic form of the film uses montage, which can probably be considered an avant-garde form. Re-watching it I noted more aspects and gained a clearer sense of the content. It struck me that the photographs are organised both around themes but also around tropes: the latter offering a sense of the practical work of the project. I noted that the photographs are accompanied by recorded sound whilst the archive documents [minutes, letters, leaflets, pamphlets,…) are accompanied by electronic music: the latter increases in complexity as the film develops. The interviews are separated in presentation between visual and sound: the latter plays as voice-overs alongside discrete footage. The participants discuss chosen photographs that are not necessarily seen at that point: but I realised that all of them do figure in the montages of photographs through the film. Whilst the contemporary footage seems all to be of or about the actual film production. I also noted that from the early interviews there are questions raised about the form of the production itself.

The overall form of the film seems to be a ‘work in progress’: in a sense that the film foregrounds its own construction. This is definitely a form that might be considered avant-garde or at least modernist in its approach. It also relates to the body of film that follows the use of montage as it was developed in the pioneer Soviet cinema: The Factory of Facts collective would seem to be an important influence, either directly or mediated through filmmakers who follow their practice.

This presentation was via a DCP version, slightly different from the premiere. Visually this made little difference: black and white and colour images in a 1.37:1 frame. However the soundtrack was also embedded on the digital folders, and I thought there was less variation within the auditorium than with the direct sound at the premier.

Gill Park outside an earlier commissioned event at the old Majestic Cinema.

Gill Park outside an earlier commissioned event at the old Majestic Cinema.

The discussion that followed was very full and very interesting. There was a panel of speakers at the front of the auditorium:

Gill Park the current Director of the Pavilion: Will Rose, Associate Producer of the film: Luke Fowler and Mark Fell, the filmmakers: Griselda Pollock and Diana Clark, founders member of the Pavilion: and Irene  Revell, who acted as a sort of chair. There were also couple of the participants from the film in the audience.

What follows are my notes on the discussion, which lasted for an hour and a half. So these are partial, and, of course, my interpretation is based on notes taken during the discussion.

Gill opened up explaining some of the rationale and emphasising the stance of the Pavilion, which includes addressing the problematic of images and of their reproduction.

Will talked about setting up the production, which grew out of conversations with the two filmmakers. Also he explained how the Pavilion set about raising the funding: and pointing out that the film meshed with the 30th anniversary of the Pavilion and the centenary of the Hyde Park Picture House.

Irene then moved to the two filmmakers, Mark Fell and Luke. Mark explained how they had approached the project and the three major strands in the film – photographs, archive material, interviews.

Luke explained that the archive material was important, though it was incomplete: Mark added, ‘stuff left behind’ rather than being systematically’ collected and collated, [the archive material is housed in Feminist Archive North in the Special Collections at Leeds University]. The photographs were found as a collection of negatives, with no known provenance. The selection of photos used in the film was made at different points by Mark, Luke, Will and Gill.

Irene raised the question that one contentious issue was gender. Some of the interviews question why the film was made by two men. This also led on to comments about the interviews and the use of discrete image and sound. Points made included that of the context for photographs, which can be thought of as ‘mute documents’. There was also the point of bringing in what is ‘outside the frame’ of any photograph.

It seems that the interviews all followed the same format, though they do seem rather different. Each interviewee was asked to select a single photograph from the collection. They were all given the same four questions. And the interview was recorded aurally and subsequently, with suggestions from the interviewee, they were filmed and these images accompanied the sound recording.

Mark emphasised that he and Luke were the ‘authors of the film’ and took that responsibility’. He added that authorship can ‘take many forms’. Irene asked about the title, which was partly improvised but also reflected the view of Amateur Photography as a ‘bastion of male hegemony’.


Before we heard from other panel members there were some comments/questions from members of the audience.

One young woman raised the point of the non-synchronised sound and suggested that this made ‘problematic the voice of the subject’.

Luke responded that they wanted to get away from the dominance of ‘talking heads’. He and Mark talked about filming the interviews and creating the music for the film, which was improvised.

Another woman referred to the collection of photograph in the film and expressed the view that many of them deserved to be highlighted as particular images. Luke responded that they wanted to place less emphasis on their qualities as photographic images and treat them as interesting images.

Another woman bought up the occasional appearances of the filmmakers: and Luke responded that they thought there was a problem when ’producers were presented as anonymous’. He also made the point that they were not making documentaries in the form followed by Nick Broomfield.

Points was made that the film only partially explained how the Pavilion developed/

Griselda Pollock now contributed to the discussion. She made some comments about the formal structures in documentary. One aspect, going back to John Grierson, treated film as ‘someone goes and looks at someone else’. She contrasted this with the work of one of the photographers featured in the film, Sirkka-LiisaKonttinen.  She worked for seven years in an area in Newcastle-on-Tyne, building up relationships with mothers and children involved in dance classes. Her work was not just about recording but also about ‘changing access’, and using ‘informal photography’ she also raised questions about how the recorded interviews were treated – there was a slight dispute about what editing left out from the interviewees comments.

Dinah Clarke also now contributed. She talked about her days in the initial work to develop the Pavilion project. One aspect of the context was that these were the years when the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was taking place. Thus a place like the park ‘or moor’ was not necessarily a safe place for women. She also talked about how funding issues changed the nature of the project. The Art Council was only prepared to fund what it regarded as ‘quality photography’: ‘informal photography’ was seen as ‘community work’ rather than ‘art work’. The emphasis on exhibitions in the early years of the project resulted from this emphasis.

Griselda added some points about her personal experience. She also commented on the use of the archive material. As a historian she felt they could have made the material ‘more vivid’: there was a sense in which they were merely illustrative rather than informative.

