The Ties (Lacci, Italy 2020)

Aldo and Vanda at the opening celebration

The Ties is another of MUBI’s  ‘Made in Italy’ films. I chose this one because it stars Alba Rohrwacher who I have admired in films by her sister Alice and in other films. As the title implies this is a film about a long term relationship. The Italian title actually refers to shoelaces and a scene that presents a metaphor about the relationships between parents and children. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Domenico Starnone, whose first screenplay La scoula (1995), based on two of his novels, was filmed by Daniele Luchetti, the director of Lacci. Starnone is a well-known Neapolitan writer who has been identified as one possible source of the identity of the best-selling but pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. Starnone is married to translator and journalist Anita Raja and another possibility is that ‘Ferrante’ is actually husband and wife working together.

The family on the way home from the celebration, photo: Gianni Fiorito.

The Ferrante question may be one of the reasons why Lacci was chosen to open the 2020 Venice Festival which lost its usual Hollywood headliners as a result of the pandemic. Lacci was immediately seen by English-speaking critics as a response to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (US 2019). This gave an extra frisson to an opening film but I haven’t seen the American film so no comparisons here. In any event, Lacci seems to be rooted in the experiences or observations of Starnone and Raja. The narrative begins in the 1980s and ends some time nearer the present. We first meet Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher) and Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio) at a celebration with their two small children, Anna and Sandro, in the early 1980s. They all dance joyfully in the opening credit sequence and make their way to their apartment nearby. Aldo seems like a loving father in a bathtime scene and in his storytelling but after the children are asleep he suddenly tells Vanda he has been unfaithful. She doesn’t know what to make of his statement and he doesn’t see very clear about why he made it. Vanda follows him to Rome where he makes regular radio appearances as a reader and later as a literary commentator. On the stairs in the RAI building Vanda meets Lidia (Linda Caridi), a striking younger woman. Nothing is said as the two stare at each other.

One of the more dramatic confrontations between Lidia, Aldo and Vanda, photo: Gianni Fiorito.

The irony of the situation is that Aldo, praised for the quality of his speaking voice, fails to communicate as he faces Vanda. She (a teacher, it later transpires, though we never see her in a classroom), rather than articulating her anger, makes increasingly dramatic gestures. I thought at this point I was going to witness a full-bloodied family melodrama but after the early highly-charged scenes the narrative shifts gear. Aldo decides to stay in Rome and concedes full custody of the children to Vanda. Forward a few years and Aldo seems to want to see the children again. At this point, the dance music from the opening re-appears and Luchetti engineers a transition to the near present that threw me until I went back and replayed it – what has streaming done to my viewing? A different pair of actors, Laura Morante and Silvio Orlando, play Vanda and Aldo some thirty years later and they appear to be living together and bickering as they prepare to go on holiday. Now the narrative will start to ‘loop’, much like the shoelaces of the title, returning to the early 1980s and the slightly later period to reveal something about how Aldo and Lidia were as a couple and what happened during his meetings with his children. The final section of the narrative then offers a rather different perspective on the marriage through an extended scene which again comes through the link of the dance music tune from the opening. There is a ‘reveal’ here that made me think about those films where middle-class assumptions about people’s behaviour often lead to unfortunate conclusions.

The older Also and Vanda on holiday, photo: Gianni Fiorito.

The reviews of the film are mixed. Several describe the narrative as dealing in ‘misery’. One references Philip Larkin. On the other hand, several scenes seemed quite ‘real’ to me and represented aspects of long term relationships – relationships we grow into that generate different kinds of love and affection as well as irritability and quite possibly mental cruelty. As a film narrative it certainly made me think. Someone described it as ‘handsome’ and that seems a good call for a presentation in ‘Scope in often warm colours and with rather fetching 1980s outfits. The central quartet of actors are very good. I recognised the other three alongside Alba Rorwacher and later realised that I had seen them in various earlier films. The two children are played by three different sets of actors, all well cast I thought. Having said that, in every case my initial reaction was that the characters at different ages didn’t look like they were the same person. But on reflection the casting does work, I think I was just thrown by the editing – which isn’t a criticism. Luigi Lo Cascio as the younger Aldo was one of the quartet in The Dinner (Italy 2014). I mention that film for two reasons. First, it questions the behaviour of a middle-class family and second it is a successful and award-winning Italian film which I don’t think made it into UK distribution. I fear that the same may be true for Lacci. In The Dinner, Luigi Lo Cascio’s wife is played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno who is cast as the grown-up version of his daughter Anna in Lacci. It must be a different experience watching Lacci in Italy when the actors are so well-known.

