My Top 10 British Films – 3

The Wicker Man (1973)

From the pen of the late, great Anthony Shaffer comes one of the most chilling, iconic and original films in all of movie history. Set on the fictitious Scottish island of Summerisle, the Wicker Man features superb performances by Edward Woodward as police Sergeant Howie and Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle. Woodward has said that Howie was the best part he ever played, while Lee maintained that the Wicker Man was his finest film.

Supported by a deep bench of quirky and accomplished character actors, director Robin Hardy follows the increasingly labyrinthine twists and turns of Sergeant Howie’s investigation into the apparent disappearance of a young girl. Every step Howie takes into that remote community’s strange rites and customs brings him closer to his own carefully planned and agonisingly awful demise.

Hardy skilfully exploits Shaffer’s slow but relentless ratchet-turning writing to build a richly detailed, absorbing and thoroughly grounded society in which the hapless Howie quickly becomes lost, flounders and is ultimately destroyed. With a memorable music score and some excellent cinematography typical of the era, the Wicker Man is one of many films that disprove the idea that only a big budget production with aggressive marketing can stand the test of time.

Modern moviemakers and games developers often talk of depth or believability in the worlds they imagine, and this shoestring British classic is one of the earliest and best examples of that art. Schaffer didn’t just write characters, he created a compelling world for them to live in, complete with its own music, folklore and traditions. It is this cultural depth and attention to detail which makes an otherwise outrageous storyline compelling and believable, as the characters are moved and motivated by the world they inhabit and the values they regard as self-evidently true.

Dogged by production problems, shrouded in controversy and surrounded by rumour, the Wicker Man has become part cult classic and part urban myth in its own right, in a way peculiar to only a handful of movies released within the span of a few short years. Just like many of its contemporaries, it feels almost as though the Wicker Man has become somehow greater than the sum of its parts, as though something almost supernatural has seeped into the sprocket holes, waiting to be unleashed whenever the movie plays.

Now well into its fourth decade of life, the Wicker Man continues to delight, puzzle, outrage and intrigue movie fans and horror aficionados. Again, like many of its contemporaries, this movie boasts some of the most famous stills and publicity shots in cinema history, and its reliable appearance in authoritative lists of truly great films means that the Wicker Man will be reborn as each new generation comes of age.

My Top 10 British Films – 4

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Ultra-violence, drugs, sex, crime, punishment and the human capacity for evil are just a few of the subjects covered by one of the most talked about releases in all of movie history.

With its outlandish characters, outrageous costumes and memorable direction, Stanley Kubrick’s outrageous dystopian pantomime creates a world which is both totally unrealistic and yet unsettlingly familiar. Nothing in this retro-futuristic fantasy looks or sounds quite like the world we know, which helps to keep the viewer off-balance during the whole cinematic experience. Like a blurry photocopy, the costumed facsimile of Alex and his droogs kind of resembles something from our everyday experience, even though it’s a misshapen and fuzzy representation of the reality we all share.

As we follow Alex on his journey from joyously psychotic gang leader, to reluctant prisoner, through willing guinea pig and political patsy, we know we’re watching a psychodrama set in an imagined world, yet that does nothing to quell a strange yet poorly defined feeling of unease this movie often conjures in its audience.

Although the themes are timeless, the grey, brutalist concrete world Alex and his cohorts inhabit is indicative of an era that spawned a whole library of dark, gritty and unrelentingly challenging films. A Clockwork Orange distils, extracts and exemplifies that knowing sense of social unease threaded through movies like Taxi Driver and Dirty Harry as they reflect on the bitter harvest of alienation, violence and social dysfunction left in the wake of the post-war consensus.

This is why A Clockwork Orange still resonates with audiences to this day. On the subconscious and collective levels, we recognise this film as a by-product of our religious adherence to malleable ideas of progress, re-heated and served back to us in this oddly sour yet compelling cultural concoction. We see the big, difficult questions in the background, while the folly of ignoring them is acted out by the characters portrayed on screen. We may not know Alex in person, but we know only too well where he comes from…although we don’t really like to admit it.

