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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POOR COW

27:05:17

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As Summer reluctantly hoves into view the nights get lighter and the weather warmer, a 9pm Film Night becomes harder to sustain, as movie watching is surely a pursuit that lends itself to darkness and the sense of cosiness you get when it’s pitch dark outside and an icy wind is scouring the streets. It was with a bright sun streaming through the blinds that Chris C and I settled down with a customary mug of tea each to watch Poor Cow (1967), Ken Loach‘s first foray into cinematic territory after starting his career in television.

As we’re taking our first sip of Yorkshire Tea (the best there is) Ken thrusts us headlong into a graphic birthing scene. Carol White, playing the ironically named Joy, is having a baby, presumably courtesy of her petty crook husband Tom (John Bindon). Unfortunately Tom can’t be there because he’s a 60’s thug and he has other things to do like casing joints or looking for a thinner tie or something.

Tom is abusive and treats the child as an inconvenience. Joy deserves better and she’s promised a comfortable life when his gang’s next big job comes off. Of course it doesn’t come off, and after a scuffle in a street full of shoppers a policeman holds Tom’s face against a rain drenched pavement. He’s sent to prison, giving Joy the chance to set up with Dave (Terence Stamp), a petty crook. Hang on, haven’t we been here before?

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Stamp is charismatic, good looking and kind to Joy and little Johnny. In a weird break from the London flip-side of the swinging 60s, in which most of the drama takes place, the family go on a camping holiday to the Welsh countryside. Joy and Dave make love under a waterfall. At this point in the real world it’s just getting dark outside and we’re into a can of beer each.

Dave eventually also ends up in the slammer and it’s revealed what an unpleasant criminal he actually is, unless you consider locking an old lady in a bathroom while you slap her about a bit and rob her house quite reasonable. To pay the rent and feed Johnny and herself, Joy is encouraged by a female mate to pose in a baby doll negligee for a photography club of drooling middle aged men, some of whom it transpires don’t even bother putting film in their cameras. Loach spends quite a long time on this particular scene. Just saying.

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At the seaside and in London pubs, like Hogarth’s prints Loach’s camera catches members of the non-acting public and lays their characters bare. A grimace, a gap toothed smile or a nonchalant shrug is enough, and just enough to expose a kernel of truth. There is a real skill in the creation of a collective human milieu in which to root the story of this woman and her tribulations. All to a Donovan soundtrack too.

Loach is undoubtedly an expert at filming drama with a documentary eye. The scenes of backstreet London, washing hanging limply between tenements and children playing in gutters, achieve a real beauty because of their brazenness and considered framing. There is no affectation, it seems real and unfiltered. Unfortunately Goddardesque intertitles pop up every now and again, often poorly spelled, an unforgiveable lack of attention to detail. A common device in French cinema, they seem needlessly pretentious in this very English film and add nothing to the rhythm and forward flow.

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The original novel was by Nell Dunn. Loach had previously adapted one of her other works, Up The Junction for television. Such was Terence Stamp’s fame at the time that he reputedly turned up on set in a Rolls Royce. Joy’s first husband Tom was played by dodgy actor and real life gangster John Bindon.  Famous for provoking fights and being an associate of the Krays he was acquitted of the murder of Johnny Darke in a Fulham pub in 1978, but it effectively ended his acting career and he died of AIDS in 1993.

Carol White carries the entire film with a sympathetic and wholly believable portrayal of a woman whose bad choices never carry her forward, but leave her treading water in a world of damp rooms and unreliable men. She temporarily loses Johnny at the end, but on finding him again on a derelict demolition site her true colours shine through. The constant spur to carry on is her own flesh and blood in the form of this child and his future.

White’s real life was plagued by tragedy and bad choices too. She had problems with alcohol, drugs, shoplifting and suicide attempts. She died in Florida in 1991. A television film of her life called The Battersea Bardot was shown in 1994.

And now it’s dark.

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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

SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING

14:03:17

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

Looking smart in his shirt and tie, highly Brylcreemed and loudmouthed, Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) is the archetypal Angry Young Man of the 50’s. Railing against everything but accomplishing nothing, he’s fuelled by beer and birds and a smouldering dread of being stuck in the same place for the rest of his life.

The place is Nottingham and the Raleigh bicycle factory in Radford is where he earns his beer money. Finney learned to work a lathe for the part. He’s knocking off Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of Jack (Bryan Pringle), one of the foremen. He plays it close to the wire too, actually being in the house when Jack comes in and having to silently sneak out the back.

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With her husband away at the races, the scene where Arthur wakes up in Brenda’s double bed caused problems with the censors. They didn’t take kindly to this view of working class, extramarital shenanigans. The problem is Brenda gets pregnant and wants an abortion without anyone knowing. Termination of pregnancy was illegal at the time this film was made. Arthur agrees to pay for it, but by now he’s also involved with another girl, Doreen (Shirley Anne Field).

A night out with Doreen at Nottingham’s Goose Fair goes horribly wrong when the tangled truth of Arthur’s misdemeanours is exposed amongst the waltzers and hoop-la stalls. He gets comprehensively beaten by two squaddies who leave him bedridden.

Directed by Karel Reisz, it was based on the 1958 book by Alan Sillitoe, who also wrote the screenplay. The Seaton’s family house at 5 Beaconsfield Terrace  was actually owned by Sillitoe. Filmed mostly on location in Nottingham, The British Flag pub in Battersea was however used for some of the night scenes.

Arthur is portrayed as being some kind of working class superman. After a drinking contest he is so drunk that he attempts to stagger to the toilet, but falls down a flight of concrete stairs into the pub basement. However, once indoors a quick splash of water on his face and he’s right as rain again. Hard as nails is Arthur.

As the final futile gesture of defiance in the film, from a grassy bank Arthur launches a rock toward the new housing estate built on the edge of town, where he and Doreen will surely live, absorbed into the suburban void.

Cinematographer Freddie Francis gives the interiors a cramped claustrophobia, yet the inky blacks of the industrial nights, with their pubs, cinemas, girls and empty streets, seem like somewhere to escape to.Arthur and his mate go fishing in the canal, but their communion with nature is offset by the presence of a looming electricity pylon. They are forever in the city’s embrace.

A science fiction edge unexpectedly arose when, during the quieter bits, a thereminic, swooping tone was heard emanating from the ether. This added an interesting, unearthly tinge to some of the more intimate scenes. We eventually tracked it down to a game the kids had been playing on a phone that hadn’t been switched off properly.

Reputedly Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is the first time extra marital sex had been portrayed in this way. It is also the only film in which I have heard anyone call someone else a “swivel-eyed get”.

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