Saturday, 26 April 2014

Opportunities… The Long Good Friday (1979)

Made in 1979 this prescient film contained a number of themes that would define the decade to follow: docklands redevelopment, bad money made good, ambition and greed… all very appropriate for a film made during Margaret Thatcher’s election year. The times they were indeed a-changing and The Long Good Friday is clearly not convinced that this will be for the better.

London’s docklands were falling to ruin and clearly there was an opportunity to develop this vast area and there is even a bid being discussed for the 1988 Olympics… 30-odd years’ later we’ve had the enormous success of 2012 and the docklands are like a new city within a city from Canary Wharf to the Olympic Village and over to Excel: mile after mile of new buildings… I wonder who paid for them all?

Bob Hoskins
Here, Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) sees his opportunity to invest the ill-gottens of his criminal firm in legitimate business and espouses plenty of Thatcherite rhetoric in support of this. He’s keen to bring in some heavy American friends, Charlie (Eddie Constantine), to help fund ambitious building plans and even has a “friendly” council man, Harris (Bryan Marshall) to help grease the wheels of planning permission. It seems that nothing can stop him as he strides like the cock of the walk after landing from New York on Concorde (perhaps the ultimate symbol of go-ahead and get-on Britain?).

St Katharine Docks and Harold's boat
Harold runs a large swathe of London’s gangland and has his own peculiar set of principles: he believes in free enterprise, opportunity and being able to decide the limits of your own personal liberty. He lives on a flash yacht moored just off St Katherine Docks – one of the first to be gentrified – and all around you can see the spaces he wants to fill with yuppie flats, office high-rises, restaurants and gym clubs.

Helen Mirren
Harold’s partner is Victoria (Helen Mirren) a well brought-up woman possibly attracted to Harold’s no-nonsense application of the kind of power she was born to… She smooths his rough edges and provides the social polish crucial to the legitimisation of Harold. Before the great and the not-so-good are to arrive for their project launch party, she speaks to their French chef and ensures that everything has that suitable veneer of class.

She’s aided by Harold’s smart number two, Jeff (Derek Thompson), like Victoria, a cut above Harold’s more usual associates, a thinker not a fighter.

The party starts and the guests are treated to a rousing speech from Harold as the boat passes under Tower Bridge: this is the land of opportunity and London is destined to be the capital of Europe!

Harold talks and everyone listens...
But… it’s not to be so simple. The film opens with a confusing series of shots: a man taking a handful of notes from a suitcase, men waiting in a remotes farmhouse, a gay pick-up in a pub and the bodies of two men being dumped at the side of a country lane as the men in the farm are machine-gunned down: something’s very wrong and we’ll spend most of the film trying to work out what.

Harold seems a world away from all this but he’s about to get sucked into a situation he can’t understand: the car that was taking his mother to church is blown up and then he learns that his oldest confederate Colin (Paul Freeman) has been murdered in a swimming baths (by a young Pierce Brosnan no less: sent to lure the gay man to his doom).

Harold is outraged: it’s a “diabolical liberty” his words failing to give full vent to the full depth of his shock. These are personal attacks on his family and closest friends, not to mention his business interests (an unexploded bomb is found in his casino). He cannot think of anyone who would or could do this and sends his men off to find the culprits… he must keep a lid on this for fear of scaring off his investors.

But his unseen enemy is resourceful and remorseless planting a bomb in his favourite pub that explodes just seconds before he arrives with his American guests for lunch.

He gathers his lieutenants and sends them to round up all of the gang leaders in London: someone must know something. The men are herded into a cold-storage for the film’s iconic scene of upside-down hoods hanging alongside bloody carcasses in cold-storage units.

But there’s worse news as Harold’s pet CID officer, Parky (Dave King) reveals that the bombs are of Irish construction. Things are getting out of control and Special Branch is going to have to take over… but Harold views the IRA as just another gang trying to muscle into his action and sets out to deal with them appropriately.

Granite-faced Charlie dines with Victoria
Meanwhile Victoria wines and dines the Americans (in Quaglinos?) and is forced to reveal the actuality as Harris gets blotto and reveals something about a most unexpected character… This runs far deeper and closer to home than Harold could ever guess and as the tension mounts the violence increases to an almost unbearable degree…

John Mackenzie directs with aplomb and creates a genuine modern classic British gangster film that did for the 80s what Get Carter did for the previous decade: it’s believable and stylish.

Mirren and Hoskins tag team to great effect showcasing two differing schools of acting that feed very well of each other. Bob’s raw power and instinct is matched by Helen’s more polished technique as she responds to his prompting to create some memorable improvisations: slapping him back to focus after yet another death and collapsing into tears after finally being pushed too hard by his bulldog spirit.

Mirren persuaded the Director to re-write her part on the fly, arguing that the original “bimbo” role wasn’t realistic for a man of Harold’s immense native intelligence. The results are superb and add balance and humanity to Harold’s role: in spite of all the brutality we do care in the end and even if we don’t want to live in this world, they make the visit a more valuable one than it could have been.

Special mention should also go to the superb soundtrack from Francis Monkman which perfectly matches the brutal modernism with driving synthesisers and stabbing, percussive aggression rarely seen in his time with Sky and more akin to the glory days of Curved Air his first band. Curved Air always had more of an edge than most progressive bands and Monkman’s classical training was accompanied by his ability to write memorable tunes and also to rock. The soundtrack is rightly collectable and one of the gems of the era.

Dusty verdict: A genuine classic that I have immediately purchased from Amazon in a two disc version with added soundtrack CD: how could I have lived without it for so long?