It’s rare for any single movie to be quite so influential on popular culture as A Clockwork Orange, but Kubrick’s expertly off-kilter adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ insightful novella has created some of the most instantly recognisable imagery of the entire twentieth century. The controversy surrounding on-screen violence and real-world murder which swirled around this movie during the 1970s has elevated it to the status of a cultural artefact, rather than just a very well made and oddly disturbing film. Whether it means to or not, A Clockwork Orange says something unsettling about who we are as individuals, governments and societies, and the questions it asks of us are difficult to answer.

My Top 10 British Films – 5

How to get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

Starring Richard E Grant as the archetypal 80s yuppie, this hilarious and metaphorical study of a burned-out executive’s midlife crisis paints a familiar human face on the zeitgeist of our modern consumer age.

Although seemingly successful on the outside, hotshot advertising executive Denis Dimbleby Bagley hits a brick wall when he’s asked to come up with a catchy advertising campaign for yet another new acne treatment. It should be easy for a man of his talents, but instead he comes up empty as all of his personal doubts, demons and neuroses congeal into a psychological poison which has been festering inside him for years.

Sliding rapidly into a nervous breakdown, Bagley’s deteriorating mental health manifests physically as a boil on his shoulder, which continues to grow despite various attempts at treatment. Eventually it develops its own voice as Bagley’s inner conflict breaks out into open warfare. As he constantly fights with himself, those around him and society at large, Bagley struggles with the universal yet intensely personal question of whether he is really a good man, who’s led a worthy life. However, as this movie so clearly demonstrates, the answer to that fundamental question is not always “yes”.

Released during what many people regard as Handmade Films’ most creative period, Bruce Robinson’s hilarious scripting and direction mercilessly skewers both social convention and personal pomposity, while also challenging many of the comfortable, middle-class assumptions that rule not only the characters’ lives but also our own, regardless of where we’ve actually come from.

One of the particular strengths of the script is its sense of balance. While Bagley believes his existential angst is something new and unique, Richard Wilson’s older and more experienced portrayal of Bagley’s boss has seen his own share of therapy, and looks upon his junior’s struggle as a natural part of the creative and evolutionary process. Bagley becomes each and every one of us as he struggles in vain against the rising tide of his own commercial instincts. Probably the most unsettling part of the whole movie is that, despite its boorish manners and unrepentant dog eat dog outlook, Bagley’s boil is always honest when it speaks.

Like all truly great scripts, How to get Ahead in Advertising remains relevant and reinvents itself for each new generation. The much lauded pork pie rant applies as much to today’s fake news as it did to yesterday’s fake flavourings. More than anything else, this movie reminds us how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This film is as funny as it is insightful, and it manages to perfectly frame the eternal struggle between activist and pragmatist that plays out daily inside each and every one of us. It had much to teach when it was first released, and probably even more so today, which is why How to get Ahead in Advertising easily makes it into my top ten British films.

My Top 10 British Films – 6

Layer Cake (2004)

Starring a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, this sleek and stylish reimagining of the British crime thriller is filled with more twists and turns than a mountain goat track as we follow an anonymous cocaine dealer who finds himself sucked further and further into a criminal underworld he’s long been planning to escape.

Charged with the relatively simple task of finding the missing daughter of a crime boss, our “hero” soon finds himself caught in the crosshairs of an elite underworld assassin tracking down a stolen drugs shipment. With events fast spiralling out of his control, the always smooth and clean-cut cocaine supplier is finally forced to step in and get his own hands dirty in order to save first his liberty and then his life.

Despite repeatedly claiming not to be a gangster, our cocaine supplier soon realises that he faces a stark choice between an un…marked grave and scrambling to the top of the bloodied underworld pyramid. The clear lesson is that you’re either in the underworld of you’re not. Our protagonist’s own words come back to haunt him as he learns how dabblers and wannabes inevitably inhabit a world of pain, grief and regret…but only if they’re lucky.

Expertly written by J J Connolly,
Layer Cake is a skilfully crafted trip into an inescapable rabbit warren of organised crime, shifting loyalties and official corruption. Many of the characters inside this underworld such as Duke, Morty and Eddie Temple are so well-developed that they manage to be both larger-than-life and completely believable at the same time. A difficult accomplishment for any author. Each of the players reveal detailed and often interwoven histories which help to keep their personalities grounded and their actions well motivated.

