Category: Comedies

The Silver Bears (UK 1977)

This oddity, which turned up on Talking Pictures TV, is a good example of the kind of ‘international’ production during the end of the ‘studio period’ in British cinema. EMI, which had taken over ABPC in 1969, took over British Lion as well in 1976. With the Rank Organisation gradually reducing its production plans, the ‘British film industry’ was now almost reduced to a single studio and even that was reliant on various partnerships. The actual funding of The Silver Bears seems a little murky. A small US company seems to have been involved as the actual producers with Columbia taking US distribution, but it’s still down as a UK film.

My interest was aroused because the film was directed by Ivan Passer, one of the original directors of the Czech New Wave. I very much enjoyed Intimate Lightning (Czechoslovakia 1965) when I screened it for a class some time ago and Passer was also a writer on Forman’s best known Czech films. He and Forman left after the Prague Spring was smashed by the Soviet Union in 1968. I thought he had gone straight to the US but some of his films that followed seemed to be UK co-productions like Silver Bears, even though they were often American stories. Most of these films were savaged by critics and presumably he kept working only because the films made enough money around the world. His next film Cutter’s Way (US 1981) was a critical sleeper and one of my favourite films. Cutter’s Way is a dark film with some comic moments but Passer’s films generally tend towards comedies first and that is the way with The Silver Bears.

‘Doc’ (Michael Caine) with Debbie (Cybill Shepherd) and ‘the Prince’ (Louis Jourdan)

The film is an adaptation of a novel by Paul Erdman, which appears to be partly autobiographical with Erdman managing to turn his own disastrous experiences with a Swiss bank into an ‘entertainment’. The film comes across as a comedy about financial con-artists. There is the possibility of some form of violence lurking in the background but mainly this is about greed and ego. The pleasure for the viewer is in the wonderfully detailed script which prompts us to invest in some characters rather than others and to enjoy the comeuppance of those who deserve to lose most. Passer has a group of well-known stars and character actors to play with, led by Michael Caine as ‘Doc’ Fletcher who has been commissioned by a Nevada crime boss (Martin Balsam) to find a way of laundering money. Doc’s solution is to set up an American bank in Switzerland. This daunting task is accomplished by ‘Prince Gianfranco di Siracusa’ (Louis Jourdan), an Italian in Lugano. I can’t really spoil the narrative because I’m struggling to remember each step in the complex interplay. The other players in the game involve a couple (Stéphane Audran and David Warner), contacts of the Prince who claim to have a silver mine in Iran (and to produce the silver ingots that give the film its title), a legit American Bank that wants to buy into the Swiss market and a British dealer (Charles Gray) who virtually controls the futures market for silver at the London Metal Exchange. The American bank is represented by a grasping Joss Ackland and his naive young market analyst played by Tom Smothers, the older of the two Smothers Brothers who I remember as a comic double act. The only star who seems to me miscast as the ditsy wife of Smothers’ analyst is the second-billed Cybill Shepherd.

Doc meets with the Prince and his ‘cousin’ (David Warner) (centre)

With this cast, a skilled director with comedy experience can certainly create an entertaining film. Critics in the US expected the film to be a satire on banking practice but it is more a comedy of manners. Louis Jordan is very good at the smooth talk, Caine pretends to be a bit of lout trying to be suave, but he is naturally engaging. There are certainly gags associated with American brashness which is ironic when a Brit like Joss Ackland has to be rude in front of London bankers. From my point of view the only disappointment was the limited use of Stéphane Audran (and indeed David Warner). The Iranian scenes were actually shot in Morocco, I think, adding another layer of conceit. The shots of labourers in the ‘mines’ reminded me of documentary photos of the Brazilian goldfields in the work of the photographer Sebastian Salgado. The Silver Bears is presented in CinemaScope ratio and looks good in its four settings of Las Vegas, Lugano, Iran/Morocco and London. If it pops up again on Talking Pics TV, give it a go.

The Prince with the Stéphane Audran character and the Doc and in the background the US talkshow host Jay Leno as Albert representing his father, the Nevada mobster

‘Doc’ learns how to kiss a woman’s hand  . . .

