Ken Hughes’ biggest hit was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (UK, 1968) and he seems to have little in common, although he was roughly the same age, with the British ‘new wave’ directors such as Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger. A characteristic of the wave was its northern settings and despite being set in London The Small World of Sammy Lee shares its ‘down at heel’ gloom. Anthony Newley was using the film, he hoped, to prove he could be a serious actor and it was made whilst he was performing in his hit West End show, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off (Newley was a multi-talented superstar of the era). The film covers less than 24 hours of Sammy’s little world which he spends performing as a compere in a strip club whilst trying to find £300 to cover a gambling debt: at 7pm he will be beaten up.
Most of the film is set in Soho, an area Hughes apparently knew well and his script reeks of authenticity. There is certainly a smell about Soho at the time which is explicitly revealed in a climactic moment when Sammy tells his audience, consisting of seedy, middle aged men, the truth. It reminded me of Maureen O’ Hara’s ‘showgirl’ in Dance Girl Dance (US 1940) when she tells her audience ‘home truths’; if memory serves, Hughes isn’t quite as daring as Dorothy Arzner (yes, a woman director in classical Hollywood) who had O’Hara directly address the film’s audience. Soho was known for its sex clubs and, like Expresso Bongo, there is titillation to be had from women in underwear and tassels on their nipples. The women’s matter-of-factness is well conveyed, it is just a job they have to take, and Julia Foster, as the ‘naive northern lass’, portrays her humiliation with pathos. The club owner’s (Robert Stephens) rant about ‘any woman who takes her clothes off is a whore’ emphasises the misogyny of the time.
Hughes’ film not only condemns the treatment of women, Sammy himself is shown to be a pathetic male chasing thrills and ignoring consequences with his gambling. Newell plays him as a schmuck, not a bad guy as such but contemptible. The scene when he taps his brother (Warren Mitchell) for money is, this article suggests, a rare presentation of Jewish life in British film. When his brother berates his wife (Miriam Karlin) for spending money on clothes she looks at him with disdain and reminds him he married her because of her ‘looks and class’. She also has no truck with Sammy’s pleadings.
Despite the fact the ending of the film has a dab of sentiment, it doesn’t ameliorate the desperation of Sammy’s life.
The restored print (shown on Talking Pictures) looks great. Cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who only died two years ago (aged 104 and also shot the classic Get Carter, UK, 1971), worked mostly in documentary and he brings out the grubbiness of Soho well. However the area’s multi-cultural vitality isn’t missed; an opening tracking shot along a row of restaurants shows the diversity of cuisine on offer. Sammy chats to Afro Caribbeans in passing as with anyone else. When desperately trying to buy drugs, Sammy asks a black jazz pianist (I haven’t been able to find who is playing the role) and is berated for his racist assumptions that a black person would necessarily have drugs; a progressive representation for its time and now.
Much of the footage of Sammy racing against time through the streets was obviously shot with no cordoning off as the public can be seen watching him which, paradoxically, adds to the authenticity of the film. Neither John Hill’s or Robert Murphy’s books on British cinema of the time mention the film and I think it should be placed alongside ‘new wave’ classics such as A Kind of Loving (1962) and This Sporting Life (1963).