Category: British Cinema

The Assassination Bureau (UK 1969)

Diane Rigg as Sonya Winter

This is perhaps an unusual film to be discussed on this blog but, apart from providing some light relief as an ‘entertainment film’, it does exemplify several trends in British and international cinema in the 1960s. The production team of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph developed mainly at Ealing Studios in the 1940s and early 1950s. They then sometimes worked separately but later re-united for several successful ‘social melodramas’ interspersed with various forms of comedy films. Dearden was nearly always the director with Relph the writer, producer and sometimes art/production designer. He performed all three roles on Assassination Bureau. By the late 1960s the pair were generally able to command bigger budgets, in this case producing at Pinewood with support from Paramount. They were also able to attract top talent such as Geoffrey Unsworth as DoP and Ron Grainer as music composer. The involvement of Paramount marks this as one of the productions to benefit from the significant investment in the UK industry by Hollywood studios in the second half of the 1960s.

Rigg and Reed together

The budget and Dearden-Relph’s track record also helped to attract a distinguished cast led by Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed. Diana Rigg, who died in September 2020 was never really a ‘film star’ as such, though she was undoubtedly a star (Shakespearian) actor on the stage and a very popular TV performer, mainly because of her stint as ‘Mrs Peel’ in The Avengers (51 episodes, 1965-68). That series sold well abroad so she developed the international appeal of a film star through TV. I would argue that the late 1960s through to the mid 1970s was an important period in her film appearances. Besides this film, the two I remember were The Hospital (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973), both, like The Avengers and The Assassination Bureau, mixing comedy with other genres.

Oliver Reed was, by contrast, primarily an actor on film. IMDb lists 122 roles in a career lasting 45 years. He began as an uncredited youth in the 1950s and broke through in the 1960s in Hammer films, especially Joe Losey’s The Damned in 1962. By the late 1960s he was a leading man and appearing in some noteworthy films including Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971) and Michael Apted’s The Triple Echo (1972). These titles cast him opposite Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. Mr Reed was a lucky boy in the casting process and the roles continued through the 1970s before his heavy drinking and wild behaviour made him well-known as a ‘celebrity’ rather than the talented star actor he could be. The film roles declined in importance – some were simply smaller roles, others were in not very good films. Some reviewers of The Assassination Bureau are not impressed by Rigg and Reed but they both seemed fine to me and I think they carry the film’s comedic tone very well.

The Bureau’s London HQ with Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) in the chair (back to the camera)

The film’s plot is fairly simple. It is based on an incomplete book by Jack London that was finished in 1963 by another writer, Robert L. Fish (writer of the novel used for Bullitt in 1968), and adapted by Michael Relph. Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) is a feminist in London a few years before the Great War in 1914. She discovers the existence of ‘The Assassination Bureau Ltd.’, a secret organisation that will accept commissions to assassinate public figures. Originally intended to target corrupt or morally reprehensible leaders, the Bureau now seems to kill anyone for a fee. Alarmed by the threat such a group poses for the general well-being, Sonya has the idea of commissioning an assassination, selecting the head of the Bureau himself, Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) as the target. Amused, he accepts the commission and challenges the other members of The Bureau to attempt to kill him, thinking that it will enable him to re-organise the Bureau’s membership. He sets off across Europe to pre-empt his erstwhile colleagues, killing them before they can kill him. Ms Winter goes along to record the events for a newspaper she has convinced to take a punt on a female journalist but soon gets more involved than she expected. Some of the assassinations are quite clever but they all borrow genre elements from other films, some reminded me of scenes from Hammer films.

Philippe Noiret, one of the Bureau, is operating a Paris hotel with a difference . . .

The original novel belongs to a cycle of Gothic fictions/espionage/anarchist novel set in the 1890s or early twentieth century. The most obvious example is Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) but similar elements  are found in Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. The Holmes links remind us also that recent Holmes films and have re-visited the era and the meta genre as well as being re-worked as ‘steampunk’ narratives.

Curd Jürgens and Telly Savalas in control of a Zeppelin

Finally, this kind of production is typical of the ‘international’ films of the period. Ostensibly a British film based at Pinewood, the funding is American and the third credit on the film is for Telly Savalas, who plays the newspaper owner prepared to hire Ms Winter – he later turns out to fulfil a rather different role. Although a familiar face in American film and TV, Savalas wasn’t a ‘star’ in the UK at this point. By the mid 1970s he would become much better known for the Kojak TV series. The international casting really refers to the various European stars who play the members of the Bureau. These include Philippe Noiret and Curd Jürgens. The less well-known Annabella Incontrera perhaps steals the picture as the wife of the Italian member of the Bureau. The locations used included Paris, Vienna and Venice – something that British productions had managed fairly consistently since the early 1950s.

The Assassination Bureau has appeared on Talking Pictures TV a few times and it reminds us of the period when the British cinema could still make and release films of this scale on a regular basis. But it was almost the end of the British studio system, especially with the withdrawal of Hollywood investment in the next few years. If you enjoy a good romp with a strong cast I think the film is quite entertaining.