Sue Ball, in the audience, added to these. She also raised the distinction between authorship and ownership. She pointed out that one important aspect of the project took place in the dark room: both for them professional photographers and for the users. She thought that there was this aspect of the project’s own production process which the film omitted.

As the discussion came to an end people returned to points about the filmmakers being men: to the changes that had occurred in the project since the period the film covered: and a suggestion that the matter needed to be related to different views of the Pavilion in the different generations who were involved.
Irene thanked everyone and then event came to an end, after an hour and half for discussion. This was an extensive discussion, even so there was clearly more to be said and there were individual discussion taking place in the foyer and outside the cinema.

I asked a question at one point. After a woman made the point about how the photographs were treated I asked whether the filmmakers had thought about using some of the modern technologies to produce a version that audiences or viewers could construct themselves. Mark responded that he was not interested in ‘a viewer’s narrative’. I can understand this standpoint. The filmmakers have produced a version that critiques conventional treatments, but viewers might choose to follow just those conventional approaches.

However, some of the participants in the Pavilion in the period studied felt that the film did not sufficiently reflect the role of people in constructing images and their meanings: one comment added that the film should include the users of the project, often involved in informal photography. This is a recurring contradiction between authorship in films and participation. I remember that Jean Rouch, who was partly responsible for the renewed interest in the Factory of Facts and the writings of Dziga Vertov, included in his seminal Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un Eté, 1960) a sequence where the participants viewed and commented on an early cut of the film. This appears to have happened to a degree with Letter, but only with those being interviewed and their segment sin the film. It would be interesting to take this further with others of the participants in the project, including ordinary women who were users of the centre.

This is a consideration of the film and its relationship to the Pavilion rather than a specific criticism. I remain impressed by the film. Someone near the end commented that one function of the film was to ‘galvanize people to do more work’ on the Pavilion and its history. That would be good, though given the ‘privatisation’ of Universities, I think the Feminist Archive North collection is probably less accessible than in the past. Mark and Luke talked about the time and labour they had to spend on this.

Those interviewed for the film were:

Dinah Clark. Angela Kingston. Caroline Taylor. Griselda Pollock. Sirkka-LiisaKonttinen. Quinn. Rosy Martin. Sutapa Biswas. Al Garthwaite. Deborah Best. Jenifer Carter Ramson. Sue Ball. Maggie Murray.

A Pavilion film by Mark Fell & Luke Fowler
Commissioned by Hyde Park Picture House & Pavilion
Kindly supported by: Arts Council England  Leeds City Council  Leeds Inspired
Hamilton Corporate Finance  Feminist Review Trust  Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society

Camera: Margaret Salmon
Second camera: Luke Fowler
Producer: Will Rose
Music: Mark Fell, Luke Fowler
Rostrum: Jo Dunn, Leeds Animation Workshop
Grading: Ben Mullen at Serious
Sound Mix: Iain Anderson at Savalas
Music mastering: Andreas [LUPO] Lubich at Calyx
Telecine colourist: Paul Dean at Cinelab
Lab: Cinelab London
Film stock: Kodak
Pavilion: Gill Park, Anna Reid, Will Rose, Linzi Stauvers, Miriam Thorpe

Posted in Documentary, History on film | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Into the Labyrinth – The Serial Killer Cycle.

Posted by keith1942 on January 2, 2015

The final labyrinth in Se7en.

The final labyrinth in Se7en.

One of the films I enjoyed back in 1996 was Se7en and it occasioned the following study. Whilst the film’s subject of multiple murders was not pleasant, the richness of its narrative and visual texture was immensely stimulating; it made me think again about serial killer films. It seemed to me an example of a classic genre piece, rather in the way that Double Indemnity defines classic film noir or Bladerunner the dystopian city. So I want to use Se7en to explore some ideas about the themes and motifs found in serial killer films, and the questions around film values that these raise. Se7en is (I believe) a fictional account, as are most of these films; even the ones that relate to recorded events (e.g. The Hawk (1992) to the Yorkshire Ripper) are obviously more fiction than faction. The facts of serial killings would require more than one article to discuss.

The Internet Movie Database lists 73 serial killer films, sticking mainly to recent versions and with a only few foreign language films. To be included in this pantheon of repetitive killings a film must have three victims. The crimes are defined by the need to kill rather than other motives for murder. They are committed by a gallery of murderers. from the teenage duo of Natural Born Killers, through the dream-like terrorism of Michael Myers, to the urbane aesthetics of Dr Hannibal Lector. These killers have appeared in the science fiction, horror and detective genres, even once in the style of a spaghetti western.

Such movies go back to the early days of cinema. Three classic variants date from the post First World War decade, products of an early creative movement in cinema, German Expressionism. The first, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919), broke new ground both in its style, (conscious artificiality, stark lines and black and white contrasts) and in its story-line of a somnambulist (sleepwalker) murdering people whilst in a state of hypnosis. In 1922, the recurring story of Dracula was bought to the screen as Nosferatu: this vampiric serial killer threatened both film characters and audiences. In 1930, Fritz Lang’s M was based on the actual Düsseldorf serial child murders. Lang ended up in Hollywood escaping real-life fascist serial killers. He was part of an influx from Germany that was to heavily influence the themes and style of Hollywood, most notably in film noir; dark journeys through the city underworld, often fatal to the usually resilient film hero.