Crash Test Aglaé (France 2017)

My French Film Festival is back for a special lockdown outing and this time the films are free, having been on offer in previous outings of MyFFF. This was a great start for me, an 85 minute ‘comedy-drama’ with plenty of fresh ideas mixed in with familiar conventions and a central character well worth following on her adventures. The film is the début feature of French-Canadian director Éric Gravel who has made several short films and contributions to other features.

Aglaé obsessively prepares her dummies

The title refers in a literal and possibly metaphorical way to Aglaé (India Hair) a young woman who suffered a dislocated childhood with her striptease artiste mother and absent father. She has found a job as a meticulous technician in a car crash test laboratory where she obsessively prepares the dummies. But the company has decided to move the entire factory ‘offshore’ and she finds herself with the prospect of redundancy unless she agrees to transfer to India. Aglaé decides to accept the challenge to the amazement of the company and, for different reasons, her two colleagues at the plant, Liette (Julie Dépardieu) and Marcelle (Yolande Moreau), agree to go with her. The company won’t pay the airfare so they set off in Marcelle’s battered old car. What follows is a familiar ‘road movie’ on a strange travel route that will take Aglaé through Switzerland, Germany, Poland Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Marcelle and Liette don’t have Aglaé’s fortitude and they bail out when they discover better possible futures. Aglaé will continue almost to the point of oblivion. Will she make it to India and if she does, what will she find there?

Liette and Marcelle have their own reasons for going . . .

The narrative draws on a variety of genre repertoires and the resulting hybrid is both interesting and entertaining.The road movie provides the structure and the opportunities for ‘adventures’ and vignettes of characters Aglaé meets on her journey. There is a background narrative that relates to questions about globalisation and ‘offshoring’ and draws upon the strong repertoire of ‘industrial action’ stories. The three women who start the journey together have all got personal reasons for leaving for India, though one of them does have a direct link to the action by the plant’s union in fighting the management. Is this a comedy as well? Yes it certainly has comic moments. These grow out of the situations the trio find themselves in and the fact that they are each interestingly eccentric. In the latter part of the narrative Aglaé does face genuine hardship and at this point I did fear what might happen. It’s not too much of a spoiler to report that she does make it to Kolkata, but not without some pain and scares. Comedies are supposed to have happy endings (i.e. to distinguish them from tragedies) but the ending for this film still has some surprises.

Kazakh soldiers coming down from the sky start another adventure for Aglaé

What made the film for me was the writer-director’s imagination and the performances of the three women and especially India Hair. I realised that I had seen all three actors before but all in smaller roles. India Hair was born in France to English and American parents. She speaks standard English as well as French and this is necessary when she is travelling and when she gets to India. At the start of the film she looks ‘plain’ and at the end of her journey despite the various things that happen to her she looks very attractive and it genuinely feels that she has ‘come out of herself’. Oh and I forgot to mention she’s a cricketer! That bat is handy and she’ll certainly enjoy India.

The film is free to view and it makes a good diversion for those under lockdown (lots of fast car driving if you like that sort of thing). Here’s the trailer – you can turn the subs on for English. The film opens with a short scene and a voiceover statement by Aglaé. I immediately forgot this and didn’t realise what it meant until the final scenes. Structurally this makes much of the film a narrated flashback. Éric Gravel is a director I’ll look out for in future.

The Magnet (UK 1950)

Gladys Henson as a nanny accuses Johnny of acquiring the magnet by nefarious means

The Magnet is an unusual film from Ealing Studios. I don’t remember coming across the film properly until I read that it used a great deal of location footage of Merseyside. Thanks to Talking Pictures TV, increasingly the TV channel of choice for the discerning audience in the UK since the lockdown began, I was able to watch it soon after having started a ‘Liverpool films‘ page on this blog. As it turns out, the film is partly set in New Brighton and Wallasey Village (?) but there are Liverpool sequences as well and the photography by Lionel Banes is a very good reason to watch the film.

