Talking Pictures

Just another weblog

Archive for the ‘British noir’ Category

Out of Blue, Britain, USA 2018

Posted by keith1942 on July 2, 2021

This movie received mixed reviews on release,however Mark Kermode in his television preview was really positive. I saw it on release and I was very impressed. Now it has been aired on BBC2 and is available on the BBC I-player until mid-July. The drama presented in this title is rather unconventional. The narrative mixes objective scenes [the audience assume we are watching a record of realistic events] and subjective scenes [a character’s internal memories and musings] and it is likely to take time for viewers to be able to clearly distinguish them. The plot also mixes actions by characters with philosophical musings by them.

The latter aspect is exemplified by the opening sequence which commences with the night sky and an astronomer speculating on the cosmos. This would appear to be a homage to the British film masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It also sets up a treatment of the characters and their experiences which suggest issues of existential consideration.

‘We are all stardust’.

On the surface this is a story of a murder investigation shot in a noir manner, with a world of chaos, a ‘seeker’ hero, flashbacks, triangles of relationships, dark nights paralleled by talk of ‘dark matter’ and ‘black holes’, and visually chiaroscuro. The setting is New Orleans and the production makes good use of the varied character of this city, which at times has an exotic tinge. It is though a symbolic city and despite location filming it is not the city seen in contemporary news. Visually the film is treat. The colours are evocative and suggestive, not just the ‘blue’ of the title but a range of tones which match the different facets of the city. The cinematography, in colour and a ratio of 2.35:1, by Conrad Hall is excellent and the title is well served in all production departments. The editing is deft and precise with cuts at a particular micro-second.

The other compelling aspect of the film is the performance of Patricia Clarkson as detective Houlihan, the investigator. This is a tour de force. I actually pay little attention to the Academy Awards but this performance deserves a Best Actor trophy. It is also a still rare pleasure to see an older actress with a lead role in a thriller. The supporting cast are also excellent.

Detective Mike Houlihan investigates a death with her two assistants; the violent death of Jennifer Rockwell. Her father is a war hero: her brothers run the family business in electronics:her mother is at home with a pet dog [Tibetan Lhasa] and a large portrait of Rockwell senior’s mother.

In one of the edits which make the narrative cryptic and ambiguous it seems that Houlihan and a young local reporter, Stella, both attend an Alcoholics Anonymous therapy session. Her problems with drink provide an important plot turn but they also reveal the tortured psyche of Houlihan; stemming back to her youth, obscure parentage and a problematic sojourn in an institution. Clearly police work provides order for Houlihan life. At one point she states that life only started for her

‘when I joined the Academy’.

Film noir is often as much about an investigation of a woman as it is about a hero. In this title Houlihan is the women investigated; investigated by herself as she gradually trawls up suppressed events from her childhood. These are associated with a selection bric-a-brac. Jennifer apartment is full of them; and a warehouse at Rockwell Electronic is also full of them. Houlihan herself carries at least one example on her person.

The philosophy in the film is important to the development of the plot. It also offers some moment of delicious irony. Morley and her team use visual clues to assist in the investigation but also to draw out the parallels with characters’ intellectual forays. One recurring such foray is talk of ‘Schrodinger’s cat’. Houlihan shares her apartment with a Siamese cat who also has cryptic moments. At one point she jokingly offers the cat in a box, [just like Schrodinger] to Daniel, one time lover of the dead Jennifer.

As well as scientific references the film seems to offer homages to key movies. I have mentioned the Powell and Pressburger title. At other points I detected some sort of trope connected to The Birds (1963): Blade Runner (1982): Chinatown (1974), Citizen Kane (1941): and Pursued (1947).

These fit into a dramatisation and play with the noir discourse; critically revisiting some of the key aspects that so fascinate viewers and critics.

This is the latest movie by Carol Morley. Her Dreams of a Life (2011) stood out amongst recent British documentaries. Mark Kermode commented that she was ‘born a film-maker’. I actually think that quality film-makers develop by commitment and hard work, attention to detail and a serious study of cinematic form. Carol Morley seems to have done all of this. And, uncommon among the ‘new auteurs’, she has mastered both the direction of film and script-writing for film.

