THE BLACK PANTHER

20:06:17

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The day after watching The Black Panther I saw episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. It was in four parts separated by commercial breaks. Firstly agent Dale Cooper’s evil doppelganger gets shot, then revived by some ghost-like woodsmen who rub blood into him in an awful dark ritual until he’s alive again. Then in 1945 an atomic bomb in New Mexico unleashes a female goddess figure who vomits out evil over the Earth, including BOB. Thirdly a giant and a woman live in a metal castle in a lonely sea. The giant floats into the air and dreams a golden dream from which a shining globe containing the image of Laura Palmer drifts into the woman’s hands. She kisses it and sends it via a cinema screen and a brass tube into our world. In part 4 it is 1956 and a cross between a frog and an insect crawls over the desert sand and into a sleeping girl’s mouth whilst a woodsman speaks the following incantation over the radio:

THIS IS THE WATER AND THIS IS THE WELL

DRINK FULL AND DESCEND

THE HORSE IS THE WHITE OF THE EYES

AND DARK WITHIN

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The Black Panther is as diametrically opposite to the Lynchian universe of quark, strangeness and charm as it is possible to get. Ian Merrick’s film of Donald Neilson’s exploits, robbing post offices and then kidnapping a teenage heiress, is so true to life and forensically unimaginative that it hurts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another film as unblemished by context and subplot in my life. The story is told without any attempt to explain or rationalise the events. It is an hour and a half of Crimewatch reconstruction.

THE HORSE IS THE WHITE OF THE EYES

AND DARK WITHIN

Born Donald Nappey in 1936, his surname made him the butt of jokes and cruel jibes, so he changed it to Neilson. He did his National Service in Cyprus and Kenya and became interested in guns, but when he married Irene in 1955 she persuaded him not to pursue a career in the forces. Fancying himself as a survivalist, he kept ammunition and maps at home and his love of military order never left him.

Finding it hard to make ends meet, in 1965 he turned to burglary as a lifestyle choice. Houses proved easy to rob without getting caught, but rewards were meagre, so he turned his attention to sub-post offices. Neilson lived a double life, becoming ever more bitter and domineering at home to his wife and daughter, and ever more ruthless in his night time pursuits. The media called him The Black Panther.

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The film shows him getting greedier and greedier as he turns his gun on postmasters who unfortunately get involved in this sad man’s lone wolf crime spree. In the late sixties and early seventies provincial England was an uninspiring brownish grey. Everything smelled of cigarette ash and chip fat and it constantly drizzled a fine, cold rain. This is the texture from which this film is forged.

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THIS IS THE WATER AND THIS IS THE WELL

DRINK FULL AND DESCEND

Treating society as a well from which to draw his sustenance, Neilsen decides to drink full and descend. He abducts young heiress 17 year old Lesley Whittle from her bedroom. Wearing only a dressing gown, she is taken to a place where Neilson will keep her hostage and where she will eventually die.

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THIS         IS         THE         WATER         AND         THIS         IS         THE         WELL

Deep in a drainage shaft in Bathpool Park, Staffordshire, on a platform above dark, icy water, with a cable round her neck and no hope of escape, Neilson holds her for ransom, demanding a money drop from her family with no police presence. As a man who can’t successfully rob a post office without resorting to murder, he isn’t quite the master criminal he thinks he is and the whole episode ends in farcical tragedy and dark sadness.

All this is bathed in a bare, stark reality. No private worlds of imagination are stepped into, no psychology is examined. The food looks unappetising and the interiors are without atmosphere. As a conveyor of the cruelty and isolation of the criminal the film works well. Donald Sumpter is superb as the unlikable Neilson, alienated from civilian society and forever preying on its weaknesses.

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Years later, outside a chip shop in Mansfield The Black Panther was eventually captured by police officers and members of the public.

THIS         IS         THE         WATER         AND         THIS         IS         THE         WELL

DRINK                 FULL                AND                 DESCEND

THE           HORSE          IS            THE          WHITE           OF           THE           EYES

AND                   DARK                   WITHIN

 

He died in prison on December 18th, 2011.

