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.