Queen & Country (UK-Ireland-France-Romania 2014)

Bill’s family watches the Coronation on their first TV

‘Queen & Country’ as a title is a reference to British military ideologies about patriotism and ‘service’ to the monarchy and the establishment. Written and directed by John Boorman the film is the belated sequel to Boorman’s 1987 film Hope and Glory that proved to be both a commercial and critical hit. Twenty-seven years is a long gap between the titles with a whole generation of new cinemagoers probably unaware of the earlier film. Both films are autobiographical to a certain extent. In Hope and Glory the central character, like Boorman himself in 1942, is nine years old. In the sequel he is eighteen and about to be called up for National Service in 1951. I’ve written about National Service in some detail in a recent post on The Bofors Gun (1968)Queen & Country was initially welcomed as probably the last film to be released by John Boorman and he duly gave interviews to festival reporters and critics. However the film didn’t fully live up to expectations at the box office and later commentators took against the film. I wonder if the setting of the story and in particular the unique cultural context of Britain in the early 1950s was just not understood by audiences, especially outside the UK? But actually the UK/Irish market was not even its strongest box office territory in Europe where the French market prevailed. Part of this failure might have been because the film screened at Cannes and was acquired by Artificial Eye in the UK, best known as an arthouse distributor. I enjoyed the film very much but I can see that it presented problems to distributors.

The new conscripts at the start of their National Service

John Boorman has had a long and eventful career. He made an initial breakthrough in UK television before directing his first feature film, the pop vehicle Catch Us If You Can featuring the then very successful singles band the Dave Clark Five. The film worked well enough to enable Boorman to move to Hollywood where he made three features that catapulted him into an international standing as a brave and innovative director: Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific (1968) and Deliverance (1972). Meanwhile, he had bought a house in Ireland where he has been based ever since. From his new Irish base in County Wicklow he made Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur in 1981. In between he returned to Hollywood to make Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), a film which seems to have offended many and didn’t make money as far as I’m aware. Boorman remained a director capable of raising finance for several further features, including the successful Irish crime film The General in 1998 with Brendan Gleeson and Adrian Dunbar. He also wrote about film. Before he became a filmmaker he had been a reviewer and in 1992 he became the co-founder and editor of Faber & Faber’s long-running series Projections: Film-makers on Film-making. Hope and Glory had been by then a rare British-based production as Boorman preferred making films in what he saw as exotic and interesting locations. The London location of Hope and Glory was personal for Boorman, broadly nostalgic for some audiences and an accessible child’s perspective on the ‘war at home’ for others. Queen & Country had by June 2015 (when the film was released in the UK) become more of a historical drama, looking back at a time less remembered/well-known.

Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis) brings the Sergeant Instructors Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones, left) and Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) to face the CO

In late 1951 Boorman’s alter ego, Bill (Callum Turner) is called up for his National Service and immediately bonds with another new conscript Percy (Caleb Landry Jones). Together they will have an eventful time over the next two years, despite never leaving Southern England. Bill is a bright lad, more than capable of coping with the Army’s procedures without losing his sense of independent thought. Percy is more of a tearaway. Both young men represent a challenge to the Army’s procedures designed to train young men to take orders without question. The narrative weaves together separate strands involving Bill’s pursuit of the beautiful but mysterious young woman (played by Tamsin Egerton) he has seen across the river from his house each morning and Bill and Percy’s ongoing battle with Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis). The social context for these stories is Bill’s family life in their house on an island in the Thames near Shepperton and the national events of the Korean War, the death of King George VI and the televised Coronation of Elizabeth II. The national context is crucial and Boorman himself has spoken about it in various interviews (especially in Sight & Sound July 2015) and in his memoir Adventures of a Suburban Boy (2003). In 1951 The post-war Labour government lost an election in which it still won the popular vote but the Conservatives won most seats. The new Government under the wartime leader Winston Churchill faced the prospect of fighting three separate wars in Korea as part of a United Nations force and in colonial conflicts in Malaya and Kenya. In each of these conflicts it would be necessary to use National Service conscripts like Bill.

Bill with the ‘mystery woman’ (Tamsin Egerton)

Boorman has spoken about the generational differences that became apparent in the UK at this time and how they were crystallised in the National Service experience. The generation who had fought the war were still prepared to try to hold on to the Empire which was already crumbling. In Aldershot the conflict is between Bill and Percy as National Service youths and Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewliss). After Basic Training, Bill and Percy are selected as Instructors and promoted to Sergeant (presumably instructors had to be at least sergeants). They are supposed to teach the new conscripts how to type but Bill in particular attempts to subvert the Army’s ideology with the remarks he makes to his ‘students’. This does not go down well with Bradley. Bill and Percy also become involved with Private Redmond, a ‘skiver’ who has avoided posting abroad by feigning various medical conditions. Redmond is a generic character in many military narratives involving conscription and is here played by the Irish comic actor Pat Shortt, a popular figure in Irish film and TV. In his Sight & Sound review (July 2015), Philip Kemp suggests that Queen & Country is something of an ‘episodic clutter’ reminiscent of ‘an army sitcom series’. In one sense I agree and the ongoing battle between Redmond and Bradley is a reminder of Granada’s The Army Game which ran on ITV between 1957 and 1961 and which is part of the National Service cycle of films. Meanwhile at home and with both the mystery woman and the two nurses that Bill and Percy meet, the generation gap is explored in different ways. Bill is not very enthusiastic when his father buys a TV set to watch the Coronation in June 1953.

Bill dances with one of the nurses, Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) at a regimental dance. The other nurse, Peggy (Miriam Rizea) is with Major Cross (Richard E. Grant).

