Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Eastend story… Sparrows Can't Sing (1963)

Directed by theatrical legend Joan Littlewood from a play written by Stephen Lewis – Blakey himself from On the Buses – Sparrows Can’t Sing is a slice of cinema as history showing the East End as it was in the early sixties as well as the unique collaborative style of cast and crew.

Littlewood had mentored Lewis who had originally been a merchant seaman and encouraged him to write the play which she directed before transferring to the screen. Many of the original performers on the boards also took their parts in the film and the warmth and ease of the company is in evidence throughout.

In a rush
Barbara Windsor was initially too upset to join the Q&A after the 2015 BFI screening of this restoration but eventually joined the eternal Murray Melvin to discuss the work of their departed colleagues including Stephen Lewis who had only passed away the week before. Like so many of the streets and buildings, even the “new” ones, the actors have now gone leaving this increasingly precious reminder of their life and times and a part of the world that has changed almost beyond recognition.

Arthur Mullard (who I used to regularly see in Highbury Fields in the 90s) drives a horse and cart aided by Bob Grant (also to work with Lewis on those buses). Queenie Watts is essentially herself as a jazz singing pub landlady, Yootha Joyce is a local chatterbox whilst the man who was to be ‘er George (Brian Murphy) keeps pigeons round the back of Roy Kinnear’s house. Harry H. Corbett is even selling  groceries from a market stall…

James Booth and Yootha Joyce (centre)

Anyone who was already - or was later to become - anyone was in it! And chief among them all are the dynamite duo of James Booth and Barbara Windsor. Booth has the edge and electricity of a John Cassavetes only without the method – it’s just something he has. He can’t sit still or simply be – there’s always an expression on his face and a natural reaction to everything that’s going on around him all expressed in an instant – a genuine motion. At one point, his character, Charlie, is looking in a house where he thinks his ex-wife Maggie (Babs) is supposedly now living – he goes from room-to-room and meets people from different cultures in every room and his reaction is delightful especially when he encounters a room full of Afro-Caribbeans who offer him a replacement Maggie who he looks only too grateful to accept.
Plenty of Vim from Babs!
He’s matched, as he has to be, by Barbara Windor’s Maggie who is every bit as energetic as he and able to turn on an emotional sixpence. She’s the definition of unpredictability and plays off the men in her life using her whiles where Charlie may use his fists.

The story plays out like a great American musical as Barbara belts out the theme tune over the credits.  Then we switch to the docks where it’s Booth and Glynn Edwards strolling away from their ship rather than Sinatra and Gene Kelly: Charlie’s back and it’s been almost two years. But things didn’t end well last time – “there were murders” – the locals recall, endless fights and grief as Charlie stepped way out of line.

Avis Bunnage and the great Roy Kinnear
He’s very much the returning anti-hero and the film takes a picaresque route following his impact on his former neighbours, friends and family as his appearance looks highly likely to spark some unhappy reactions all round. Everybody knows, but no one has the courage to tell him. It’s a simple structure and one that first-time director Littlewood, uses to create a very impressive visual momentum with a plethora of cherry-picker rising shots that show off these fantastic locations to full effect.

And, all of the time, the streets are full of people running, hiding, chasing and generally being in a rush to live their lives. Even Maggie – as we all know – totters about with rhythmic purpose and at full speed creates quite a scene as she heads towards her re-union…

But before all that, we get to meet the neighbourhood as Charlie renews his acquaintance and begins his single-minded search to get back with Maggie.

It begins in poignant disappointment as he finds his old house, the one he grew up in, completely demolished. The pace of change has been relentless and his old manor hasn’t just gone from memory it has been removed entirely: what will he find to reconnect with?

