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BRITISH FILM NOIR: PART 2

By • May 20th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2 3

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Alec Guinness in KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, 1949.

The rough checklist of British noir given at the close of this article of itself gives some indication of the difference between it and its Hollywood parallel. It is far more ambiguous, and, for example, lays far less stress on the city as a center of crime and corruption. A great many American noirs give clear-cut locations in their titles; the word city is used many times (THE NAKED CITY, THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS etc.) while specific cities (New York, Phoenix, Chicago, etc.) are used with equal frequency. Despite its periodic use as a noir location, London is actually used only twice in noir titles in the nearly 30-year-period under review, and the word city” is limited to that very typical noir title NIGHT AND THE CITY, and it’s no coincidence that that was an American film, made in England and designed as a follow-up to the same director’s (Jules Dassin) American THE NAKED CITY. The only word spectacularly common to both American and British noirs is ”night.” While it’s only coincidence it is remarkable that that word figures in both titles of the first bona fide British noirs (THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE) as well as in what might be considered the precursor of all American noirs, D. W. Griffith’s 1909 In the WATCHES OF THE NIGHT.

The checklist needs a few words of explanation. The boundaries of 1938 and 1963 are almost self-imposed; 1938 because its THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT is clearly the first authentic British noir, and 1963 because (as in the States) the thrust of noir was being blunted by two key elements. The weakening and eventual virtual disappearance of regimented censorship was removing the sense of doom and retribution that was so much a part of noir thematics, while the more widespread use of color was eliminating the stark black and white visual stylistics.

Not all of the films listed contain both visual and thematic characteristics, but they contain enough of them (in my opinion at least) to qualify. More problematical were the films eliminated. Many British horror films and straight thrillers contained black elements and could, arguably, have been added to the list, as could many British gothics and literary adaptations. The 1941 adaptation of Cronin’s HATTER’S CASTLE was designed and staged so much like a horror film that it was indeed, at one period of its life, given an “H” censor certificate (categorizing it as a horror film not to be seen by children under 16, whether accompanied by an adult or not). In such cases I used one basic criteria: if the noir mood was unavoidably dictated by the original literary source then I did not include it, but if it reflected current filmic noir stylistics, than I did. Thus Olivier’s Hamlet and Lean’s OLIVER TWIST were by-passed because the Shakespeare and Dickens originals clearly transcended film fashion, and their noir look sprang naturally from their mood and plot. But Cavalcanti’s NICHOLAS NICKELBY was included because that director imposed a noir style (especially on the final third) that was not necessarily required by the original. I admit to being very hard-pressed to eliminate the 1929 THE INFORMER, but despite its plot and visual style, it seemed to be more the most extreme intention of the German filmic invasion of Britain at that time than an expression of early British noir experimentation. Had it been the latter, more would have followed. None did, save such borderline cases as Hitchcock’s MURDER and BLACKMAIL.

The Angry Young Man’ school, typified by such films as SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING I have largely by-passed, partly because they are essentially realistic rather than stylized visually, and because, in the long run, after all the anger has been expended, they are essentially optimistic.

With anthology or compendium films, combining several plot lines or short stories, I have used one basic rule of thumb. Those, like THREE CASES OF MURDER and DEAD OF NIGHT, where at least two thirds of the contents fit into a noir category, have been included. Those, like TRAIN OF EVENTS and HOLIDAY CAMP where the noir elements are subordinate, have been excised.

With the unofficial wartime ban on downbeat and depressing subjects, there is an inclination to look for noir characteristics in order to maintain a sense of continuity. One is tempted to make a case for THE MAN IN GREY and FANNY BY GASLIGHT, but they are essentially Regency romances, colored a little blacker than most by the dour omnipresence of James Mason. 1944, at the peak of the war, is the one year that almost denied British noir totally. One certainly finds traces of it in the photographic style (and especially certain interior compositions) of Powell and Pressburger’s A CANTERBURY TALE, but the film as a whole is far too warm, human and optimistic to qualify. Oddly, the only 1944 film that does qualify is an Ealing comedy, MY LEARNED FRIEND, Will Hay’s final film. A tale of the pursuit of a mass murderer (Mervyn Johns, in this role, turns it into a kind of unofficial precursor to the following year’s DEAD OF NIGHT), it is often quite grisly, and includes a madhouse sequence with Ernest Thesiger as the pottiest of its patients. Incidentally, its climax-a slapstick chase on Big Ben, the hands of which are hooked to explosives-while clearly borrowed from Lloyd’s SAFETY LAST itself was patently copied for the climax to the last version of THE 39 STEPS.

Gene Tierney in NIGHT AND THE CITY, 1950.

