Sunday, 24 September 2023

Not one bland moment... Touch of Evil (1958), Eureka 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray out now!


Looking back, it’s hard to understand just why some of the finest filmmakers struggled to make films even, in Orson Welles case, after Citizen Kane’s re-evaluation and legend continued to grow with it placing second in the 1952 Sight and Sound best picture poll and first a decade later. Yet here we have Universal casting for a routine crime caper based on Whit Masterson’s Badge of Evil and telling star Charlton Heston that they didn’t have a director yet but were going to cast Welles as Detective Hank Quinlan. Why don’t you ask Orson to direct? asked Heston and, clearly not having even considered him, the producers duly brought him on board and, unwittingly, guaranteed the film would become something different altogether.


Welles hadn’t directed a film in Hollywood since Macbeth in 1948 (shot in 23 days due to budget constraints) and his reputation for pursuing his own vision troubled the studios as with von Sternberg and von Stroheim before him. Here he re-wrote the original script in just ten days and then began rehearsals during which he encouraged his cast to re-write and improvise with Janet Leigh saying: “We rewrote most of the dialogue, all of us… and Mr. Welles always wanted our input… Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn't want one bland moment…”


Well, viewing this sparkling new HD presentation I can reveal that, unsurprisingly, there are indeed no bland moments in what remains a spellbinding film on so many levels. Let me count the ways…

1.       The dark night rises


There’s no way of overlooking the astonishing dexterity of the film’s opening take, as characters move to and fro with two couples in two cars heading in close proximity through a border town at night, one of which has just had a bomb thrown in its boot. Russell Metty’s camera sweeps up and over buildings following the vehicles and focusing on one then the other as the viewer waits for the inevitable explosion which, at various points, could engulf both cars. It’s an audacious single take that Antonioni would be proud of, pure technique that creates a sense of place, establishes characters, motivations and atmosphere from the get-go.


According to Charlton Heston, interviewed in one of the extras, the actor playing the border guard who speaks right at the end of the take, just couldn’t take the pressure and kept fluffing his lines. As the sun began to rise and the final take approached, Welles told him to mime his lines and the take was finally in the can. The director was asked why he didn’t just replace the actor and responded by saying that it would be too cruel, and that it would destroy him. Now that’s leadership.


The story takes place largely at night and that adds so much to the tensions of the film, it’s too late, you can’t orientate and it’s always darkest just before the dawn. We’re instinctively nervy during the nighttime, extra alert for predatory attack and in search of safety, a security that Welles will not allow and which frazzles the longer the film progresses. The dark silence highlights human extremes and evil is exposed in vivid ways; we are, indeed, touched by it. After Hours, Mystery Train, Night on Earth… anything by David Lynch, there’s an entire sub-genre of films at night at least partially inspired by this film.

Orson Welles

2.       The cast is politics


Welles re-wrote the story’s original good cop Mitch Holt as the Hispanic Miguel Vargas, making the character a Mexican "for political reasons. I wanted to show how Tijuana and the border towns are corrupted by all sorts of mishmash, publicity more or less about American relations". This was a bold choice and boy you can imagine how this might go down in parts of the South in 2023…


Heston duly darkened his hair and skin and whilst it’s odd to see there’s something about seeing this quintessential all-American hero as a Mexican which is challenging in its own way; he’s the good man whilst the Caucasian cop will be the ultimate villain. People got blacklisted for less a few years earlier.


Welles, of course, plays the corpulent Police Captain Hank Quinlan, a man still haunted by the murder of his wife and a recovering alcoholic dedicated to keeping his town clean at whatever cost. Welles is truly disturbing in this role, the prosthetics an eerie foreshadowing of his later weight, whilst also changing his face so successfully that even in 4k HD, you really can’t see the joins. It’s as if the choices he has made have not only darkened his soul but marked him for life too… hints of handsomeness submerged beneath synthetic skin.


Joseph Calleia, reflects on his friend...

Joseph Calleia as Sgt. Pete Menzies delivers a stunning performance too as Quinlan’s loyal right-hand man who has honestly assisted his friend through the years. Calleia manages to convey a mix of febrile weakness as well as bravery and steals a fair few scenes in the most human ways; a visceral conduit to the audience as we’re sucked into this violent world of betrayal and midnight corruption.


Balanced against this is the blonde purity of Janet Leigh who plays Vargas’ American wife, Susan again the epitome of upstanding American values and a quick-witted, woman of agency who still finds herself suffering the indignities of kidnap, blackmail and molestation all because her man is perhaps too intent on pursuing his prey without spending enough time making sure she is safe. What happens to Susan represents the dark paranoia of the times with the brother of Vargas’ crime lord Manolo Sanchez (a tense, sweaty turn from Victor Millan) aiming straight for his weakness just as Quinlan eventually arrives at the same conclusion in the most horrific of ways.