I think Lacci is definitely a film to seek out if you can find it (there is just one day left of its brief stint on MUBI in the UK). Cineuropa carries an interview with director Luchetti in which he makes some interesting comments about earlier generations of parents and particularly fathers in Italian society.

St Maud (UK 2019)

Maud and Amanda in the old wood-panelled house

Saint Maud is one of those films that got a brief run in UK cinemas in Autumn 2020 some six months after it was scheduled for release. That might partly explain its critical success but it had already been well received at Toronto in 2019. Given the limelight in this way, the film has been extensively reviewed and discussed. It’s difficult to gauge the audience response since cinema audiences were restricted and it will have been seen mostly on streamers. It was selected as an online film for a Friday night film club meeting on Zoom and I watched it on BFI Player. I mention this because Saint Maud isn’t necessarily a film I would have chosen to watch. I’m not if I enjoyed the screening, but it was certainly gripping and intriguing and I did enjoy reading about its production and discussing it with friends.

Maud has a former life as someone less obviously religious

Saint Maud has been described in several ways. ‘Religious horror’ and ‘psychological thriller’ are two of the most common. A young woman has a nightmarish experience working as a nurse at St Afra’s Hospital. Leaving her job, she is taken on by a nursing agency and after a year is assigned to be the live-in carer of the terminally ill dancer and choreographer, Amanda, who was celebrated for her career and whose house is full of memories of her performances. In one of those cruel twists, Amanda has a form of lymphoma which affects her spine so she can no longer dance. Instead she is drinking and smoking away her last few months in an old house with art deco wallpaper. It soon becomes apparent that Maud is a recent convert to Catholicism who believes that her prayers are answered by the voice of God and His presence. She determines to save Amanda’s soul before the dancer dies. What follows is a narrative with some familiar events and a climactic ending. These are presented with strong creative ideas and real flair. The film is only 84 minutes long and you get plenty of thrills for your money. But the narrative is primarily about Maud so we learn a little more about her. We are given some clues about her past life (as ‘Katie’) and her struggles. Writer-director Rose Glass offers us the possibility that Maud is mentally ill or that she is indeed possessed in some way by the Holy Spirit. Some of us might take these to be the same affliction.

(from left) Morfydd Clark, Rose Glass and Jennifer Ehle

Maud making her way to Amanda’s house along the promenade

Rose Glass was a convent girl and there are a number of references I found I had to look up. My research suggests that St. Afra is the relevant historical figure, not Maud, although I spent time trying to remember the two royal Mauds in medieval England (Maud is an alternative version of Matilda). The film is set in a seaside town that is inevitably described as ‘bleak’, ‘dismal’ and ‘small’ etc. The location is actually Scarborough, though it is not named and the camera carefully picks out the least salubrious parts of town. I think Scarborough would make a good setting for a different type of horror film, something more gothic – Whitby is also just up the coast. Perhaps the gothic house in Saint Maud is paired with the garish amusement arcade close to Maud’s own tiny flat as a way of linking two rather different representations of decay and lost faith?  My gripe is that seaside towns are quite specific locations capable of representing a range of meanings but they seem to be used for only a limited range of possibilities. Today, UK seaside towns are often depicted as decaying, with ‘welfare recipients’ living in what were once holiday lettings. It’s an easy shorthand though it is true that some of the most deprived districts in the UK are found in seaside towns. Although Saint Maud is clearly a narrative about some form of highly personal Christianity, it is also possible to read it as a social commentary about the alienation of many young people, featuring loneliness and self-harm, especially among young women. Maud includes self-harming as part of her devotional practice. I found these scenes among the most horrific in the film.

Maud places nails through the insoles of her shoes . . .

