Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Anarchy in the UK… The Secret People (1952)

There are several reasons for seeing this film, one of the main ones being the chance to see Audrey Hepburn revealed as the ballet dancer she trained so hard to be. But this is also a very earnest enterprise that attempts to examine the morality of violence for the greater good. Made just six years after the ending of the Second World War, it looks at the collateral damage of direct action: how many innocent lives are acceptable in the pursuit of fascists?

It’s a question with a very contemporary relevance… but when over the last century have their not been fascists to kill? When is the call to war unanswerable and when do the needs of the many suddenly outweigh those of the few? There can hardly have been anyone working on this film not affected personally by the losses of the war and, whilst the film sometimes feels a little restrained, it deals in a language that would have been more understandable at the time. After the devastation you don’t really need to shout.

Valentina Cortese
Directed by Thorold Dickinson Secret People is the story of two sisters, Maria (Valentina Cortese) and Nora Brentano (Angela Fouldes) sent from an unnamed European state to stay with their uncle Anselmo (Charles Goldner) in London. Their father is an outspoken journalist in his own country, a man who believes in the power of words and not violence and yet who has finally been arrested by the country’s ruler, General Galborn (Hugo Schuster). The future is uncertain and Maria leaves behind her lover Louis (Serge Reggiani) - desperate times and soon Maria receives a parcel containing her father’s precious pen – his “sword” – he has been killed by the butcher Brentano.

The years pass and whilst Maria learns to cook in Anselmo’s Café, Nora grows up into Audrey Hepburn and she can dance!

Charles Goldner
Maria longs for a change of pace and to be a writer herself telling Anselmo that she wants to leave to follow in her father’s footsteps. Her Uncle is a gracious as ever and proposes a trip to Paris to see an exhibition mirroring Britain’s own Festival of 1951. Whilst there, they enjoy a full day of eating and sightseeing before encountering General Galborn arriving at the British pavilion. He is barracked by protesters one of whom turns out to be long-lost Louis.

Maria and Louis enjoy a blissful day catching up – and the subtle buttoning of her shirt top in his garret hint at their level of intimacy – but in the evening he is distracted away by people who are clearly members of a cell of freedom fighters: ruthless types who kill an untrustworthy contact in between Maria and Louis’s dancing at a night club.

Louis' cell - Serge Reggiani second from left
But Maria has no idea who she is now dancing with and, learning that Galborn is visiting Britain, Louis follows the girls back home: they are to be his cover and his route to target. He arranges for Nora to pass an audition to dance at the garden party arranged for the General’s visit and then tells Maria of his plan to kill the man who had her father murdered.

She is to carry a compact into the party and then pass it on to another member of the group who will place it under the General’s chair. It is to be a controlled explosion and no one else should be hurt. Maria is confused, and disorientated by the last minute shock and concern for Nora she agrees to the plot.

Audrey takes flight
But, once inside the party, she can hardly bear to watch as Nora dances and then a clown (your genuine Charlie Cairoli) take the stage. The tension is palpable as she waits for the explosion and when the bomb goes off fatally injuring a waitress she rushes in to help. The General escapes virtually unscathed but the woman dies and Maria is hailed as a hero.

Louis is working in conjunction with a shadowy – literally – group of home-grown revolutionaries who meet in darkened rooms to discuss and sign off any actions. He takes Maria to see them after the action to assure them that she’ll keep their secrets but neither party is sure as she gets called into Scotland Yard.

Nora dances and then Maria looks on waiting for the bomb to go off...
Maria appalled by the cold calculation of Louis’ and these armchair anarchists tells all to the kindly Miss Jackson (Irene Worth) and her earnest Inspector Eliot (Reginald Tate) and a plan is hatched to catch the key players, Louis included.

There are brooding shots aplenty of traffic-free grimed London streets around Soho I’d guess, as the Special Branch closes in and events come to a head… Can Maria escape the consequences of Louis’ actions and will even Nora be pulled into the vortex of his ever increasing desperation?

Maria and Louis walk down Litchfield Street, past The Ivy towards Charing Cross Road
Secret People gets damned with faint praise in some reviews but in truth it’s pretty uncompromising and whilst some books get balanced the General carries on: Nora and Marie’s father’s murder goes unpunished.

