BluRay/DVD Reviews

BASIL DEARDEN’S LONDON UNDERGROUND

By • Feb 2nd, 2011 •

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I approached VICTIM with trepidation. It wreaked with intimations of all-too-serious treatment of the theme of homosexuality in London. But, as I was fooled by the awful title THE KING’S SPEECH, finding in that film a vastly entertaining romp behind the Hallmark Theater moniker, so I found a much more entertaining film here as well. Much of that is how stunningly it is shot by Otto Heller; and the rest is the direction, and the casting. After a line-up of British actors of a certain age (James Mason, Jack Hawkins, etc) turned it down, the script was re-written for a younger man, and Dirk Bogarde stepped up to the plate.

I think it’s slightly a cheat, since all that Bogarde’s character, barrister Melville Farr, has done is to give a young gay man several lifts in his car, and a picture was taken which showed nothing compromising except for the young man’s emotional state. So Bogarde’s character, a rising lawyer with a lot at stake, still isn’t in the kind of hot water that other blackmailed gays are in this narrative. Perhaps that was toned down just as the age-range was altered. But regardless, the film marches in and does battle with the issue head-on, and may indeed have helped the cause, as the law was in flux at the time, but the repeal, as I understand it, was not entirely in place until 1967.

There’s a scene, where Bogarde’s loving but unsettled wife confronts him in their library, and the lighting on her face is quite harsh – over-exposed as compared to his, which is closer to the lens. It’s a marvelous explication of her state of mind, communicated by light and shadow. That’s an example of what I mean in praising the wonderfully engaging B&W cinematography, and it hasn’t dated a bit, beyond the obvious fact that it wasn’t a period piece then, and it is now. In addition, the social issues in the film are balanced with the crime elements and the police procedure, nicely handled by a slew of both gifted and interesting-looking actors.

I’d seen SAPPHIRE when it came out – 1959 – and remember liking it but being slightly put off by it’s contrasty look. I hold with that memory, for who knows how the theatrical prints looked compared with what I saw on the DVD. It still plays into the new realism and police procedural, and so, hasn’t a Hollywood sheen. But it isn’t particularly contrasty now, in this mastering.

As with VICTIM, Dearden dives head-first into a social issue – in this case, racism. And we get hammered with it at every opportunity. It still has plenty of punch, because even the memory of racism is painful, and because, frankly, while mutated into another form, racism still exists and is an indicator of just how disappointing our societies really are.

All performances are good. The art direction is muted and consistent. A quite young Barbara Steele makes her first film appearance in a pub sequence with some other high school or college kids and, speaking with her afterwards, she claimed not to have remembered having any lines…but she does have a few, though nothing worth remembering certainly. As with VICTIM, the print is very good. Well, VICTIM is more than very good. It’s pristine.

ALL NIGHT LONG is a stylized departure, but the social issues are still in place. This time it’s the swinging London Jazz scene, superimposed over Shakespeare’s Othello. Black Jazz great Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) has married white blues singer Delia Lane (Marti Stevens), and a wealthy entrepreneur is throwing a mega-bash in his off-the-beaten-path recording studio/club/pad to celebrate their first anniversary. Jealous, desperate drummer Johnny Cousins (Patrick McGoohan) is driven to undermine the royal couple to serve his own ends.

The location is great grist for the art director’s mill, and Dearden’s partner/producer, Michael Relph, returns to his earlier forte to design this marvelous set. Outside are film noir streets, and both the interiors and exteriors are brilliantly photographed by Ted (NIGHT OF THE DEMON, KHARTOUM, THE DIRTY DOZEN, DARK OF THE SUN) Scaife. It’s his only appearance on this four disc collection, and I think it’s the best work of his career. There is, however, a link between the look of this film,, and that of the other B&W’s in this batch, so more gifted cooks were clearly stirring the stew.

McGoohan should have been ideally suited for this insidious role. As an actor he was quirky, given to sudden, rapid movements, experimental in performance choices – he was like a jazz riff come to life. And certainly there are bravura choices made here. But in sum, he’s too loud, almost over the top given the general ensemble tone. He reminds me of Basil Rathbone in THE DAWN PATROL and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, forever hysterical, as if on the precipice of a nervous breakdown. Rathbone made it work. McGoohan does not.

It doesn’t deep-six the film. And there’s a big reason for that, but first, the other pieces of the thespian mosaic. Richard Attenborough plays the wealthy entrepreneur. He’s good. Paul Harris as Rex, the Othello target of McGoohan’s wrath, is the calm, majestic center of the storm. A compelling face and towering presence, he anchors the drama. I couldn’t find much information about either his life or career. He was in a UK TV series called MOONSTRIKE, a thriller about covert activities of Allied agents in WWII. Many of his shots are frame-filling close-ups, and he has the gravitas to pull them off.

Marti Stevens has the Desdemona role, and she looks a bit worn and haggard as Rex’s wife, but gets lovelier as the film progresses. But the big news is the assemblage of Jazz greats playing themselves. I mean…Dave Brubeck strolling in, plunking himself down at the piano, and playing a new composition for the film! Just look above (in the credits) for the mind-boggling list of jazz luminaries. For many, this rare opportunity probably means more than the film’s story. But it all coalesces; it isn’t just a thin plot tied to a jazz session, like some of the Hollywood WWII talent-gathering, soldier-supporting film projects the studios pumped out.

There was a rock version of Othello, too. Called CATCH MY SOUL, it was the brainchild of Jack Good, who wanted Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis to play Othello and Iago respectively on stage, and to face off and deliver their dialogue over dueling pianos. He got Jerry Lee Lewis. Later his production was made into a film, with Richie Havens as the Othello character and Lance LeGault as Iago. The director was…Patrick McGoohan. If you’d like to see my letter to Laurence Olivier about this, and Olivier’s amused reply, check out the Sept/Oct 1996 hard-copy of Films in Review.

Several years before THE DIRTY DOZEN, there was the English Eight – a group of ex-military men guilty of various degrees of shadiness (though no psychotics fill the roster as in the Aldrich film), recruited by bitter ex-Colonel Jack Hawkins to pull off an elaborate bank robbery. It’s a fun romp and, according to the liner notes, one of the few films by Dearden’s indie company that really scored big at the box office. The other three in this collection, I gather, performed decently, but not robustly enough to keep the company afloat.

It’s also the most compromised of the quartet in terms of master element damage. In this case it’s the sound element. Voices and music have a distracting muddiness due to residual track hiss, very common with British dupe negatives in the early days designed for the US distributors to strike release prints. Only in this case the picture is generally excellent, so the quality drop in the sound department is baffling. It doesn’t ruin the fun, but it’s noticeable.

The performing by a terrific assembly of UK thesps is top notch, and a homophobic Richard Attenborough, wary of being billited with former sex offender Kieron (DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS) Moore, is quite amusing. In addition, at 39:40, there is a mincing cameo by Oliver Reed that you will not believe. It’s the lightest entertainment of the four, with no social text, yet has all the Dearden/Relph earmarks – fine cinematography, art direction, and editing.

One further thing to mention about LEAGUE. The opening shot is a great Noir genre gag. Jack Hawkins pops his head out of a manhole after pushing the cover aside, then has to retreat as a sanitation truck comes by spraying the road. In effect, it is wetting down the streets for archetypal Noir lighting, but we’re in on the process, alerting us that we are in for some light-hearted crime hijinx.

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