3.       Mercedes menace, Marlene magic


The film is unsettling throughout, it’s dark, confusing, juddering… things happen out of nothing, the natural rhythm is slightly off, no doubt down to Welles’ coaxing and the pacing, editing and improvisation he encourages. A man follows Vargas through the shadowed streets and runs out of the darkness and attempts to throw acid at him; this world is out of kilter and there is nothing stopping the worst things from happening. As Susan is staying at the supposedly safe motel over the border, the only man standing between her and a gang of Sanchez’ hoods is a night manager player with weird intensity by Dennis Weaver; his palpable terror only reinforcing how alone and vulnerable she is. The gang party, play rock ‘n roll, take drugs and circle ever closer to their prey… with Mercedes McCambridge providing a brutal cameo as the butch gang leader who wants to stay and watch as the men break into Susan’s room…


Janet Leigh you should avoid motels in future...

McCambridge had been part of Welles’ cast for War of the Worlds in 1938 and she’s joined by a number of Orson’s pals, Joseph Cotton as a coroner, Zsa Zsa Gabor as a club owner and, most memorably, Marlene Dietrich as Tana a gypsy madam in what she said was Elizabeth Taylor’s wig*. In her autobiography she said the shoot had been only one night and that “I don’t think I’ve ever performed so well as on that day…” The budget amounted to what she called “a hand-out to a beggar” and so she, Mercedes and the rest responded to their friend’s call for help and the quality of their performances speaks volumes of the respect and loyalty the director clearly commanded.


4.       Vision, requirements and specification


The studio hacked the film to buts but the director wrote a detailed 58-page memo detailing everything in the film he wanted re-instated and put right. This was used to restore the film when it was re-edited according to Welles's original vision, as outlined in his memo, in 1998, showing the value of not only having clear vision and terms of reference but also documenting requirements and deliverables if any project managers are watching/reading.


This then is something like a definitive edition – so far – of this major work and as usual comes replete with Eureka’s special set of extras:


·         Hardcase featuring artwork by Tony Stella | 4K (2160p)

·         UHD Blu-ray presentations of all three versions, presented in Dolby Vision HDR: the Theatrical version (95 mins), the Preview version (109 mins), and the 1998 Reconstruction (110 mins).

·         Four audio commentaries, featuring: restoration producer Rick Schmidlin (reconstructed version); actors Charlton Heston & Janet Leigh, with Schmidlin (reconstructed version); critic F. X. Feeney (theatrical version); and Welles scholars James Naremore & Jonathan Rosenbaum (preview version) New video interview with critic, broadcaster and cultural historian Matthew Sweet

·         New video interview with critic Tim Robey

·         New video interview with author and critic Kim Newman

·         Bringing Evil to Life and Evil Lost and Found – two video pieces, featuring interviews with cast and crew, as well as critics and admirers

·         Original theatrical trailer

·         PLUS: A 100-PAGE BOOK featuring writings by Orson Welles, François Truffaut, André Bazin, and Terry Comito; interview excerpts with Welles; a timeline of the film’s history; two new essays by critic Richard Combs; and rare stills and imagery.



You can order the set direct from Eureka here or via all good retailers, no home should be without one!


*Marlene (1987)

No backdrops for Charlton

Monday, 18 September 2023

Standing out… The Crowd (1928) with Stephen Horne, BFI


"When John was twenty-one, he became one of the seven million that believe New York depends on them.”

In her introduction, the BFI’s Bryony Dixon pondered why this special film, undoubtedly a mainstay of the American cinematic canon, is not screened more often and, indeed, the last time I saw it was in Pordenone back in 2017 with the late Carl Davis conducting his own score and the orchestra at the Teatro Verdi. This aside, the film is not available on home media and hasn’t been restored in some time despite director King Vidor’s Big Parade being on Blu-ray and in crisp condition, a great film but not of the same standard.

The Crowd undoubtedly breaks a number of golden rules for Hollywood and indeed, as Bryony pointed out, a full seven different endings were filmed and tested reflecting MGM’s concerns about the more realistic style deployed and their audience proved them wrong by preferring Vidor’s take. Vidor’s wife, the glamourous and divinely elegant Eleanor Boardman, threw herself into the project with one of the most selfless performances of the twenties; hair tangled, dowdy-clothed and make-up free all along way from the glittering gowns of Proud Flesh. She’s far from proud here subjugating her star-status to play the long-suffering but steadfast lower-middle class wife and thereby enabling her surprise leading man to excel.