George Sewell
 But what Charlie doesn’t know and everyone wants to stop him knowing is that in his absence, Maggie has moved in with bus driver Bert (George Sewell) and has also had a baby of far from certain parentage…

Brother Fred (Roy Kinnear) tries to hide in the toilet whilst his missus Bridgie (Avis Bunnage) tries to get a message out to Maggie… what good it will do when he finds out we don’t know…

Nellie and the boys
Elsewhere history is kind of repeating itself as the Gooding’s daughter Nellie (Barbara Ferris) is taking her own sweet time choosing between her foreman Georgie (Murray Melvin) and the more earthy charms of layabout Chunky (Griffith Davies): George has a shiny mod suit and fancies himself a singer whilst Chunky is more grounded where he is: if there’s a blade of grass the chew he’ll opt for that.

Nellie manages to get to Maggie and Bert’s new high-rise flat in spite of the officious interruptions of the caretaker – Lewis in proto-Blakey mode. Maggie’s calm, dealing with the bloke in the bush rather than worrying about the one in hand.

Arthur arrives with the beer
Soon Charlie is holed up in The Red Lion with brother Fred under close watch in case he tries to make a break for it before Maggie is found. After a few hours and many drinks Charlie almost cracks and the pub looks on in wonder and fear at what mayhem is about to be unleashed but he holds it in… this time.

Maggie turns up and there’s a nice moment when Charlie smirks and just about prevents himself from looking round as Maggie enters the Lion and charms hello to all the regulars. Then the tango begins as the will-they, won’t-they business gets started. After a few rounds – a draw it seems – the two agree or disagree to meet later…

Show-down at The Red Lion...
What happens next? Ah well, that’d be telling…

Dusty verdict: Sparrows Can't Sing is still a joy and recommended to anyone who wants a slice of contemporary performance from early sixties theatre-cum-cinema. You can almost taste the atmosphere in streets, pubs and houses: a period so vivid it must still exist somewhere… if not in Walford perhaps but near by…

Left holding the baby
The remastered DVD is available from Movie Mail and Amazon. I’ve already chucked my VHS…

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Deathly hollows… Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975)

This thing called giallo: attractive women under threat, knives in the darkness, a killer amongst us and men behaving weirdly… some kind of sexy style always with a mean sense of humour as eager to add to the unease as the fake blood. It’s not dreary that’s for sure and Edwige Fenech is in it too – those huge brown eyes accentuated by short-cropped hair proving far more alluring than the acres of more obvious on display.

Directed by Andrea Bianchi from a story co-written with frequent collaborator Massimo Felisatti, Strip Nude for Your Killer is a knowing take on the by now well-established genre. It’s a bit like an Agatha Christie who dunnit only with nudity and far more leather-clad killers on motorcycles. The cast are less gentile as well with the exception of Edwige’s photographer’s assistant Magda.

Femi Benussi
Everything is in service to the art of shock and in this the giallo is no different from similar sexy-murder films from the US and UK from the mid-sixties to the seventies, film makers giving a more enlightened audience a thrill previously less clearly stated in screen. The age of visually-specific sensation as the ratings system relaxed… But I’ve never really got the relationship between sex and death: Strip Nude for Your Killer? Really?

But, in this case, I don’t think the title fits the film as, mild spoiler, it’s not really about consensual sex before murder…

The killer
The film begins in tinted queasiness as an illicit abortion goes wrong a girl dies and her body is dumped in the bathroom of her flat by two men. Not quite the sexy opening you were expecting perhaps – an early marker of Bianchi and Felisatti’s humour as they puncture the mood from the get-go.

Soon after the doctor responsible for the death is murdered on the steps of his practice by an assailant in motor biker gear – two down and we’re only just started.

Lucia pursued by Carlo at the pool
Next we switch to a public swimming pool where a curvy redhead Lucia (Femi Benussi) parades in revealing bikini and attracts the attention of priapic photographer, Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo), who follows her back to the steam room for a bit more steam. He tells her she could be a model and invites her to his studio.