Louis’ means do not justify his ends which have become increasingly fogged by the inaccuracy of his actions and the flawed thinking behind them. The process has become its own justification and the death of the waitress is just another small price to pay for their eventual and unlikely success.

The film doesn’t point to any other solution other than Marie’s father’s enduring plea for love and understanding. This isn’t soft or “dated”, these people had just fought a threat infinitely more vicious than any current threat to democracy and millions had died when there was genuinely no other way to go.

Them heavy people
So, for Louis, accepting the talking of innocent lives in the pursuit of political change is a step over to the other side, the totalitarianism he supposedly hates when expediency stops at nothing in pursuit of the aim.

Marie’s father’s words are heard again urging peace, understanding and dialogue as the only solution: the pen is always mightier than the sword.

Valentina Cortese
Valentina Cortese gives a superb performance which more than compensates for the film’s occasionally deliberate tone. She brings a naturalism that adds tone and texture from the encouraging pat on Audrey’s tutu as she auditions to the unbelievable shift from besotted excitement before the party to the realisation of Louis’ double betrayal: in one sublime moment love to horror via disbelief.

Audrey steps out
Ms. Hepburn adds light to the play and dances superbly those years in the Belgian ballet conservatory enabling her to pirouette on point with power and grace belying her wartime deprivations that would forever impact on her appearance. Make war no more.

The Secret People are everywhere but hard to find… you might try watching Amazon for it surely needs a re-release.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Top gear… Something New (1920)

“… the Maxwell went places no horse or even men on foot could traverse! We drove it over rocks bigger than itself, up canyons hub-deep in sand.”

In which Nell Shipman turns a car commercial into the World’s first horse and car race adventure film… and in which the resourceful one-woman cast and crew made a statement about equality and modernity.

After the huge success of Back to God’s Country and with her marriage to Ernest Shipman disintegrating, Nell headed south to make independent films in California. Then, as now, you took what commissions you could get and she was asked by the Hudson-Essex Automobile Agency to make two commercials for the Maxwell car.

Maid, man and motor
The first was a female buddy two-reeler Trail of the Arrow, in which Nell and her pal Marjorie Cole (they co-owned a sports car in real life) take off like Geena and Susan in order to race a misogynist (Bob Battle) over the Mojave Desert. The film is sadly lost but if there were any doubts as to Nell’s intentions – apart from demonstrating her car’s superior engineering - she made it crystal clear: “I have proven that woman is on a par with man in driving a car, as she is in every other walk of life.”

Cars and movies had developed side by side and men had become more associated with the former than the latter with “women drivers” being regarded as… well the mere fact the gender was appended says it all. Before Nell, Mary Pickford, Bebe Daniels and fellow actor-director Mabel Normand were among women taking the wheel in winning ways but Something New drove the point home even harder.

The new and the old
Nell takes control right from the off with a framing sequence showing her poised under a tree with her typewriter waiting for inspiration to strike. She sees her partner-to-be Bert Van Tuyle driving a handsome Maxwell car and chatting to a man on horseback: the new and the old… eureka, her ideas arrive and she starts pounding on the keys.

Nell plays a "Writer Woman" who is sent to stay with her Uncle Sid (L.M. Wells) in Mexico where she seeks atmosphere and adventure. As her uncle waits he chats to a Maxwell car driver, Bill Baxter (Bert) and, not knowing how his niece has grown up, they both assume she is the bookish blue-stocking that first emerges but no, it’s the handsome, wholesome woman laughing at their presumption in the coach.