The magnet, an object to covet

In genre terms The Magnet is something of a hybrid. It is a story from a child’s perspective that is part adventure, part comedy and part a kind of moral tale. The original story was by one of the best-known Ealing writers, T.E.B. (Tibby) Clarke and it was directed by Charles Frend. The most obvious reference is to Hue and Cry (1947) written by Clarke about boys whose environment is the bombsites of Central London around St. Pauls and who become investigators of a crime because of their love for comic book adventures. In The Magnet the location has shifted to Merseyside and the focus is a single boy, although he does interact with others. As far as director Frend’s background was concerned he’d been responsible for A Run For Your Money in 1949, a comedy about two Welsh miners in London having misadventures.  But Frend had earlier been responsible for The Lives of Joanna Godden (1947), a period drama, but one using location photography to capture the unique environment of Romney Marsh. Finally, we might link the film to the serious drama of the Ealing problem picture/family melodrama Mandy (1952) in which a young hearing-impaired girl and her mother respond to a specialist teacher with new ideas played by Jack Hawkins. It may seem likely that with these kinds of possible connections, The Magnet should turn out to be a confused mess. I can only say that I enjoyed the film and that some discerning audiences have also done so – though many of them might have been looking specifically for a ‘Merseyside story’. The scholarly chronicler of Ealing, Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book dismisses the film in a paragraph and concludes: “The magnet is a toy at the centre of an elaborate whimsical plot which resists economical summary and does not merit a full one”. Not for the first time, I find myself disagreeing with Barr. The film has flaws certainly, but it is too interesting in what it is attempting to do to dismiss it in this way.

Jonny steals bread from a garden to give to a dog

Johnny Brent (played by William Fox, later to become well-known as James Fox) is a 10 year-old schoolboy in a middle-class part of Wallasey on the Wirral. His father (Stephen Murray) is a psychiatrist with a practice in Liverpool and his mother (Kay Walsh) is what was then referred to as a ‘housewife’. Johnny’s (private boarding) school has had a scarlet fever scare and the boys are at home in quarantine before they go back to Kirkby for the last three weeks of term. Johnny is a bright and lively boy with a sense of mischief and has no doubt been frustrated by his quarantine experience. He acquires a large magnet by questionable means and though he enjoys using it, he feels guilty about how he got it. He starts seeing police officers everywhere. He ends up ‘donating’ the magnet to a man who is building a mock up of an iron lung for a campaign to raise money to buy such equipment for a local hospital. Harper, the campaigner, (Meredith Edwards) later decides to use the story of Johnny’s ‘donation’ as part of his public appeal, embellishing the story of the poor boy who gives up his magnet without leaving his name. His funding campaign goes very well and Johnny becomes an interesting mysterious figure for the local newspaper. While Johnny feels guilty about what he has done, he can’t tell his parents and becomes anxious about the mystery of his identity. He is further upset when he overhears something that might mean he has caused the death of another boy. His father the psychiatrist diagnoses a condition that is fanciful. His mother is much more sensible. When, by accident, Johnny is spotted by Harper, he runs away and a chase ensues taking Johnny to parts of Liverpool he doesn’t know and where he meets a gang of boys his own age. With this gang he will have a further series of adventures which will end with an act of bravery that will complete the circle and allow Johnny to be ‘redeemed’ in a generally happy ending.

