Saturday, 26 October 2013

Old career in a new town... Brannigan (1975)

There are some films that just about scrape it onto this blog, there has to be something redeemable and a film vehicle for a near-seventy year old John Wayne has to be unlikely… and yet…

Brannigan is a British-made film that just about allows Duke Wayne to carry off a tough-guy role at 68. He’s helped by a great supporting cast as well as superb backdrops of London: another time-capsule film.

Directed by Douglas Hickox, Brannigan afforded Wayne the chance to ape the Clint Eastwood style (he had turned down Dirty Harry) and allows a fresh twist by transporting his unchanging cowboy act to Blighty: a horse-wrangler out of water as it were... There are repeated moments in the film which play on this from attempts to get Brannigan to not carry his gun and to follow native procedures. There’s also a nice running contest between the character and his British counterpart, Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) which plays up every known cliché about the “special relationship”.

Richard Attenborough
Brannigan’s assigned liaison officer, Detective Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher (the lovely Judy Geeson) quotes her father in saying that there’s only three things wrong with “yanks”: “over-paid, over-sexed and over here…” But you know mutual respect won’t be far behind.

Judy Geeson and Duke
 It’s entertaining and undemanding fun and very well put together. There’s also a fine example of a hard-top e-type Jaguar and you can’t say further than that…

Lieutenant James Brannigan is a Chicago cop who has his own way of doing thing but (you guessed it…) he gets results. He’s tracking down one particularly nasty crime lord, Ben Larkin (John Vernon), who has been caught trying to flee to England. Somewhat against his will – and to the audience’s delight – Duke…sorry, Brannigan is sent to bring him back. Somehow we sense that it’s not going to be quite that simple… and the old dog’s unconventional methods will be all the more so in London Town…

Mel Ferrer and John Vernon
Brannigan arrives and is treated like a red-hot cinder by the locals as Swann and his number two, Insp. Michael Traven (John Stride – who was excellent in the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead I saw a few years later…in Manchester), struggle to reign him in. Miss Thatcher is altogether more understanding and there’s an under-current of fatherly affection between her and the old grump. But, where did they get that second name from? The “Milk Snatcher” was a shadow cabinet minister at the time…

Judy Geeson
Meanwhile the plot has really kicked in. A hit man is assigned to off Brannigan by Larkin’s team led by Mel Fields (Mel Ferrer) – he’s Gorman (Daniel Pilon) the nastiest in the business but at least he drives that e-type. Then Larkin is kidnapped from his health club by two Brit gangsters played by Charlie-the-Handle (James Booth) and Drexel (Del Henney) whose aim is to hold him to ransom.

James Booth and Del Henney keep watch
So now Brannigan has to help the Limeys save face as well as catch his man. The first attempt to snag the kidnappers fails as they extract the money from a drop in Piccadilly by drilling a hole beneath a post box.

But there are some lively police-procedurals as Brannigan and co set about scaring the truth out of the likes of Brian Glover and Tony Booth (Cherie’s dad) not to mention the far less threatening Tony Robinson – “look kids it’s Baldric!”, “Who?”, “Er… the guy out of Time Team!”, “Oh yeah…”

John Wayne and Tony Robinson

There’s also a classic bar brawl at a pub in Leadenhall Market in which Attenborough joins Wayne in slugging it out on that violent but harmless way of every good-humoured scrap since The Quiet Man: glassing with a smile and mutually respectful manliness all round.

Leadenhall Market shake-down
Then there’s a car chase which is very well executed and shows off some of the highlights of central London including Tower Bride over which the cars fly as the draw bridge lifts higher.

Jaguar E-Type on the attack
And, all the while Brannigan’s hit-man gets closer and closer to the kill, narrowly avoiding nailing Miss Thatcher as the dead-eyed cop reacts just in time to put him off.

The plot is well constructed as the main elements race to a satisfying conclusion as the double-crossing crosses over itself in the inevitable deserted offices of decaying docklands (probably now the home of gastro pubs and luxury flats).