Although super smooth and sleeker than a Japanese bullet train, director Matthew Vaughn resisted the urge to indulge in too much of the directorial and cinematic masturbation which has been the Achilles heel of so many promising movies during the early 21st-century.

Beautifully shot, skillfully penned and featuring the haunting vocals of no lesser talent than Lisa Gerrard, Layer Cake is every part the modern crime thriller, but it’s also a lot more as it probes the wider issues around society’s war on drugs and its unintended consequences. It’s also one of the best looking movies you’ll ever see.

If you’re looking for a cool crime caper that’s well scripted, believable and actually has something of substance to say, then Layer Cake is definitely the film for you.

My Top 10 British Films – 7

The Hill (1965)

Almost forgotten now, this tense and relentless prison drama stars a young Sean Connery as busted Sergeant Joe Roberts trying to survive a notorious Middle Eastern prison camp during the bloody campaigns of World War II.

Ably abetted by an excellent supporting cast including Ossie Davis and a surprisingly serious turn by Roy Kinnear, The Hill is a searing and bleak study of dehumanising bureaucracy, psychological torture and overt institutional cruelty. Brilliantly shot and superbly scripted, this simple premise follows the incarceration and steady deterioration of five very different characters as each one is hammered relentlessly by the incessant malice of a vengeful staff establishment.

As Roberts and his cell-mates are pushed to their physical and psychological limits, each one disintegrates under the stress to reveal both their own and the system’s shortcomings. The death of one prisoner finally pushes mutinous mutterings into outright rebellion as the rule of law rapidly breaks down, with the men turning on both their captors and one another. After a tense stand-off between prisoners and staff, order is finally restored when the inflexible camp commander at last shows some leadership, having been relentlessly undermined by one of his over-zealous underlings.

Although Connery and the others gave great performances, the real star of this show was Ian Hendry, whose brilliantly understated interpretation of a born sadist hiding in plain sight made the character of Staff Sergeant Williams one of cinema’s most chilling, believable and sadly neglected on-screen psychopaths. Hendry’s portrayal of a fearsome prison officer quietly building his own, personal power structure inside an established institution is as insightful as it is instructive.

Scripted by Ray Rigby, the true horror of The Hill is often lost on first viewing. It lies not in the physical torments of searing sun and endless drill, but instead it lurks in a hundred petty slights and humiliations as the screw is silently and relentlessly tightened. From the moment the inmates double in through the gates, Williams and the system behind him lay claim to every aspect of a prisoner’s being, both inside and out. Not only are the inmates ordered what to do and when, but also when to laugh, when to stop laughing, what to say and when to say it. The world of The Hill owns them mind, body and soul, and just as that mountain of sand and rock can be seen from all parts of the prison, so the men forced to march up and down it daily will live in its shadow long after they’ve served their time.

The Hill is a very unusual film. In many ways it feels more like the original play by R.S. Allen as it boasts no musical score, and its main focus is the dialogue and interplay between the characters. At the same time, it’s brilliantly shot and directed by Oswald Morris and Sidney Lumet respectively, leading to a compelling if not altogether cheerful cinematic experience. The use of light, shade and close-ups from unusual angles keeps this black and white movie feeling fresh and innovative, despite it having passed its 50th birthday a few years ago.

A masterpiece of writing, performance and cinematography, The Hill is just as relevant today as the day it first premiered. Such a long lasting and insightful creation easily makes this one of the best British films ever released.

My Top 10 British Films – 8

Asylum (1972)

“We’re a long way from Harley Street out here.”

From the legendary studios of Amicus Productions, Asylum is probably the finest example of the many classic British horror anthologies that graced our screens during the sixties and seventies.

Starring Robert Powell as a young and idealistic psychiatrist, Asylum explores the tall tales and terrifying truths behind four patients’ incarceration at a gloomy and remote institute for the criminally insane. Sensibly light on the gore, Asylum is instead heavy on a slow-burning creepiness in which was one of the seventies’ greatest cinematic gifts to the world. I need only mention the words “brown paper” or “shop dummy” to give anyone who’s seen this movie an immediate attack of shivers.