Johnny sees the iron lung in a workshop

This is Barr’s ‘whimsical plot’. What is interesting is not so much the mechanics of the plot, though it does allow the viewer to enjoy a many of the local sights. The beach, the pier, the amusement arcade and open air baths in New Brighton, the Mersey ferry, the Pierhead and the overhead railway, the docks and the Anglican cathedral are all in evidence (and many, especially in New Brighton, now no more). It’s not the plot but the way that Clarke’s script attempts to use the concerns of the period that I’m interested in. There are jokes about ration cards and the hospital is not yet part of the new NHS. Scarlet fever and polio were still dangerous diseases and there were outbreaks of both in the 1940s and up to the 1960s. Iron lungs were expensive (though cheaper designs appeared in the 1950s). The first ‘auction’ of the magnet for the campaign takes place at a bathing beauty contest, a particularly popular seaside event in the 1950s (see also The Entertainer in 1960). The narrative is from the child’s point of view and at times it made me think of various children’s films, including possibly those of the Children’s Film Foundation. It’s not that unusual for an imaginative boy to become anxious and to see police officers everywhere and think that they are looking for him (and there were many more ‘bobbies on the beat’ in 1950). On the other hand, some of the visual gags are feeble by modern standards and Stephen Murray seems miscast as Johnny’s father. The script presents him as pompous and generally attacks his ideas about psychiatry. The strongest part of the film is the last section when Johnny finds himself by the cathedral with a group of local lads. These are non-professionals and they have a sense of ‘authenticity’ about them. One has Chinese heritage (the cathedral isn’t too far away from Liverpool’s Chinatown). The boys also have familiar forms of Liverpudlian speech. But there is still a lingering sense of ‘Ealing on location’. Most of Ealing’s films seem to have a London base or they are set in part of the UK where there is a sense of the romantic/fantastical. The location work in The Magnet is as cleverly used as in Pool of London made around the London Docks at roughly the same time. I wonder what made them choose Merseyside for The Magnet? And was there any connection to the production of Waterfront which saw another Rank film, based at Pinewood, also shooting on location in Liverpool around the same time?

Out with his Dad, Johnny discusses the shipping in the Mersey estuary

Lionel Banes is an Ealing cinematographer I hadn’t noticed before. He is credited as ‘FRPS’ rather than ‘BSC’ and I had to do some digging to find out more. The Magnet was actually his fourth Ealing picture as DoP and earlier he had shot Passport to Pimlico (1949). He had in fact been in the business for a long time by then, originally joining Gainsborough at Islington in 1930 as a ‘photographer’. He worked his way through the apprentice roles and became an expert in special photographic effects. He joined Ealing to work on Next of Kin (1942) and for several years worked as an operator, second unit cinematographer and model work specialist. The link above is to four oral history files about his career. My view is that Ealing employed some of the best creative cinematographers and camera crews anywhere in the world in the late 1940s/early 50s. The Magnet is only 79 minutes and I think it is certainly worth watching for the representation of Merseyside and for its perfectly serviceable narrative about a 10 year-old. (See where the film was shot on Reelstreets.)  Contemporary critics thought it was too ‘moralistic’, but it didn’t bother me in that way. My only real gripe is that it would have worked better if Jonny had been lower middle-class rather than middle-class. I think the father’s role could have been written differently too. It struck me that Johnny could have been a young John Lennon living in his Aunt’s house.

Here’s a clip from the scene near the Anglican Cathedral:

Two Palestinian Short Films

Amir Srour as Nizar in Yellow Mums

This week I watched two short films from Palestine as part of a link-up between The London Palestinian Film Festival and MAP (Medical Aid for Palestinians). The deal is that you make a donation to MAP on a Friday and receive a virtual ticket to watch a film streamed to your device. This last week it has been two shorts but from today the film streaming is a feature-length documentary. Follow this link to make a donation. (There will be a small fee on top of your donation.) MAP is supporting the fight against coronavirus in the West Bank and Gaza and in Lebanon.

The two films I watched had a theme associated with Easter Week with both dealing with Christian Palestinian communities. In the first, Yellow Mums (2010, 32 mins) by Firas Khoury, the focus is on a traditional Easter game for children associated with painted eggs. I remember such games from my childhood as Lancashire has one of the strongest traditions of what is an international culture associating decorated eggs with Easter. We called it ‘pace-egging’ which I understand derives from Old English for Passover. The Palestinian version for children seems to involve hard-boiled and painted eggs which are then used in a contest similar to ‘conkers’ in the UK. One child holds an egg in their fist with one end showing. The challenger then strikes the egg with their own. Whichever egg survives the bout without breaking the shell is the winner and if the strike is successful on the other end of the egg, the winner takes the loser’s egg. The central character of the story, Nizar, is an introverted altar boy in his village church. He is bullied by the other boys because he wears socks with his sandals.