In England, the serial killer entered films in Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926), which referred obliquely to the infamous Jack the Ripper. The Ripper re-appeared at regular intervals over the years, London and its fogs providing a suitably scary location for such deeds. In more recent times the cycle has proved fruitful, both for auteur fans, who seek singular works by a particular director, and Hollywood, which seeks films audiences are captivated enough by to pay to see. Two key movies come from the sixties, Peeping Tom and Psycho (both 1960). Each was seminal for this particular cycle. Each used a close focus on the serial killer to produce disturbing waves for the filmic heroes/heroines and the watching audiences.

Peeping Tom was rubbished by critics inflamed by its subject matter, virtually ending the film career of director Michael Powell. Psycho, an early example of mass systematic marketing, turned such horror to its advantage and was a key film in ushering in modern film packaging and consumption.

The 1980s saw exploitation in the teen market, with the `Freddie’ and `Halloween’ killings; and shared with the adult market were the less visceral explorations of Manhunter

(1986) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). The Alien trilogy provided an alternative science fiction nightmare, inhuman, but equally terrifying. The late 1980s and early 1990s were especially fruitful, with a number of popular key movies of which Se7en was one.

The environment.

Se7en, dark and dank.

Se7en, dark and dank.

Whilst some serial killer films “…are set in white neighbourhoods – surburbia, the farm belt, the backwoods.” (Taubin 1991) – this is not always so. Se7en is resolutely urban and multi-cultural, depicting a contemporary inner-city that is a modern hell. It makes explicit this long running motif of both serial killer films and noir films. The association with hell is firmly stated with the film’s liberal use of metaphors from two classic literary texts, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. The characters refer to these stories and the film itself recreates some of their imagery, most notably in the stygian darkness and the continuous rain. This fits aptly with the noirish world which is common in serial killing movies.

Other films in the cycle repeatedly display infernal features, like Lector’s prison in Silence of the Lambs or the lock-up garage in the British TV Prime Suspect 1. The killer in Manhunter recycles the paintings and poetry of William Blake, another artist obsessed by hell. In the earlier The Boston Strangler (1967), the killer’s memories of one murder are intercut with a daytime task, stoking a furnace.

A recurring image is the hero searching dim, labyrinthine buildings and spaces or pursuing down never ending corridors. Mills’ (Brad Pitt) chase in Se7en is remarkably reminiscent of an earlier example in The Boston Strangler. Graham (William Peterson) in Manhunter flees Lector’s (Brian Cox) cell down an interminable and winding ramp. M includes a search through the labyrinth of a huge office block, followed by the trial in dark, gloomy cellars. The use of the Internet in Copycat (1996) can be seen as a modern labyrinth.

In the film noir, the hero is submerged in an underworld of vice and danger. Se7en resolutely incorporates this world into the serial killer cycle, so that the opening credits show light escaping darkness through the titles. The rest of the film is a slow journey- towards the light of the final climax.

Heroes / heroines.

Somerset in Se7en.

Somerset in Se7en.

Se7en is typical of modern Hollywood in its use of a black and white male duo, however its characterisation of the black Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is not typical. He is a Renaissance man, intellectually and morally above the other characters. His understanding and intuition are displayed in the way that he analyses the problems and events. His systematic working methods exemplified in the library sequence, his persona emphasised by the record of classical music that is played by one of the guards. The attitude of his colleagues on the force is shown by the comment, “we’ll be happy when you leave”. He would seem to be a variant on such earlier investigators as Sherlock Holmes or William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose. Like them, he is a loner, unmarried and with no apparent social life.

If Somerset is a hero in the classical mode then Mills is very much the postmodernist. When Somerset suggests that Mills study Dante and Milton he uses, not the originals but, Student Notes to the `texts’. Unlike Somerset, he is married, but there are no offspring, only two dogs whom Mills calls ‘the children’. As the investigation proceeds it becomes apparent that, in a noir sense, Somerset is a seeker hero and Mills a victim hero.

In this film both central characters are male, however, other films have placed women centre stage. Most notable are Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in Silence of the Lambs, and recently the Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) and M J Monahan (Holly Hunter) double act in Copycat. However these women’s success in the male world is somewhat problematic. Clarice is caught between Lector and Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), alternative good and bad father figures. Copycat, which uses Weaver’s star persona to develop a serial killer plot, did not do well at the box office.


The villain's lair in Se7en.

The villain’s lair in Se7en.

Many of the serial killer films concentrate on the pursuit and confrontation between the detective and killer. Sometimes there is a limited sympathy for a creature produced by the distortions of family, society or biology. This is true of both Mark (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom, and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho. But the latter, especially in its sequels, also presents a threatening monster who is more feared than understood. Amy Taubin comments, “. . . classic examples include Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and more peripherally, G W Past’s Pandora’s Box (1928). They depict, respectively, three pathological archetypes: the child murderer; the Bluebeard figure whose victims are wives (i.e. good girls); and Jack the Ripper who specialises in killing prostitutes (i.e. bad girls).”

On this basis, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) and Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) are Bluebeards; the `tooth fairy’ (Tom Noonan in Manhunter) combines that with child murders; Freddie develops child murders in the epoch of the teenager; and Doe (Kevin Spacey in Se7en) is a Ripper type. However, Se7en’s emphasis on the religious and classical aspects also draws out the satanic side of the killer.

Doe is a Faustian character, both in his diabolical cleverness, in the environment of his flat, which reeks of the atmosphere of a coven’s lair, and in his usurpation of the prerogative of the deity to judge and punish. This aspect is present in other films; Lector tells Graham in Manhunter, that “if one does as God does enough times one will become as God is…”. This is the original sin of the archangel Lucifer, doomed to hell for aspiring to God’s unique position; the deadly sin of envy which is Doe’s sin in Se7en. Doe’s Faustian powers result in Mills falling under his sway. It is a victory for the power of evil that few of the other films care to essay. Whilst the Aliens and Freddie return again and again, we can be confident that a heroine/hero always appears to offer salvation. Se7en fulfils the logic of Paradise Lost with Satan successful and heroic.

