Saturday, 27 February 2016

Hot off the press… The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

This is not only amongst the very best of British science fiction but also a love letter to the British press or at least Fleet Street when it was Fleet Street. These are the men and women who search out stories in the public interest and who work unsocial hours risking life and liver in pursuit of the “story”.

The focus is on the great art deco Daily Express headquarters and everyone from an actual former-editor Arthur Christiansen (1933 to 57 – a long stint!) – who plays Jeff Jefferson the Editor – to the machine minders and the craftsmen who worked the hot metal presses day and night to deliver the news in a world every bit as 24/7 as our own. The Express and others was always open breaking news and only ever a plate make up, quick print run and rapid delivery by its fleet of vans, from informing its public of every key development: from press room to doorstep in mere hours all verified and proof-read (mostly).

So, when governments let us down and we screw up the planet, who can we rely on for the truth?

Edward Judd and Leo McKern outside the art deco splendour of The Express
The splendid new BFI restoration begins at the end with reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) walking with weary steps down a parched Fleet Street. The Thames is empty of water and a heavy sun beats down on a parched West End. Stenning makes his way to the press room and finds his typewriter roller has melted he calls down to find the last copy boy working and begins to narrate his last and most important feature…

Cut to the press room as it was, full of care-worn, wise-cracking journalists navigating their way through the fast-moving events of a slow news day. Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) cracks wiser than most and is covering for a pal, Stenning, who has lost his way following divorce and an over-reliance on journalists’ ruin. Pete can barely string a story together and is rapidly running out of favours missing deadlines and many a point.

The press room - stories must have IMPACT!
Bill sends him off to the Royal Meteorological Society to investigate stories of abnormal sunspot activity; he tries to pull in a favour from an old pal and ends up gate crashing a meeting with the minister. He encounters a helpful and distractedly-curvy secretary Jeannie Craig (lovely Janet Munro) whose attitude to his rapid-fire banter changes once she realises he’s the same loudmouth who abused her on the switchboard. Stenning needs to work on his charm.

Stenning's charm initially fails him...
Later Pete attends a CND rally at Trafalgar Square – the film is very much about nuclear weapons and Wolf Mankowitz had originally written it after the UK’s first H-Bomb tests in the early fifties.  A fight breaks out with pro-bomb sympathisers – a bit like the next Labour conference – and as Peter hops on a TV news van he sees an unscheduled solar eclipse.

Eclipse over Trafalgar Square
Meanwhile the temperature rises to alarming degrees and Pete takes his son Michael to Battersea Park Fair taking him on the ghost rain much to the consternation of his new nanny – Michael’s mother has re-married and the future’s looking posh for the youngster. After dropping him off he finds Jeannie sunbathing and has another go at apologising… maybe it’s the weather but she’s warming to him.

The two share an ice cream and then nature takes another unexpected turn as a deep fog spreads rapidly up the Thames causing panic… On a limited budget director Val Guest makes the absolute most of his special effects and even with the unforgiving clarity of Blu-Ray, the scenes of London smothered in unnatural fog are still impressive.

The mist rises over Battersea
Yet it is the human element of the story where Guest most excels, with superb performances from Judd, Munro and McKern – three people facing up to the worst hoping for the best.

Guest shows some provocative shots of Jeannie in her bathroom before Pete arrives to be offered a couple of pillows and the bath… Theirs feels like a very real relationship for the time: she reluctant to give way not trusting the look of post-commitment in his eyes. But he is serious and the situation is getting far worse: if you were the only girl in the World and I were the only boy…

Things hot up
Whilst the Ministry keeps schtum the Express boys dig deeper and establish that not only has the Earth been knocked off its axis by two nuclear bombs exploded at the same time by Russia and the USA… but it has been nudged towards the Sun (not the odious newspaper, then called The Daily Herald by the way…) with no sign of stopping. What at first seemed to be a disaster is rapidly looking like Armageddon.

Meanwhile the authorities begin to clamp down on disintegrating society and water rations and near martial law are introduced.

What a scorcha!
The denizens of Harry’s Bar – a journalistic haven next to St Bride’s Church - gather to watch government pronouncements and to toast their increasingly-bleak futures. In spite of it all there is excellent interplay between Pete and Bill – the latter always hoping to set his pal back on course, both of them talking with the clipped precision you’d expect.

But Pete is getting himself focused not just on Jeannie but on The Story. His creative “Muscle memory” kicks in and he does his best for his readers, his talent and the wonderful new woman in his life.

The Express team wait for news
As his ex-wife’s new partner says as they prepare to escape to the country, “it all seems a bit silly now” – Pete wears the look of a man who felt that all along. Now he cares and you hope the crisis can be survived for this realisation to provide him more than short-term benefit…

Mankind’s last throw of the dice is to repeat the two atomic explosions in the hope of reversing or at least halting the planet’s drift. The minutes count down and then we return to the film’s beginning as Pete makes his weary way back to the Express. In the print room the crews prepare two front pages one for salvation and one for doom… Church bells hint at the former but you have to make your own mind up…

Parched Fleet Street
Dusty verdict: Undoubtedly one of the best British films of the period, The Day the Earth Caught Fire still stands up as a testament to man’s enduring humanity even in the face of such a crisis. The message is a simple one – take good care of the ecology and, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

Leo McKern went on to have a long and illustrious career but his other co-stars were less fortunate, Edward Judd surprisingly never established himself as a regular leading man – a difficult temperament possibly holding him back (according to Val Guest) – although he got regular work and was a fixture of voice-overs in the 70s and 80s.

Janet Munro
Janet Munro was less fortunate, dying of heart failure at just 38 – gone far too soon.

The film is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon and every home should have one!