James Murray was far from Boardman’s level and had been pulled from the ranks of the extras after being spotted by Vidor. According to Bryony, Murray at first didn’t believe Vidor’s offer, he thought it was a joke and didn’t turn up for his audition and, when he finally saw it was a genuine offer, requested the director covered his bus fare… Perhaps there was something of The Crowd’s John Sims about Murray, it’s hardly fair to suggest he was playing himself and Murray, certainly nearer failure than success at this point, acts his heart out in the film a good-looking guy with natural charisma and yet who might not have that extra drive and/or skill to really stand out from the crowd.

In a packed NFT3 we saw how Vidor used these assets to maximum affect in a film that is as universal as it is timeless and with a style and subject matter far from the dreamy magic realism of studio films now as then. Hollywood hates standing apart from the crowd whether its remaking, filming yet more people in capes or turning cartoons into live action.

As Eleanor Boardman put it: “The Crowd was to be the first picture without glamour…” Vidor simply wanted to tell the tale of an ordinary man: one of the crowd, as he faces the challenges of daily life without supernatural heroics or an excess of good fortune.

The film was to be a prosaic The March of Life, a title John Gilbert suggested when discussing Vidor’s desire to follow up The Big Parade with a Big Parade of Peace. The project would undergo many changes in title but it was always going to be a very personal one for King Vidor as he had the chance to make the film he wanted in the wake of TBP’s massive success... Irving Thalberg happy to let him experiment so long as it helped him forget that 20% stake he’d had in the former film.

“I made pictures as a good employee and pictures that came out if my insides. This is one that came out of my guts. There was a lot of hypocrisy in early films and I wanted to get away from it.” King Vidor explained to Jordan R Young in 1978. Whilst casting Boardman to play against type, the director looked for an unknown so the film would present a “documentary flavour” with “…. a young, good-looking man who looks like he really might be a clerk…” No chance for John Gilbert then. Murray proved to be inspired casting with any technical limitations simply under-pinning his character’s self-deceptions as he moves forwards gradually after every devastating reversal.


As if to reinforce the everyman theme the film begins on 4th July in 1900 with the birth of “…a little man the world is going to hear from all right…” Father has high hopes and everything is indeed possible. Flick on to 1912 as John (an uncredited Johnny Downs) sits with the other kids asking each other what they’re going to do when they grow up. “My Dad says I’m goin’ to be somebody big!” he says but – at the same time - Father dies – and there’s a terrific shot of young John climbing the stairs to realise he has gone… the first major defeat in the march of life reinforced by expressionistic forced perspective.

James Murray

“You’ve gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.”

The years pass and John goes to find his fortune in New York City. Hi arrival is followed by superb camera work from Henry Sharp showing the press in the city: thousands of people flowing along sidewalks, mingling with the traffic at cross-roads in a double exposure showing the lifeblood of the concrete and commerce. The camera angles on tall buildings, shifting to a model shot as it rises ever higher pulling back to focus on a window through which it fades into a giant room of endless regularity: desks into infinity.

Somewhere near the middle sits our John: one of the many in at desk 137, he scratches his head, seemingly intent on his work but he’s trying to think of an answer to a newspaper quiz: “Name our new motor fuel and win one hundred dollars” … a dreamer passing time and hoping for a long shot… He clock-watches and preens himself for real life to begin after five o’clock.

He plans to study but Pal Bert (Bert Roach) has an offer he can’t refuse “I’ve got a pair of wrens dated up for Coney Island. Want to make it a four-some?” All the while there are people filling the streets and corridors… the Metropolis is teeming. Bert and John run from out of the shadowy crowd to greet their wrens: Mary and Joan (Estelle Clark). Joan is bouncy and Mary is a little shy – Boardman almost dowdy, gauche, chewing gun and head bowed – an Oscar performance, in my book, for 1928.

Boardman herself, was always such a sharp commentator and recognised the value of this work saying later that Mary Sims was simply “a job I had to do, I didn’t like to be so drab and unattractive, the hair hanging down, no makeup on…. I had confidence in Vidor; I knew he knew what he was doing…” and no doubt vice versa.

Eleanor Boardman

Bert and John both catch admiring glances at the girls’ legs as they climb the steps on a double-decker tram but whilst the former is pantomime leery, the latter has a deeper feeling: this girl is offering more than just a glimpse of stocking. The couples sit at the front of the bus as they drive down the avenue and the thousand calculations and connections of early courtship are made. “Look at that crowd! The poor boobs…  all in the same rut!” says John to a shocked Mary and then he sees a men dressed as a clown advertising for shoes… a “poor sap” whose father probably wanted him to be president. You just know that’s going to come home to bite.

Onto Coney Island where the light-hearted tone is maintained – this is how life can be as we play and romance – survival put to one side. The Crowd plays with both concepts equally well and, the mood is superbly balanced by Vidor, despite his apparently relaxed approach to the performers he controls their context and he casts for character: Murray was a natural whereas Boardman could truly act.