Queen & Country is mostly comedic in terms of the ‘army sit-com’, more like a romantic comedy drama/sexual awakening involving the mystery woman and the two nurses and a family melodrama back on Bill’s island home. However, it becomes much darker towards the end of the narrative, suggesting perhaps that Bill learns a great deal from his National Service experiences. The film worked very well for me, but then it should. It’s difficult to to work out what audiences without the historical background might make of it. At times the comedy is almost farcical, but it is carried through with conviction. Note the name of the regiment in the image above, the RARF, the Royal Agincourt Regiment of Foot. (A name which made me think of Carry On . . . Up the Khyber (1968).) But perhaps the the biggest mistake is the casting of Caleb Landry Jones as Percy. The Texan is now a significant actor in Hollywood, but I don’t think he was in 2014. He looks like he could be English but his accent in the film is all over the place and in the image above where he and Callum Turner are meant to be standing ‘at ease’ in the CO’s office, everything about his stance is wrong. As a generic character in comedy about young men, he is fine but as a significant figure in Boorman’s complex presentation of time and place he is ‘out of place’.

But despite this problem, Boorman displays his skill in many scenes and he works his cinephilia into the narrative which starts and ends with a filming sequence by the Thames at Shepperton. Later Bill will take his date to see Kurosawa’s Rashomon. I thought Callum Turner was excellent as the Boorman alter ego and Tamsin Egerton and David Thewlis should also be singled out. Vanessa Kirby makes the most of the small part of Bill’s sister returning from Canada. Queen & Country is widely available. I watched it on BFI Player but it is on many other streamers to rent or buy as well. John Boorman is one of the best British directors of the last 50 years and I must now re-watch some of the earlier films. Here’s the US trailer:

The Bofors Gun (UK 1968)

This important British film was not easily available for many years until a UK Region 2 DVD appeared in 2012 from Odeon (It appears to be still available for rental from Cinema Paradiso in the UK). I believe the film was also screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2014. Production began in 1967 with funding from the ill-fated ‘pot’ put together by Jay Kantner at Universal’s London office. Universal invested around $30 million over the next few years in a dozen British films, most of which turned out to be either expensive flops or critically-praised low budget films that failed to attract audiences. (See Alexander Walker’s Hollywood England, London: Harrap, 1974 p. 345). The Bofors Gun was in the latter category with an estimated production budget of $800,000. The production brought together writer (and director) John McGrath and director Jack Gold, both of whom were getting established in UK television drama and both of whom had strong progressive, Leftist politics. Based on McGrath’s stage play Events While Guarding The Bofors Gun (1966), the film has an outstanding cast. The narrative covers one night when a group of British soldiers are on guard duty at a military base in Northern Germany in 1954. In particular, they are guarding a Bofors gun.

David Warner as L/Bdr Evans

The Odeon DVD carries an interview with the prolific Jack Gold about his career (he died in August 2015 with 50+ film and TV directorial credits) plus a commentary on the film by Gold, ‘moderated’ by Steve Chibnall, one of the leading film scholars associated with British Cinema. I haven’t listened to the whole commentary, which is certainly interesting and useful, but Gold tells us that he missed National Service because of a medical condition. I don’t know if Steve Chibnall has any experience of the British Army, but this is a script clearly informed by McGrath’s National Service (1953-5?) and it does require some knowledge of Army procedures to fully comprehend all aspects of the narrative. I missed National Service by ten years or so (though my brother served) but at my school the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) was compulsory and I spent several weeks at Army barracks in Brecon and in Scotland.

Ian Holm as Gunner Flynn

National Service in the UK meant the conscription of able-bodied men into military service after 1939. When the Second World War ended, Britain’s military commitments carried on and further legislation extended and formalised National Service for a period of up to two years (in practice, longer for some conscripts). What is now considered ‘National Service’ applied to all men born between 1928 and 1939 who were ‘called up’ between 1949 and 1960. The last conscript was able to go home in May 1963. In the last few years there has been a surge of interest in what National Service meant for the young men, for the armed forces and for UK society. I am using as a resource National Service: A Generation in Uniform, 1945-1963 by Richard Viner, Penguin 2014. My aim is to find as many filmic representations of National Service as possible. For those outside the UK, it is worth spelling out that although various forms of National Service/conscription have been common across many European and other countries for many years – and indeed some are still current – ‘conscription’, as Viner points out, has never been seen as part of the British tradition. The 1945-63 experience occurred at a particular time (the end of Empire) when the UK had military commitments across the world and National Servicemen fought alongside ‘regular soldiers’ in Malaya, Korea, Egypt, Kenya, Cyprus and other places. This period was also one of great social change in the UK and this is also part of the National Service story.

Nicol Williamson as Gunner O’Rourke

Reviews of The Bofors Gun consistently refer to the gun itself as a ‘piece of obsolete kit’ – thus suggesting the absurdity of ‘guarding the gun’. I’m quite prepared to accept that the gun has a symbolic role in the narrative and that the script contains several references to jokes about the Russians and the Chinese and the nuclear threat which the gun is helpless to counteract. This is one of the main jibes against authority made by Gunner O’Rourke. On the other hand, the gun was not necessarily ‘obsolete’. A Swedish design from the 1930s, several thousand were built in the UK and Canada for anti-aircraft use in the Second World War. When it became apparent that the original design was useless against jet aircraft, the gun was redesigned and a new version used in various guises up until the 1990s. The Bofors Gun is, in many ways, a ‘realist’ representation of a night on guard duty in 1954.