This aspect crosses over with Dracula and the horror genre. In his study of Hammer Films (1973), David Pirie refers to Lord Byron, “in his conversation and poetry (he) took up the part of a fallen or exiled being, expelled from Heaven or sentenced to a new avatar on earth for some crime; existing under a curse, pre-doomed to a fate… which he seemed determined to fulfil”. His comments apply especially to the Bluebeard and Ripper types. Both Lector and Doe have the urbanity and aristocratic style of the gothic villain described by Pirie. The choice of English actors for the Lector characterisation brings with it the associations of the Gothic and the Marquis de Sade in Hammer films.

In an article on Peeping Tom (1994), Peter Wollen quotes Thomas De Quincey’s `Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. This is an aspect consciously emphasised by Se7en; the film’s director of photography, Darius Khondji “saw these crimes as the work of an artist” and designed his lighting with this in mind. And the director, David Fincher, seems to have carried over both stylistic points and motifs from his earlier Aliens 3. In that film we (and Ripley) visit a penal colony, where the inmates are obsessed by religion (and played by mainly English actors). Their battle with the alien serial killer takes place in a labyrinth of a disused space colony facility. The climax occurs in the central furnace.


Tracy in .

Tracy in Se7en.

Amy Taubin comments, “almost all serial killers are white males who kill within their own racial group.” This is in fact true of only part of the cycle, The Boston Strangler is more egalitarian with black and white victims. In Prime Suspect one part of the series has white women as victims, the next both black and white. Se7en fits the dominant model, with its victims all white, but both male and female. Is this part of the explanation of the black Somerset as the seeker hero? In Dust Devil the killer, possessed by a magical spirit kills the white neo-colonialists and is pursued by a black policeman. Repressed fears surfacing?

Se7en is typical in other, more worrying ways. The key victim is Tracy Mills (Gwyneth Paltrow) with her unborn child and her presence in the film is essentially to set up the climactic revelation that subverts Mills. Women figure strongly as victims in all parts of the cycle, just as the killers are usually male. From Caligari to Copycat, good women, like children, make fine victims, being considered (in dominant values) as defenceless and in need of protection. So Starling and Hunter are welcome exceptions.

Equally value-laden, punishing bad women serves to protect patriarchy from subversion and is open to accusations of misogyny. From Lulu onwards, `Rippers’ look like a handy way of disciplining unruly women. In Se7en for example, though both the prostitute and her client suffer pain, the punishment is directed at the woman. That Tracy is pregnant would seem to relate to different fears: concerns about the threat to our society and its future. DCI Tennison

(Helen Mirren) in Prime Suspect decides to have an abortion as she unravels the gruesome tale of a Bluebeard sex killer. Se7en’s use of children re-inforces a similarly bleak view. Prior to the climax Somerset meets Tracy who tells him she is pregnant, but is unsure if Mills wants the child. Somerset admits that once faced with the same choice he opted for abortion. It is Doe’s final taunt, revealing to Mills his wife’s pregnancy, that seems to drive him over the edge. Satan has successfully suborned the hero and destroyed the future.

Other examples usually avoid such bleak endings. Manhunter, typically of Hollywood, closes by re-uniting the family; after Graham’s victory over the killer there is a cut to the quartet, father, mother, son, dog (plus pet turtles) on the family beach.

As myth.


The centrality of the labyrinth in the serial killer form takes us back to an ancient version of the story, That set on the island of Crete which housed the Minotaur. King Minos annoyed the gods by refusing to sacrifice a bull that appeared miraculously from the waves; the punishment was the obsession with the bull by the King’s wife Pasiphae resulting in an offspring, the Minotaur – part human, part bull. The Minotaur was imprisoned in the labyrinth and the subject city of Athens was forced to send young men and women as sacrifices for the beast. Theseus, crucially with the assistance of Ariadne, entered the labyrinth, slew the Minotaur and emerged victorious.

This potent myth has appeared and re-appeared many guises and in many art forms – including Shakespearean drama, opera and modern avant-garde art. It would certainly seem the basis of the majority of serial killer tales. Not just in the labyrinth but in the young innocent victims and in the necessity for the hero to confront and slay the monster. The numerous classical references in Se7en seem particularly appropriate in this sense. And the idea of sacrifice and atonement are also central to the film. Whilst the film does not end in a labyrinth it sends in an equivalence – a forest of pylons and cables poles which shield the monster and the seekers from the observation of the watching authorities. And it is the blonde heroine [though now dead] who leads the seekers into this lair- though to a radically different conclusion. But even here there are parallels to the original myth. The victorious Theseus occasions the death of his own father through negligence.


One of the seven deadly sins.

One of the seven deadly sins.

Whilst the audience’s initial memories of the films are often of the fear and trepidation caused by the serial killer activity, the best films do not merely titillate or make the flesh crawl. Over the genre there is a high degree of social comment, frequently placing the murderer and his/her acts within a very specific social context. Dr Caligari figures both as the manipulator of the murderous Cesare and head of the local asylum. There are two versions of this film, with different endings, but both pose questions about authority and repression.

M draws parallels between the criminal underworld, who organise a trial of the murderer, and the state police. In Hitchcock’s The Lodger an innocent Ivor Novello is suspected of the ripper murders and narrowly escapes lynch justice at the hands of a mob. A similar moral position is suggested in the sixties classics. Peeping Tom shows a killer produced by the sadistic psychological experiments of a father, the son killing and dying from the excesses of patriarchy. And the point has been made that Psycho does not simply play with notions of guilt and repentance in the death of Marion Crane. It is shot through with references to money and people’s responses to it – the film’s opening contrasts a lack of money with someone else’s excess.

