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 metropolis.

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...

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Ted talk… The Boys (1962), Original cast reunion and screening, Elstree Studios

This film represents British cinema between two eras, as the young cast improvises its way as defendants in a trial played out by more traditional actors as prosecutors. The scenes in which the four accused are cross-examined in a courtroom filmed from asymmetrical angles has Richard Todd, Felix Aylmer and Robert Morley as the barristers and judge, largely sticking to script against Dudley Sutton, Jess Conrad, Ronald Lacey and Tony Garnett.

Three of the accused were present in this screening at Elstree, 55 years after The Boys had been shot there. Sutton, Conrad and Garnett were unanimous in their praise of Robert Morley and damning of Todd, who was inflexible and unhelpful; performing the minimum required whereas Morley had taken an interest in these three youngsters and seemingly improvised alongside them.

Todd’s performance is not bad and has enough flexibility to convince but Morley is a revelation especially when he recalls being bullied as the “fat boy” at school; it’s heartfelt and all too believable. In comparison Mr Todd appears to be acting in a different film.

Dudley Sutton
Dudley Sutton – no fan of watching his own performances – has enjoyed a huge career with a list on IMDB as long as your arm – if your arm is very long - and felt his film debut was self-conscious. He said it took him until well into his forties to realise that the best actors don’t “try” so hard. But in The Boys, he is still highly watchable as Stan Coulter a working-class boy with an unpredictable edge.

Tony Garnett, here playing Ginger Thompson, an apprentice labourer proud of his union card, went on to work with Ken Loach for many years and produced Cathy Come Home, Poor Cow and many other landmarks of social realism. He praised the great Carol White’s cameo in this film, The Battersea Bardot speaking with truthful accent and manner, no RP here! Garnett was the most constructed in his thoughts on The Boys, as you’d expect from a man who, realising he wasn’t going to better Albert Finney changed direction to get more involved in the creative process of his films: he wanted to be there when the decisions were made on tone and message.

Tony Garnett
Jess Conrad, who is a force of nature, supernaturally good humoured but with his humble origins providing the drive to make the most of himself, was the one cast perhaps mostly for who he was rather than his ability to act. This is no bad thing and with Ronald Lacey completing the line-up of the accused, there was plenty of acting ability on show. To paraphrase Louise Brooks, there are two types of actors, those who act themselves (she included herself) and those who act

The Boys tells of these four teenagers – Garnett felt they were all miss-cast all being well into their twenties – who are accused of robbing a petrol station and killing the attendant. The story begins with their appearance in court and their plea of “not guilty”.

The Ace Face: Jess Conrad
At first the succession of witnesses makes it clear that the circumstantial evidence is stacked against them as is the opinion of the prosecution and jury. Richard Todd plays the prosecuting counsel Victor Webster whilst Robert Morley is Montgomery, defence counsel who looks to have a hopeless cause. Every single account seems to push the lads further into the mire from Wilfrid Brambell’s toilet attendant, Roy Kinnear’s bus conductor to Carol White’s Evelyn, who claims they harassed her.

But Montgomery takes every account and questions whether or not the witness was influenced by the way the boys look: youth and Teddy Boy jackets a marker of defiance and potential trouble-maker. In fairness, the lads aren’t entirely Teds as Jess Conrad’s smart white Italian suit – chosen to make him stand out – is a movement forward in style.

But Montgomery is flying kites unless he can get more information out from the boys themselves… is this just a natural mistrust of authority and a society that views them as always being guilty of something?

Mr Morley and the boys
It’s a tribute to their performances as well as the writing and Sidney J. Furie’s direction that we find ourselves gradually viewing the boys as innocent despite of what seemed conclusive evidence. But we should never judge any book by its cover and the viewer’s own faculties and prejudice is being tested here as well.

Furie went on to success winning the best film BAFTA for The Ipcress File (1966) and then directing Brando in The Appaloosa (1966) and Sinatra in The Naked Runner (1967). He also directed The Leather Boys (1964) again with Dudley Sutton as well as two Cliff Richard films… but the least said about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) the better.  He still makes films to this day.

Here the Canadian was still learning about the British class system but listened to his young charges when they complained about attempts to “slum-down” the Peabody Estate flats in which they were filming. Jess Conrad had relatives in this part of London and they took a pride in their flat as did most people.

The Battersey Bardot: Carol White - one of the finest actors of the era!
Ironically enough, the same double standards that the film is trying to expose… As opinions are slowly called into question, what seems to have been just a rather cash-strapped and unsuccessful night out for the boys seems to have been painted far too black… But the fat lady is not singing and there may be time for the odd twist of two.

The Boys real agenda is more about the punishment than the crime as, if found guilty and in the specific circumstances of violent theft, the Judge would be left with only one option and that would be to sentence the guilty party to death. This was two years before the death penalty was finally dropped and the film was obviously feeding into the contemporary debate.

Asked whether he thought it had “made a difference” Tony was doubtful… and also pointed out that The Boys did not receive much support from the studios and distributors at the time…with the result that it never enjoyed wide release.

The high line over the strictly-regulated space of the court room
Dusty Verdict: The Boys packs a powerful punch and feels fresh because of the actors and the improvisation encouraged be Furie. It is indeed a mighty performance from Robert Morley and a story that is hard-hitting and uncompromising. Part of the movement away from the kitchen sink to more complex issues relating to the working man’s place in the world.

Tony Garnett clearly went into more overtly political film-making and even later in his career, amongst the hits like the TV series This Life, he has made films that challenge accepted thinking. He was the thinker and Dudley Sutton we know was the Tinker but he is also an actor of exceptional range and expression who remains a compelling presence. As is Jess Conrad a man who took the time to patiently answer our questions about his hit single, This Pullover…

The screening was arranged by Talking Pictures TV and Renown Pictures who included a DVD of The Boys in the package: the first digital release for this important film! Well done on both parts but particular gratitude to the three gentlemen who were, long ago, The Boys.

Copies are available direct from the Renown website.