Observing another boy who ‘blows’ an egg and fills it with wax to create a stronger weapon, Nizar hatches a plan to win the contest and in doing so, to please Jesus – he listens to the priest bless the contest but ask that all the eggs be given to Jesus. There is a sub-plot in which Nizar makes friends with a woman who keeps chickens and is also a target for abuse by the village boys. Nizar and the ‘egg-woman’ are not heroic characters and the group of village lads are not ‘bad lads’ as such. This is a humanist tale detailing events in a village over the Easter weekend. It’s a long ‘short’ so there is sufficient time to sketch in enough background for Nizar and the life of the village. I suppose it is a coming-of-age narrative of sorts and explores Nizar’s sense of identity in terms of the church and as a boy in the village community. The only evidence of the occupation is that the children have to stop what they are doing and cover their ears as jets roar over the village. I’ve struggled to find much about the background to the film or where it was shot (it’s quite a verdant landscape). It appears that it was officially made with Israeli funding and featured at the Jerusalem Independent Film Festival. It is the only directorial credit for Firas Khoury who dedicates the film to his mother. He has had other roles in various Israeli Arab productions.

Ave Maria (2015, 15 mins) has a much higher profile as a short film nominated for an Oscar and with many nominations and wins around the world. The director Basil Khalil was born in Nazareth but trained in Scotland – his mother is ‘British-Irish’. Khalil worked in London TV productions in the 2000s, but has had only a couple of credits in the last decade. He is now listed as directing a UK production shooting in Gaza. Ave Maria is a very funny short comedy listed as a Palestine-France-Germany production.

The desolate spot

The novice and the settler

The setting is a desolate spot, mined by the Israelis and with barbed wire fences along the road. A lone building on a rise is framed against the horizon which reveals a city in the distance. It’s 5.35pm on a Friday afternoon in the West Bank. The lone building is a convent in which a small group of nuns belonging to a silent order are eating together when they are disturbed by a loud bang. A car carrying a trio of Orthodox Jews heading for an (illegal) settlement has crashed outside the convent badly damaging a statue of Our Lady and wrecking the car. The travellers appear trapped in a situation in which they are powerless because with Shabbat beginning they shouldn’t be using technology to get themselves out of this mess. They must convince the silent nuns to help them. What follows is a sharply written comedy about religious beliefs clashing in the context of the occupation. The film was shot in 2.35:1 by the Israeli cinematographer Eric Mizrahi. I enjoyed the film very much. It’s clear enough where its sympathy lies, but the settlers are humanised enough to make the comedy of beliefs work well. The hero of the hour turns out to be the young novice of the convent who has talents you might not expect. I thoroughly recommend this short which is available on iTunes in the UK. This augurs well for Khalil’s Gaza-set comedy. I’m pleased I could support health-workers in Palestine and I thought this was a good double bill. You can still catch this week’s film.

Gumshoe (UK 1971)

Gumshoe is difficult to write about with any critical distance as it’s a film that I love on so many different levels (though I do worry about its use of racist language). It cropped up on Talking Pictures TV and worked as a tribute to Michael Medwin, one of the least recognised but most important figures in the British film industry over a period of 60 years or more – mainly as a character actor but also as a producer. Medwin died aged 96 a month ago and since Talking Pictures TV schedules well in advance this screening probably wasn’t planned as a tribute. In fact, because he appeared in over 100 films and TV programmes, Michael Medwin pops up frequently on Talking Pictures. In 1968 Medwin’s production company  established with Albert Finney, Memorial Enterprises, released its first two films. Charlie Bubbles (1968) was directed by Finney from a Shelagh Delaney script and co-starred himself with Billie Whitelaw and Liza Minnelli and if . . . . made a star of Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s film. Spring and Port Wine followed in 1970 with James Mason in a Bill Naughton-scripted family melodrama set in Bolton. I really should post something on each of these three films, important to me when I first saw them and also now.

Gumshoe re-unites Finney and Whitelaw as actors but it also introduces a whole range of other creative talents. Albert Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a man in his early thirties who has ‘achieved’ little so far. He lives in a bed-sit at the top of a Liverpool town house where he re-reads Dashiel Hammett and develops a comedy routine to try out in the social club where he has a job as a bingo caller and occasional MC. But now he decides to expand his range and he posts an ad in the Echo offering his services as a ‘Private Eye’. He intends to hide behind his Sam Spade impersonation and dresses and talks like his hero in The Maltese Falcon. He’s surprised to get a phone call quite quickly and to be offered a job that appears deeply mysterious and which shocks poor Eddie.