What makes this relatively low budget film stand head and shoulders above its peers is the surprising quality of the both the cast and the writing. As well as Powell in the lead role, the credits boast no lesser names than Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland and the perennially underrated Herbert Lom to name but a few. The outlandishness of each segment is well balanced by a gritty realism which set Amicus apart from Hammer Films, its main rival of the period. Indeed, it’s the Amicus trademark of the outrageous ideas expressed through mundane situations which make many of the scenes from this classic movie so memorable and disturbing, despite their being so obviously unbelievable. The wrap around story of the aspiring psychiatrist helps to ground the whole movie far more effectively than its contemporaries. Psycho author Robert Bloch made sure to pay particular attention to this often neglected part of the anthology and cunningly exploit its full potential. The doctor’s own tale builds to an unexpected and very satisfying final twist, having been expertly moved along by Patrick Magee and Geoffrey Bayldon, two more hugely talented and undeservedly obscure actors of the period.

Asylum is one of the best examples of a movie becoming greater than the sum of its parts, and despite the fact it’s only make believe, there are few who won’t pull a face or make some dark remark when some of the more memorable segments are mentioned. That’s quite a feat for a film that’s now forty years old and made on a shoestring. Asylum has stood the test of time and held its own amongst many younger and far bloodier rivals, thus earning its place in my top 10 British films.

My Top 10 British Films – 9

The Rebel (1961)

Tony Hancock stars in his default role as a dour and downtrodden version of himself in this witty and prescient exploration of a nihilistic, self-referential and obsessively obscurantist art establishment.

Cursed with a big dream and a small talent, Hancock struggles to cope with the confines of his orderly, predictable and comfortably dull life as a junior clerk at an accounting firm, until at last his repressed inner artist finally breaks free to reshape his life forever. Fleeing from stuffy London to bohemian Paris, Hancock’s singular lack of painting talent is soon mistaken for a new and profound artistic expression as he rapidly rises to the pinnacle of European creative society through a mixture of good fortune, fast talking and the rigid intellectual conformity of an outwardly rebellious clique.

Emulated by struggling painters, courted by wealthy industrialists and pursued by their wives, Hancock’s every action and utterance is elevated to the status of profundity and uncommon insight as the aesthetic establishment both buys into and bolsters Hancock’s own delusions of greatness. As a result both his fame and resale value continue to increase not only for him, but for an ever-expanding orbit of agents, exhibitors and other hangers-on within the creative community.

Naturally it can’t last, and eventually the artistic world turns against him, declaring his work to be puerile and shallow, even though Hancock remains as reliably inept as he’s ever been. With the cycle completed, the film closes with Hancock back in his old London lodgings, having gained only a few hot meals while his agent has pocketed yet another fortune and moved on to the next creative meal-ticket.

In its own gentle yet insightful way, the Rebel is a conglomeration of Hancock’s earlier output, shining a light on a man who’s desperate to be taken seriously as an artistic and intellectual force, but lacks the background, connections and raw talent required to realise his dreams. Some famous Hancock’s Half Hours such as the Poetry Society and the Gourmet are writ large as his character struggles to realise the greatness he firmly believes is predestined, and yet is constitutionally incapable of reaching. In fact it’s this underlying theme that runs through almost the entire body of his work, making Hancock’s career in comedy and his untimely demise all the more poignant and touching, as life and art turned and turned about so often throughout his life that it was difficult to tell one from the other.

One of the things that makes Tony Hancock’s comedy so enduring is that we recognise ourselves in that simple working man who finds some small way to fight back against his crushing nihilistic existence each and every day. From the Rebel’s brilliant monologue on the morning commute to the perfectly executed choreography of the accountancy office, we lend Hancock our sympathy and support because we’ve all felt his existential agony first hand.

The foundational ideas underpinning the Rebel are as relevant today as they were in 1961, as we watch an increasingly remote artistic elite drifting ever further into conceptual obscurity, while still claiming to be the authentic voice and conscience of the human experience. Once inside that protected, moneyed and insulated clique, the stark choice between conformity and obscurity can be a powerful persuader for even the most ardent expressive soul.

The big joke running through the whole of the Rebel is that it’s not really a study of rebellion at all, but an ironic and cutting exposure of a shallow, self-absorbed and viciously conformist artistic establishment.

The Rebel provides much food for reflection in this time of great change.