Modern serial killer films have played with the contradictions of class, gender and racism to good effect. Silence of the Lambs has the central conflict between the ‘backwoods’ Clarice and the classier Hannibal Lector. The Boston Strangler has the upper class John S Bottomly (Henry Fonda) pursuing the working class and immigrant Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis). The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has lumpen proletarians wreaking vengeance.

Some films offer a strong dose of white fears of the return of the repressed black man, e.g. Candyman, though here any comment seems overwhelmed by shock tactics. Two films based on a real-life African story are better. Windprints embodies a naturalistic comment on apartheid and racism where the murders are instigated by white farmers on black people. Dust Devil is more non-naturalistic: there are overtones of witchcraft in its story of the possession of a white male who kills white colonialists in a Namibia passing from subjection to Independence. The film ends with the possession transferred to a white woman who strides purposefully towards the UN troop carriers policing the new land. Repression is really returning.

Many of the films raise issues of gender and sexuality, e.g. the preponderance of women as victims. The recurring use of knife-like weapons for the murders and accompanying mutilations carries phallic overtones. (One of the more disturbing aspects of Somerset is his skill with a flick knife). In psycho-analytical terms a killer like the murderer in M or the `tooth fairy’ in Manhunter manifests instinctual needs and drives at an individual level. A killer such as Doe seems to express the moral demands at a social level (see Wood and Walker).

With both examples it is worrying that the serial killer phenomenon is directed so frequently by men at women, children or sometimes homosexuals. In Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher (1969) Popaul, the serial killer, faced with the woman he loves turns the knife on himself. In a similar scene in The Hawk the wife uses a knife on her killer husband.

Silence of the Lambs, Prime Suspect and Copycat offer other women characters who resist and battle against this oppression. DCI Tennison (like Clarice Starling) excels in a male world of manipulation; but what is really interesting is that Prime Suspect encourages the audience to judge both her actions and their cost to Tennison. Her motherhood and her emotional life are the price of her work. In The Hawk, the same actress, Helen Mirren, plays Annie Marsh, the wife of a serial killer. Her growing suspicion has to overcome the stigma of prior mental treatment after childbirth and the patronising male attitudes of the police. After the killing of her husband, Annie observes police self-congratulations (in a scene strongly reminiscent of Prime Suspect) over the success actually engineered by her. The final image of her re-union with her children blends female independence and courage with the joys of motherhood.

An aspect of both the films and the literary texts is judgement. M notably ends on a trial of the murderer, not by the state but by the criminal underworld. In Se7en judgement is central to the development of the narrative through the device of seven deadly sins. As an ineffective police force fails to cope with `evil’, Doe assumes the mantle of judge and jury and takes the law into his own hands. He despatches morally unsound characters missed by the official judicial system; a continuation of the Ripper in Lulu. Se7en offers a particularly damming judgement on modern urban life. It is one of the bleakest views of the city following a decade of downbeat displays that make some early noirs look positively optimistic. Early in the film Somerset offers a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Long is the way, and hard that out of hell leads up to light”. This is the route followed by the narrative, from the opening titles, surely some of the darkest images ever seen on screen, to the final confrontation staged in the bleak, unrelenting light of the desert.

At this point the typical Hollywood ending, when a law enforcer provides the vigilante justice which the official system cannot provide, is reversed. As John Wrathall wrote in the Sight & Sound review, “it’s hard to imagine even the most morally degraded audiences cheering when Mills shoots Doe.” It is as dark as the ending of Aliens 3, where the abortion is achieved by the mother’s suicide. To avoid total despair the audience are left with another Somerset quote, (from Hemingway), “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for… I agree with the second part.” But still a world away from having Norman Bates and company safety tucked away in the sanatorium.


Gross, Larry (1995) `Exploding Hollywood’ in Sight & Sound, March 1995 (Natural Born Killers).

Kermode, Mark and Franke, Lizzie (1992) `Blowing Up a Storm: The Making of Dust Devil’ in Sight & Sound, September 1992.

Newitz, Annalee (date unknown) `Serial Killers, True Crime and Economic Performance Anxiety’, in Cineaction No 38 – the whole issue is around `Murder in America’

Pirie, David (1973) A Heritage of Horror, London.

Gordon Fraser Bernard Rose, Bernard and McCabe, Colin (1993) `More Things in Heaven and Earth’ in Sight & Sound, March 1993 (Candyman).

Taubin, Amy (1991) `Killing Men’ in Sight & Sound May 1991.

Taubin, Amy (1996) `The Allure of Decay’ in Sight & Sound January 1996, (Se7en)

Williams, David (1995) ‘The Sins of the Serial Killer’, interview with Darius Khondjii in American Cinematographer October 1995.

Williams, Linda (1994) `Learning to Scream’ in Sight & Sound December 1994 (Psycho)

Williams, Tony (1978) ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ in American Movies in the Seventies, Movie 25.

Wollen, Peter (1994) ‘Dying for Art’ in Sight & Sound December 1994 (Peeping Tom)

Wood, Robin and Walker, Michael (1973) Claude Chabrol, London: Studio Vista (They discuss the relevance of Freudian notions to serial killing).

Wrathall, John (1996) Review of Se7en in Sight & Sound, January.

Originally appeared in the itp Film Reader, itp publications 1996.

Posted in Film noir, Hollywood | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Big Sleep, USA 1946.

Posted by keith1942 on December 30, 2014

Marlowe with Vivian.

