Saturday, 30 December 2017

Old new labour… No Love for Johnnie (1961)

The more things change the more politics stays (roughly) the same. This examination of the politics of ambition versus conviction, still strikes many a chord today after the fall of the centrist Labour movement and its still surprising replacement by the more overtly left-wing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum movement. Who knows where this will lead us but there are still plenty of men like Peter Finch’s MP Johnnie Byrne in all parties.

No Love for Johnnie was based on a novel by Wilfred Fienburgh who was not only a Labour MP from 1951 until his death in 1958 but was also described as “rather louche” by Anthony Howard and, according to Denis Healey, a man whose “good looks and big brown eyes often led him astray…” It’s hard not to conclude that his books contained at least some autobiographical references.

Johnnie Byrne is a charismatic MP on the rise… a new breed of politician who gives good copy and seems to represent the future of a party that could sense election victory as the Tories ran out of ground. Johnnie is a man who places his own interests ahead of his constituents, party and even friends and lovers. Johnnie is left of centre and is married to Alice (Rosalie Crutchley) a former member of the Communist Party, a situation that has held back his rise in the party.

Rosalie Crutchley
After a Labour victory, Johnnie must face the disappointment of being overlooked for a cabinet post and then coming home to find Alice has had enough and wants to leave him. The film is balanced between his desire to be loved by the party and its electorate as well as his need to replace Alice’s loving stability. Johnnie needs to decide what he wants the most and stumbles about for much of the film.

A young neighbour, Mary (Billie Whitelaw), who has obviously held a candle steps in to help and soon she is comforting Johnnie as he drowns his sorrows. The phone rings and Johnnie choses to answer it rather than focus on the girl in hand, gifting Mary the realisation that this guy will always jump at the political chance.

Billie Whitelaw
Despite this, Mary invites Johnnie along to a party hosted by the immaculate Sheila (the brilliant Fenella Fielding – still wowing us in her 90s!) where he meets an attractive young model, Pauline (played by the delicious Mary Peach). The following day he tracks Pauline to a photographer’s studio run by a chap named Flagg (the singular Dennis Price – what a cast this film has!) and pretends he has bumped into her by accident…

Meanwhile, Johnnie is being lined up as a stalking horse by a group of left-leaning MPs concerned at their new PM’s direction. These include Donald Pleasence as Roger Renfrew, Peter Sallis and Mervyn Johns as Charlie Young with the Prime Minister being played by Geoffrey Keen. They arrange for Johnnie to raise an awkward question about overseas aid at Question Time and as the in-fighting progresses, wise old-head Fred Andrews (Stanley Holloway on fine form; what a range he had), reminds Johnnie of his parents’ principles and their role in keeping the party together.

Mary Peach
The day arrives, and Johnnie is nowhere to be found… as the House of Commons prepares itself for the showdown he is in bed with Pauline finally consummating their relationship at precisely the time when he should have been standing up for his party’s values. But even as he seduces Pauline he begins the process of losing her as he overburdens the 20-year old with his 42-year old desire to settle down.

Back in Parliament he’s spurned by his co-conspirators and Renfrew exacts revenge by fixing for his constituency party to call him up north for a vote of no confidence. For the first time we see him squirm and lose confidence as the real passion of his comrades reveals his smooth talk as hollow and he just about survives the vote.

Meanwhile Pauline has gone missing and there are pitiful scenes with Mary who refuses to be his fall-back… he’s nothing without a woman it seems.

Spoilers: But, if a week is a long time in politics, these few days offer Johnnie a way back as a now grateful PM offers him a chance of promotion after the tragic resignation of a junior minister. Free of his wife with her troublesome past he’s now a player with a future, only Alice returns and he’s going to have to choose…

Dusty verdict: No Love for Johnnie may have its period charms but it’s a timeless play on politics, power and passion. Ralph Thomas directs a wordy script well and uses a quite splendid cast well.

Johnnie’s women are superb, especially Billie Whitelaw who can match Finch’s intensity. Mary Peach is well cast as Johnnie’s beautiful but unsuitable young love and against Finch’s worldly-wise and conflicted character she appears every inch the unformed girl who could not possibly commit to loving such a shadowed soul.

Finch won a BAFTA for the role and its easy to see why. He’s on screen for virtually the whole film and manages to make you care for this ultimately feckless chancer: he truly is Johnnie.

It’s now available on DVD from those Amazon people and makes for gripping viewing in these strange times…

Oliver Reed pops up at the party as Fenella and Peter negotiate

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Dirty old town… The Reckoning (1970)

You can take the boy out of Liverpool but… This is Get Carter with a more believable premise and a more chilling message produced over a year before Mike Hodges’ admittedly more stylish, Brit-noir classic.