Wayne still convinces and went on to make Rooster Coburn next, one of his better late period films. When I was younger I was less generous to his attempts to stay in the game but this was all he knew, from being an extra in silent films he worked for over 50 years in cinema.

Dusty verdict: Worth watching for the cars and the streets of 1974. There’s also a host of great British acting talent including cameos from Don Henderson and Lesley Anne Down. You can get the very reasonably-priced DVD here.

A couple of years later, The Squeeze showed a sleazier and more realistic side to London’s criminal classes, followed by others, but Brannigan helped keep the British crime flick alive at a time of struggle.

Lesley Anne Down
Brian Glover meets Duke

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Got it taped… The Anderson Tapes (1971)

This film shows that already by 1971 and a highly-prescient two years before Watergate, there was a healthy preoccupation with surveillance technology.

Throughout the characters are recorded, listened into and followed around by third parties who may or may not use the ensuing data. Interestingly and in an uncanny echo of British intelligence recent exposure for “monitoring” internet behaviour with the key rider that they wouldn’t actually use it, much of the recorded material proves to be unusable: compromised by the same civil liberties that still get in the way of over-protective snooping.

Dyan Cannon and Sean Connery: class acts
Directed by Sidney Lumet, The Anderson Tapes raises these questions although I’m not sure if it ends up making whatever point he had in mind. Civil liberties are in question as is the nature of freedom: a number of the characters come out of long-term incarceration and at least one of them wants to return to the (high) security of that situation whilst others are temperamentally unsuited to straight society. But is surveillance the way to deal with recidivism?

Sean's bored...
Sean Connery’s character, Mr Anderson (how about that, Matrix fans?) is one such repeat offender but as his opening interview with the prison psychologist – videotaped of course… shows: he doesn’t recognise the difference between his “crime” and the tolerated behaviours of bankers, the police and even married people. He’s a complete XYY Man: highly-intelligent, highly socialised and yet seemingly incapable of moral alignment with the Norm…

Lumet confronting the nature of “criminal” intelligence as he was to do again in Dog Day Afternoon, rather more successfully it has to be said.

On the outside
That’s not to say that The Anderson Tapes isn’t a very interesting movie. There’s a superb performance from Sean Connery which famously helped free him of the James Bond casting whilst we also have the screen debut of one Christopher Walken. Oh and Dyan Cannon’s in it as well although she isn’t really given enough to do.

The soundtrack from Quincy Jones is also worth a mention as it skilfully combines electronica with the soulful modern jazz composition you’d expect: a giant of modern music who worked with everyone from Duke Ellington to Michael Jackson with Frank Sinatra and New Order in between.

A welcoming Dyan Cannon
 Connery is John "Duke" Anderson who is released on the same day as “the Kid” (Walken) and William "Pop" Myer (Stan Gottlieb) who is so desperate to go back. If the Kid has plans to go straight, Duke’s objectives are to stay outside the law.

But his immediate concern is to renew acquaintance with his old girlfriend Ingrid (Dyan Cannon) who is being kept in a very fine apartment by her sugar daddy Richard B. Shull. After a few days Duke hatches a plan to burgle the entire building which is crammed full of wealth and possessions.

Young Chris Walken
He enlists the aid of the Kid as well as Pop and some old friends, including antiques expert Tommy Haskins (Martin Balsam giving a superbly camp turn: easy to forget how out of bounds homosexuality still was at this time).

Martin Balsam
But to get funding Duke needs to call in favours from the local mob and goes cap in hand to Pat Angelo (Alan King) who owes him a favour after he took the time for someone else’s crime… but there are strings attached, Duke needs to add a character called "Socks" Parelli (Val Avery) to his crew and then he needs to “dispose” of him at the caper’s close…

There are the traditional stirring sequences of the job being set up, Tommy knocking up the varied residents in order to assess their valuables and the finer details being argued over.