John proposes on their ride home and we switch to the wedding where Bert gives them “a year or two” … Funny scenes on the honeymoon train as the couple ready themselves for their first night and then some stunning shots from Niagara Falls where James pledges his love will never stop for the most beautiful girl in the world.

Back to life and “home sweet home” where good humour enables them to rise above the compromises of location and affordability… But the cracks are there: Mary’s family Mother (Lucy Beaumont) and brothers Jim (Daniel G Tomlinson) and Dick (Dell Henderson) are less than impressed with her husband’s ability to provide. John doesn’t even have any hooch left for Christmas and heads off to Bert’s for a bottle only to be caught up in a party as his weak will crumbles at the mixture of girls and gin…


The cracks begin to show...

We begin to lose confidence in John as his career drifts and he falls into a routine of careless marital bickering: he dreams while Mary cleans … and cooks and washes. Their arguing intensifies - she must carry the blame for his failure to progress with every culinary accident counting against her. But as he storms out, she calls down from the window: there’s something she hasn’t told him… Family life moves them onward but five years later they’re still in their assigned roles on the beach. As with Junior (Freddie Burke Frederick) and their daughter (Alice Mildred Puter) run in the sand, John plays a ukulele as Mary cooks… doing exactly what she’d normally be doing at home.

It was at this point that my daughter elbowed me and gave me a look… in fairness I had been thinking the same thought!

The couple’s luck changes twice in the space of a few minutes: John finally wins a caption competition and a life-changing $500. He returns home laden with presents yet the most unbearable tragedy is about to happen, one which completely changes the tone of the film – we’ve been lulled into a false sense of insecurity by Vidor and now we pay as John and Mary’s lives unwind.

“Except for The Crowd, I really am not proud of anything I did.” said Eleanor Boardman to film historian William Drew and you can see why as she pulls Mary through every emotional gear in the closing segments in a magnificent display of technique and conviction. Murray also excels as misery piles on misery and he loses direction almost to the point of self-oblivion. Out of pace with the crowd he’s on his uppers losing job after job and deluding himself that a new “break” is only around the corner… he’s as real a man as Hollywood gets.

Murray and Boardman aged up for one of ten alternative endings... 

Vidor’s brilliance is in not giving the audience an easy way out and we’re left wishing and hoping long after the end title card pops up, a film that leaves a mark and one you don’t simply walk away from.

All of which makes it frustrating that, in addition to being rarely screened, this major film is not available on home media although the 1981 restored version from Brownlow and Gill, featuring Carl Davis’ lovely orchestral score has been shown on TCM in the past. We have Wings, Sunrise and The Big Parade on Blu-ray; come on MGM or whoever you are these days.

Stephen Horne played a few of Carl’s lines in tribute to the late composer and filled the room with sympathetic lines that soon merged with the action on screen. I wonder how the quality of story, direction and performance impacts the improvisation, certainly with a film at this level if feels as if Stephen raises his game to the same level, duetting seamlessly with Vidor, Boardman and Murray.

One of the screenings of the year and a reminder of the power of the BFI archive and it’s role in our cinematic lives. Not just the usual crowd…


Reading list:


King Vidor’s The Crowd, The Making of a Silent Classic by Jordan R Young is a fascinating account of the film featuring interviews with Boardman and Vidor as well as an introduction from Kevin Brownlow. It’s available from Amazon in paper and on Kindle.


King Vidor, American by Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon is a high-content, well-researched biography from the early nineties and still to be found on Amazon too.

Thursday, 14 September 2023

Live Cinema lives… It (1927) with Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope 10th Anniversary

This was the Kennington Bioscope’s 10th Anniversary edition and the package was so sweetly wrapped it even had a Bow on it. Cyrus Gabrysch is, he said, often accused of starting the whole thing but what he and then John Sweeney thought would be a connoisseurs-only cinema club was transformed by a brave dog fighting his way up the stairs of a lighthouse to relight the beacon. Kevin Brownlow’s copy of a Rin Tin Tin film provided the moment when the audience erupted with applause for the heroic hound and Cyrus realised something special was happening.

Michelle Facey quoted Pamela Hutchinson’s famous description of the KB as a silent speakeasy and, Cyrus felt it was also like the Left Bank cinema groups that inspired Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer; maybe the Cinema Museum screenings will also assume an historic position as the place where silent film – film always on film – was resurgent through the Teens and the new Twenties that began not with a bang but with a fever as all cinemas we closed and the Bioscope moved fearlessly online with MC Facey becoming the face and voice of the silent resistance on KB TV.