This kind of film depends a lot on the central performances and here Morfydd Clark as Maud and Jennifer Ehle as Amanda are both excellent. Rose Glass is a National Film School graduate here making her feature début after several well-received shorts, including the prize-winning Room 55 (UK 2015). The cinematography by Ben Fordesman has won prizes and the music score by Adam Janota Bzowski has also been praised. I confess I didn’t like the very heavy bass notes in the score. The film has a female creator and there are several other women in the production team. The narrative is very much about Katie/Maud and the women she interacts with. There are three male characters who are there primarily to help to reveal something about Maud. I expect it helps to have had a convent education in order to get the most from the film.

Maud in her tiny flat begins to prepare for her final act.

Much of the discussion around the film is focused on whether this is a religious film, a horror film or a psychological thriller – though of course it could have elements of all three. There are certainly  a small number of fantasy/dream/nightmare scenes. St. Afra was a 4th century penitent and martyr and that description perhaps fits Maud, though she could fit other descriptions too. Rose Glass was heavily featured in Sight and Sound‘s November 2020 ‘Horror’ special issue. Discussing her influences in writing the script she denied ever having thought about The Exorcist or The Omen and instead referenced filmmakers such as Lars von Trier, David Cronenberg and John Waters and writers such as Iain Banks and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Morfydd Clark watched a lot of Bergman films for preparation and I think that must have been Glass’s influence. Clark also refers to both the ‘grossness’ of scenes and the humour. I’m not sure I really got either but I think I know what she means. I’m not attaching a trailer becauseI think the ones I’ve seen all include too many spoilers. I think there is partly a problem with how the film has been promoted, especially in the US by A24 and generally in some of the film posters. These are I think misleading, creating the idea of a certain kind of horror film. It’s interesting that I struggled to find images of the film which showed Maud on the streets of Scarborough and interacting with people other than Amanda. It’s best I think to see the film without too many expectations. If you haven’t yet seen it, do give it a go. You won’t be bored!

Villa Rides (US 1968)

Charles Bronson as Fierro and Yul Brynner as Pancho Villa

Villa Rides is a would-be tribute to the Mexican revolutionary military leader Pancho Villa which somehow comes across as a Hollywood mish-mash of the Western and the war combat picture. I have wanted to see the film for many years since it represents a missing link in the writing career of Sam Peckinpah between Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969). In 1967 Peckinpah had been working in television after the disaster of Major Dundee and he was offered a job adapting a biography of Villa by William Douglas Lansford. Peckinpah was given an office at Paramount. He was told that Yul Brynner would star as Villa and that there had to be an American in the narrative. Peckinpah drew on Paramount’s research department and produced a script that played heavily in terms of the dichotomy expressed in Villa’s idealism for the cause of the revolution and his ruthlessness in terms of military action. Villa would become one of Peckinpah’s tortured characters. David Weddle’s 1994 Peckinpah biography (If They Move . . . Kill ‘Em) suggests that the script was flawed in several structural ways but presumably those could have been worked on. Much more problematic was Brynner’s rejection of the script because the complex personality that Peckinpah created  was nowhere near the the heroic figure Brynner expected and he declared that his fans would never accept him in the role. Paramount sacked Peckinpah and Robert Towne was hired to rewrite the script.

Robert Towne would later become one of the most feted writers of the so-called ‘New Hollywood’ in the 1970s but in 1967 his career was not unlike Peckinpah’s, although Sam had already directed big features. They had both written for television and Towne had been an uncredited collaborator on Bonnie and Clyde. Whatever Towne did with the script it was accepted by Brynner and shooting commenced in Spain with Buzz Kulick directing. ‘The American’ as required by Paramount became a gun-runner played by Robert Mitchum who flies from El Paso to sell guns to the rebel army opposed to Villa and the Mexican President Madero. He then switches sides and joins Villa after the first skirmish in the script in which Villa is victorious. It is after this engagement that Villa’s ruthlessnes becomes apparent, although the agent of the killings of opposition soldiers is the Charles Bronson character, Villa’s second in command Fierro. The suggestion is that Villa has also secretly delayed his attack so that many local villagers are killed by the rebel army. This, it is argued, will make the remaining villagers hate their enemies and support Villa more vehemently.