The plot is challenging as viewers have to distinguish actual and mental worlds. The film does bring these together in its resolution. Even here though there is an ambiguity with the colour blue pointing to the outcome; ambiguity that runs right through the film. The editing is elliptical and it takes seconds sometime to recognise which character and setting we are viewing. The mise en scene is full of meanings; characters and props seem to disappear as very slight ellipsis lead the plotting on.

The film is adapted from a novel by Martin Amis, ‘Night Train’ (1997), changing the tone and the plot. Amis’ novel aimed to be a parody, this is a fairly bleak film noir. Morley’s version changes the character of the detective, the plotting of both the deaths and the investigation and, finally, the resolution. It was mainly funded by the BBC and the BFI. This may be part of the reason that it stands out in productions by British directors working on US-based stories. Frequently such films are a disappointment and less satisfying than earlier British-based stories by the same film-maker. Here Carol Morley succeeds with a really effective treatment which also develops some of the themes found in her earlier works.

Definitely a film to see. Mark Kermode suggests it repays seeing more than once; I fully agree. If you do enjoy it there is an article, ‘Under Investigation’, privileging the female protagonist as detective in the April 2019 edition of Sight & Sound, and followed by an interview with Carol Morley.

Posted in British noir | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Victim Britain 1961

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2016

63 'Victim', 1961

I was able to revisit this film when the Hyde Park Picture House screened it in a fine 35mm print. The film stands up well. It has a strong cast and is generally well filmed if in a rather conventional style. It is a seminal film of the early 1960s, basically because it addresses explicitly the question of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Homosexual practice was illegal in the UK in this period though the 1958 Wolfenden Report had recommended liberalisation. Gay people had suffered from police harassment and prosecutions. By 1961 the police were generally more laid back, partly because the law was seen as a ‘blackmailer’s charter’ and gay men as easy but innocent victims. The film reflects these aspects in its plot and characters. It is worth noting that the moral panics around paedophilia are much more recent. There are slight references to ‘corruption’ in the film but modern films on the issue would likely be more pronounced. In fact I saw the film in the same week as Spotlight (USA 2015) and that film is centrally constructed around the issue of abuse.

Dirk Bogarde plays Melvin Farr, a successful lawyer who has had a relationship with a younger man, ‘Boy’ Barrett (Peter McInery). Farr is married to Laura (Sylvia Syms) though they have no children. He had had a previous same sex relationship at University and Laura knew about this before they were married. Barrett is being blackmailed and because he loves/is besotted with Farr he steals at work to pay off the blackmailers. So the police enter the picture. Barrett commits suicide in custody. Farr, who initially refused contact with Barrett, is now struck by guilt and determines to hunt down the blackmailers. This involves him in seeking out gay men being blackmailed: some of whom turn out to be his own friends and professional colleagues.

The police question Barrett

The police question Barrett

The thriller format allows the film to appear primarily as a genre piece. It even has a rather heavy handed red herring. But it is a noir thriller, full of chiaroscuro lighting.  Characters are constantly presented in shadow. There is one intriguing scene early in the film when Melville returns home late and finds Laura still up: she has risen to answer the telephone. It was Barrett but Laura is still unaware of the implications. As they ascend the stairs Melville tells her he loves her and they embrace. Yet both are in deep shadow and the clinch is hardly visible. At other times full illumination falls on a character: one such point is at the moment that Farr realises that Barrett’s death is a sacrifice for his interests.

The cinematography is fairly typical of mainstream films of the period, moving from long shots to mid-shots and then close-ups, especially at moments of intense drama. There are frequent dollies and tracks, and less often crane shots and high and low angle camera settings for particular emphasis. The editing uses frequent parallel cuts, to draw links between characters and events. So in the opening section of the film we first see Barrett on the building site where he works as a wages clerk. There is a crane shot with high angle camera as the police arrive. The following sequences cut between Barrett as he desperately seeks help from his friends and gay acquaintances: the police as they close in on Barrett: and Farr, who refuses to engage with Barrett’s phone calls. As these sequences progress we move from daylight to night and to an increasing noir sensibility.