Laddie the Dog and Bert Van Tuyle
Nell – her character isn’t named – instantly clocks Bill’s smile in what Kay Armatage notes is a “reversion of the specularization process…”, and heads off to her uncle’s gold mine… A gold mine? In Mexico you say?! Won’t be long before it’s attacked by bandits! And it is as the nasty Agrilla Gorgez (Merrill McCormick) strikes Sid to the ground and his band of desperados begin to load his gold onto their horses. Nell hides away with their dog (Laddie the Dog!) but disobeys Sid’s orders by trying to save him forcing a Mexican standoff with the Mexicans. Nell gives way to save her kin and is taken away to their hideout in Devil’s Kitchen leaving the old man trussed up to die…

Gorgez played a mean guitar
Enter Bill who arrives in time to rescue Sid and to be told of Nell’s fate… but there are no horses left on the farm, how can Bill follow the gang? Well, the Maxwell not only has lines of sleek elegance but also an unrivalled suspension system and fuel consumption to die for… there’s nowhere four legs can go that four wheels can’t follow!

So begins the epic chase that forms the bulk of the action as the Maxwell is put through its paces over rock and dune, through sagebrush and sand across impossible gradients in pursuit of the bandits. It’s not much of a plot but, like the Maxwell’s tyres, it’s gripping… partly because of Nell’s editing but also because there are clearly moments of genuine danger.

Consider the remarkable suspension and road-holding of the Model 25...
The car rolled three times in the picture each time leaving its human cargo intact and that doesn’t include the moment when “The Girl” – hands actually tied behind her back for effect – fell off one of the bandit’s horses and banged her head on a  rock…

Bill finds the bandit’s lair and arrives just in time to rescue Nell from a fate worse than death at the hands of Gorgez and then things really kick on as he gets injured trying to hold off the men and Nell drives to his rescue. Now it’s the woman’s turn to drive and Nell takes on the same rocks and the same angles as her former racing car driver pal Bert only now they have a gang on their heels firing bullets.

Men on horseback... ha!
You can’t help but shift in your seat as the Maxwell crawls its way over huge boulders, occasionally getting stuck but always managing to find a way forward. Bill gets shot in the head and then shoulder but Nell manages to avoid their crashing over a cliff and even reverses into a boulder pushing it down onto the pursuing pack.

Nell at the wheel
Shipman makes the most of her budget – a mere $14,000 – and makes an adventure that still entertains and one that spoke volumes about her own resourcefulness and commitment.  William M. Drew commented that “…Nell Shipman mastered the action-adventure genre to an extent unmatched in cinema history by any other woman director.” He also highlights Something New’s “harmonizing motifs” uniting “the masculine and the feminine, industrialism and environmentalism…”

The relationship between The Girl and Bill is one of “true comradeship” and, what Armatage also sees as “…a new sexual partnership” between an emancipated woman and her equal. Something new indeed!

Laddie's the only one not smiling!
I watched the Milestone films DVD which also includes Back to God’s Country which I’m saving for a live screening sometime, somewhere… It’s available direct on the Milestone site.

Kay Armatage’s biography The Girl from God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema is published by the University of Toronto Press and available from Amazon and others.

William M. Drew’s quotes are from the intriguingly titled Something New: Speeding Sweethearts of the Silent Screen 1908-1921. His website is here.

Innovative shock absorbers in action...
Model 25 Maxwell touring cars originally cost just $695 and had high-tension magneto ignition, electric horn, an (optional) electric starter and an innovative shock absorber to protect the radiator as can be seen in the film. One has recently been sold by Bonhams for $5,720 - full recommissioning required.

“Now the moral is, be it motor or maid – there is always something new!”

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Cricklewood Babylon… Shooting Stars (1927) on Blu-ray and DVD

“The success of the production will depend to a great extent upon the excellence of the photography… The most modern form of technique is involved.”

After featuring this superb restoration at last year’s London Film Festival Archive Gala, the BFI have now released Anthony Asquith’s bravura debut – nominally directed by A.V. Bramble - on a generously-priced Blu-ray/DVD dual format set and it’s a worthy package for this gem.

Persuading ourselves that we had little credibility as a film-making culture began almost as soon as the first British hands cranked a camera. Perhaps moving images were seen as too cheap a trick for a nation with such a proud theatrical history yet, all the same, quality films were made in the UK and there’s a growing number restored and projected that show that we could hold our own.

Annette and Brian sitting in a tree...
Here Asquith – already seeped in film culture – takes aim at the darker and dafter side of the business and creates one of the first domestic films about film: a narrative that manages to be both effective as satire and affecting as a story of love gone awry.