Also at this time, Duke loses the upper hand with Ingrid as her boyfriend has recorded all of their conversations and, rather generously, offers Duke a free run at the apartment block just so long as he gets the girl. Left with little choice, Ingrid follows the money and leaves her risk-laden lover adrift… Further proof if Duke would only heed it of the cards being stacked against him.

The job kicks off and Duke seems to have all the angles covered as each apartment unveils its loot and a rich assortment of New York’s wealth elite: outraged upper middle class professionals, a man who won’t even give up his safe’s combination in exchange for his wife’s safety and an elderly woman who claps her hands in glee: “a robbery!”

But the men fail to secure the room of an asthmatic boy who has a ham radio – those electronic gadgets just get everywhere… He contacts other "good buddies" who manage to relay his call for help to the police (in those heady days of private radio broadcasting, it wasn’t so easy to target your messaging: a bit like posting a comment online waiting for a response…is there anybody out there?).

Duke is undone but he doesn’t know it yet and the robbery proceeds as the police amass in the surrounding streets. It’s quite chilling to see the quiet streets around the apartment over-loaded with hundreds of armed police, fire trucks and cars: Lumet offers a sardonic view of the forces of order. Would even a fraction of this army be mobilised for a corner shop hold-up on the Lower East Side?

Officer in charge Captain Delaney (Ralph Meeker) orders a squad to climb onto the building from the neighbouring one and the camera follows their efforts, mirroring the efficiency of Duke’s operation: all this effort and for what?

The officers work their way down the interior stairs of the house and Duke finally hears their voices. Lumet darts back and forth from the aftermath as the victims are interviewed and taken care off. It’s an interesting technique which not only reveals elements of the narrative but also reinforces the inevitability of Duke’s defeat.

No way out?
But there are twists and turns and this chopping in sequence and time underscores the drama and the desperation of Duke’s struggle to grab what he can from life.

The Quincy Jones soundtrack is superb and not what you’d expect perhaps but he was a man of very broad talent!

Sean Connery
Dusty verdict: Sean Connery gives a Bond-busting performance that helped move him on from gadgets if not guns and girls.

The Anderson Tapes has more going for it than a simple heist movie even if all the surveillance motifs are ultimately almost tangential. Then again, we were watching too… and taping. What do we do with all this recorded information? Delete or keep? Delete or keep? Delete…

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Sour times… The Ipcress File (1965)

There was a moment listening to John Barry’s splendidly expressive and inventive score to The Ipcress File, when I realised that Portishead had sampled it or at least borrowed its sound and spirit.

I shouldn’t be surprised as the downbeat disconnections of Sidney J. Furie’s, distinctly un-swinging, 60’s spy film fit perfectly with the off-kilter beats of the Bristol miserablists (well… they are splendidly thoughtful). As with Portishead, this film looks for the more difficult narratives that often lurk just out of sight. It’s the height of the 60s, spies are cool, they have gadgets, girls and guns but they also have mundane sadness, confusion and everyday betrayals alongside the quirks and cruelties of the trade.

A modern spy...

Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer was created not so much as the anti-Bond but his more believable cousin. Harry has a way with the ladies, is pretty smart but he isn’t that polished: things happen to him and he reacts… Harry’s just about keeping up whereas James’ is always one step ahead.

Michael Caine makes for the perfect screen Palmer, a former criminal who now makes real coffee and cooks cordon bleu in the kitchen of his small flat in Formosa Street, Maida Vale. Harry’s game involves lots of investigation and patience – it’s a proper procedural with even the more obviously-dramatic moments down-played in a way that makes them somehow more credible. His gambles don’t always pay off in the boys own way of Bond, but he’s a non-conformist and his rough-edged intuition may just be what can save the day.

Michael Caine and Nigel Green

The film’s backdrop is the grime of a car-choked London barely recovered from the Luftwaffe’s beating… not a yacht in sight, but all the better for it.

At the film’s start, Harry is lifted from slow-moving surveillance to help investigate the mysterious disappearance of a British scientist. There’s an abnormal brain drain with a succession of leading British boffins packing it in for unknown reasons and this is just the latest in a series of unfortunate events.

