Tagged: Betty Box

Venetian Bird (UK 1952)

Adriana (Eva Bartok) and Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) travelling by water taxi in Venice

Venetian Bird deserves to be much better known. In some ways it’s similar to the Carol Reed films, The Third Man (1949) and The Man Between (1953). In those films, a British/American character finds himself in a post-war city (Vienna and Berlin respectively) involved in a murky investigation which involves an aspect of wartime legacy and contemporary issues focused on a man who doesn’t necessarily want to be found. As the title suggests, this 1952 film is set in Venice which is beautifully rendered on screen by Ernest Steward on only his second feature as DoP. Steward would go on to shoot many films for producer Betty Box in the 1950s and she should get great credit for an excellent overall production. The music too is worth noting, one of several scores for British productions in this period by Nino Rota.

Spanish release poster

Betty Box and director Ralph Thomas had got together as a team for the first time in 1950 to make another excellent and under-rated thriller The Clouded Yellow. It was a difficult period just then when Rank was re-organising and consolidating its resources. Betty Box survived the closing of the old Gainsborough Studios which she had helped to run with her older brother Sydney. He had  run the main facility in Shepherd’s Bush and Betty had run the smaller studio in Islington. By 1952 she was safely housed at Pinewood and working effectively with production chief Earl St. John. Betty and Ralph Thomas would become a very effective team at Pinewood making more than 30 films over the next 25 years. Most of them made money, especially the comedies and with her husband Peter Rogers producing the later Carry On series, the couple could be seen as keeping Rank afloat until the mid 1970s. Betty Box eventually developed a strategy at Rank which involved her agreeing to make yet another ‘Doctor’ comedy (i.e. Doctor in the House, 1954 etc.) if in return the studio would finance one of her own more interesting adventure films. These were often made abroad and particularly in Italy. Her love affair with Italy began with Venetian Bird, almost completely shot in Venice.

A noirish interior with Rosa (Margot Grahame) and a buff Richard Todd as Mercer

Venetian Bird was adapted from a novel by Victor Canning who wrote the screenplay himself. Canning was a prolific writer from the 1930s onwards whose work became more widely used in cinema and then on TV from the 1950s. He had been stationed in Italy during the war and his detailed knowledge of Venice proved useful in deciding on locations. The central character of the film is Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) who arrives in Venice on a mission for a Paris insurance company. He is charged with finding an ex-partisan named Renzo Uccello (John Gregson). ‘Uccello‘ can have several meanings in Italian, some rather dubious, but ‘bird’ is perhaps the most common? Mercer gets help from a seemingly respectable brothel-keeper Rosa (Margot Grahame) who he knows from previous visits to Italy and his investigations lead him to a large house acting as a form of art gallery with a diverse collection of objets d’art and here he meets Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok), a beautiful young woman who at first seems impervious to his charms and who manages to appear to be helpful without giving Mercer any real help at all. In the meantime, it becomes clear that Uccello doesn’t want to be found and that somebody wants Mercer out of the way. Eventually Mercer is investigated by the police who at first let him go before he is framed for a serious crime, making him a wanted man.

Adriana and her boss, the gallery owner Count Boria (Walter Rilla). Behind Mercer is the police chief (George Colouris)

I’ve read quite a few comments on the film (mostly American) which complain that it is too ‘talky’. That’s a common American complaint about European films. ‘Too much’ dialogue is perhaps a question of taste, but I think the plot does get over-complex at times and I did get confused. Part of the problem is explained by Betty Box in her autobiography Lifting the Lid (The Book Guild, 2000). The local Italian officials were generally supportive of the shoot but they demanded certain changes for political reasons which although on the surface don’t seem to have made much difference, actually make the political action in the film hard to follow. Some other commentators criticise the camerawork and suggest this is a low budget film, a ‘British ‘B’ film noir‘. This is just nonsense. The film was distributed in the US by United Artists. In the UK it was certainly an ‘A’ picture.