Robert Mitchum as Lee Arnold, the gun-runner with Bronson

I’m not sure how much of Peckinpah’s conception of Villa was changed by Towne. He does still seem to be conflicted or confused. Weddle does suggest some other examples of Villa’s behaviour that Towne changed to accommodate Brynner, but my main problem in this case is that Brynner simply appears miscast. With a wig and often a sombrero, he doesn’t resemble Brynner as the star of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and he doesn’t look much like the real Villa (a much photographed celebrity). Worse still, he is upstaged most of the time by Charles Bronson. Brynner and Bronson were Hollywood stars who often played different nationalities/ethnicities. But the major charges against this film are the casting and scripting of the American and the introduction of the aircraft. Much as with Brynner, there seems no connection between Robert Mitchum’s star persona and the role constructed as ‘Lee Arnold’. It’s worth pointing out here that Villa’s story does include the American journalist and socialist activist John Reed who rode with Villa in the period covered by the film, as a reporter on the Mexican Revolution in 1913. It is also the case that nearly every international film about the Mexican Revolution includes a foreign mercenary. In the two best films, sometimes referred to as ‘tortilla Westerns, A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani, Italy 1967) and Duck You Sucker! (Sergio Leone, Italy-Spain 1971) the narrative involves a relationship between a Mexican bandit leader and, respectively, an American and an Irishman. Weddle suggests that Peckinpah’s cynical American character would have made a last minute embrace of the revolution’s ideals and that this conversion to the cause was rather contrived. On the other hand Peckinpah had learned a great deal from his research. Many American mercenaries rode with Villa and Peckinpah felt that the questions about why these Americans were there and what it meant to them would resonate with audiences responding to the US presence in Vietnam in 1967. It reminded Peckinpah himself of his time in the US Marines in China in 1945-6. As well as the American, the script includes a Mexican woman, involved with both Lee Arnold and Villa, played by the Italian actress Maria Grazia Buccella. She seems too old to be an unmarried village girl. I’m assuming her casting and that of several actors from Spain, including Fernando Rey, was just a part of the Spanish location shooting.

Herbert Lom as General Huerta

None of these ideas and certainly no sense of the historical events come across in the Kulick picture. Mitchum seems lost and in some of the closing stages like a whiney child – not something I ever thought I’d write about a Mitchum performance. And then there is the aircraft. I was sceptical about this but it does seem that there is evidence of aircraft flown by mercenaries operating in Mexico in 1913 and indeed that one was flown to support Villa. However, the aircraft in the film is a much later design. The other problem is that the film offers no sense of the timing of events. There are no on screen credits that give dates. Villa’s involvement in the war covers a period from 1911 to 1923 when he was assassinated. The film deals with events that took place in 1912 and the chief ‘villain’ appears to be General Huerta, played with some gusto by Herbert Lom who is always worth watching. But most audiences will struggle to understand who Huerta is, what his relationship is to President Madero and why he turns on Villa. Villa Rides doesn’t really care. The final insult is an onscreen tribute to Villa and the fact that Peckinpah’s name is still on the film as joint screenwriter (though the red typography makes it almost impossible to read). The film looks good as shot by British cinematographer Jack Hildyard (in a ‘Scope ratio but shot using Panavision lenses) and has a serviceable score by Maurice Jarre. It just seems a wasted opportunity. There are many other films about Pancho Villa and Peckinpah got his own, more successful Mexican adventure into cinemas a year later. Villa Rides was broadcast on Talking Pictures TV.

Piero Vivarelli, Life as a B Movie (Italy 2019)

Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is a thing of wonder and I certainly haven’t seen enough of it. MUBI are currently offering a short season of recent Italian films which are mostly not the kind of Italian films that currently achieve international distribution. I’ve moaned on this blog frequently about Italian films I’ve seen in festivals that should be seen in the UK but they never seem to get here. Life as a B Movie is very welcome as an online offering because it tells a story about a singular figure in Italian media and does so with numerous clips from the films which benefited from his involvement.