Marlowe with Vivian.

A reel treat at the end of the year was the screening of this classic film at the Hyde Park Picture House in an excellent 35mm print.

The film is classic in a number of ways. It is a star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose silhouettes grace the background as the credits unroll. Apparently after the success of To Have and Have Not (Warner Bros. 1945) commissioned Howard Hawks to develop a follow-up, (this film also includes Bacall singing). It certainly seems that the box office success was very much down to audience’s delight in this new onscreen romantic couple. Some of the best moments in the film are the scenes between the couple. One, added late in the production to increase the star attraction, is a delightful conversation involving the risqué use of horse racing metaphors. And there is a two-handed telephone conversation between Marlowe (Bogart), Vivian (Bacall) and at the other end of the telephone a bemused police officer. If the lead couple are good, so are the supporting cast. Elisha Cook Jr. has one of his greatest and glummest screen characters in Harry Brown. And Sonia Darrin is the suitably hard-bitten Agnes. Even more memorable is Dorothy Malone as a Bookshop girl: there is superb moment as she takes off her spectacles and shakes out her hair.

Then this is a Howard Hawks’s movie; [Michael Walker has an interesting discussion of this aspect in The Movie Book of Film Noir, Studio Vista 1992). The professionalism central to Hawk’s films is here, even if the male camaraderie is downplayed. And Bacall beautifully projects the androgynous quality that often hangs about his heroines. The film’s production is well served in the cinematography by Sidney Hickcox, editing by Christian Nyby and Production Design by Robert B. Lee. The music by Max Steiner, as with the male lead, also recalls Casablanca (1942).

The complications of the novel by Raymond Chandler and this film version (scripted by William Faulkner, Leigh Bracket and Jules Furthman) are legendary. However, I reckon that one can follow it with attention and despite possibly apocryphal stories, all the murderers are identified. This is Chandler at his best – the book is a gripping read and a BBC radio 4 adaptation last year was also excellent.

The big question mark is whether to place the film in the private eye or the film noir genres. Certainly Bogart is a seeker hero and he encounters a world of chaos and criminality. The film also has light and shadow but not with the intensity of, say, another Chandler Adaptation Murder My Sweet / Farewell My Lovely (1944). And Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) lacks the malevolence of the really great noir villains. This was one of the films I discussed with students on ‘the World of Noir Course’ The consensus was that the film lacked a sharply defined femme fatale. The contenders would seem to be the two Sternwood sisters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivian. No serious femme fatale would suck her thumb in the manner that Carmen does. And Vivian ends up saving the seeker hero.

But then many great films defy easy categorization. What the film does offer is an absorbing and entertaining 114 minutes. The audience at this screening certainly enjoyed the film.


Posted in Film noir, Hollywood, Hollywood stars | 1 Comment »

London’s Burning, LWT 1986.

Posted by keith1942 on December 20, 2014


This was a television film produced by London Weekend Television and screened on December 7th 1986 and again on Saturday January 2nd 1988, [which is when I saw it].  It was written by Jack Rosenthal.  It ran for two hours (including adverts). It was later followed by a television drama series using the setting and characters of the original film. The series ran successfully from 1989 until 2002.

LWT presented the original programme as follows:

“Black comedy set in an inner London fire station. The story follows the lives of the firemen on and off duty. As Blue watch B25 assembles at the beginning of the night’s Watch, Station Officer Tate (James Marcus) is nervous about the expected replacement due at any minute, Josie Ingham’s (Katherine Rogers) arrival in what was previously an all-male preserve makes for conflict and comedy. Outside, in the inner city sprawl, other tensions are manifesting themselves; tensions which will have a shattering effect on the lives of each member of the watch,” TV Times 2 – 8 Jan 1988, page 41.

My initial response was as follows:

Jack Rosenthal has written a number of film dramas for television, they are usually funny, well observed portraits of the East End of London and larded with biting social comments. This film started well, it was funny and I settled down for a pleasant two hours entertainment. But as the story developed I found it increasingly disturbing.

From the opening shot of the film with Ethnic (Gary MacDonald – the black member of the watch, known like the others by his nickname) off duty it was clear that the programme would concentrate not just on gender, but also ‘race’. As the story develops we find out that Ethnic is one of the few black people in the high rise flats where his family lives to have a job. His family is respectable and hard working; they like traditional values represented by the social club where they play and dance to ‘old fashioned music’. His love life is normal and respectable, confirmed by his mother’s comment, ‘that’s allowed’.

But from the opening sequence Ethnic is contrasted with a group of youths, mainly black but with the odd white member who are obviously unemployed, antagonistic, anti-social, and associated with drugs and probably crime. This group is always shot through fences, behind walls or in open spaces filled with debris and junk, such as abandoned motor cars. The reason for their presence becomes clear in the finale of the film, when they plan and lead an attack on police that explodes into a full-scale riot, with petrol bombs, armed police squads, and Blue Watch called out to douse burning motor cars. The firemen themselves are now attacked by the mainly young and black mob, it is in this melee that Ethnic, off duty and at home, rushes to help a fireman colleague and is then killed by a falling paving stone, hurled by one of the gang with the word ‘traitor’.

The closing scenes of the film return us to the fire station where an Afro-Caribbean meal planned to celebrate Ethnic’s promotion becomes a wake by his colleagues, thankfully interrupted by an alarm call. The last shot shows the watch reporting once more for duty with its new replacement member, young and black.

While the film appears to be plugging good ‘race relations’ what we have here, as a sub-text is ‘Thatcherite racism’. Ethnic and his family are set up as the acceptable black people; they work hard, behave morally and keep out of sight. And by the manipulation of scenes and camera shots the villains are also black people, the unemployed drifting youth who both frighten and intimidate.