Plot outline (no spoilers as such)

Lance-Bombardier (the Artillery version of Lance-Corporal) Terry Evans (David Warner) receives news that he is to attend a War Office Selection Board in London which he hopes will mean a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and an escape from the drudgery of life in the barracks room. He is due to travel to the UK the following day, but tonight he is the leader of the guard detail – six gunners (i.e. ‘privates’) who are expected to patrol in pairs on a freezing February night for two hours at a time throughout the night while the rest of the guard shelter in a hut. If anything should go wrong, Evans knows that he won’t get to the WOSB.

The four gunners in the guardroom talk about L/Bdr Evans as he takes a nap (from left Richard O’Callaghan, Donald Gee, Nicol Williamson, John Thaw).

Commentary

Certain facts are made clear in the dialogue. Others have to be gleaned more indirectly. Evans more or less tells us that he is a National Serviceman. He could only apply for a commission after six months, but if he is the ‘right material’ he could be commissioned and serve as a junior officer for around twelve months. Viner suggests that 3-4% of National Servicemen in the British Army were commissioned in this way. We know Evans is ‘different’ (the film begins with him as the only soldier in the audience for a classical music concert in the local town). We also learn that he is from Manchester and that his father “sells paraffin” in Wythenshawe. I think this makes him ‘petty-bourgeois’ or ‘lower middle-class’ (I’m assuming his father owns a shop). He could be working-class if his father is a shop-worker. But what is safe to assume, I think, is that Evans represents those later to benefit from the 1944 Butler Education Act and the establishment of grammar schools as part of the state education system. (He would be too old in 1954 to have got into one of the new grammar schools.) The emergence of grammar school boys amongst the conscripts for National Service caused the Army several headaches. Up until this point it had drawn its officers from the best ‘Public Schools’ – i.e. private schools such as Eton, Harrow etc. Public schoolboys had an expectation of receiving a commission during their National Service (after which they expected to go to university). The Army thought that the middle classes from industrial regions in the North were unsuitable as officers (too ‘insular’) and it was suspicious of the academically-gifted grammar school boys (not all of whom were keen on being officers). Viner spends a whole chapter on these issues and he points out that the Navy was more meritocratic and that the RAF commissioned the highest proportion of such young men. It seems clear to me that McGrath intended Evans to be a case study of the problems facing the grammar school boy in this context.

Initially, there is little indication which of the gunners are National Servicemen and which are ‘regular soldiers’ (i.e. professional soldiers who have ‘signed on’ for more than three years). All of the actors are too old to be raw National Service conscripts and, to confuse matters, John Thaw (Gunner Featherstone), the youngest of them (at 24 in 1966), was already well known to UK TV audiences as a military policeman in the series Redcap (ABC TV, 1964-66). The two actors most likely to be playing regular soldiers are Nicole Williamson as O’Rourke and Ian Holm as Flynn. These two are almost polar opposites – O’Rourke is a tall, wild Catholic Irishman from the south, Flynn is a short, reserved Protestant Ulsterman. The inevitable religious conflict bubbles below the surface (and in retrospect prompts us to reflect on what might have happened in the North of Ireland if National Service had continued and conscripts had patrolled the streets of Belfast and Derry in the 1970s). More relevant here is that O’Rourke is the main source of anger channeled through Evans, whereas Flynn tries, in vain, to talk sense into the young NCO and help him wherever possible.

Barry Jackson (Shone) and Richard O’Callaghan (Rowe) play the youngest characters who are presumably National Servicemen. It’s noticeable that they do most of the tasks and that they are most likely to be bullied by the other four. Donald Gee plays Crowley as the older, quieter regular who has seen everything before and knows how to keep his nose clean. John Thaw’s character is the mouthy Londoner (although Thaw, like Warner and Gee was from the Manchester region). Inevitably, perhaps, McGrath’s script draws on the repertoire of British narratives about barracks life in which soldiers are identified by region and social class. It’s important for the drama that the group mixes regulars and national servicemen. Each has a different perspective on military life and different experience of what life outside the army might mean.

Distribution and reception

The film was distributed by Universal through its long relationship with Rank which meant it opened at the Odeon St. Martin’s Lane in London, but I’m not sure if it made it to too many Odeons around the country. The opening in London was in August, a time when distributors released those titles they had little faith in. (In those days in the UK the only cinemas that did good business in August were in seaside resorts.) That August The Bofors Gun and The Graduate bucked the trend for the critics and both were acclaimed. This is evident from the display ad shown above which is taken from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle of September 28th 1968. The Essoldo cinema was part of a North East cinema chain. Note that the critics (in reality newspaper reviewers) quoted are all from the ‘popular press’, not the broadsheets. The film is also offered in a double bill with The Birds (1963) with the Hitchcock film offering more familiar genre pleasures. This looks like a smart move. The critics loved the film, the public often didn’t (and IMDb has an American poster announcing this and challenging cinemagoers to see a film that “has something to say”). I did see the film in a cinema but I can’t remember which one.

This “landmark in British cinema”, as one critic pronounced it, was edited by the great Anne V. Coates, had music by Carl Davis and was photographed by Alan Hume. Those are three of the best in the business and it is shocking that with its cast and writer-director combination, The Bofors Gun is available only in a rare DVD edition that is very hard to find and now very expensive. The DVD print is in the 1.37:1 ratio, possibly reduced from 1.66:1? The video quality is quite poor. Even so, the film needs to be seen for both its content and theme, its ensemble acting and the McGrath-Gold collaboration in its creation and presentation. If you want to catch Nicol Williamson at his height, this the film to see.