The film uses quite a number of scenes shot on actual location. Four of these are exteriors of the Farr house. On the second occasion Melville returns in his car and parks. A tilt and pan follow him as he looks to his right. A cut with an eye-line match shows a disconsolate Laura standing by the river. However, the locations do not match. The first shot shows railing and shrubs on the offside, the reverse shot shows a low wall with the river and a panorama beyond. The reverse shot is presumably to emphasise the desolation felt by Laura, but most locations seem mainly to present a particular sense of place.

The gay character are an interesting cross-section: including an actor Calloway (Dennis Price): a photographer Paul Mandrake (Peter Copley) : a prominent lawyer Lord Fullbrook (Anthony Nicholls): a car salesman Phip (Nigel Stock):a hairdresser Harold Doe (Norman Bird) and a bookshop owner Henry (Charles Lloyd Pack). These characters are presented in a relatively sympathetic fashion. Interestingly the main villain, Sandy (Derren Nesbit) has a rather homoerotic air to his flat: including a punch ball and an illustration of a  classical nude male sculpture. In fact the most stereotypical characterisation is a police plain clothes officer (John Bennett), who is presumably straight. The key straight character appears to be Barrett’s friend Eddy (Donald Churchill) who assist Barrett at the beginning and then Farr in his investigation.

Harold with Sandy

Harold with Sandy

There are other straight characters, and frequently they express distaste for homosexuals. At an early stage Barrett seeks help from his friend Frank (Alan Howard): and Frank’s girlfriends Sylvie (Dawn Beret) is adamant that

“I wouldn’t have him at home. … Why can’t he stay with his own kind?”

A little later as they embrace at bedtime Frank remarks to Sylvie that Barrett

“hasn’t got what you and I’ve got.”

The two key policeman are Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie) – relatively liberal in his attitude – and his aide Bridie (John Cairney) who clearly finds homosexuals distasteful. The barman (Frank Petitt) at a regular haunt for Barrett and friends is amicable in their presence but scathing about them when they are gone. And Sandy’s assistant in the blackmail, Miss Benham (Margaret Diamond) is [according to Sandy]

‘a cross between an avenging angel and a peeping Tom’

with regard to homosexuals. It is her who comes up with the idea of daubing Farr’s garage with

“Farr is Queer”.

Another character who finds homosexuality problematic is Laura’s brother Scott (Alan MacNaughton), also a lawyer. At one point, when he realises about Melville’s orientation, Scott questions Laura about her marriage, asking ‘have you been satisfied’. To this Laura responds that Melville has been ‘kind and understanding’ adding the rider ‘it’s all I’ve known’.

It is pointed that Melville and Laura have no children. In fact, Laura has taken on a day-time teaching job even though she does not need to work for money. It is a ‘working with difficult kids’. We see the children several times in the film. At one potent point Laura is observing a problem child who is, at this moment, painting in a relaxed manner. She peruses a newspaper and then starts as she reads the report of Barrett’s suicide; matters start to fall into place. Immediately the child, in a spasm, daubs his picture of a woman’s head with striking crosses.

In fact, little is made of the question of adult homosexuals and younger males. Barrett clearly has had a relationship prior to Melville with Harold, the older book shop owner. In a scene where Melville meets three gay men and realises their orientation one remarks that ‘ he has never corrupted the normal’. Scott, who is a widower, tells Laura that he fears that his son Ronnie could come to ‘hero worship’ Melville.

The most powerful scene in which the film addresses the issue of gay sex is when Laura, having realised that there is some sort of relationship between Melville and Barrett, questions him. Melville insists that the relationship was platonic. But he goes on to admit that

‘I wanted him’.

This powerful moment was not in the original script but was added at Bogarde’s insistence and with him proposing the dialogue. For the period it is a moment of dramatic and unconventional intensity.