The Long Good Friday was recently ranked 21st in the BFI’s list of greatest British films. So many of the ingredients are so well balanced yet perhaps we also keep on returning to its powerful reminder of Britain’s time on the cusp: when the fading dreams of post-war continuous improvement were overtaken by the brutalities of market economics, social engineering and the growth of our greed culture.

This is nowhere more exemplified than Harold’s closing rant to his American friends… all the British myths are shouted forth and yet all sound increasingly hollow: the times had already changed.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Cooler than it sounds… Eskimo Nell (1975)

There are few things more mutually exclusive than the phrase combining the words “sex" and "comedy” especially in Britain which experienced a plague of the things post Carry on involving window cleaners, night nurses and cab drivers. In most cases they were simply excuses to show off as much female flesh as possible with a few bon mots thrown in as an alibi: as if the nudity was only in fun and the exploitation therefore didn’t count.

Eskimo Nell is – arguably – a cut above… it has a good cast, a cohesive script and never takes itself too seriously. There’s also a lot of talk but not much action in the skin department with even a famous appearance by Mary Millington being limited to a fast-forward strip – almost taking the micky out of those who really would have appreciated a much more drawn out exposure to her iconic curves.

Michael Armstrong plays the director in the film he wrote...
It’s also directed by Martin Campbell who, after a few similar films, spent the 80’s directing TV like Shoestring, Minder and the great Edge of Darkness before graduating to Hollywood epics like The Mark of Zorro, Green Lantern (which is better than people say if you’re a DC comics fan…) and James Bond – Golden Eye and Casino Royale. He does well and sequences a convoluted narrative well.

The film’s writer and star, Michael Armstrong, is also another very interesting character who is still enjoying a long career as director, cinematographer and author (his website is here): a renaissance man who obviously had enough experience of the trade by this point to take a pot-shot or three at the faulty mechanisms of film finance… creativity crushed by creditors.

Roy Kinnear and Diane Langton
The story starts with a young film graduate Dennis Morrison (Armstrong) who heads off to Wardour Street secure in the knowledge that his degree will grant him instant access to the business of film. He is quickly disabused but grabs his last chance at the seedy top floor offices of B.U.M. studios. Run by the persuasive and single-minded mogul Benny U. Murdoch (Roy Kinnear) B.U.M. specialises in films that stick to the point (or points if you want to be honest) yet he persuades young Morrison to put together a film based on the epically bad-taste poem Eskimo Nell. Murdoch is keen on casting genre specialist Gladys Armitage (Diane Langton) as Nell as, for him, she has all the right characteristics…

The seriously talented Prudence Drage impresses the boys
Dennis enlists his mate Clive (Terence Edmond) as producer and asks Harris Tweedle (Christopher Timothy) – who knows more about penguins than women – to script the film and the three set off with Murdoch to find backers.

Dennis’ girlfriend, Hermione (the legend that is Katy Manning, Jon Pertwee’s second assistant in Doctor Who) is part of a family fighting for moral standards, her brother Jeremy (the always unlikely Christopher Biggins…) and mother Lady Longhorn (Rosalind Knight). They are delighted that their young friend will be making a moral film…

Nell I - not subtle...
Yet, as the would be film-makers do the rounds they find that each backer will only stump up funds if a) the film can be made to their agenda and b) Eskimo Nell be played by the actor of their choice.

Nell II - Kung fu meets the Sound of Music...
So it is that the production ends up being committed to being a kung-fu film, Britain’s first all gay western and a hardcore sex film to star, respectively, a martial arts trained opera singer, a transvestite and a gum chewing sex starlette of no fixed American accent…

Nell III... lots of cowboys
But it gets worse as Murdoch has taken a trip with the money and has left the three friends liable with hastily-signed contracts: if the films don’t get made they’ll pay the price.

Cue a trip to a lovely-looking mid-seventies alehouse and a spark of inebriated inspiration from Hermione: why not get mummy’s crusaders to pay for another version of the film, one with a clean moral message that pays full tribute to the great work of art that inspired the film?  All they have to do is to work out how to film four films at once?

Terence Edmond, Michael Armstrong and Christopher Timothy start casting
The lads start casting their four films and there’s some funny auditions, a Viking and Miss Mary Millington dressed as a traffic warden and performing a double-quick strip – any longer and the narrative would have dropped into softcore but the film keeps it relatively clean.

Mary Millington auditions
Onto the filming and we see the prissy “clean” version with Biggins dressed like an Edwardian child followed by the kung fu, cowboys and hardcore versions… it’s a chaotic juggling act and still funny in places with all genres spoofed.

The film finished, Lady Longhorn’s connections get them a Royal gala premier in Leicester Square, wouldn’t it be funny if the versions somehow got mixed up?!

Can the pals ensure that all of their hard work is rewarded? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Dusty verdict: Eskimo Nell is better than I expected and, whilst not exactly a classic is never the less and interesting period piece that shows the difficulties of getting a film made in genre-obsessed seventies Britain when it felt like the industry had almost ground to a halt.

Nell IV... Katie Manning gives it some hat
The cast and crew do a splendid job with uniformly excellent exaggerations from the obsessives wanting to make the film. Christopher Timothy stands out as the conflicted penguin-fancier and Roy Kinnear is excellently greasy as the boob-fixated porn baron. It’s also good to see Miss Manning showing that there is more to her acting than Doctor Who sometimes allowed! She doesn’t scream or run away once...

Eskimo Nell is still available on DVD from Amazon – it looks to be mildly collectible from the prices so don’t waver if you want a light-hearted Seventies smile or three!