The Battle of the River Plate (UK 1956)

The films of Michael Powell Powell and Emeric Pressburger tend to diminish in the 1950s in the estimation of most critics and film reviewers. Certainly the mid 1950s was the time when The Archers partnership eventually broke down and the two filmmakers went their separate ways but the films themselves are still very much worth watching. The Battle of the River Plate remains a favourite for me, partly no doubt because I saw it as a small boy with my father in early 1957 during its first cinema run. I didn’t then know who Powell and Pressburger were, although I had probably already seen The Thief of Baghdad (UK 1940) on TV. The Battle of the River Plate is now generally seen as just another British war picture of the 1950s and as a film lacking the imagination of the 1940s Archers’ war pictures. However, I think there are some interesting aspects of both the film’s production and the presentation of the final version that appears on screen. Why did The Archers make a film like The Battle of the River Plate? I don’t think there is enough space here to tease out all the reasons, but mainly I think it was a matter of finding a property/an idea that they could develop in the circumstances in which they found themselves after leaving Korda’s London Films and dallying with ABPC for the artistically interesting but not very profitable Oh Rosalinda! in 1955. They would develop their naval war picture with first 20th Century Fox and then once more with the Rank Organisation.

The British war films of the 1950s present different views on wartime events compared to the wartime productions which are all in some way influenced by wartime propaganda considerations. Most of the 1950s films celebrate successful campaigns, often in ways which seek to bolster British prestige during a period which is either ‘post-imperial’ in South Asian narratives or grappling with the final days of the Empire in Africa, elsewhere in Asia, and in the Caribbean. Robert Murphy in his book, British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000) titles his chapter on the 1950s films, ‘Reliving Past Glories’. Murphy points out that ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ features strongly in For Freedom (UK 1940), a British propaganda film from Gainsborough that is a mix of documentary and fiction about the early events of the war that was hastily compiled and distributed.

The USS Salem presented as the Admiral Graf Spee

The ‘Battle of the River Plate’ was a naval battle in the early months of the war which saw three British light cruisers force the German pocket-battleship the ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ to scuttle in the estuary of the River Plate between neutral Uruguay and pro-axis Argentina. A ‘pocket-battleship’ was the British term for a German design that attempted to create a powerful ‘ship destroyer’ while staying within the constraints laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. The resultant ships were only one third of the tonnage of the later German battleships like the Tirpitz. They were diesel-powered, lighter but more efficiently armoured than Royal Navy vessels. They also had larger guns with greater range. This meant that they could outgun, smaller cruisers and destroyers and outun capital ships. Initially they were to be used to destroy British and Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The film sticks fairly closely to the real events of the engagement and its aftermath, so much so that at least one of the IMDb comments refers to the film as a documentary (and MUBI calls it a ‘docudrama’). It isn’t but it does represent a factually detailed story. It is interesting to watch and compare with contemporary films featuring similar engagements in that The Archers were able to find either the original ships or closely-related sister ships – at least on the British side. They had the advantage that production manager John Brabourne was the son-in-law of Louis Mountbatten who commanded the Mediterranean fleet of the Royal Navy in the early 1950s. The ‘Graf Spee’ was impersonated by the US Navy heavy cruiser USS Salem. There was only a limited amount of studio tank and ship model work required. Much of the movement of ships was actually shot in the Eastern Mediterranean. Michael Powell was able to shoot footage of three Royal Navy ships on exercises, so that the Archers didn’t have to pay to hire the ships.  Similarly, the USS Salem was on duty in the Mediterranean. This did mean however that Chris Challis had to shoot, using the heavy Vista Vision camera, in very tight time slots with virtually no preparation. The overall schedule for such an epic production was very tight and was acknowledged by the trade press (Kine Weekly) which praised The Archers production for efficiency.

The bridge of HMS Ajax with Anthony Quayle as Commodore Harwood i/c the British squadron (front left, turning)

I’m not going to describe all the elements of the battle which is well-covered on Wikipedia. I’ll focus instead on some of the decisions made by Powell and Pressburger. The most obvious P&P touches come with the introduction of of Bernard Lee as Captain Dove of M.S. Africa Shell. The sinking of the Africa Shell is the first action of the film and when Captain Dove is brought over to the Graf Spee it allows us to explore the German warship and how it functions through Dove’s eyes, including his meeting with Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch). The presentation of Langsdorff is very much in line with P&P’s creation of ‘human’ German characters and the only surprise is that it is not a German or Austrian playing the role (i.e. no Anton Walbrook or Conrad Veidt). Captain Dove had written about his time aboard the Graf Spee (and had played himself in For Freedom) and he eventually he agreed to act as consultant with Bernard Lee taking the role. Pressburger produced a film script in four acts – (1) Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee, (2) Ajax, Achilles and Exeter, (3) the ‘engagement’ and (4) the intrigue in Montevideo following Graf Spee’s entry into the port for repairs. The film was relatively long at 119 minutes and includes a large number of speaking parts and shoots in various far flung locations from Montevideo to the Moray Firth in the North of Scotland where the Royal Navy provided more ships.

The Graf Spee refuels at sea. These are British ships photographed in the Moray Firth.