Laura questions Melville

Laura questions Melville

But Farr has clearly repressed his desires. When Mandrake refers to the young man with whom Melville had a relationship at University and who later committed suicide [again!] Melville strikes him. In an early version of the film the script had Melville telling Laura that

“Only religion can help any man who falls in love with those of his own sex but knows that he should deny himself in the interests of society.”

The change is a definite improvement. However there is a short sequence, after Melville’s ‘confession’, when he is seen leaving a churchyard: it is as if he has been to religious confession.

The script had been written by Janet Green and John McCormick. They were a wife and husband team with Green obviously the key writer. She had worked on a number of films produced by Michael Relph and directed by Basil Dearden. Interestingly a little earlier all three were involved with Sapphire (1959). This was also a film with a thriller format. In this case the central focus was racism, dramatised by an investigation of a young woman who was of ‘mixed race’. In that film also there was distinction between a liberal police inspector and his more obviously prejudiced subordinate. As with Victim and homosexuality, the treatment of “race” was problematic. In fact that film has less apparent sympathy for the black characters than Victim displays for its gay ones.

Relph and Dearden were an important team in 1950s and early 1960s British cinema. Among their output were a number of social problem films. Cage of Gold {1950) is set in the then new National Health Service. I Believe in You (1952) deals with parole officers and delinquency. And there is Pool of London (1951). This film demonstrates equally how their social consciousness is limited by the attitudes of the time. A subplot allows a tentative romance to develop between Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron – a frequent black face in British films of the period including Sapphire) and Pat (Susan Shaw, blonde and white). But it cannot be realised. There is a key scene where as Pat leaves on a bus Johnny leans forward to kiss her, and the bus starts off with a jolt!

This sort of inhibition is apparent in Victim. So we never see any actual physical contact between any of the men. In fact, the blackmail is constructed round a photograph taken of Melville and Barrett in the former’s car through a telephoto lens. But the audience never see the photograph, though it is shown to several characters. And the final moment of the film shows Melville burns the photo. Odd, as it would presumably be evidence in the prosecution that the films’ plot proposed in the resolution though the police do have the negative.

There are more subtle hints to audiences. Early in the film Barrett visits Harold in his bookshop. As they enter his study, in the foreground of the image, a kettle is about to boil. This would seem a steal/homage from Crossfire (USA 1947) in which there is a similar shot of a bubbling coffee pot. Harold runs his own hairdressing salon: indeed one of his customers is Calloway. As Farr travels in Lord Fulbrook’s car at night they pass the building site where Barrett worked. The building is topped by the sign ‘Trollope and Colls’. Spelt as ‘trollop’ the term applies to promiscuous women: here, is it coincidence or comment?

Melville’s home is primarily of the professional class, with a housekeeper. But in the lounge, lined up on the mantelpiece are a line of C19th military toys. All in the flamboyant and skin tight uniform of the early part of the century. They are most visible in a close-up of Melville as he leans over the fire and confesses to Laura.

Even with what may now appear extreme reticence the film encountered problems with the British Board of Film Censors. There is a detailed discussion of this in James C. Robertson key study, The Hidden Cinema British Film censorship in action, 1913 – 1975 (Routledge 1989). Predictably the Boards censors had problems with the film. The fairly long-serving Audrey Field commented:

The synopsis reads perfectly all right: it is a sympathetic, perceptive, moral and responsible discussion of a problem…. But the film may well be a bit of a problem: it is very oppressive … to be confronted with a world peopled with practically no one but `queers’; and there are precious few other characters in this synopsis. Great tact and discretion will be needed if this project is to come off, and the `queerness’ must not be laid on with a trowel.

However, John Trevelyan was the recently appointed secretary and he was more sympathetic to the project. But he also had his reservation,

It is, I think, most important that the division of public opinion should be reflected in this, or any other film dealing with the subject, and I think it would be wise to treat the subject with the greatest discretion. Furthermore, I think it is really important that a film of this subject should be one of serious purpose and should not include any material which might lead to sensationalism and would lessen its claim to seriousness.