The action shifts to the Albatross Modelling Studio where Carlo works with his girlfriend Magda (I know - he’s cheating on Edwige Fenech - what an idiot!) and a host of lovely models including long-cool blonde Patrizia (Swedish star Solvi Stubing) and the equally long hot platinum-flicked Doris (Erna Schurer – one of the films best actors).

At the shoot
The show is run by the rotund Maurizio (Franco Diogene) or more exactly his dominatrix wife Gisella (Giuliana Cecchini here listed as Amanda…) who takes a special interest in the girls and marks Lucia at first sight as requiring further attention… (there are lesbians, of course there are lesbians…) even has her corpulent husband looks on in emasculated frustration. Not that this doesn’t stop him trying it on with all the girls as well… he more pitiful than she who is masterful.

Carlo and Magda share a joke...
Carlo and Magda make out after everyone has gone and we do a double-take as he’s already cheated on her once today: is this our sympathetic leading couple? As for their sex-play… it seems, to put it delicately, that it’s all for Carlo.

After they have gone the leather-clad killer breaks into the studio and pulls out a shot of a group of people from the files… a hit list?

The workers at the studio
So it may prove, as a leather-clad hand knocks on the door of one of the studio’s photographers, Mario (Claudio Pellegrini) who, recognising the person, lets them in. After identifying the photograph the hapless snapper gets stabbed for his thanks and is discovered later soaked in blood and mutilated.

Time for the police to get involved and the next day the Commissioner (Lucio Como) interrupts a photo shoot to interview the main players. They’re all taken to the station where he attempts to get some answers whilst, creepily, one of the middle-aged cops stares at every inch of Lucia – a comment on the watching audience perhaps?

Lucia tires of the male gaze
Next we’re at Gisella’s apartment as she and Lucia are seemingly enjoying a quiet moment… suddenly Gisella leaps up and slaps her new acquisition, boy she seems very hard to please. She dresses and storms out leaving Lucia all alone, in the nude, wandering around the very large flat. Noises, there are noises… surely not here? But as the vulnerable model quivers in the kitchen the killer moves in once again.

Now things are getting messy but cometh the hour cometh the wannabe detective couple – Magda and Carlo try to piece the evidence together after they learn of the murder in the following day’s papers: something familiar about the earring found in Lucia’s hand…

On the case
But it won’t stop the killings… nor those strange moments of humour.

Maurizio tries to seduce Doris by playing the economic and sympathy card even after she expresses a preference for his missus and the dangers such a transgression might involve. But Maurizio can’t deliver and ends up carrying through his inflatable doll after Doris has left – OK we get the point.

Erna Schurer
Maurizio gets killed and is soon followed by Doris and her model lover Stefan – another who seems to care little for his lover - who are brutalized at the cost of even more red paint.

The Commissioner sees a pattern as do we… clearly almost no one gets out of this film alive but the question remains as to whom?

Solvi Stubing
Dusty verdict: There’s still enough alive to not “spoil” the ending but really this is more about the style than the mystery. The narrative flies past with  character-building effort only really directed at Magda who is the film’s only sympathetic character.

Not that Doris, Lucia and their fellow victims deserve to die but… we don’t really get to know them. Nor do we really get to know the killer who even after they are revealed, remains a mystery.

Edwige Fenech's best features are, actually, her eyes...
Franco Delli Colli deserves a mention for his effective cinematography whilst Berto Pisano’s groovy score adds to the period charm.

The conventions of the giallo feature were originally set out by  director Mario Bava in the early sixties with titles such as The Girl Who Knew too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) which added more sex and specific violence to the Italian thriller genre. Darlo Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) took things to a new level and set the tone for a decade of even greater suspense, sex and violence.

Strip Nude for Your Killer plays with these themes without being entirely convincing and perhaps its sense of humour is the downfall as if it is laughing too hard at its self-awareness and trying to shock too hard right up to the – literal – end joke.

Available from Amazon, parental guidance advised…