This film opens with a stunning overhead tracking sequence that you could have sworn belonged in a German studio rather than one in Cricklewood. The stars of the film are stars in a film – Prairie Love -  and after an amusing opening showing Annette Benson being filmed in a blossom tree cosying up to Brian Aherne on a wooden horse (and wearing the most outrageous cowboy chaps), the camera looks down on the stage then follows the characters as they move around the studio.

By the time the motion has finished Benson has removed her phoney blonde wig and Ahern’s four-wooden-legged friend has been revealed: they’re not “acting” now and are a man and wife about to see their relationship move into very stormy seas.

Benson’s character, Mae Feather has walked up the stairs to another stage on which they are filming a comedy featuring madcap Andy Wilkes (Donald Calthrop… last seen blackmailing Anny Ondra) a man of no fixed moustache.  Bizarrely, she sees him as an alternative to her handsome husband Julian Gordon (Aherne)… maybe she’s short on laughs or just finds handsome boring.

Brian Aherne on his steed
Mae skips seeing her own film to stay in with Andy whilst Julian ends up on his own, watching their film next to a couple of school boys – he’s barely older than them and even starts cheering himself on screen, easily lost in the process. Julian’s clearly very imaginative and easy to play but this miss-aligned love triangle cannot carry on for ever and in a moment of madness Mae loads a gun due to be fired at her husband on stage…

As previously mentioned in my rave after the live presentation, Asquith brings out the best in his performers, especially Annette Benson who manages to bridge the gap between spoilt bractress, bored stage-wife and guilt-ridden devastation whilst still retaining a lightness of touch that makes her likeable. It’s her emotional flexibility that makes the story special as the reality of her violent plan could simply have appeared as ruthless.

Insert "gets the bird" line here
But there’s regret and the realisation that sometimes we get so mired in routine we forget to find the obvious truth but will it be too late? You have to hope for the best – that’s usually the best you can hope for… and all plays out in the film’s superbly anxious closing sequence.

No spoilers – you have to see for yourself.

The film has a surprisingly-high consistency of tone for a first time effort but Asquith’s script notes – quoted at the top - showed how well he had already thought through the photo play before the shooting began: the sequence described above is pretty much as he planned it although credit must also go to his cinematographers Henry Harris and Stanley Rodwell – the “expert cameramen” he sought.

Donald Calthrop and Dorothy "Chili" Bouchier
Live, the score from John Altman and the Live Film Orchestra swung in an emotionally-emphatic way and the studio version on this disc reveals levels of more nuanced feeling  – with a predominant theme of bittersweet endeavour: love’s labour’s inevitable loss amongst misaligned affection and ambition. It’s a hard mix to get right and whilst some may feel the score a little too defined at times, for me it enhances the flavours already present. Hearts will be broken and it’s almost as if the protagonists know this from the start: not that this sentimental premonition will ever stop them trying.

The crew of Prairie Love
Shooting Stars comes with an extensive side order of extras including an illustrated booklet with revelatory essays from Bryony Dixon, John Altman, Henry K Miller and Chris O’Rourke.

There are seven shorts, the longest of which Starlings of the Screen (1925, 15 mins) is of the most interest to me as it features my friend Nikki’s Great Aunt Sybil Rhoda who, in addition to acting in Hitchcock’s Downhill (1927) and Boadicea (1927) also enjoyed a career as a chorus girl and model. She lived to 102 and only passed away in 2005 - by all accounts one of the family’s great characters!

Then there are further glimpses backstage including Secrets of a World Industry  - The Making of Cinematograph Film (1922, 8 mins),  Around the Town: British Film Stars and Studios (1921, 2 mins),  Opening of British Instructional Film Studio (1928, 4 mins) and a chance to Meet Jackie Coogan (1924, 11 mins)

It’s a very handsome package and available on Monday 21st March direct from the BFI online Shop and other less reputable digital emporia…  Either at home or in cinema I cannot recommend Shooting Stars highly enough not just for fans of silent cinema but for anyone who expects good storytelling from cinema and to simply be touched sat there, almost alone, in the silvery darkness.