Vivarelli appearing as the saxophonist in Urlatori alla sbarra (Howlers of the Dock, 1960)

The subject of this documentary biopic is Piero Vivarelli (1927-2010) who was perhaps most importantly a writer but also a music promoter and director of a broad range of ‘B’ pictures. His first interest appears to have been music (pop and jazz) and his obsession appears to have been variations of the ‘youth picture’ or as he was more prone to express it, the battle between the young generation and their parents’ generation. We get to see clips from several pop music influenced youth pix, one of which, Howlers of the Dock (1960) has a squadron of Vespa riding youths well before Quadrophenia. Vivarelli co-wrote with many people and seemed to have a real knack of finding talented people to work with including Lucio Fulci who would later become a well-known genre film director. With Fulci and others Vivarelli wrote the song ’24 Mila Baci’ or ‘24,000 Kisses’ which became a No 1 hit in Italy and Spain. This was a period in which Italian pop music became popular across Europe and was even covered in the UK and the US. I was amazed to realise that ’24 Mila Baci’ features on the soundtrack of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (Poland 2013), set in 1962. We also see an interview with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica who used a performance of the song in an early film.

Franco Nero as Django

Vivarelli’s own films include an intriguing youth romance set in Berlin at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962, known as East Zone, West Zone in English and starring Helmut Griem who became an international film star in the 1970s. Perhaps his most prominent role for international audiences was as one (arguably the most significant) of the writers of Django (Italy-Spain 1966) the Western with a host of later ‘sequels’. The documentary includes interviews with Franco Nero, the central character and explores the role of Vivarelli alongside director Sergio Corbuci and co-writer Franco Rossetti, who like Vivarelli came from Siena.

The documentary’s directors offer this statement:

To depict this offbeat, complex, unsung Italian pop culture personality we chose a non-linear narrative style with several intersecting thematic story lines weaved into an only partly chronological tapestry. The key to our narrative is the deep interconnection that we came across between his life and his movies. The title is not a gimmick.

Our intention was to bring to fore the pioneer aspects of the pioneer/provocateur Piero Vivarelli in Italian music and movies, trying to place him not just locally, but within the broader context of the post-war global pop culture explosion. At the same time we tried to provide a sense of a very particular typically Italian post-war vitality that he encapsulates. It’s the particular energy that prompted Tarantino’s passion for the Italian B-movie genre. Last but not least, we tried to recount his extraordinary erotic sensuality, the driving force for everything Piero did.

Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolò Vivarelli

Niccolò Vivarelli is (according to Cineuropa) Piero Vivarelli’s grandson. This doesn’t mean that the documentary shies away from Vivarelli’s less savoury qualities. He was a determined womaniser and not averse to cheating on wives and lovers with the singers and actresses he met. He was not a good father and he lost a son to drugs, but the many interviewees, including those who might be expected to be hurt, seem prepared to praise him. He was attracted to women of colour and married the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham who was a leading player in Il dio serpente (1970). This film was made in Columbia and developed Vivarelli’s interest in erotic movies. It was followed by The Black Decameron (1972), again with Cunningham, but this time made in Senegal. I was amazed to discover that Vivarelli knew Djibril Diop Mambety, who has a role in the film.This seems so unlikely and I can’t find any supporting evidence in, for instance, IMDb but it seems a confident claim. Claims are also made that during the shoot in Senegal, (which had support from President Senghor), Vivarelli was able to meet rebels from Guinea-Bissau, led by Luís Cabral, who were fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism and we see photographic evidence. Vivarelli does seem to have been an extraordinary man and the documentary’s title seems apt. His life defied any neat description or classification.

Late in his life, Vivarelli (right) with Fidel Castro

Throughout the film the two directors mix and interweave the stories of Vivarelli’s films, his numerous relationships and his political life. As a teenager he had joined a notorious fascist commando troop (a combination of parachutists and navy seals), partly because of his father’s death as an Italian soldier killed by partisans. Soon after the end of the war he switched to join the Italian Communist Party. He seems to have been radical/leftist from then on. His increasing interest in erotic movies meant further films focusing on women of colour with Codice d’amore orientale (1974) an ‘erotic documentary’ filmed in Thailand and involvement as a writer on Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and Emanuelle in America (1977), both with Laura Gemser. Despite the reputations of these films, interviewees assert that Vivarelli was not a colonialist. His final film was La rumbera (Italy 1998) which presented the Cuban revolution via the story of a dancer. The film was made in Cuba and Vivarelli met Castro as seen in the photo above. Im intrigued as to what Fidel is thinking when he looks at Vivarelli.