My top 10 British Films – 10

Yield to the Night (1956)

J Lee Thompson directs a young Diana Dors’ compelling portrayal of condemned prisoner Mary Price Hilton in this suffocating study of banal, bureaucratic torture. Stripped of her trademark bombshell costumes and makeup, Dors looks uncommonly vulnerable as a true understanding of her plight begins to dawn as appeals fail and hope fades. Without her legendary good looks to hide behind, Dors gives the performance of her career as the fallen party girl transformed into a pale and mournful lost soul, hollowed out and shuffling around the prison grounds in a tortuous cycle of waiting and worrying as her inescapable fate approaches.

On constant suicide watch, the tension of mundane routines slowly climbs to an unbearable peak as Hilton struggles to ascribe some worthwhile meaning to her life and her final days in the claustrophobic condemned cell as she endures the agony of awaiting the noose. Eating, sleeping, smoking and playing cards with the prison officers surrounding her as the clock ticks down in that cold and spartan prison regime. The interplay between Hilton and her “matrons” is especially absorbing, as the surrounding staff struggle to balance their common humanity against their clear and inflexible judicial duties, with the invisible walls between the condemned and her handlers constantly being probed, breached and re-built as those charged with supervising Hilton’s state sanctioned demise struggle with the burden of their own individual consciences.

With nothing left to lose, Mary recounts the tale of how she came to be waiting at the scaffold, revealing a very human story of feminine jealousy, insecurity and lack of maturity, culminating in the murder of a rival for her lover’s affections. This moving and personal account is an excellent reminder that behind the headlines there is often a tragic and complex human story that all too often remains unexplored.

As Mary’s story reaches its inevitable climax, the tension of boredom becomes unbearable, forcing the watcher to almost feel sorry for the staff surrounding her as they stoically suffer and share in her psychological torture. When at last the final appeal is rejected, each tries to offer solace in her own clumsy and misguided way, while each knows there can no reprieve, no matter how much genuine remorse they believe condemned might feel.

While not exactly a fun family night in, Yield to the Night is an excellent example of the lost art of building tension through inaction. It often reminds me of the first twenty minutes of Psycho, where very little happens, yet the audience finds itself glued to the screen, afflicted by an almost inexplicable morbid fascination for every twist and nuance in a character’s complex relationships, despite already knowing how the tale must end.

Speaking of endings, Yield to the Night surely boasts one of cinema’s all-time great closing shots, as nearly everyone who watches this classic British film remarks on the that last abandoned cigarette, symbolically smouldering away through those final frames…with nobody coming back to claim it.

Yield to the Night is a hugely underrated exploration of those hidden human depths beneath both the dry court transcripts and the sensational press coverage surrounding any high profile case. Through dialogue and character development, it peels away the layers of half-truths to reveal a hugely flawed and almost childishly simplistic character doomed by circumstance, temperament and a wider societal demand for justice and retribution.

There is much food for thought in this unjustly forgotten film.

Carry On…and on…and on…

It’s that time of year again, when the nights grow dark, the lights grow bright and our favourite old movies are dragged out of the attic for their ritual parade across the Christmas schedules. We might never actually watch Die Hard, Scrooged, Mary Poppins or the Guns of Navarone, but we gain a sense of comfort and continuity from knowing that they’re still around…somewhere. These tried and tested staples are a lot like that quaint old village church we never visit, yet fight tooth and nail to protect from all manner of modern encroachments.

If current reports are even remotely accurate, then 2017 will be remembered as the year that big media and big politics were finally exposed as hotbeds of the very misogyny and predation they’ve often railed against with a screeching self-righteousness that was bound to raise suspicions sooner or later. I’d often thought they protested too much.

In light of this ruthless, career ending hunt for sexual misconduct both real and alleged, it’s kind of strange to see our socially awkward friends from the Carry On team gracing our screens day after day during the holiday season. How can we explain this contradiction? How is it that a bunch of bawdy farces from the sixties and seventies are still airing as family viewing long after most of their contemporaries have been demoted to obscure footnotes in feminist literature?

The answer is that although we may not watch them, we collectively give the Carry Ons a cultural pardon with a kind of affectionate indulgence not granted to other comedians, movies and franchises hailing from that admittedly controversial era. Somehow the good ship Carry On just carries on, despite the ill winds of revisionism doing their best to blow it off course. The reason for the Carry Ons’ seemingly inexplicable appeal has actually been staring us in the face these many years, with all the subtlety of Barbara Windsor’s bosom.