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JIGSAW

06:06:17

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Jack Warner

Jack Warner was 67 when he made Jigsaw (1962) with director Val Guest, who also wrote the screenplay. Based on the American novel ‘Sleep Long, My Love‘ by Hillary Waugh, it’s not all talk, but when the dialogue sparks up it can be rapid and choreographed to such an extent that the exchanges overlap and dovetail into each other, a trait seen more in American films. The police investigation is detailed and nuanced, so missing a section of rapid fire verbal exchange is something to be wary of. In other words, don’t take chances, pause it if you need a wee.

The crime around which the action takes place occurs in an oddly isolated house overlooked by a caravan park. The idea for the plot came from a true life crime. In 1924 Patrick Mahon murdered his pregnant lover Emily Kaye near Eastbourne, dismembered and hid her body in a locked bedroom in a rented bungalow. He spent the Easter weekend there with another woman who was quite unaware that her predecessor’s remains lay in pieces in the room next door.

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Ronald Lewis

Detective Inspector Fred Fellows (Warner) and Detective Sergeant Jim Wilkes (Ronald Lewis) drive round early 60’s Brighton in a Ford Consul managing to make the town look like it oozes crime and seediness. They pick up pieces here and there to complete the jigsaw, discard them, pick new ones up, go back to the old ones again and gradually get the straight edges in place so the rest can be filled in.

Fellows parks the police car outside a grocer’s shop to question the proprietor:

Fellows: Peck? I’m Detective Inspector Fellows

Mr Peck: Oh, are you? Well let me tell you, I don’t like this at all. You’ll get me a bad name with that stigma parked out there.

Guest began his career as an actor, then a writer, and the screenplay reflects this by allowing characters to become fully formed and fleshed out in seconds because of seemingly throw away lines, maybe lines that a lesser director may deem irrelevant. This leaves the impression of a town inhabited by individuals with lives and thoughts outside the murder investigation. In other words they aren’t just there to advance the plot with a bit of exposition or a grain of evidence, instead they are given reasons for existing.

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In a gem of a scene Fellows and Wilks think they’ve identified the dead woman and they arrive at her place in Greenwich, right alongside the Cutty Sark, and are surprised to find her very much alive. Fellows uses her phone and explains in his loud Dixon of Dock Green voice to the copper on the other end that the dismembered corpse is not Jean Sherman (Yolande Donlan) after all. It dawns on her just how close she came to being dead meat, and how the man she thought was a charming lover was a calculating psychopath.

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Jigsaw is universally well thought of, and for good reason. The acting is exemplary, it is directed with skillful attention to detail and Arthur Grant‘s cinematography is clean and economical. Just to reiterate, it’s a cracking film. Watch it and see if you can guess who the killer is. Award yourself a stick of Brighton rock if you can put the last bit of this 1000 piece puzzle in place before the boys in blue.

Not one for the Brighton Tourist Board.

Link: PATRICK MAHON: The real Jigsaw Murderer

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ROOM AT THE TOP

16:03:17

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This is a superb film. We both agreed on that. It’s one of those works where everything  just comes together as a coherent whole and, although it has a 115 minute running time, long by Film Night standards, it never drags or sags in the middle. We weren’t the only ones to admire Room at the Top: It received six Academy Award nominations including Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Hermione Baddely, who only appears on screen for 2 minutes and 32 seconds, making it the shortest ever performance to be nominated for an Oscar.

Although the picture was released in 1959 the story actually takes place in the late 1940s, a chronology that can be worked out by careful attention to dialogue details, because relatively young men speak about their wartime experiences. Chris C did the math.

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The first things we see during the opening credits are Joe Lampton’s (Laurence Harvey) socks propped nonchalantly yet confidently on a railway carriage seat as his train pulls into the Yorkshire town of Warnley. Leaving behind the dull, poverty ridden slums and factories of his hometown Dufton, Joe has come to take a job at the Borough Treasurer’s Department.