I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this remarkable film, but it’s on MUBI until April 29 I think. Do check it out if you have a subscription. One last thought. The films Vivarelli and his collaborators made are very difficult to see now, but as one of the interviewees suggests, during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Italian film production, many of these films sold well in Italy and overseas and they helped pave the way for the more celebrated Italian art films to gain international distribution. Vivarelli was in many ways an innovator. This trailer gives a good sense of the delirium of the documentary.

The Long Arm (UK 1956)

One of the Rank posters that seems to be trying hard to signify ‘modernity’

A few weeks ago I posted on John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (UK-US 1957) and mentioned Ealing’s The Long Arm as a reference point. The Long Arm turned up on Talking Pictures TV a little while later and offered an opportunity to make a comparison. In this film Jack Hawkins, a regular Ealing player in the 1950s, plays a Scotland Yard Superintendent – as he does in Gideon’s Day. However, the two films are quite different. The Ealing production was made in black and white and broadcast in Academy (1.37:1). IMDb suggests that this was always the intended ratio, even if widescreen was established in the UK by 1956. Unlike the Ford film, with its multiple cases all solved in a 24 hour period, The Long Arm is essentially a narrative about a single investigation spread over several days, perhaps weeks. The common features of the two films are the presence of Jack Hawkins and the family melodrama elements of the Superintendent’s home life. In Gideon’s Day that element is foregrounded by the romance of Gideon’s daughter which is cleverly interwoven with the day’s police action. In The Long Arm Superintendent Halliday’s young son does inadvertently provide his father with a clue that helps the investigation but the theme of romance (and the difficult life of a police officer’s wife) is displaced onto Halliday’s new assistant, DS Ward (John Stratton).

Halliday can’t call on computers in 1956 so he turns to the next best thing – Chief Superintendent Jim Malcom (Geoffrey Keen, right) with his card system and his own encyclopaedic memory memory of crimes in London

I’ll focus on The Long Arm and return to the comparison later on. The narrative is based on a story by Robert Barr which he adapted with Janet Green for The Long Arm. Barr was a remarkable man who worked in newspapers, radio and then television. He was a radio features writer in 1946 who took the opportunities offered by the re-launched TV service, writing one of the first TV documentaries, a report on Germany under Allied Occupation. He then began to move between non-fiction and drama, focusing on police operations in the UK and becoming something of an expert on Scotland Yard. The Long Arm was the first appearance of his work on film but he was soon to be successful writing for popular TV crime fiction series, mostly police procedurals. He worked on both Z-Cars and its successor Softly, Softly in the 1960s and 70s. Scan down the credits for The Long Arm and you will find Stratford Johns as a Police Constable. Johns would eventually become one of the main stars of Z-Cars and then Softly, Softly. Barr’s collaborator on The Long Arm was Janet Green who had been an actor in the 1930s and subsequently a screenwriter and playwright, writing first for Rank on The Clouded Yellow (1950), an excellent chase thriller, and on another intriguing crime fiction, Eyewitness (also in 1956). She would become best-known for her later scripts for the Basil Dearden-Michael Relph partnership on films such as Sapphire (1959) and Victim (1961). In 1966 Green would be one of the three writers on John Ford’s last feature,  7 Women. I mention these links partly to highlight Ealing’s role in providing blueprints for TV drama series, especially ‘cop shows’ and also the work of ex-Ealing staffers like Dearden and Relph after Ealing collapsed.