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Solo Archer (slight return)… Sebastian (1968)

After his shocking horror, Peeping Tom, which had the temerity to challenge the relentless gaze of the cinema, Michael Powell struggled to direct again in the UK. Unlike contemporary Alfred Hitchcock – whose work is sometimes far more distasteful to my eyes, Powell’s film was just too honest and perhaps lacking in the humorous detachment the former director used to lessen the impact of his gorier moments. Even that was long gone by the time of his later work.

But why was the director of The Red Shoes, Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus - half of the mighty Archers along with Emeric Pressburger - so vilified after Tom: why was he edged out? It might just be that he was out of fashion in increasingly swinging sixties Britain as it gradually substituted psychedelic whimsy for magic realism.

Susannah York swings
This film was produced by Powell and directed by David Greene, but there is no doubt that he considered directing at some point and certainly seems to have had final say on the script which is witty enough especially in the hands of Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York and John Gielgud.

The films opens with Bogarde’s character, Sebastian, racing past St Peter’s College – the wrong direction – and then round past Teddy Hall and thence though New College towards The Sheldonian. One of his friends is getting an honorary degree – the Prime Minister as he tells new acquaintance Rebecca (Becky) Howard (Susannah York) who had just avoided knocking him down.

Becky meets Sebastian in Oxford
Never-the-less, she seems quite bright and, after asking her to pronounce her name backwards, feels she may have potential…

Back in London, Sebastian’s office is thrillingly in St Alphage House on the Highwalks – St Alphage Highwalk is now under reconstruction and only one tower remains of this quintessentially sixties development – Bastion House on London Wall – a fine building with stunning views over the city if you’re ever in the area!

London Wall as it was up until a couple of years ago
Becky turns up after contacting Sebastian’s office about his vague offer and joins the rest of the new recruits in the professor’s - all-female – decoding service. The team all work in one large hall, staring at numbers and letters on a screen and then working together or in groups to decode the meaning. This may have been a hangover from writer Leo Marks’s experience in the war but it’s a swinging sixties scenario.

The decoders at work
One of the workers, Elsa Shahn (Lilli Palmer) is a bit of a radical and is accused of leaking facts to left-wing groups. Sebastian protects her from their watchful head of security, General John Phillips (Nigel Davenport) who in turn reports into the Head of Intelligence played by the great John Gielgud.

They’re on odd mob but it clearly works.

Lilli Palmer and Dirk consider the issues
Sebastian surely doesn’t have a private life doe she? Well yes, he really does, being engaged in a strangely-detached (well he is….) relationship with a faded pop star Carol Fancy (the scrummy Janet Munro) who sadly watches herself on Juke Box Jury (complete with your actual Alan Freeman)  from the desolate luxury of her apartment in Eton Square.

Carol's fab Chelsea pad
But Sebastian looks at her with tired eyes and he won’t be able to resist the allure of his beautiful new recruit for long and so it proves as they head of clothes shopping and onto a discotheque before heading back to his stark flat – it’s grey with all the style of a Victorian palace of mourning. “You’re COATED in the old careless charm, like bloody icing sugar. I hate your bloody wallpaper!” declares Rebecca… Sebastian is in need of saving from himself and she’s just the woman to do it!

Dirk and Sue
A few things jar, not least Sebastian’s relationship with the pop star, but Bogarde is still a mystery attractive enough for Rebecca to want to solve. He’s not a man without compassion as his loyalty to Elsa shows. But he’s a socially awkward boffin who is more constrained by duty and professionalism than any aspergian traits.

Elsa lets him down by leaking decodings to left-wing interests whilst Rebecca throws her arms around him in his office with the microphone turned on. His secret out and his best decoder compromised, Sebastian decides to leave and head back to academia.

Gielgud interrupts
But, several months later he is followed into Oxford’s famous Blackstone’s bookshop by the Head of Security… there’s a new code that only he can crack. In spite of himself he can’t resist and agrees to a strictly-limited return.

He travels to Jodrell Bank where Ackerman, an American agent played by a goofy young Donald Sutherland. explains the new code: a seemingly irregular pulsing not unlike the less engaging work of the Aphex Twin. Sebastian takes this back to his all-girl decoders and they step back into the old routine, Elsa re-instated but, Rebecca sadly missing.

Janet Munro
Meanwhile old love Carol has fallen into a rather abusive relationship with a bully called Toby (Ronald Fraser on fine, nasty form…). She makes sure to bump into Sebastian and invite shim round for an afternoon back in the old groove. They are rudely interrupted by Toby just as Sebastian discovers his champagne has been spiked with LSD… as the faces of those around begin to melt, Toby leads his fragmented consciousness upstairs where he tries to persuade him he can fly… Queue last-minute rescue from General Phillips – who, it turns out, is very much on the same side after all.

Spoilers…. Work remains slow and Sebastian goes to – Richmond? – to find Rebecca. He makes his entrance to be greeted by shock then anger… a baby appears – it’s his although there’s work to be done. He grabs a rattle absent-mindedly and shakes it in time to the pulsing message – Rebecca looks concerned as his face assumes a familiar pattern of focused calculation… They’re back but he has one last job to finish.

Dusty verdict: Sebastian is uneven but filled with period whimsy mixed with a harder edge as you’d expect from a Powell film. It doesn’t compare with his best but has an excellent cast including the ill-fated Janet Munro and the incandescent Susannah York. Dirk was 46 at the time of filming but still carries off the mature leading man, confused by the people around him even as he cracks the most complex of codes.

Sebastian doesn't seem to be available on official DVD but DVD-Rs seem to be available on the grey market... there's a decent copy on YouTube – it’s worth it for the glimpses of Sixties and for Janet, Susannah and Dirk.