Dearden revised the script and the final film involved this response:

“Their reaction was largely favour­able, but four dialogue objections emerged. In the scene between Mel and his wife when he first divulges to her his homosexual urges, she says, `You were attracted to that boy as a man would be to a girl?’ and he replies, `Because I wanted him. Do you understand? Because I wanted him.’ The BBFC sought the deletion of the underlined words, and the report on the film continued:

Reel 8 We don’t like the scene between Mel and the three men in Mandrake’s studios, where we feel that the case for homosexual practices between consenting adults is too plausibly put and not sufficiently countered. (There was more from Mel about self-control in the last script we read.) We think that this scene should be shortened. Reel 9 We think that the statement `there’s a moment of choice for almost every adolescent boy’ is too sweeping and not a good idea to put into the minds of adolescents in the audience.

Reel 11 … vindictive outburst against homosexuals is likely to give a spurious justification for the kind of blackmail shown in the film; and some reduction would be desirable.

These issues were taken up with Relph, and Trevelyan subsequently met him and Basil Dearden. Evidently they put up a strong fight against the proposed cuts for an `X’ certificate award, for in the event the BBFC insisted upon only the deletion in the ninth reel of the dialogue about adolescent boys. This represented a cut of merely a few feet, on which basis the BBFC allowed Victim on 1 June 1961.

So little was cut but Dearden his team had bought the screenplay closer to the wishes of the Board. There is a slight oddity here as there is apparently a ninety minute cut of the film, which would mean ten minutes deleted from the producers version. But from Robertson’s research it would appear that only a very light cut was demanded. Even so, the film received an X Certificate. Nearly all of the really interesting British films of this period suffered the X certificate, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). However, times change and over the years the certification had reduced, first to 15 under the new categories, then 12 and finally PG.

Trevelyan, in What the Censor Saw (Michael Joseph 1973) recorded the rather different response that film received in the USA.

“As an example of this I remember being surprised that a Code Seal (a seal of approval) was given to Suddenly Last Summer in 1959, a film that included almost all known sexual perversions, but refused in 1961 to a British film called Victim which was a thriller with a background of homosexual blackmail: when I asked the reason for this I was told that the former film did not violate Section III (6) of the Code -‘Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden’ – because the perversions were never specified, whereas the later film violated it because homosexuality was specifically referred to.”

What a difference several decades makes!

Posted in British film stars, British films, British noir, Film censorship, Film Directors, Movies with messages, UK filmmakers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Third Man, Britain 1949

Posted by keith1942 on July 29, 2015

Third man ferris wheel

This classic film is being re-issued as part of the Orson Welles Centenary celebrations. Certainly Welles, oozing both his onscreen charm but also his shadowy otherness, dominates the film as Harry Lime. It contains some of his most memorable dialogue: his aside on the cuckoo clock is one of the most oft-quoted lines in English-language cinema.

But the film is also a tribute to the talents of a number of fine, mainly British, filmmakers. The director was Carol Reed is often dismissed by the appellation ‘metteur en scène’: a phrase that stresses reliance on collaborators as opposed to the supposed dominating talent of the ‘auteur’. In fact many of the great films depend exactly on such a constellation of talents, and this is especially true of British cinema where many a final film is much more than just the sum of its parts.

The film has a fine script by Graham Greene, adapted from his own short story. Certainly Reed’s direction benefits from the magisterial black and white cinematography of Robert Krasker. And his work depends to a degree on Vincent Korda’s atmospheric art direction. Both are ably served by the editing of Oswald Haffenrichter. And there is the inspired choice of Anton Karas’ music: his zither is as famous as dialogue of Orson Welles.

The cast, both leading and supporting players, is ‘pitch perfect’. Alongside Welles Joseph Cotton turns in one of his finest performances as Holly Martin. And Alida Valli is hauntingly beautiful and tragic as Anna Then there are Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee with brief but memorable appearances from Ernst Deutsch and Paul Hoerbiger among others. It is the combination of all these talents that makes the occupied and divided post-war Vienna so believable. This is a perfect gem of a movie.

the-third-man holly and anna

Reviewing it I enjoyed the witty and ironic early sequences in the film. This is very much down to Greene’s skilful script. But the players give just the right emphasis to the lines or placement: as with the recurring comments on Holly Martin’s literary output. I assume that the seminar with the Cultural Re-education Section’s ‘little meeting’ allowed Greene to air a few prejudices.