Following a suspect through Central London

The Long Arm was directed by Charles Frend, one of the central group of directors who made multiple films for Ealing. His thirteen films for Ealing comprise a diverse collection which includes major hits such as The Cruel Sea (1953), ‘prestige’ pictures such as Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and the children’s adventure The Magnet (1950). Frend’s reputation seems to have suffered a little since although he made some of Ealing’s best films he didn’t display the kinds of ‘personal vision’ beloved of the auteurists so he is not celebrated like Robert Hamer or Sandy Mackendrick.  Nor did he make any of the well-known Ealing comedies. His Ealing career ended with Barnacle Bill in 1957. This was in fact a comedy with Alec Guinness, but like his earlier comedy effort A Run For Your Money (1949), it is now largely forgotten. Instead, I would argue Frend’s most interesting films are San Demetrio London (1943) about an oil tanker miraculously surviving during the Battle of the Atlantic, The Cruel Sea (1953) and Lease of Life (1954).

This Italian poster uses elements of the ‘arty’ British one but presents a more familiar scenario and includes the safe as an iconic image

The plot of The Long Arm pits Halliday against a clever criminal who manages to open the safes of various companies in Central London, the first of which is virtually under the noses of the police. The script is intelligent, though whether it is plausible is open to question. The investigation is thorough and eventually leads to a finale played out on the South Bank by the Royal Festival Hall, then only a few years old. More interesting for me was to see the British European Airways Terminal close by. In the 1950s both BEA and BOAC had check-in buildings in the centre of London and BEA used the ‘Waterloo Airline Terminal’ between 1953 and 1957. The Long Arm was Ealing’s second police-focused drama following The Blue Lamp (1950). That film featured ‘beat bobbies’ and exciting car chases in what was also a ‘social problem’ drama dealing with younger and more reckless criminals. Gordon Dines photographed both films, but The Long Arm features a more ‘opened out’ investigation which takes Halliday out of London, visiting North Wales, and as well as featuring familiar Central London streets it includes Halliday’s home in a quiet street in Bromley.

So what does this all add up to and how does it compare to Ford’s film a year later? Jack Hawkins gives a very strong performance in both films but The Long Arm suffers from weaker roles for women. Despite the modernist poster at the head of this blog post, The Long Arm feels tired and already old-fashioned next to Gideon’s Day. On the other hand it is a proper investigation and in some ways it does indeed resemble the later TV police procedurals. Some crime fiction film fans try to promote it as an example of ‘British noir‘, but I can’t accept that label. There are plenty of night-time scenes but little else that is recognisable as part of the noir crime film repertoire. It is an acceptable Ealing ‘entertainment’ and it points towards later TV cop shows.

First Cow (US 2019)

The woods of Oregon . . .

This film narrative begins with a long shot of a container ship moving at a good speed through a wide river passage. In a wooded area close to the river a woman discovers something which after investigation and careful scraping away of soil reveals two skeletons side by side. A cut takes us to a close-up of a man picking chanterelles, wild mushrooms, in the woods. The man’s rather tattered clothes and the introduction of non-diegetic music  – a harpsichord or a dulcimer? – suggests an earlier time. The man is ‘Cookie’ (John Magaro), hired by a bunch of unkempt trappers to keep them fed, partly through his foraging. A little later he finds a naked Chinese man in the woods. Unlike the squabbling trappers Cookie seems a kindly soul who gives the Chinese man a blanket, and food and drink and hides him from the trappers.

The opening sequence sees Alia Shawkat unearthing the skeletons

With this opening, writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond, whose novel they adapt, raise any number of intriguing questions about American history, myth-making, the concept of the Western narrative and also the writing of those narratives about ‘discovery’ and the early attempts by Europeans to live alongside indigenous peoples and other migrants in the North West of what would later become the United States. They don’t directly tell us when or where this long flashback is set but if we know their previous collaborations such as the feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010), we might reasonably assume that this is ‘Oregon Country’ a large area being exploited mostly for beaver pelts by both British and American interests. Raymond’s novel Half Life (2004) confirms that this is the setting. The time is the 1820s but I’m not sure how learned that.