Pressburger’s script works pretty well I think for the first three acts but I feel a little uncomfortable with Act 4. P&P seem to revive the light comedy touch which worked so well in the opening flashback of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), so we experience the comical actions of the ambassadors of Germany and then Britain and France (together) visiting the Uruguayan Foreign Minister in Montevideo and studiously ignoring the other side in the waiting room. The radio commentary by Lionel Murton as an American presenter seems to be just a device to explain the difficult situation that the German Captain Langsdorff finds himself in. For me the touch is too light in both the diplomatic engagements and the radio broadcasts. The final shots of the film don’t provide what in less decorous terms might be called the ‘money shot’ – i.e. the final actions of the captain who doesn’t go down with his ship. IMDb tells me that the German dubbed version has a voiceover explanation of what happened to Langsdorff. I’m surprised P&P ducked the ‘real’ ending. I presume these decisions were partly to gain the wide release that funder Rank required.

Lionel Murton as the American radio reporter broadcasting the final few hours as crowds waited for the Graf Spee to leave port.

It’s worth noting that Rank made the decision, puzzling in retrospect, to produce a slate of pictures using VistaVision. I’d like to spend more time at some point on the undoubted qualities of the format. By running horizontally rather than vertically through the camera, VistaVision produced a much larger negative image and therefore a more detailed image for a projection print, even if the image was cropped to produce a widescreen format. VistaVision and Technicolor together produced stunning images, arguably superior to CinemaScope. However since Rank was distributing and exhibiting CinemaScope prints from other Hollywood producers in 1956 it seems odd to go with Paramount’s rival system. Odeons and Gaumonts under Rank’s control were being equipped for ‘Scope but VistaVision prints were generally narrower at anything between 1.66:1 to 2:1, compared to the CinemaScope standard of 2.35:1. The Battle of the River Plate appears to have been intended for projection as ‘modern widescreen’: 1.85:1. For more on VistaVision, see ‘High Fidelity Widescreen Cinema’, a research project by Stephen F. Roberts, University of Bristol 2018 which includes a detailed case study of The Battle of the River Plate.

The final images of the British squadron off Montevideo after the Graf Spee was scuttled.

The film was chosen for the Royal Film Performance on October 29th 1956. The earlier P&P film, A Matter of Life and Death had been the first Royal Command Performance film in 1946. The Battle of the River Plate opened on general release at Odeon circuit cinemas over the Christmas holiday in a double bill with the classic French children’s film The Red Balloon. Both films were given a ‘U’ Certificate so that family attendance was possible. There were many events in cinemas during its run with Odeons seeking out local men who might have served in the battle. It’s safe to say the film was a big hit with audiences, the biggest for The Archers. It was also the last Archers film, although Powell & Pressburger worked together on Ill Met By Moonlight which was released in 1957 as a ‘Vega Films Production’ for The Rank Organisation.

I don’t agree with the general lack of contemporary interest in The Battle of the River Plate (which was released in the US later in 1957, by Rank, as Pursuit of the Graf Spee). It is less expressionist than most P&P films and more concerned with the detail of the chase and the engagement and its aftermath. It doesn’t portray that 1940s idea of all working together, though we do see something of the ratings on the ships during the battle. The Captain Dove episodes do introduce us to the other captured Merchant Navy Captains and the potential of the Dove-Langsdorff relationship which could have been developed further. But overall it is a magnificent feat of filmmaking – a ‘big picture’, as was P&P’s intention. Naval historians and veterans will spot all the errors because of the use of substitute ships but it is a fine presentation of the historical event.

I couldn’t find a trailer so here is the early scene in the film in which Captain Langsdorff welcomes Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee:

Stage Fright (US-UK 1950)

Stage Fright is an unusual film in several ways and seems to have been dismissed as ‘lesser Hitchcock’, partly because the director himself later spoke about it as a failure. It was the first of the films Hitchcock made for Warner Bros. after his attempts to make features for his own company Transatlantic Pictures. The two Transatlantic films were distributed by Warner Bros. so it wasn’t a big shift in industry terms. Stage Fright seems in some ways a reversion to ‘English Hitchcock’ and in this respect rather different to The Paradine Case (1947) made for Selznick in London. The latter title perhaps has an ‘international’ feel with Louis Jordan and Alida Valli in important roles and several leading American character actors supporting Gregory Peck as the star. Jane Wyman still fresh from her Oscar success in Johnny Belinda (1948) leads the cast of Stage Fright and is convincing for me as a young Englishwoman. Marlene Dietrich is a star singer but the rest of the cast is stuffed with well known British faces. The film is also one of Hitchcock’s more successful comedy hybrids with a winning performance from Alastair Sim (though Hitchcock perhaps found Sim ‘too much’ at times).

Adapted from Selwyn Jepson’s novel Man Running by Whitfield Cook and Hitchcock’s wife and fellow filmmaker Alma Reville, the novel’s title alone suggests a Hitchcock film. The change of title for the adaptation then points to a narrative in which a range of ‘performances’ by different ‘actors’ become central to the narrative. The opening credits appear over a theatre safety curtain which then rises to reveal the streets around St Paul’s with wartime bomb damage still visible in the open plots where buildings have been demolished. The film will end with the safety curtain coming down.

Jonathan (Richard Todd), Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim) and Eve (Jane Wyman)

Driving past St Paul’s is Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) in her open two-seater with Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd). Almost immediately Cooper begins to explain why he has asked Eve to drive him out of town. He begins a long flashback which will reveal details of how he has helped the singer Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) escape from a murder scene in which her husband has been killed. But in doing so, Jonathan has incriminated himself. Eve must be infatuated with Jonathan since she appears to accept his story and the implication that he is besotted with Charlotte. She takes Jonathan to the coast and he hides out in her father’s house while Eve returns to London to try to find out more about Charlotte and how she might discover how to prove Jonathan is innocent. It is this opening with its flashback that has proved controversial about the film. Today it perhaps doesn’t cause the same problems. See what you think when you’ve watched the film.