From the second he claps eyes on Susan Brown (Heather Sears), daughter of Warnley’s industrial bigwig, he is infatuated, not only with her personal charms but also in her potential as a pathway to his dreams: A large house, a large bank balance and respect. Mr and Mrs Brown (Donald Wolfit and Ambrosine Philllpotts) send Susan abroad to prevent Joe getting his grubby, working class hands on her.

The genius of the piece is the casting of Simone Signoret as Alice Aisgill, a French woman trapped in both an unhappy marriage and a northern nothingness of a town. John Braine‘s book has Alice as a Yorkshire woman with a progressive sexual outlook, but Signoret adds a calm, knowing intelligence to the role. Her assured acting and the sensuality she exudes is the centrepiece around which the rest of the drama revolves. She is older than Joe, but the two fall in deep together. Her husband finds out, refuses a divorce and threatens to ruin Joe.

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In the end Joe marries a pregnant Susan, so he gets what he promised himself, but a tragedy has played out and true feelings lie unresolved and tattered. This delivers more depth than your typical Angry Young Man drama, with the strong female role of Signoret’s adding such relevance. For me a key scene is Alice admitting to posing naked for an artist when she was younger. Joe goes ballistic, his sense of entitlement shattered and his sexual double standards ironically also laid bare.

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I think we watched Room at the Top in rapt quietness. That’s always a good sign. There was no picking at spots in the narrative or pulling frayed bits of the script apart during the showing. It won an Oscar for Best Screenplay (Neil Paterson, with uncredited work by Mordecai Richler) and a nomination for Best Director for Jack Clayton. A sequel entitled Life at the Top was made in 1965. It also starred Laurence Harvey and was directed by Ted Kotcheff. Man at the Top, a 1970 television series following Joe Lampton in later life was broadcast by ITV. It lasted 23 episodes and starred Kenneth Haigh.

Be careful what you wish for.

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Writing about Room at the Top

LUNCH HOUR

25:04:17

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The night is dark and windswept, with rain in the air and an angry sea pummelling the cliffs. A lone figure silhouetted against the darkening sky makes his forlorn way along the desolate cliff top path. This is Chris Corner coming round for another  Film Night. Supersonic Saucer (1956) was the first part of our double bill, and we watched it with childlike pleasure (see previous review). The second film, a far more grown up affair, required quite an extensive brain recalibration to appreciate fully. I’m not sure we achieved that on the night, so I watched it again for the purposes of this blog post, and it certainly benefits from a second viewing.

Lunch Hour (1962) was written by Rumpole of the Bailey creator John Mortimer, originally as a stage play. This is evident in its economy of characters (Girl, Man, Hotel Manageress) and its reliance on dialogue rather than location. It has also been adapted as a radio drama and a BBC Thirty Minute Theatre presentation as Kings Cross Lunch Hour (1972) featuring Pauline Collins and Joss Ackland. The stage play starred Wendy Craig, an apt choice for a piece about an extra-marital fling, as Mortimer had a brief affair with Craig which resulted in the birth of her second son.

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Another Bryanston Films production, the date of the copyright is stated as 1962 in the opening titles, although the IMDb gives the release date as 1961 which seems to be when the stage play was first performed. The credits appear over moving railway tracks intersecting and separating, giving the impression of travel. A visual clue to the unravelling and splitting of the narrative that occurs as the story progresses?

We never learn the characters’ names, but a young wallpaper designer (Shirley Anne Field) and a married man who works at the same company in a less creative capacity (Robert Stephens) are making early attempts at having an affair. Finding it difficult to get any privacy during their numerous lunch hour rendezvous, he books them in at a cheap hotel as a married couple. Their courtship and failed attempts to kick things off are told in flashback, him being hesitant and faux-chivalrous, she more poised and sassy.

The sexual politics of the 1960’s workplace is examined as the communal tea trolley comes round and all the employees congregate around it for a mid-morning break. The females are generally looked on as fair game by the Brylcreemed and suited executive types. As one particularly oily Lothario announces, girls from art school pose no special problems. The factory premises, the design studio where the women paint wallpaper motifs, the offices where the chaps strive to look more important than the next man, and the print room with its presses rolling out huge quantities of finished wallpaper, are an interesting window into the relatively recent past. Airy, light interiors without a computer screen in sight and people walking from one department to the next to convey a message, rather than simply emailing.