Officer's club: Nigel Green and Guy Doleman
Harry is regarded with scorn by true blue Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) who gladly hands him over to Major Dalby (Nigel Green) who seems less than thrilled. It’s not a red letter day for Harry either as there’s only the promise of a small pay rise to go with this change of duty.

Harry meets his new team who include Carswell (Gordon Jackson) and Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd) - Furie’s direction is so downbeat and knowing he’s not going to signal any obvious intentions with these or any other characters. Never-the-less, Carswell quickly becomes and ally for Harry whilst Jean responds to his less than suave overtures to come to his flat for dinner.

Sue Lloyd
Clearly, nothing is that clear and you really can’t trust anyone in this business or rather, can’t really be sure of who not to trust. And through all of this there’s an undercurrent of class prejudice as the natural officers struggle to impose themselves on the uppity rank and file.

Harry gradually begins to make headway, locating one of the likely kidnappers, Grantby - codenamed Bluejay (Frank Gatliff), and his lieutenant Housemartin (Oliver MacGreevy).  He follows Grantby into a library near the Albert Hall (The Science Museum Library) and calls a number Grantby given which proves to be false. The camera is close-up on Harry’s face but as he leaves the phone box, the camera view remains through the windows as Harry engages Housemartin in hand-to-hand combat. It’s typical of the film’s understated edge and we see that Palmer can handle himself, even though the birds manage to fly away…

Harry's eye-view
Playing a hunch, Harry orders a raid on a warehouse but finds nothing other than a strange tape… it’s scant consolation but buys him a little time. Played back the tape emits atonal noise and it’s unclear what this means… on it is written the word Ipcress.

Eventually Dr Radcliffe (Aubrey Richards) is returned in exchange for a payment but in the chaos immediately after the swap; Harry succeeds in shooting an American spy…

 Things speed up as Radcliff turns out to have been brain-washed and cannot function as a scientist. Then Caldwell makes the connection that will explain what Ipcress really means and people start dying, from another American sent to spy on Harry to Caldwell himself who is shot waiting at traffic lights in a very grimy Upper Thames Street…

Dirty old town
Harry realises he is being set up and following Dalby’s advice to make himself scarce, boards a train for Paris… but the enemy, whoever they may be, are already ahead of him.

Up till this point the film plays its cards reasonably close to its chest and is a novelty of surprises set against Bond-ian preconceptions. The closing third of the film sees a shift towards more typical action albeit with the focus firmly on the psychological…with a twist or two I won’t reveal. Harry has to pull himself together against all odds… to decide who to trust and, in the end, who to kill.

It’s all done grubbily well and Caine is, of course, superb: an actor who always holds enough back to pull the watcher in – he’s that uncertain hero we all hope to be. Nigel Green is another performer who smuggles a lot of meaning under an intense gaze and snarling stiff upper lip as does Guy Doleman albeit with rather more disdain.

Barry’s score flavours the film with enigmatic flourishes that takes turns in revealing narrative intentions with the actors, from Harry’s early morning coffee grinding to more clearly dramatic moments. He must have enjoyed the chance to show more compositional subtlety.

His score also works well with Furie’s angular direction and Otto Heller’s cinematography: through low and off-kilter angles, they create a world of disquiet even in the sparse, emotionally-empty rooms of the secret service. These high ceiling-ed imperial left-overs reflect the under-funded and shabby British service, still recovering from the War twenty years before. In the corner next to Colonel Ross’ desk, is a rickety camp-bed: needs must…it's one of the film's many telling details.

Dusty verdict: There’s a shift in Barry’s score during the meeting with Granby, when questing flute themes are pierced by the spidery sound of piano strings being plucked, the brass section builds the tension and then suddenly there’s a pause, deep piano chords and an eerie distorted guitar line repeats and repeats sending shivers of dread anticipation through the viewer… something is very wrong.

Gordon Jackson and Michael Caine
No Aston Martins but at least Major Dalby drives and MG