The film makes no attempt to understand or sympathise with the lot of black youth. They are simply there, malevolent and frightening. It is true that the film depicts white racism, particularly by the police who are harassing black people, including Ethnic, and who pointedly ignore a bomb attack on his family’s flat. But these incidents are minor compared to the orchestrated violence which the black youth are shown inflicting on police and civilians at the crisis point of the film. Moreover the film slickly reverses racism, as the firebomb through Ethic’s letterbox has been posted by black youth not white racists.

This negative portrayal of the more oppressed members of our society is extended to the unemployed. The unemployed black youth we see are presented as trouble. This applies equally to the only white unemployed character, Josie’s husband. He is shown in a negative light, failing to understand or support his working wife, also failing to play his part in the home and his main preoccupation is jealousy of Josie’s work in an all-male environment. One scene suggests he is contemplating infidelity as a revenge. The story initially suggests that the oppression of women will receive sympathetic treatment, but we are soon disabused. Josie tells her new male colleagues,

“I’m not a dyke, a women’s libber or a nympho — I’m good at putting out fires. When I’m not at work I’m just like any other women”.

She confirms this by getting involved in sexist practical jokes with the men and by dressing herself up (including make-up) for a shopping trip with Bayleaf (James Hazeldine), another main character in the Watch. He is both cook and father figure in the group.


The negative images of women continue in the fire fighting activities of the watch. Before the riot only one fire ends in disaster, a house fire where one child dies and two are injured. At the height of a very dramatic scene the mother returns home from a night out at a disco; she is clearly the head of a one-parent family. She is roundly abused by Bayleaf (a good father both to the watch and to his own child living with his separated wife). Again the viewer is not asked to understand the predicament of women forced to manage families on their own, only to condemn the mother as feckless.

Thus this film holds up all the bogies of right wing value systems and carefully sets them over and against decent hardworking people, who can also be black. It privileges the stereotypical  `good, ordinary folk’ against the undesirable black youth, unmarried women and unemployed men. This is done throughout the film, but most powerfully in its final crisis. Ethnic’s death provides a calculated shock to the viewer. The horror of this sequence is followed by the wake/dinner, where the Watch’s own racist member (Vaseline – Mark Arden) mourns for Ethnic. Commonly in melodrama the death of a key sympathetic character provides a base for a development and resolution of the action, so it is in London’s Burning, where Ethnic is replaced by a new black fireman, thus symbolising a continued commitment to the social order privileged by the film, and including within that social order those people prepared to follow its mores.

London’s Burning superficially presents itself as a play about both women and black people attaining equality of opportunity, the great liberal cause of the eighties. But by its dramatic manipulation of stock characters and situations it turns equality into conformity. Women’s liberation becomes both overt and covert acceptance by women of men’s treatment of them as objects, both of male sexual pleasure and of male irresponsibility. For black people their liberation is based on conforming to white values in the home and at work, so at least their blackness is the only unfortunate difference about them. And unemployed people are reduced to the adequate and resentful, unwilling to accept their necessary place in the social order. In the process of setting up these myths the film reinforces in a covert fashion racist and sexist images these groups. By selecting a group of people sure to receive public sympathy and approbation, especially in the wake of the King’s Cross fire, this transmission milked the fullest emotional mileage for its caricature of the social problems of our society.

Looking back it would seem that the drama was also influenced by events on the Broadwater Farm Estate only a year earlier. It certainly seems to me to typify the dominant representations to be found on British television during this period.

There is a fan Website at

And Wikipedia has pages on the Television series.

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The Commune La Commune, France 1999.

Posted by keith1942 on December 9, 2014







Black and white, 345 minutes: directed and scripted by Peter Watkins.

Sight & Sound ’s annual ‘top twenty for the year’ is not exactly a compelling recommendation – how did The Wolf of Wall Street make it in. As is often the case, individual listings are more interesting. Kim Newman included this film in his recommendations, noting that it came out in 2000 but that he had only just seen it.

Watkins is probably best known for the BBC’s vérité-style historical reconstructions, Culloden (1964), and the famously banned The War Game (1964). Since falling foul of the establishment for both the style and content of his films, Watkins has worked mainly abroad. The Commune, his ninth and possibly last film, was shot in Paris. It recreates that overlooked but seminal event, the uprising of the Parisian proletarians in 1871. This was the first truly revolutionary outburst of the new Socialist movement that included both Marx and the Anarchists Proudhon and Blanqui. Watkins recruited a cast from the areas of Paris where the Commune occurred and from migrant Communities such as Africans. Such an approach mirrors the internationalism of the original Commune. The film was shot on 16mm in a  hot-house production process lasting only 13 days. This has contributed to the dynamic and passionate immediacy of the performances. The film includes TV-style reportage, documentary and vérité techniques and docu-drama reconstructions. These are structured by use of reflexive and analytical inserts, e.g. the Commune is presented in the film by two journalists who both talk on-camera and interview participants. This device replays the techniques Watkins developed in his first film Culloden. The final film is committed, compelling and [I believe] likely to become a seminal work in the field. But it will be difficult to see. Watkins struggled to find media support and resources for the project. It has had a single screening in Paris and a single outing on a French Television channel. A London Film Festival screening was on video as they had not been able to strike a celluloid distribution print. It is a sad reflection on the censorship of the market that it is going to be so difficult actually to see this masterpiece. For London viewers there was a screening planned at the French Institute early in 2001. It has not appeared on television as far as I know but is now available on DVD. I would suggest that, like other great but demanding documentaries, Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity, …, it is essential viewing. Watkins’ final film, like the best of his earlier work, demonstrates how the innovations of Vérité, when sited within an analytical and committed standpoint, can offer a distinctive and enthralling take on our world, past and present.