The truth is that while men may sit on the throne, a woman’s word is law in the kingdom of Carry On.

Sexually, institutionally, socially and even financially, the ladies are nearly always on top. From teenage temptresses, through senior nurses, saucily strict governesses and ending with screeching, hen-pecking harridans; the female of the species is most definitely smarter, more deadly and more astute than her underachieving Carry On competitors.

By contrast, the Carry On men are not quite the collection of unapologetic, misogynist barflys they’ve often been made out to be. They’re much more a bunch of hapless, balding, wannabe lotharios or comically uptight, neurotic misfits. They’re constantly outwitted by the younger women they’ve still not learned to leave well alone, while stumbling from one misadventure to the next. They’re forever looking over their shoulders, always fearful of Matron’s institutional power, or even worse, the wife’s marital and emotional muscle.

This is why the Carry On films have admittedly aged but yet still lasted, while a franchise like On the Buses has faded into almost total oblivion. Whilst it’s tempting to lump them both together, there’s a very good reason why one elicits a wry, grudging affection and the other commands only a kind of cringing and embarrassed contempt.

The Carry On men were most often the helpless victims of a world they only imagined they controlled, while the protagonists of On the Buses were a pair of workshy schemers who constantly badmouthed their wives while chasing ever more deluded dreams of extra marital affairs. While one franchise gave us a cast of outrageously camped-up caricatures, the other left us with only a pair of conniving, lying manipulators for company. Who would you want to hang out with?

History has now delivered its verdict.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the Carry On world lives within us all; finding validation with every fumbled chat up line and every free drink accepted from a stranger. We indulge, if not outright embrace these ageing sexual comedies because we know deep down that they reflect some enduring, unchanging and fundamental truths about our own social and sexual worlds. We recognise these often tongue tied, always awkward men within ourselves and also in others, because we know that a caricature begins its life in reality.

Long may they carry on…and on…and on.

Goodbye Hollywood

That’s it. I just can’t take any more!

I’m done with Hollywood.

As an avid movie fan, I thought that statement would be a painful one to write, but to be honest I’m glad to have finally gotten it out of my system. I feel free, cleansed, liberated. Already I can feel my mind repairing itself, my critical faculties renewed and reinvigorated.

The break has been coming for a long time, and it’s not the latest round of revelations, accusations and denials swirling around Los Angeles that have hardened my resolve. Instead it’s the increasingly shrill, haughty, condescending and downright hypocritical finger wagging from an embattled and self-regarding gated community. Who the hell told a bunch of pampered actors that they have a duty to harangue the unwashed masses about exactly what they should think on any given social, moral or political issue?

The uncomfortable truth is that Tinseltown has been sick for some years now, becoming psychologically isolated, increasingly embittered and disdainful of the very audience on whom it ultimately relies. We’ve all noticed it, even though we politely pretend that we haven’t. The dizzying blur of remakes, reboots, prequels, sequels and spin-offs has had us all a little worried for a quite a while now. Like an increasingly forgetful relative, we pretend that the mounting evidence of creative constipation is nothing serious, hoping it’s a phase…although deep down we know it isn’t.

Hollywood is done, diminishing fast as a cultural force. Nobody wants to hear yet another multi-millionaire railing at this or that supposed injustice while the guy driving his limo sweats on minimum wage. The Oscars audience steadily shrinks as more and more moviegoers have come to see the A-list glitterati as they really are; a decaying, out of touch and increasingly parasitical class who have no right to lecture anybody about anything.

For me though, the final straw came when I discovered I couldn’t simply rent Rogue One from Amazon. I had a choice of either buying it outright or taking a hike. Talk about service with a sneer.

That was the moment I realised I am no longer viewed as a consumer with choice and agency, I am merely a cash cow to be herded and farmed by both the big studios and tech giants at will. In short, Hollywood thinks nothing of me, yet still believes it has some kind of divine right to pocket my hard earned cash while I give thanks for whatever overly loud, formulaic schlock they condescend to dollop in front of me.

Screw you, Hollywood. You’ve treated me like crap for the last time.

Image courtesy of yodiyim at FreeDigitalPhotos.net