The Bioscope has always dealt with the material issue of cinema and tonight was no different with a first half dedicated to 28mm films introduced by Chris Bird, projecting 101-111 year old celluloid on 107-year-old equipment: film as history, history as film… moving history, it moves and it flickers even the hand-cranked 28mm projector Chris demonstrated on stage to audience applause. We should all be so functional after so long in the dark.

The Pathé-Frères 28mm KOK Cine Projector and Camera

We began with a couple of Pathé films, demonstrating French ingenuity in animation, Émile Cohl, one of the fathers of animation and then Méliès style trickery with Wonderful Armour?, as a devil and two women knights defied all logic and the evidence of our own eyes, as they detached body parts with a smile. Colin Sell did well to keep his head but, with the elegant Samantha looking on in silent support, he followed the action with all the concentrated control of a man who worked with Barry Cryer for decades.

Then to the USA for Lest We Forget a Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew filmin which the flowers of romance get very tangled and, as Chris stressed, the only copy, in the World, of Episode 30 (of 119) of the Hazards of Helen a very tightly wrought drama in which Helen Holmes appeared to swing off bridges, jump on to moving trains and dive into turbulent waters to retrieve stolen goods. We wondered if she used a stunt double, and John Sweeney too, who accompanied with fast-flowing lines and cliff-hanging drama all with no visible safety net.

Follow that Clara Bow. And, of course, she did.

Clara in a business meeting with Antonio Moreno

This was a 35mm print from Photoplay – company by-line “Live Cinema” - which had the natural warmth of a pre-digital restoration and looked stunning on the big screen. I say stunning and I mean Clara Bow who, despite a cameraman buddy complaining how difficult her kineticism made her to catch on film, featured in close-up after close-up that left the watched hanging on her every smile. The discussion pre-screening with my neighbour was who would be a modern-day equivalent of Clara and we struggled to come up with anyone as naturally powerful and so exuberantly un-mannered on screen.

If ever an actress has transcended the sum of her parts and if ever a star has been completely under-estimated then that must be Clara Bow. In her career from a 17-year-old in Down to the Sea in Ships in 1922 to a wise-cracking, talkie comedienne in Hoop-la in 1932… Clara made only a few classic films, although relatively few were preserved as Michelle pointed out. She never had something like The Crowd, Pandora’s Box or The Wind, to show what she could do dramatically but, in every one of the films she did make, there is ample evidence that she was an actor of considerable ability. And this is true for It made in a period in which she made some 16 films in about a year, Paramount making as much as they could from their asset. 


There was indeed something about Clara, more than just acting; something genuine and heartfelt that, coupled with her looks, earned her the respect of a large part of the cinema-going audience through these years. Watching It years later, her eldest son Rex Bell Jnr, remarked that he could see all the expressions and feeling he had seen from “mom” on a daily basis: she wasn’t just acting she was giving part of herself to the watcher. When called on to cry she would call on a childhood memory of one of her friends dying in her arms after being consumed in a house fire: those huge shining eyes would well up with genuine tears of sorrow.

If It is one of the great films it is because it perfectly captures the essence of Clara. Clarence Badger directs well enough and makes the most of his star and story, you can’t take your eyes off her and this is not just the compulsion of trying to find new angles on that prettiness but because she’s radiating so much joy. She is It and she’s supposed to be. It’s a tough role when you think about it, no one ever had to live up to a billing founded on such an uncompromising premise: there’s no “it or miss” you just have to be on target with the casting. Tag, you’re it!!

Based on Elinor Glyn’s story, they paid the English writer some $50,000 to appear in one scene in order to clarify exactly what “it” meant and, needless to say, this was considerably more than the vastly underpaid main star had accumulated from her previous half dozen features.

Events are based in the large family-run Waltham’s department store where the heir to the business, Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), is about to take over following his father’s departure to spend more time with his gun. Junior’s best friend, Monty (William Austin), is reading an excerpt from “It” in Cosmopolitan and trying to interest his friend in this new conception of humanity although in his case he’s more “what?!” than “It!”. Talking of which there’s a young Gary Cooper flashing by as a journalist… Clara noticed him too.

Sweet Santa…

My second trip to Coney Island this week after The Crowd at the BFI...

Whilst Cyrus focuses on his new responsibilities, his pal scans the store looking for an assistant with “it”. His eyes alight on Clara’s character, Betty Lou, and he knows he’s found his woman but, try as he might, he cannot get Cyrus’ attention even though Betty already has him in her sights. She’s not about to let him out of her grasp though and this begins a game of It! and mouse as confusion and comedy mix with the odd dash of pathos and anything that gives Clara the chance to run through her extraordinary emotional gears.

It’s an absolute blast and Clara is well-supported by William Austin, nostrils flared like a Jazz-Age Kenneth Williams and Antonio Moreno who just about convinces as her love interest even though there’s no way he had the same amount of “it”! But who has?