Eve has to ‘act a part’ to get close to Charlotte (Marlene Dietrich)

At this point the narrative appears familiar but also altered from the ‘romance thriller’ structure that Hitchcock had been developing since the mid-1930s. Jonathan effectively disappears from the narrative for the entire central section of the film. He is ‘replaced’ by Inspector Smith (Michael Wilding) who is in charge of the murder enquiry. Eve is a drama student enrolled at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and she hopes to use her performance skills to get close to Charlotte. She approaches the Inspector in the hope of learning something but there is clearly already an attraction between them and she christens him ‘Ordinary’ Smith. ‘Ordinary’ has replaced Jonathan as the active agent in the narrative. The investigation will play out in a typically Hitchcockian manner with misunderstandings aplenty. Eve’s parents live separately but in the circumstances are re-united to help Eve. Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike make a suitable ‘odd couple’ who might help or hinder. The other significant character is Charlotte’s maid played entertainingly by Kay Walsh in a rather sour Cockney role. Walsh had been a lead player in the 1930s and 1940s and this is one of her early ‘character roles’, the kind of roles female lead players were often expected to take as they got older.

Jonathan with furrowed brow, concerned about Charlotte

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot details, so I’ll just work on some of the interesting angles re Hitchcock’s approach. The reason I re-watched Stage Fright, which I had seen many years ago but largely forgotten, was because one of the paper’s in last weekend’s Hitchcock Symposium on Performance was by Melanie Williams on ‘Richard Todd suffers Stage Fright: neurotic postwar British masculinity’. Todd is fourth-billed in Stage Fright, but as Melanie pointed out, in 1950 he was ‘hot’ having been highly praised for his role as a badly-wounded soldier in The Hasty Heart (UK 1949) in which he played opposite Patricia Neal and Ronald Reagan. That film was, like Stage Fright, a Warner Bros. picture made in the UK, but in this case in partnership with Associated British (ABPC). Though he was an English public school product (Shrewsbury), Todd was actually Irish and his father was a physician in the British Army. He himself went to Sandhurst and was a Captain in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and then the Parachute Regiment with a distinguished war record. He was also a trained actor from the Italia Conti Academy. He had all the right credentials but not the persona of one of Hitchcock’s ‘gentlemen’. Melanie Williams’ attribution of ‘neurotic masculinity’ in his role as Jonathan Cooper is apt. Note in the image above that he is convincing with his furrowed brow. But he seems a very different kind of character than any of those played by Cary Grant, Ray Milland or Sean Connery – all ironically less suited to be like an English gentleman but pulling it off all the same. Todd’s other problem was that he was playing opposite Michael Wilding who didn’t have the Hollywood prestige of The Hasty Heart but was one of the top British box-office stars, mainly because of his films with Anna Neagle. My personal feeling is that I’m not particularly taken with either Todd or Wilding as male stars but I can see the logic in their casting here.

. . . Eve is also ‘acting’ when she first meets ‘Ordinary’ Smith (Michael Wilding)

Wilding as ‘Ordinary’ Smith is charming and witty and at the same time slightly vulnerable to Eve’s allure. There is a kind of ‘pairing’ structure in the film, so Eve and ‘Ordinary’ are matched by Jonathan and Charlotte. Perhaps it is a stretch to extend this to Eve’s parents who don’t really act together, but the Alastair Sim character as her father is active in supporting Eve’s ‘performances’. The fourth key player is Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte. It’s interesting that she plays a singer rather than an actor. Her performance (on stage) of the Cole Porter number ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’ is one of the highlights of the film and I’ve been trying to think of other singing performances in Hitchcock films and so far I’ve only come up with Doris Day in the re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a great performance but used a little differently by Hitchcock. There must be more in Hitchcock’s early career but I’m much less familiar with films such as Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and The Pleasure Garden (UK-Germany 1925). Charles Barr makes the point in his book English Hitchcock (Cameron and Hollis, 1999) that Hitchcock has always been interested in the role of music in dramas. But another way to look at it is in terms of ‘stage performance’ (or its equivalent). In The 39 Steps (UK 1935), the music hall stage with the ‘Memory Man’ is the setting for the climax and in The Man Who Knew Too Much it is the Albert Hall during a concert. In Stage Fright Hitchcock made use of the stage at RADA (where his daughter Patricia was a student at the time).

Hitchcock and Dietrich were roughly the same age and they had both experienced the German film industry in the 1920s. By all accounts they ‘got on’ well together and he probably didn’t treat her like he did some of his other female leads. Dietrich had learned a great deal about how to be photographed to look her best from Joseph von Sternberg and his camera crews. Hitchcock amazed his own crew by allowing her to dictate lighting and angles for her set-ups. But from the four leads I would pick out Jane Wyman as the revelation. She was in her early thirties when she made the film but I found her convincing as a younger woman. I was also impressed with her performance in All That Heaven Allows in 1955, in which she plays the ‘middle-aged’ widow who falls for Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama.  I realised that I have seen very few of her films and that apart from marrying Ronald Reagan she didn’t make a great impression in her early Hollywood career, often playing second lead in in routine comedies and musicals. It wasn’t until 1946 when Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend was released that she really made a splash. Perhaps it was the early experience of comedy which helped her to get the most out of Stage Fright‘s script?