Posted in French film, Movies with messages, Political film, UK filmmakers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Cathedrals of Culture, Denmark 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on November 30, 2014

The Salk Institute one of the impressive shots that recur in this film.

The Salk Institute one of the impressive shots that recur in this film.

This is a portmanteau documentary comprising six films that offer a study of a classic modern buildings.

If buildings could talk, what would they say about us?

This appears to be the brief given to the directors. What they have produced are six films that offer a portrait of a building and to a degree a study of the place of the human users within them. I found the films interesting but there was a lack of variety in the different works. The brief did seem to encourage a very similar approach even though the buildings are fairly different.

Some of them use a voice over that offers a possible impersonation of the ‘soul’ of the building. There seem to be only limited variations available for this approach. This also applied to the style – all the films rely to a degree on the moving camera, using a Steadicam. The cinematography though is frequently impressive. And the music in four of them also lacked variation. Several films used older archive footage. This was cropped to the 1.85:1 format of the film. This seems to be an unfortunate standard approach in contemporary documentary. It was less noticeable here because of the techniques employed – even so, given that architecture is about space, the cropping seemed misconstrued. The film was made for 3D but I saw it in a 2D digital version: it appears from IMDB that the project started as a sequence of short film for television. I am not sure how much difference the 2D format may make: the film was designed, at least in part, for the 3D format.

The ones I enjoyed most were art buildings – a concert hall and an opera house – the aspect of performance provided greater variation and the music was also more varied. The prison film was in some ways the most interesting, but I found the voice-over less than compelling.

The Berlin Philharmonic – directed and written by Wim Wenders [also Executive Producer for the whole film].                                                       This is the film I enjoyed most, perhaps because it was first and therefore had a sense of freshness. The film presented the modern concert hall built in the early 1960s in Berlin: close for a time to the separation wall erected by the DDR. The building is impressive and when built was a new style of concert auditorium. There were both rehearsals and performances. The film also used archive footage and interviews which provided variety and it took in the care and maintenance of the building. The theme was the relationship between architecture and culture: there were also comments relating the film to the social – less convincing.

The National Library of Russia – written and directed by Michael Glawogger.                                                                                                  This film took a rather different approach: a voice in Russian, which for the most of the film was replaced by dubbed English, read a selection of extracts from writers whose books are housed in the library. Meanwhile the camera prowled round the building from morning to dusk, picking out the staff and occasionally the users. The camera work was fine but I found the commentary rather uniform. This seemed to be the case for both the Russian and English voices: rather ironic. The range of authors whose work we heard seemed fairly varied and the unchanging tone of the reader really obscured this.

Halden Prison – written and directed by Michael Madsen.                       This modern and carefully designed prison was presented set in the snowy wastes of Norway. The film opened with a quotation from Michael Foucault where he drew the parallels between prisons and schools. Disappointingly the commentary did not really develop this angle. The film did show the situation and treatment of the prisoners, and there were some stark shots which offered an unsettlingly contrast between the consciously liberal regime and the fact of removal from society. The film did achieve a certain haunting ambience, but the commentary [spoken by the prison psychotherapist] was quite pat at times.

Salk Institute, San Diego – directed by Robert Redford, written by Anthony Lappé.                                                                                         This was one of only two films with discrete direction and writing and it had the most distinctive form among the films. Rather than a voice over commentary we had archive material interspersed with interviews of the workers at this prestigious scientific institution. The early part of the film presented the buildings, standing out in the somewhat desolate landscape. The archive material took us back to pioneering work of the founder and media responses at that time. The interviewees included two scientists and a maintenance worker. The archive material broke up the film of the building itself, though in the latter stages it did tend to the moving camera treatment seen in every one of these films.

The Oslo Opera House, written and directed by Margreth Oil.               This was the only film in which the writer/director also read out the commentary. The Opera House was an imposing building all in white. Olin commenced with shot which counterposed the celebrated structure with some of the derelict people and places found nearby. But the film failed to return to these. We still saw the familiar moving camera: and there were sequences of rehearsal for both opera and ballet. Some of the counterposing of shots suggested wry humour: something in short supply in the portmanteau film overall. And the film closed with some whimsical overlapping shots.

Céntre Pompidou, directed by Karim Ainouz and written by Deyan Sudjit.                                                                                                          This was the other film with discrete direction and writing. It also used the steadicam shots but these were more frequently cut to standing shots. We saw various aspects of the Céntre over a day, from dawn till late evening. There were performances, cinemas, concerts, exhibitions and a library. This is the only one of the buildings that I have actually visited, so I was intrigued to see parts that I recognised and parts that I had missed.

Overall I found the film somewhat repetitions: especially the recurring sequence shots and the personalised voice over. It held my interest and did provide a sense of the buildings. Not all the films provided a focus on the history of a building: something that I thought added interest. And in fact I had little sense of the Russian Library’s provenance.

One aspect that was almost completely absent was the economic. The closest we came was when Dr Salk, in an interview, replied to a question that the vaccine he developed ‘belonged to the people’.

As the film progressed I longed for a completely different and less reverent approach. I wondered what for example, we might have seen and heard if Jean-Luc Godard or in a different manner, John Akomfrah, had been included in the commission.

One moment I did enjoy was when I discovered that it appears possible to take a dog [not apparently accompanying a blind person] into the Céntre Pompidou – something the British ‘dog loving’ culture fails to allow.


Posted in auteurs, Documentary | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »


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