Cyrus Gabrysch’s anniversary accompaniment was suitably celebratory, running wild with Clara and holding us aloft with the film’s dazzle and comic drama; that rare Wednesday evening atmosphere we’ve all come to treasure. Ten years after Cyrus and John started playing and Rin-Tin-Tin single-doggedly saved that lighthouse, so many others continue to create these magical evenings, I than you all and raise a glass to the next ten years of history being watched and being made!

Chris Bird demonstrates the kit

Cyrus Gabrysch explains the Rin Tin Tin connection

Michelle Facey introduces It.

Clara in colour, a precious glimpse of Red Hair one of many Paramount carelessly did not preserve.

The KB is a little bit like this... 

Gratuitous extra Clara...

Are you being served?

Sunday, 3 September 2023

Say it ain’t so, Joe… Congratulations on Your Promotion (1932)/In Spring (1929), Silent Film Days Bonn 2023

S. Pel’tik

This year’s festival announced its support for Ukraine and included a number of films made when the country was part of the USSR during the early days of Stalin’s reign. These two were made during his first five-year plan a time of increasing hardship with forced collectivisation and a continuation of the “Dekulakization” of the countryside – forcing the so-called “wealthier” farmers off their land. There were thousands of revolts against the process but all were suppressed and thousands died in the process as the Moscow government prioritised Ukrainian grain for export and not domestic consumption with a famine, the Holodomor, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands a day*

So, it’s against this backdrop that we have to view any films made during this period, one that is just part of the ongoing struggle between Russia and the Ukraine.

Congratulations on Your Promotion (1932), with Meg Morley

Directed by Їvha Hryhorovych, the only Ukraine-based woman directing films during this period, others having gone to Moscow, this film is a remarkably accomplished study of women and children in a school trying to balance education with the Communist Party’s stipulations about extra-curricular activity.

A. Zajčenko

Hryhorovych graduated from the VUFKU Odesa Film School in 1928, and her independent filmmaking career began in 1929, at a time when the USSR government decided on priority production of agitprop and educational films in support of collectivisation and industrialisation. Every film made during this time was heavily reviewed and censored . Compulsory primary education was introduced in 1930 aimed at "educating a generation capable of ultimate establishment of communism" and the regional soviet government decided on setting up a children’s film section of the Ukrainfilm production company.

This was the backdrop for Hryhorovych’s Congratulations on Your Promotion (1932), for which she also wrote the script promoting the Soviet educational reform and the polytechnicization of school education. Despite of this tight brief, she manages to make an emotionally satisfying film that is full of rich characters whose main concern is each other. This is not a didactic film but one that examines how positive process can be made, fulfilling the criteria set but not ignoring the difficulty of the project and the joys of understanding, patience and collaboration.

We begin with two children taking advantage of a sunny day after school, Alyosha (A. Zajčenko), “a passionate fisherman…” and Katya (V. Javorskaja) who, as we shall learn, likes to stick her nose into other people’s business… A third, Vanya (S. Pel’tik) is in a nearby shed, inventing things, his nickname is “Edison” and it is fascinating in itself that the great patent collector’s fame had spread so far and persisted.

The friendly face of collectivisation: K. Dombrovskaja

At school, this inventor is struggling as the Headmistress Nina Petrovna (M. Sidorova) makes clear and outside of school, he is a member of the Pioneer Organization of Ukraine, an organisation for Soviet Ukrainian children aged 10 to 15. The leader (K. Dombrovskaja), who I think is Alyosha’s mother, can also see his dissatisfaction as they head out to help count the grain.


He's a lazybones, he neglects his studies and the extra work!

Vanya takes off and the Pioneers discuss it, Alyosha suggesting he needs help with his work whilst Katya is more forthright.  Vanya takes a jump into the river and causes concerned teacher Akim Avanovich (A. Charlamov) to make sure that he’s alright, the lad was just taking a break from the Pioneers but the two talk and the old man realises he needs some help.

Katya disapproves of what she sees as favouritism and when she is humiliated in class by teacher Akim – who proves she doesn’t know all of the answers – she bites back, accusing him of being “old fashioned” in an article penned in her exercise book: “this is not a pre-revolutionary school… nowadays you should teach the children something rather than expelling them from class…” Katya, of course, wasn’t even born before the revolution.