The noir landscape of the city is brilliant. Light and shadow not only advance the plot: as with the first appearance of Harry Lime. They create this world of chaos, corruption and criminality, which threaten the nominal hero and heroine.

The last stages of the film are more sombre but have even greater resonance. The underground sewer system provides the labyrinth, which is a recurring metaphor in film noir. Here Holly [the prince] hunts down the monster [Lime]. But as so often in the noir world, the death of the monster provides little relief or release.

Third Man lime

Then we have the cemetery. In the original Cretan version the princess [Anna] provides the means for the hero’s safe entry and exit from the labyrinth. But here Anna resolutely refuses to aid Holly. Thus the long take as she passes by the passive Holly leaving the audience to speculate on the fate or either character. This makes Holly a passive character in comparison to Lime. Another aspect of the irony that suffuses this film.

I revisited the film on a 2k DCP screening; both the dynamic contrast and the definition, especially in longer shots for the latter, seemed inferior to 35mm prints. There is a useful article on this version at:



Posted in British films, British noir, Film Directors, Film noir, UK filmmakers | Leave a Comment »

Innocent Crimes

Posted by keith1942 on March 22, 2011

UK 2010 Carpathian Films Ltd. Black and white, 98 minutes.

Written and Directed by Jonathan Green.


This is a first-time feature presented in the Northern Showcase section of the Festival.

It was filmed digitally in and around York: the city walls can be seen in some of the street scenes.

The brochure suggested a ‘low-budget noir’. It certainly has a lot of the characteristics of the genre, though I thought it was low on a sense of paranoia.

Farley (Michael Longhi) lives at home with his overprotective mother and works for an accountancy firm. His boss Ernest spends much time airing his [fanciful] exploits during the Falklands war. Farley is not allowed to smoke or drink and there is no sign of sex. Then oddball and criminal Charles Wells (George Telfer) literally drops into his life one night. Charles brings excitement, criminality, and promises of ill-gotten rewards and of sex. He also brings his own desires and fantasies.

Their relationship and activities develop in a downward spiral, and a plain-clothes policeman suggests that punishment may follow crime. Farley’s new-found freedoms and confidence seem heading for a bleak ending.

The film plays with ambiguities, which will probably leave an audience guessing. The production is crisply filmed with some intriguing settings. The pace is slightly slow – a walk down a corridor takes an awful long time. It has a number of hallmarks of the short film expanded into a feature, so that it did not quite sustain itself for the full 98 minutes. The changing dynamic between Farley and Charles does maintain the interest and a question as to how the film will reach a resolution.


Posted in British noir, Festivals, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

They Made Me a Fugitive

Posted by keith1942 on March 17, 2011

Clem, Ellen and Narcy


Gloria / Alliance, UK 1947. Black and white, 103 minutes.

Director – Cavalcanti. Producers – Nat Branstein, James Carter. Screenplay Noel Langley from the novel by Jackson Budd. Cinematography – Otto Heller. Editor – Margery Saunders.      Certificate A.

 Contains Plot information:

This is one film that seems to receive general agreement as an example of British film noir. It is adapted from a British crime novel and fits into a cycle of the ‘man on the run’. Apparently this is the prime focus of the original novel, but the film broadens the plot out to include the world of gangsters and spivs of the late 1940s. Clem (Trevor Howard) is an ex-RAF officer looking for excitement and easy money in the post-war world. Encouraged by his girlfriend Ellen (Eve Ashley) he falls in with Narcy (Griffith Jones) and his gang, who deal in both stolen and smuggled goods. However, Clem and Narcy fall out and Narcy engineers a set-up in which Clem is captured and sent to jail for the murder of a policeman. This later plot is part of the territory of the book. Narcy erstwhile girlfriend Sally (Sally Gray) visits Clem in prison. She tells him both about the set-up and that Ellen has been taken over by Narcy. Clem escapes and sets out to obtain his revenge.