Eddie and Ellen at Lime Street

I won’t describe the plot but I will sketch in the characters and the themes. The script is by Neville Smith, a Liverpool lad who was a young actor in the 1960s, appearing in some of Ken Loach’s TV plays as well as writing his first script in 1966, The Golden Vision about a bunch of Everton FC supporters, for Loach. Smith also gets a small part in Gumshoe as he had in the Loach play. Finney was from Salford, just up the Ship Canal from Liverpool and Whitelaw was brought up in Bradford. Both were part of the RADA wave of brilliant young Northern actors who broke into UK stage and screen acting in the 1950s. Billie was a few years older and got a start in the early 1950s. In Gumshoe, she is Ellen, Eddie’s ex-girlfriend who went and married his older brother William, the smooth and money-grabbing character played by Frank Finlay. Finlay was born in Farnworth, Bolton. There are also parts for two familiar Liverpool actors, Bill Dean as the club owner and a cameo for Ken Jones as a clerk in the labour exchange. Liverpool looks good in the film, from an oddly deserted Lime Street station down to the docks and around several streets of Georgian terraces. At one point Eddie goes down to London and meets a woman in a bookshop played by a young Maureen Lipman (from Hull). I thought this scene was perhaps a nod to Humphrey Bogart in the bookshop in The Big Sleep where he meets Dorothy Malone. There were moments too when Eddie’s internal monologue seemed more Chandler than Hammett when he refers to hotel carpet “so thick you could feel Axminster up to your knees”. And to reverse Lippman in London, Eddie also has a joking dialogue with Wendy Richard as a girl working in William’s office who came up to Liverpool from London and got conned into staying (Richard was born in Middlesbrough). The mystery is concocted by the arrival of a South African in Liverpool played by the American actor Janice Rule and the mystery girl (looking very late 60s) is Carolyn Seymour as a South African post-grad student. Finally, Fulton Mackay is a menacing would-be Scots gangster type. Mackay and Jones were re-united in the long-running UK sitcom and later feature film Porridge (1974-9).

Eddie exchanges ‘hard-boiled’ dialogue with Anne (Wendy Richard)

The dangerous criminal narrative behind all the comedy moments involves William’s trading company getting involved in a sanctions-busting enterprise, shipping goods to Mozambique that will then be transported to Rhodesia to support the Ian Smith regime. This plot seems vestigial at best and Eddie’s involvement is accidental. One disturbing feature is that the young white South African woman played by Seymour is protected by a black student (Oscar James). He has to be ‘dealt with’ in the process of the smuggling deal and Eddie (who discovers what happens) refers to him using the language of Hammett/Chandler as it might have been used in the 1930s and adds to them some 1970s racist terms. Similarly, Eddie’s comic routine includes the kinds of racist/sexist lines common in northern clubs at the time. It’s jarring now but it works in context – Eddie is a good guy, even if he does himself no favours. Perhaps his racial taunting is cover for his own terror? I think we forget now just how prevalent such language was, but even so it does demean Eddie and emphasises his lack of confidence in himself. His relationship with Whitelaw as Ellen is not dissimilar to their relationship in Charlie Bubbles. But in this case marriage to the horrible William seems to have derailed Ellen.

Eddie with Straker (Fulton Mackay)

This is a great Liverpool film and an essential North of England film. (There is a useful Liverpool perspective on this website.) Gumshoe did get a US release but, from some of the reviews, it did present problems for American viewers. Some must have been baffled by Finney playing the ‘loser’. It was a début fiction feature for director Stephen Frears (from Leicester) who would go to become one of the most accomplished British directors of the last fifty years. It’s a sign of where British cinema was heading in the 1970s that Frears began in TV and made his name there with some important working relationships, including with the writer Alan Bennett on TV films and plays. Apart from the criminally under-rated and neglected The Hit in 1984, it wasn’t until My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985 that Frears would emerge as an international filmmaker – and even then its success was almost accidental since that film began as a Channel 4 TV film. Chris Menges photographed Gumshoe as his first high profile job after Kes in 1969. He had shot Living Memory a 57 minute drama directed by Tony Scott, again for Memorial Enterprises in 1971, but I don’t think that got a cinema release. Gumshoe was composed for 1:1.66 projection so it is very slightly blown-up and then cropped to fit the 16:9 TV screen. There is plenty of diegetic music in Gumshoe, mainly in the club, but the only false note in the film for me was the non-diegetic song over the final scene and closing credits – by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. This was before their careers had taken off. Lloyd Webber is credited with the film’s music but this is the only one of the duo’s compositions (the others are covers) and it is wrong on every level. It’s the song not the singer, who was Roy Young, a ‘Beatles in Hamburg’ era rocker. But there is a mute button on the TV remote.