V. Javorskaja, showing Katya's nosiness

She falls out with everyone and spies on Vanya at Akim’s house but what she doesn’t know is that the boy is demonstrating an idea he has for mechanising farming, exactly what Stalin ordered. Akim’s offers to help but stresses that the youngster needs to learn the basics as well and support the Pioneers if he’s to be a man…


Even visionaries need to work hard and collectively. Vanya has left the Pioneers but he comes to realise the value of collaboration as do they all…


Meg Morley accompanied with lines that merged seamlessly with the dialectic whilst also recognising the collective’s dramatic tension and the passion of children upon whom the whole future was to rest. There was something deeper too as none of us can really watch a film of this situation without considering the outcomes…


In Spring (1929), with Misha Kalinin and Roksana Smirnova

In Spring (1929) was based in and around a Kyiv earlier in the period of forced collectivisation/industrialisation and was following a lighter propagandist remit to Hryhorovych. Filmmaker Mikhail Kaufman’s fast-paced spectacle shows the people as much as the landscape and the industry and their spirit says everything both historically and in terms of the daily lives. The work is as hard as it ever was and yet there’s joy amongst the enterprise and cycle-riding, sometimes backwards too.


Kaufman was Dziga Vertov’s brother and had been cameraman on Man with a Movie Camera; the two falling out over the final cut. Here he shows the same deft touches, the ability to make connections and convey dozens of micro-narratives within an over-arching “symphony” of the city and surrounds. The angles are acute, the cutting highly energised and the overall effect is remarkable focused on the one city. Man With a Movie Camera covered four cities, Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv and Moscow, and there’s definitely more of a narrative coherence here, as the city wakes up from Winter slowly and with no little effort.

Writing in Sight and Sound, Pamela Hutchinson quoted a number of very positive contemporary reviews including this from Mykhailo Makotynskyi, the president of the All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration, “If I were a poet, I would have written lyrics for this movie… I have watched hundreds of thousands of metres, but I’ve never felt anything similar to this impression.”


I’d previously seen the Ukrainian musicians Roksana Smirnova and Misha Kalinin accompanying this film at Hippfest earlier this year. Now, as then, they created a deceptively spaced soundscape interchanging leading lines between Roksana’s piano and Misha’s effects-laden guitar. The connection between the modern invention and the century old film not only served the traditional purpose of accompaniment but obviously re-contextualised the essential continuities of a society now under so much threat. A heartfelt, beautiful and moving act of connection and, as the Bonn Festival stated, we are all as one with Ukraine even lacking these musician’s personal connection.


* A 2015 study from the Ukrainian Institute of Demographic and Social Studies, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, estimated around 3.9 million Ukrainians died during the Holodomor of 1932-33.


Wednesday, 30 August 2023

Old career in a new town... Brannigan (1975), BFI Blu-ray out now!

My mother-in-law is Dr Sylvia Hardy, noted scholar, a past secretary of the HG Wells Society, and an academic with a string of qualifications in English as well as Film. She can run rings around me on James Joyce, post-structuralism and literature – she recalls every book she’s read in outstanding detail – and, since she was a small girl watching films in Weymouth’s picture houses, she’s loved John Wayne. Despite Wayne’s politics and his attitudes to women and minorities, a whole list of things they would have argued about, he’s still one of the great stars for her.


She even likes Brannigan, a British-made film that allows Duke to carry off a tough-guy role at 68 although she feels he’s perhaps missing a horse… and it’s true, there is something charming about this film perhaps because we know his next film was Rooster Cogburn and we know he’s near the end but also because his persona is intact. He’s helped, of course, by a great supporting cast as well as superb backdrops of London: Brannigan is a real time-capsule film that takes in everything from Tower Bridge to the Garrick and RAC Clubs via Park Lane, Battersea and Piccadilly.



Mr Wayne

Directed by Douglas Hickox, Brannigan afforded Wayne the chance to ape the Clint Eastwood style (he had turned down Dirty Harry only to regret it) and allows a fresh twist by transporting his unchanging cowboy act to Blighty: a horse-wrangler out of water as it were... There are repeated moments in the film which play on this from attempts to get Brannigan to not carry his gun and to follow native procedures. There’s also a nice running contest between the character and his British counterpart, Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) which plays up every known cliché about the “special relationship”.


Brannigan’s assigned liaison officer, Detective Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher (the marvellous Judy Geeson) quotes her father in saying that there’s only three things wrong with “yanks”: “over-paid, over-sexed and over here…” But you know mutual respect won’t be far behind and, age-appropriate at that, here Wayne is more of an uncle figure being three times Geeson’s age.


It’s entertaining and undemanding fun and very well put together. There’s also a fine example of a hard-top e-type Jaguar and you can’t say further than that for men of a certain age, especially with Morris Minors, River 800s and so many classic cars on view.

Judy Geeson

Lieutenant James Brannigan is a Chicago cop who has his own way of doing thing but (you guessed it…) he gets results. He’s tracking down one particularly nasty crime lord, Ben Larkin (John Vernon, a tad "Larger than life" here...), who has been caught trying to flee to England. Somewhat against his will – and to the audience’s delight – Duke… sorry, Brannigan is sent to bring him back. Somehow, we sense that it’s not going to be quite that simple… and the old dog’s unconventional methods will be all the more so in London Town.