The film has some parallels with an earlier crime movie They Drive By Night (1938). Some writers include that film in the cycle of British noir.  The sequences of Clem on the run are very similar to those experienced by Shorty, the protagonist in They Drive by Night. This may well relate to the originating books of the films, both example of British crime fiction.

They Made Me a Fugitive has en excellent and experienced production team. Alberto Cavalcanti, the director, is an important and interesting figure in British Cinema of the 1930s and 1940s. He was born in Brazil and then became involved in the avant garde cinema of 1920s Paris. After this he worked in the Griersonian documentary movement. Coalface (1935) and Night Mail (1936) are two of the distinctive documentaries in which he was involved. During the war years he worked at the Ealing Studios, directing what is the classic home front film of World War II Went the Day Well (1942).

The scriptwriter Noel Langley had worked in Hollywood before the UK: His major success there was the non-noir The Wizard of Oz (1939). The director of photography was Otto Heller. There is a gothic strand apparent in much of his film work, including the classics, The Queen of Spades (1948), The Ladykillers (1955) and Peeping Tom (1960).

They Made Me a Fugitive is predominantly a studio production. This gives the film a style closer to that of Hollywood noir than many British examples. There is the carefully controlled use of light and shadow and the overtly stylised look to many of the settings. However, it also has a number of distinctive British characteristics.

As in many Hollywood noirs Clem is a cynical, slightly embittered ex-serviceman. But he is also an ex-officer with the class distinctions that carries. The ex-serviceman who fails to adjust to the changed conditions of peace time is a common character in British films of this period, and they are frequently films that fit into the noir world or include very noir sequences.

Narcy is an example of a type particular to British films of the late 1940s, the spiv. This character hovers in the grey world between the legal and illegal. What marks him out from other criminal types is a self-conscious attention to his own style. Narcy, as his name implies, certainly has the style aspect of the spiv; however, he is more criminal than many, being involved at one point in dealing with drugs.

Another character where UK noir differs from Hollywood is in the absence of a fully formed femme fatale. In many film noirs she acts as a siren tempting the hero into the world of criminality and chaos. In British films like They Made Me a Fugitive the siren type woman is missing. Clem’s girlfriend Ellen is something that type, easily transferring her affection from Clem to Narcy, and with no compunction about their criminal activities. But she is not really a central character, disappearing from the plot once Clem is in prison. Sally is no femme fatale; she is more the ‘good-hearted woman’ exploited by men. And, as happens frequently in noir, the male characters knock her about. There is one fatal woman in the plot. During his escape Clem seeks refuge in a house and is confronted by the wife there, Mrs Fenshaw (Vida Hope). Recognising Clem as an escaped murderer she tries to persuade him to shoot her alcoholic husband. Clem is shocked and repulsed by this and leaves her to her fate. So her appearance is extremely brief, and apparently a hangover from the book.

Hollywood noir is noted both for its cynicism and its terse, evocative dialogue. British noir is more sardonic. So the scenes with the gang are peppered with references to religion and hymns. And when the upbeat resolution has Clem returning to jail but likely for an early release, Sally promises to ‘wait for him’. Clem response to this is ‘I was afraid of that’. The tone ties in with the tendency of British noir to the gothic. The gothic element is a major strand in British horror and there is an overlap between the horror and UK noir genres. The gothic involves gloomy settings, often-grotesque characters and an element of the supernatural or the fantastic. The key film from this point of view is the omnibus Dead of Night (1945, on which Cavalcanti was one of the directors).

The gothic feel is partly due to the cinematography of Otto Heller. It is there is some of the street scenes in the film. Most noticeably it is there in the gang’s base, a Funeral Undertaking. There are empty coffins on the ground floor and a marvellous R.I.P. sign on the roof. It is here that the final confrontation between Clem and Narcy takes place.