Hitchcock and Dietrich, seemingly at ease on set

Because the archives of Sight & Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin are now easily accessible (free to S&S Subscribers) I decided to see what they thought of Stage Fright. Sight & Sound (July 1950) ran an article by Simon Harcourt-Smith in which he argues that Hitchcock is wasting his talent making films that belong in the “peculiar antiseptic dream-world of the bookstall magazine”. He suggests that if he had been lured by “the comparative ‘sophistication’ of Continental studios”, things might have turned out differently. Having dismissed Hitchcock’s Hollywood work more generally, Harcourt-Smith then turns on Stage Fright. He dismisses the central plotline between Eve, Jonathan and ‘Ordinary’ and finds the only amusement in Sim and Dietrich. He suggests that it isn’t a film at all but merely a collection of turns at a theatrical garden party – a critic’s joke since the theatrical garden party in Stage Fright is perhaps not the best of Hitchcock’s ‘set pieces’. It is this kind of criticism that made Robin Wood despair and write his 1965 book on a selection of Hitchcock’s Films. The MFB review by ‘GL’ was probably written by Gavin Lambert. He makes a similar complaint about how Hitchcock could have made the film more lively if he had not only shot it in London but also re-discovered the style of his 1930s English period. But ‘GL’ does this by arguing each point cogently. The review picks out Jane Wyman as the only one of the leads who succeeds in giving an ‘expert performance’. Dietrich “looks magnificent, sings an entertaining Cole Porter song, but fails almost completely in the dramatic scenes . . .” The highest praise is reserved for the smaller parts.

What to make of all this? I think that Stage Fright is a less successful picture but it isn’t the ‘failure’ that it is so often taken to be. I surprised myself by enjoying the film and by becoming interested in the production. It is clear to me that looking back across the whole of Hitchcock’s career, it is possible to place each of the films in context and appreciate them for what they are rather than what we want them to be. In this case, Hitchcock had got a deal with Warner Bros. which gave him some security after the commercial failure of Transatlantic Pictures, but he knew that he must turn a profit on his first venture for the studio. As far as I can see, the film was popular at the box office and it made a profit. He was able to go on and complete his four film contract with Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and Dial M for Murder (1954). They were each successful with critics and from this point he was able to make deals with major studios which allowed him sufficient leeway to make films in the way that he wanted (most of the time at least). He was free from his Selznick deal from the early 1940s and able to base himself on major studio lots. In 1955 he began his long stint as the showman of Alfred Hitchcock Presents . . .  He wouldn’t return to the UK to make a film until Frenzy in 1972.

Friese-Greene at the Bioscope

Friese-Greene experimental film

May 5th is one hundred years since the death of this British film inventor and pioneer. The Kennington Bioscope is streaming a discussion on his life and work by three researcher/historians; Ian Christie: Peter Domankiewicz: Stephen Herbert; ‘Back in focus: The Centenary of William Friese-Greene’. Wednesday May 5th at 7.30 p.m. [BST] and subsequently on line on You Tube. [NB it seems that there is 50 seconds of a blank screen with no sound before the You Tube broadcast kicks in.]

Friese-Greene was one of  a number of people in the 1880s experimenting on techniques to produce the illusion of a moving image from projected photographic film. He produced several working cameras between 1888 and 1891 and issued a patent for these. However, like some of the other inventors, he was not successful in projecting these images in a public showing; it was the Lumière Brothers success in this that made their work historic.

Friese-Greene ran a successful photographic portrait studio but his main interests were his experiments and the costs of his work on moving images led to bankruptcy. In the early 1900 he then experimented with early colour film. One of these, Biocolour, was projected successfully but it was eclipsed by other examples; it suffered from heavy flicker and colour fringing. Examples of his early films are available on You Tube, including a refurbished version of ‘The Open Road’, shot by his son Claude using his father’s system.

Friese-Greene‘s last public appearance was attending and speaking at a meeting of members of the British Film industry. Ironically he collapsed at the meeting and died.

He was for a long time a forgotten figure. The film biopic,The Magic Box, produced in 1951 was planned  to accompany the Festival of Britain in that year. The film was produced by Festival Film Productions, partly funded by the National Film Finance Corporation with contributions from all the major British production companies either for free or at cost. The script was by Eric Ambler based on a book by Ray Allister and directed by John Boulting. The film was shot in Technicolor, at that time reserved for prestige production in Britain. The technical side and the casting benefited from the varied contributing companies. There is is excellent colour cinematography by Jack Cardiff, fine production design by John Bryan and excellent costume design by Julia Squire. There are a host of cameos by British stars but there is a lack of dramtic effect. The film was a failure at the box office.

The film’s focus is the travails of his career. The sequences showing his experiments are brief. That depicting colour does not give much sense of the technology but that showing his working camera and projector does give a greater sense of its operation. There are some dates, such as the Industry meeting, but others, like the success with projecting his film,or his work on colour film, is curiously undated.

Brian Coe in The History of Movie Photography, Eastview Editions, 1981 is sceptical of the claims put forward in the film. He questions whether the machine described in Friese-Greene’s patents actually projected at the required frame rate of 16; and he reckons that the inventor only used celluloid after its use in the Edison workshops. Friese-Greene’s Biocolour system has more credence but fell foul of a patent suit by Charles Urban for his Kinemacolor. There is more on the Blog William Friese-Greene & me. Happily it also includes posts on another pioneer in Britain, Louis le Prince. The Bioscope presentation will likely shed more light on Friese-Greene and his contribution to cinema history.