It features a performance of characteristically-controlled intensity from Nicol Williamson as Michael Marler a second-generation Irish Scouser who has found there’s room at the top by seemingly abandoning his roots. He has evolved his persona to fit in and has a society wife, posh house, sharp suits and even sharper cars. Michael is a corporate killer in the emerging commercial world where old school ties are no longer enough when compared with the ruthless pursuit of success.

The fascination with this type of commercial success was very much of its time but Jack Gold’s film goes further than most in linking the mentality with deeper and more instinctive traits for survival and success.

Great shot of Liverpool in 1969, GPO Tower thrusting optimistically amidst the relics...
At one point Michael shoots his Jaguar through road works narrowly avoiding death and turns to his wife exclaiming that if he can get away with that he can get away with anything… he’s living faster and is re-learning the tricks of the trade as it were: cunning and ruthless he was but taking all this a step further… and he’s the kind of man who will make the next century!

Bold statements perhaps but Gold’s direction is serious and well-paced whilst Nicholson could act his way out of a high-security cell without anyone noticing, smuggling so much meaning you’d only know what it was when it was gone… he’s that subtle.

Michael is in a state of constant conflict, in the midst of the constant battles of corporate politics and ongoing domestic pugilism with a relationship with wife Rosemary (Ann Bell) that is almost sado-masochistic. She’s home countries deb stock with a wit to match his but he is still her bit of rough and their main intercourse is either violent or sexual… It’s an unusual relationship but one that endures… what does that tell us?

Nicol Williamson and Ann Bell
As he is busy saving his boss from a stitch-up – fast-moving politics are the order of the day – Michael gets the call to go back to Liverpool as his father is seriously ill. His boss doesn’t want him to go and delays his return so that Michael can provide him with the ammunition he needs to save his skin and get one over on the “enemy”.

He delays Michael long enough for him to miss his final goodbye… as he races up the M1 and M6 to find his Da John Joe (Ernest C. Jennings) just passed. There are poignant shots of Michael’s shiny Jaguar against the Liverpudlian decay… all along time before the regeneration that, incidentally, now threatens the City’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status… there’s an irony there somewhere but this is one of the great metropolises.

Michael’s mother (Gwen Nelson) describes her husband as having a fall but his sister Kath (Christine Hargreaves) knows more… Michael gets nothing but a lecture from his Da’s doctor (Godfrey Quigley) and the local priest, Father Madden (Desmond Perry) with whom his Da has craftily left a final message for his son to embrace his Catholicism and heritage more closely than the battle for business glory.

Michael’s having none of it… but he is distraught at his father’s passing, tears welling up as he realises the enormity of the loss itself and his day-to-day denials… we’re all sustained by the fantasy of workplace routine.

Michael sets out to find out what actually happened to his father and visits his working men’s club to quiz Cocky Burke (J. G. Devlin), his drinking buddy. It’s a slice of seventies culture as vivid as the pub Carter visits on his return to Newcastle only the signer’s better and the locals more accommodating. Cocky explains that his father took a beating from some bikers and points him in the direction of the lad who hit the hardest.

This is the law of the jungle… and Michael is expected to “do something” as the English police will neither be co-operated with nor expected to help investigate an Irish Catholic’s death. Religion is hugely important in a city where, even today, two thirds of English Catholics live but they’re also in the police force. All that aside, nothing will be done unless the family takes care of it.

Nicol Williamson and Rachel Roberts
Michael takes refuge in a night of passion with a married woman, Joyce (Rachel Roberts) and together they spend an electric night rediscovering passion that might change the course of their lives. Michael certainly has more in common with Joyce than with his wife – he likes her for a start - and Joyce, in a married holding pattern of her own, feels an intensity long lost in years of drudge.

But, the World moves on and Michael flies down to London again in his Jag for more corporate manoeuvres and the narrative picks up tremendous pace as the urge to violent retribution leads Michael into ever more aggressive and reckless displays at work… This is where the film goes deeper than Get Carter as Michael is able to find acceptance from a corporate leadership beginning to value results at all costs… The twin tracks of the concluding segments are devastating and surprising in this respect as you really don’t expect the ending you get (no spoilers).

War at work
Dusty verdict: The Reckoning is a complex and challenging period gem with Williamson’s performance being of the highest quality. The supporting cast are some of the finest character actors of the time and, of course, Rachel Roberts is superb: he comparison of sexual satisfaction with childhood memories of the “extra dumpling” is compelling and disturbing at the same time… It’s an underlying theme of the film, instinctive, base gratification is far more part of our lives than we’d admit.

The violence comes with added sexism and an entirely intentional abuse of some women characters all of which gives a lie to the “it was a different era” defence for recently-exposed harassers: yes, some men did but then other men didn’t and then made films about it…

If you like Get Carter, Man of Violence and other turn of the decade British noir you’ll love this, and you can now get it on Blu-ray from those nice people at Amazon.

Southport's nice...