Whilst Heller contributed to several more British noirs Cavalcanti only contributed the part-noir For Them That Trespass (1949) before returning to his native Brazil. However, They Made Me Fugitive remains one of the key examples in this British genre. The cinematography is excellent, supported by fluid editing: Margery Saunders had worked under David Lean at Cineguild. The pace of the film drives the plot forward. And the cast is convincing, with only the occasional slip in accents. The film exemplifies the particular virtues found in our native noir.


Posted in British noir | 2 Comments »

British film noir

Posted by keith1942 on March 10, 2011

Pinkie in Brighton Rock

These are notes from a course at the National Media Museum, which explored this genre. Film noir itself is a tricky term. Unlike other genres, say the western; this is a post-film construction by critics. In the 1940s audiences did not go to see noir movies, but crime thrillers, melodramas and even gangster films. Predictably, critical opinion is divided both as the character of noir and which films to include or exclude. As a working definition let me quote from The Movie Book of Film Noir [Edited Ian Cameron, 1992): “Concentrated in the ten years that followed World War II and characterised above all by its atmosphere and its urban settings, film noir gave a broadly pessimistic treatment to melodrama and to crime movies. In a world that should have felt liberated by victory, failure, or the threat of it, haunted the petty criminal, the potential fall guy, the tired gumshoe and the two-bit femme fatale.” Many of my favourite noirs are happily covered by this definition.

If the Hollywood film noir is a site for argument and even controversy, then the British parallel is less explored, less clearly defined, but also provokes a certain amount of disagreement. There are crossovers, including the period, though I find examples of UK noir films in the 1960s. There are common influences, especially from German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism. And there is a parallel source in some cases, 1930s and 1940s British crime fiction, like US pulp fiction, produced fairly cheaply and appealing to a fairly particular audience whiles failing to win much critical approbation.

British noir’s often show a concern with contemporary social problems, whereas Hollywood tended to privilege the personal rather than the political. The many films by Michael Relph and Basil Dearden often focus on the social problem. Yet they frequently display noir sensibilities. In The Blue Lamp (1949) there is a concern with the contemporary problem of juvenile or youth crime. One particular sequence in which Tom (Dirk Bogarde) plays with his gun is intensely nourish. In Frieda (1947) a German émigré is confronted by the dark world she hoped to have left behind when confronted with newsreels about the concentration camps. She walks out the cinema into a street that is full of shadow, stylised walls of posters and angular camera positions.

British films tend to depend more on locations and lack the intense stylised feel of the Hollywood noir. This becomes clear when comparing They Made Me A Fugitive (Cavalcanti, 1947) with Brighton Rock (the Boulting Brothers, 1947). The former film is predominately studio based, and many sequences parallel the style of US noir. The latter relies to a degree on excellent location work and there are far fewer moments of intense shadow and angularity.

They Made Me a Fugitive also raises the issue of the femme fatale. Ubiquitous in Hollywood noirs the dangerous and fatal woman is rarer in the British variety. Thus in Cavalcanti’s film Sally is an abused woman but she is clearly not designing one. The two minor women characters, Ellen and Mrs Fenshaw are more scheming but not central to the narrative. William Everson suggests that British films are more influenced by French Poetic Realism than by Hollywood noir: that would certainly appear to apply to the films’ heroines.

Whilst film noir offers the wise racking dialogue that crosses over with the private eye film and the newspaper film, the British variant tends more to the sardonic. There is less an air of cynicism than of fatalism. And there is a distinct gothic strand. British noir seems to b e closer to the horror genre than in Hollywood. And these echoes of C19th stories of old dark houses, dark corners and in-explicable events appear frequently. A key film for both the horror and noir genres is Dead of Night (1945).  One tale in the film, [directed by Robert Hamer] presents the story of malign influence on a husband from his wife’s gift of an antique mirror. Within it he sees an older room where a terrible crime took place. His attempt to repeat the crime is thwarted by the strength of his wife {Googie Withers). Both Hollywood and British Cinema posses strong, independent actresses in this period. But the strength of the Hollywood character seems to tend towards the qualities of a siren. British noir has a number of positive women characters, notably Ida in Brighton Rock.

Exploring individual films with highlight some of these tendencies and to what extent they might typify British noir.



Posted in British noir | 1 Comment »