King-Lu and Cookie, the central characters

After aiding the the Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie doesn’t see him again for some time but then he meets him again in the ramshackle settlement known as ‘Fort Tilikum’. King-Lu has somehow acquired a shack and he invites Cookie to visit. Soon the two men settle in together, learning a little about each other’s background. ‘Cookie’ is a skilled baker who dreams of owning a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. King-Lu is from North China and has travelled the world. Both have heard that this is the land of abundance and they discuss ways in which to make their fortunes. King-Lu is the more bullish but Cookie has the skills to make baked goods that would sell very well in the settlement – like ‘hot cakes’ in fact. The key to possible success is the ‘first cow’, a beautiful dairy cow that has been brought to the nearby grand residence of the ‘Chief Factor’. Played by Toby Jones this character and his main employee Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) represent the English/Scottish influence in the area. ‘Factor’ is the Scots word for someone who acts as the agent of a large landowner. It was also a word used to describe the entrepreneurs who were wheeler-dealers in the lands controlled by the Hudson’s Bay company, the main power in Oregon at this time. (Much of this background is also explored in The Sisters Brothers (France-Belgium 2018), though some twenty-five years later when the ‘Oregon Territory’ is being developed.)

The cow arrives by boat

The Chief Factor has bought the cow, the first to be seen in the area, to improve his hospitality but unfortunately the bull and calf that accompanied it died during shipment. Cookie declares that if he had access to milk he could bake anything, not just ‘flour and water bread’. Here could be the two men’s golden chance. But how will he and King-Lu get the milk? That’s basically the rest of the plot and you can probably work out what happens.

First Cow is a long film (122 mins), especially given the rather thin plot. It’s shot in the squarish Academy format that had mainly disappeared from American film production by the mid-1950s, certainly from ‘studio productions’ (but which Reichardt used in Meek’s Cutoff). Much of the film takes place in the murky world of interiors with candlelight or in the woods at night. For audiences more used to high key action pictures it must be a trial to watch. Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner are likely to be the only actors UK audiences will recognise, although the woman seen in the short opening sequence is Alia Shawkat, who has featured in many US TV series and independent films. The same is true of John Magaro and Orion Lee. Other actors, like the creative team may have been part of other Kelly Reichardt productions. There are three kinds of responses to the film: bewilderment and professed boredom from mainstream cinemagoers, a feeling that this isn’t the best of Reichardt’s work by some critics and acclaim by those who feel she has once again offered a unique and cogent statement about American culture. I’m with the last group and I would bracket her with Debra Granik as my two favourite US auteurs. I expect Chloe Zhao will join them when I’ve seen more of her films.

Toby Jones as the Chief Factor

Much of the discussion about the film is around concepts of naïvete, mythmaking and critiques of capitalism. It’s an interesting time to discuss these concepts alongside the fate of indigenous peoples and the assimilation of migrants in the expanding United States. The two central characters are both likeable men. They don’t mean harm to anyone, they just want to make something of themselves. They don’t realise that this ‘Eden’ or ‘land of opportunity’ is (a) the homeland of local North American peoples and (b) that Eden has already been corrupted by the early capitalist exploitation of the Hudson Bay Company, the rapacious agent of British colonialism. There is no going back, the indigenous people are being killed by European diseases, the local beaver population is being decimated by trapping and there is no law as yet. I was reminded of various Westerns, set later. Those in the North West like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) which shares an actor with First Cow, René Auberjonois, and Michael Winterbottom’s Hardy adaptation, The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Both these films share a sense of European miners and other migrants, but they also feature European women. First Cow has no lead female roles but there are many scenes when indigenous women are silently in the background. The one sequence in which there is dialogue is that between the Chief Factor’s wife and the wife of an indigenous man. The Chief Factor’s wife is played by Lily Gladstone, the actor with Native American heritage who also appears in a key role in Reichardt’s previous film, Certain Women (2016). I’m not sure yet what this presentation of indigenous women really means in this film, except that it was the European men who messed things up first. But were the European  women who followed complicit? And we mustn’t forget the presence of the East Asian men.

I’ve seen some reviews which don’t accept that First Cow is a Western at all. I would disagree. I know Western scholars tend to see the key period setting for the genre as 1865-1895, but the underlying themes of the Western run across the whole development of the United States and across those of the other nation states with similar human and physical geography. First Cow is a wonderful addition to the history of the Western and it prompts me to think about a whole series of other Westerns which I’ll get to at some point. The film has been acquired for UK distribution by MUBI which should see some cinema screenings and then availability on MUBI’s screening service. Not to be missed!