Humphrey Bogart was popular again in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In 1969 Woody Allen appeared on Broadway in Play It Again Sam in which he actually converses with a Bogart look-alike and a film version was directed by Herbert Ross in 1972. I don’t know if Neville Smith saw the play. Probably not, but he may have caught the zeitgeist. There is another link worth exploring and that is Jack Gold’s The Reckoning (1969), a film in which Nicol Williamson plays a scouse version of Charlie Bubbles, returning to Liverpool for his father’s funeral and investigating the death. Columbia put money into both The Reckoning and GumshoeGumshoe is now available on a Blu-ray from the UK specialist distributor Indicator. The disc also carries an early Stephen Frears short Burning (1968), shot in Morocco standing in for South Africa.

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto, Italy 2008)

Gianni’s day begins at his local shop with a small glass of white wine . . .

I remembered this film, or possibly its successor The Salt of Life (2011), when I was given a DVD of it by a friend (who often finds interesting DVDs in London charity shops). This is a U Certificate film running just 75 minutes so its something anyone can watch. We sat down with it on a Saturday night when TV is virtually unwatchable (if you aren’t following the serial on BBC4). Watching it with the lockdown in Italy was an emotional experience.

. . . and he often joins his friend ‘Viking’ outside the shop

Writer–director Gianni Di Gregorio had been an actor and writer with experience in theatre and film before he made this film as his directorial début. At roughly the same time he also worked on the rather different Gomorra for director Matteo Garrone (who, in turn produced this film). Di Gregorio also plays the central character in Mid-August Lunch and the main ‘action’ is set in his own flat. Playing what seems like a barely changed version of himself, Gianni is struggling to maintain his flat which houses him and his 93 year-old mother (Valeria De Franciscis). He owes back-rent and payments for various facilities but as the ancient festival of Ferragosto approaches, his landlord’s agent offers him a deal. If he will look after the agent’s mother Marina (Marina Cacciotti) over the the two nights of the festival, the agent will waive the amenities payments and the back-rent. Gianni feels he has to agree, but when the mother arrives she brings a second ‘guest’, Maria, the agent’s aunt. And then, to cap it all, Gianni’s doctor comes up with a similar proposal, depositing his mother Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) with strict instructions about medication and diet. Gianni finds himself catering for four elderly ladies and trying to keep them amused.

Gianni with his mother

There isn’t really any plot to speak of. The three ‘guests’ plus Gianni’s mother, are all presented as ‘ordinary people’ with the kinds of likes and dislikes we all have. They want to watch TV or they want quiet. They don’t want to abide by the ‘rules’ that Gianni has been given, especially about what they are ‘allowed’ to eat. But they are also gregarious and flirtatious. Fortunately, Gianni has two great qualities. He is able to remain calm under pressure and he appears to be both an imaginative and efficient cook. Both of these qualities are perhaps only maintained by copious imbibing of white wine. In my limited experience of Italian film, TV and literature, a small glass of white wine is an essential part of daily life, capable of keeping most horrors at bay.

Maria helps in the kitchen, slicing the mozzarella

One of the great pleasures of this film, apart from the interactions of the characters is its presentation of Italian food culture. It appears to me that Italians generally eat very well. They take care to eat interesting things and they are prepared to pay for good quality provisions in local shops. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Italy so perhaps it is now over-run by fast food joints and German supermarkets? I hope not. During this time of coronavirus it breaks my heart to think that this eating culture has been disrupted.