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Stephens is somewhat naive and out of his depth as he first meets Field by helping her pick up a folder of dropped drawings from the office floor. Impossibly luminous and magnetic, she is far more assured and knowing, obviously skillful at thwarting greasy would-be suitors. In an interview for Radio 4’s Film Programme, Shirley Anne Field speaks about how much she enjoyed the making of Lunch Hour. She mentions John Mortimer’s numerous changes to the script, which he based on listening to the cast’s casual conversations and altered on the fly. There is certainly a high premium placed on rhythm and language.

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The story concocted by Stevens as to why a respectable man and a 24 year old girl require a room for an hour during the middle of the day provides the springboard for Field to dive into realms of kitchen sink fantasy that seemingly become an alternative reality. An alternative reality that is based in Scarborough, of all places. The tables are well and truly turned by the girl, the question is whether she’s knowingly calculating what she’s doing or just getting carried along on a wave of untruth. I personally plump for the former.

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SHIRLEY ANNE FIELD ON THE FILM PROGRAMME: RADIO 4 2011

SUPERSONIC SAUCER

25:04:17

The second part of this Film Night double feature was LUNCH HOUR (1961), the review for it will be posted as soon as possible.

supersonic saucer

This could be difficult. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since watching these two films. Things have happened: An unexpected stay in hospital for one. Nevertheless, in an attempt to stay true to the pledge of recording every film we’ve watched in the Film Night 2017 series, here goes.

This was a double bill of two short features, starting with Supersonic Saucer (1956). It was good to see the Children’s Film Foundation logo with the massive capital letters ‘CFF’ against the backdrop of pigeons taking flight from Trafalgar Square. It brought back memories of the Essoldo at Sheffield Lane Top. I used to go there occasionally on a Saturday afternoon with a few schoolmates on the bus. It had torn seats, fag burns, and two Art Deco statues that cast a watchful eye over the sweet throwing and dubious adolescent goings on. It closed as a cinema in 1975 and became a bingo hall.

Anyway, Supersonic Saucer seems to have been made on a similar budget as a bus ride to the cinema and the purchase of a matinee ticket might cost. Perhaps a carton of Kia-Ora too to pay the special effects chap. People make a big deal of the premise that Spielberg may have got some of his ideas for ET from the film. In hindsight it seems entirely possible that he could have come up with his child sized alien story quite independently. The two films are not exactly peas in a pod.

It concerns these three kids (Marcia ManolescueGillian Harrison and Fella Edmondswho are left behind at a boarding school, in that mythical England where most CFF adventures take place, to while away their summer holidays. There are two girls and a lad who looks the spit of a young Jacob Rees Mogg and knows a lot about science. They are completely unfazed at finding a little alien in a tree, which they call Meba and take indoors.

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Meba is a bit like a shaved owl wrapped in a white sheet so that only his eyes can be seen, avoiding any need for fancy creature animation. He communicates telepathically, cries a bit, can turn time backwards by rolling those big eyes and has the ability to transform himself into a flying saucer. If the kids wish for something, for example money or cakes, Meba simply flies through the town and nicks them. Of course it’s pointed out that stealing is wrong and Meba pops the cash and cakes back.

A gang of crooks, known only by numbers, are bent on robbing the school, thus  allowing the kids and the alien ample scope to show how stupid adults are. Meba has lots of fun with repeatedly turning time backwards as the hapless baddies try to climb a long staircase. Of course, in the fullness of time, the forces of good prevail and the little chap flies off to his home planet.

The head felon is played with relish by rotund character actor Raymond Rollett. The original story, although it’s no War of the Worlds by any stretch of the imagination, was written by Frank Wells, son of the great science fiction writer H. G. Wells. Frank was a main executive at the CFF.

Watching Supersonic Saucer is great fun, not always for the right reasons I fear. A much better film on a similar theme, also made under the auspices of the CFF, is The Glitterball (1977). It takes place in a recognisable, gritty 70’s England and features cool, stop- frame animation.

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