As in American noir, there are some interesting variations from the norm. The British tried Comedies of Murder several times, but apart from KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, never achieved the skills that Hollywood brought to UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER (a much under-rated film today, and still one the funniest comedies of the thirties) or MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Despite a Robert Hamer script, the British A JOLLY BAD FELLOW fell strangely flat. But just as Hollywood, avoiding b/w visuals, made brilliantly stylized Technicolor noir out of a soap opera (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN) or a Western (DUEL IN THE SUN) so the British turned Technicolor to spectacular advantage. BLANCHE FURY (1948) was a magnificently designed film directed by Marc Allegret, emphasizing its doomed characteristics by being narrated in flashback from a deathbed, and in many ways (some deliberately) was a noir equivalent to GONE WITH THE WIND. It was also not difficult to turn British history into noir. On the whole British history (except to the non-British) is inordinately dull, being essentially a matter of political alliances, marriages of convenience, assassinations and an occasional battle usually too expensive for British producers to stage properly. The trouble with all of European history is that most of its pioneering sweep was disposed of so early. (As British school-children, how we yearned to get out of the Middle Ages in our history lessons and into the colorful sweep of the American Civil War and the opening up of new frontiers in the West-only to be disappointed when our teachers disposed of all that in a lesson or two, and quickly brought us back to European machinations!) British producers, in films like THE DICTATOR, loved to explore little-known segments of European history that had had some remote impact on British history. Basil Dearden’s SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS (1948) was an exception however, and Robert Hamers script turned it into a kind of serious parallel to his subsequent KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. Its complicated maneuverings within the House of Hanover proved to be ideal noir material. All of its characters were essentially losers, and even those who emerged political victors paid for it with an excess of personal loss. And again, the sense of unavoidable doom was maintained through the typical noir device of telling the tale in flashback, in the form of a deathbed-dictated letter. The color and set design were magnificent, and oddly enough, in black-and-white (as it was released to American TV) it took on even more of a noirish stance, those sets becoming more menacing and claustrophobic when drained of their rich color.

As with American noir, a major change took place in the immediate postwar years, when wartime neuroses and hangovers provided legitimately additional plot elements. In a general sense, elements of fantasy were lessened in this period, and the approach was more realistic. Typical are two adaptations of Nigel Balchin books, MINE OWN EXECUTIONER (1947, directed by Anthony Kimmins) and THE SMALL BACK ROOM (1949, directed by Michael Powell) the approach is almost documentarian, the elements of fantasy and expressionistic design being limited to, in the former film, hypnosis-induced memories, and in the latter, a delirium tremens nightmare.

British noir, in its post-war years, is perhaps a little less dynamic and stylistic than noir at its peak, but it benefits from the infusion of many new influences and talents. The Hollywood influence becomes more apparent in films like 1957’s THE LONG HAUL, vaguely similar to Raoul Walsh’s THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, and with many noir characters and visual set-pieces transferred smoothly from Hollywood. Top Hollywood directors such as the exiled Joseph Losey (his BLIND DATE of 1959 is one of the very best of later British noirs, its link to French cinema maintained by the presence of Micheline Presle in the female lead) and Robert Wise made films in Britain, as did Jacques Tourneur, while Michael Powell invaded noir wholeheartedly for the first time, and might have contributed much to that field had it not been for the scandal caused by his PEEPING TOM.

One is almost tempted to regard his THE RED SHOES (1948) as part of a Powell noir trilogy. Certainly in theme and resolution it is pure noir, but trying to attach that label to a Technicolor ballet firm might create a lot of opposition. (In 1946’s similar but b/w SPECTRE OF THE ROSE there is no such problem. One wonders if Ben Hecht, writer/director of that excellent American film, had also been inspired by the Hans Andersen tale of red shoes.) Powell followed THE RED SHOES with the outstanding THE SMALL BACK ROOM and GONE TO EARTH, both substantially cut and changed in this country, though the former did finally make it to American TV release in its full form.

Too many of the British post-war noirs (WOMEN OF TWILIGHT, THE FLESH IS WEAK) merely exploited the freedom provided by the lessening censorship and the new Adults Only “X” certificate to present films that were little more than well-mounted exploitation films. But against these one had such genuinely unusual and creative films as 1960’s NEVER LET GO and 1962’s ALL NIGHT LONG. Both of these were derivative too, but in rather ingenious ways. NEVER LET GO was virtually an equivalent to the Italian BICYCLE THIEF, with Richard Todd as a salesman whose livelihood is threatened when his essential car is stolen by a gang of thieves headed by Peter Sellers. And ALL NIGHT LONG is a particularly neat updating of Othello to the world of London jazz musicians, in which its Desdemona is married to a black trumpet player. Its Iago (Patrick McGoohan) sets the Shakespearean machinations in motion in order to wreck the marriage and steal her away for himself and his own jazz combo. It all plays better and more naturally than it probably sounds.

While much of British noir is as standardized as its Hollywood counterpart, much of it too deserves serious reappraisal and reavailability. Many films (such as LONDON BELONGS TO ME) deserve a second chance. Others, like OFF-BEAT, never even had a limited first chance, and were pushed under the rug of independent or television release without a chance to garner even minor attention. Still others were never released here at all (THE FATAL NIGHT) or were so ruined by re-shooting or editing for American release (THE BROTHERS suffered particularly in this respect, its original amoral and starkly tragic ending being changed into a moral and blithely happy one) that they have no reputation here at all. British film noir is clearly a field for major reassessment. Perhaps it should start with the British Film Institute, thus giving it an automatic cultural respectability which might stimulate American archives and viewing institutions to import a definitive series.

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