Brannigan arrives and is treated like a red-hot cinder by the locals as Swann and his number two, Insp. Michael Traven (John Stride – who was excellent in the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead I saw a few years later…in Manchester), struggle to reign him in. Miss Thatcher is altogether more understanding and there’s an under-current of fatherly affection between her and the old grump. But where did they get that second name from? The “Milk Snatcher” was a shadow cabinet minister at the time…


Meanwhile the plot has really kicked in. A hit man is assigned to off Brannigan by Larkin’s team led by Mel Fields (Mel Ferrer) – he’s Gorman (Daniel Pilon) the nastiest in the business but at least he drives that e-type. Then Larkin is kidnapped from his health club by two Brit gangsters played by Charlie-the-Handle (played by The Genius, James Booth!) and Drexel (Del Henney) whose aim is to hold him to ransom.

John Vernon


So now Brannigan has to help the Limeys save face as well as catch his man. The first attempt to snag the kidnappers fails as they extract the money from a drop in Piccadilly by drilling a hole beneath a post box.They seem to be one step ahead of the local Plod, but not Brannigan of course.


There are some lively police-procedurals as Brannigan and co set about scaring the truth out of the likes of Brian Glover and Tony Booth (Cherie’s dad) not to mention the far less threatening Tony Robinson – “look kids it’s Baldric!”, “Who?”, “Er… the guy out of Time Team!”, “Oh yeah…”


There’s also - of course - a classic bar brawl at a pub in Leadenhall Market in which Attenborough joins Wayne in slugging it out on that violent but harmless way of every good-humoured scrap since The Quiet Man: glassing with a smile and mutually respectful manliness all round. Personally I've only ever turned the other cheek - all my fighting has been outside of the pub, but it's a strange cinematic ritual of male bonding even now.


Sir Richard Attenborough

Then there’s a car chase which is very well executed and shows off some of the highlights of central London including Tower Bridge over which the cars fly as the draw bridge lifts higher. Famously Telly Savalas made an advertorial about Birmingham at around this time saying how good it was, "my kinda town!" and, in its way, Brannigan shows the love for London as well as the legend around whom the script and action was so carefully constructed. 


All the while Brannigan’s hit-man gets closer and closer to the kill, narrowly avoiding nailing Miss Thatcher as the dead-eyed cop reacts just in time to put him off. Predictable it may be but the plot is well constructed as the main elements race to a satisfying conclusion as the double-crossing crosses over itself in the inevitable deserted offices of decaying docklands (probably now the home of gastro pubs and luxury flats).


Wayne still convinces and went on to make Rooster Cogburn next, his best late period film and he met Kathryn Hepburn for the first time in London during filming and this is how she became involved in that classic. When I was younger, I was less generous to his attempts to stay in the game but this was all he knew from being an extra in silent films in the late twenties, he worked for over 50 years in cinema.


Duke explains modern badness to the limeys

Apart from featuring so much British talent living their best life acting with Wayne, cameos from Don Henderson and Lesley Anne Down among others, the film is worth watching for the cars and the streets of 1974. There’s an article on the BFI website looking at the locations then and now and it’s truly fascinating to watch the city in high resolution almost 50 years ago. It’s changed, we’ve changed… and yet, in some ways, it and we haven't. 


A couple of years later, The Squeeze showed a sleazier and more authentic side to London’s criminal classes, followed by others, but Brannigan helped keep the British crime flick alive at a time of struggle.

The booklet cover says it all!

This BFI Blu-ray is presented with the usual high-quality extras:


·         Presented in High Definition

·         Audio commentary by Steve Mitchell and critic Nathaniel Thompson (2017)

·         A Duke Out of Water (2023, 37 mins): reminiscences from the people who made Brannigan.

·         Frank Henson on Brannigan (2021, 4 mins): the veteran stuntman looks back on doubling the Duke.

·         Take It to the Bridge (1905-1956, 23 mins): historical glimpses of the Thames, Tower Bridge and other Brannigan locations.

·         A Policeman’s Lot (1896-1973, 35 mins): a copper’s clutch of films concerning crimefighters and crooks, proceeding from the very earliest days of cinema towards the Brannigan era.

·         The Guardian Interview: Richard Attenborough (1983, 89 mins, audio only): the award-winning actor and director, and John Wayne’s Brannigan co-star, reflects upon his illustrious career.

·         An extensive selection of location photographs, featuring cast and crew.

·         Original trailer

·         Illustrated booklet with new essays by Johnny Mains and John Oliver, notes on the special features and credits.


You can order the set direct from the BFI Shop and if you’re quick you’ll get the limited edition of 2,000 which includes the fascinating essay booklet.