A promo shot of the film’s ‘exotic’ European female star in a ‘pin-up’ pose

One of the difficulties of a retrospective viewing of the film is that the three main leads were all in the early stages of their careers as leading players. Richard Todd and John Gregson were the same age but Gregson had a lower profile in his early career at Ealing. Todd had found instant success while under contract to ABPC, being nominated for an Oscar in the lead role of The Hasty Heart in 1949 alongside Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal. The apex of his career was playing as Guy Gibson in The Dambusters (1955) after which it slowly declined through the 1960s. In the 1950s though he offered a young, handsome and virile persona. Some commentators see Venetian Bird as a forerunner of James Bond style thrillers. Ian Fleming is said to have wanted Todd as Bond for Dr No. As a public school and vocally Tory figure he would have made a very different Bond. John Gregson became a star later with light comedy roles such as in Genevieve (1953) probably dominating his other familiar roles as decent men with integrity in war pictures. In this context his Italian partisan with dubious politics seems odd casting but this is the role that might have been most altered by interference from Italian authorities. Although the film was shot almost completely in Venice, all the main Italian characters are played by British actors. Eva Bartok was Hungarian but her English is very good in the film. Betty Box had originally wanted Gina Lollobrigida but at this time her English was not yet good enough for the part. Ms Bartok was quite difficult to deal with but I think her performance works well in the completed film and after this film and the earlier The Crimson Pirate (1952) with Burt Lancaster, she became a familiar lead player in both British and German films.

The chase is on high above the Piazza San Marco

The chase scenes in the closing section of the film feature rooftops and spectacular shots of Venice. They are reminiscent of those at the end of The Clouded Yellow (which ends at Liverpool Docks). There are suggestions that these sequences might have influenced later Hitchcock films and they certainly look familiar when compared to numerous later European thrillers. Betty Box includes one interesting anecdote about the studio support for the film. Michael Balcon, Head of Ealing was also a major producer at Rank and he voted against making Venetian Bird because it had only one British character and was “a story about Italian people against an Italian background”. For Balcon it wasn’t a ‘native’ narrative. Earl St. John disagreed and the picture went ahead. Balcon’s attitude, which was perhaps justified in wartime, seems way out of date by the early 1950s. Betty Box thankfully ignored Balcon’s limited view and made several more films in Europe in the 1950s and ’60s.

No Love for Johnnie (UK 1961)

No Love for Johnnie is an interesting film, not often screened in the UK. I managed to watch it on Talking Pictures TV – otherwise it only exists as a 2011 DVD on an obscure label (Strawberry Media). Many years ago I had a hardback copy of the original novel but I don’t think I’d seen the film before now. The early 1960s is an odd period in British culture, caught between the Lady Chatterley trial and ‘the Beatles first LP’ (as Philip Larkin put it in his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’) in 1963. It was supposedly a ‘dead’ period in pop music and in cinema everything was deemed to be happening in Northern towns and captured in the ‘realism’ of the British New Wave. So here is the first conundrum. No Love for Johnnie begins in the fictitious town of Earnley (modelled on Bradford, like the town in Room at the Top) where Johnnie Byrne has just been re-elected as the local Labour MP in a General Election campaign which Labour have won. (In reality, Labour lost the 1959 General Election but went on to win in 1964 and 1966.)

Johnnie (Peter Finch) with his neighbour Mary (Billie Whitelaw)

On his way back down to London, Johnnie gives an indication that he has become cynical about his supporters as he boards the train. Once in London, he has to answer a TV reporter’s questions about whether he is expecting a Cabinet post. Back in his flat, Johnnie’s love life is unravelling. His wife signals she is leaving, his neighbour is inviting his attention but he finds himself attracted instead to a 20 year-old model (Johnnie is 42). The film is presented in black & white ‘Scope (like the New Wave classic, Billy Liar (1963)) and as some reviews have pointed out Johnnie’s three women match the two of Joe Lampton in Room at the Top (1959). So, why isn’t No Love for Johnnie a New Wave film? The original novel was written by a Labour MP, Wilfred Fienburgh, who was killed in a car crash aged just 38. He held Islington North – now the seat of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Fienburgh had been brought up in Bradford, so in one sense he was a Northern novelist like the others whose novels became New Wave films – but he wasn’t a ‘literary novelist’. His was a more ‘workman-like’ novel – though Fienburgh was seen as a very intelligent working-class lad who had an excellent war record and the book was seen as perceptive about Labour politics.

Johnnie with the young model Pauline (Mary Peach)

The problems with the film from a New Wave perspective were two-fold. First the central character is too old at 42, he doesn’t fit the ‘angry young man’ or aspirant working-class/lower middle-class type in the other novels. At 42 he has the war-time experience behind him, whereas the New Wave (anti-)heroes were only children during the war – the exception is Room at the Top where the dating of the narrative is fudged to allow Joe Lampton to have been a POW. Johnnie is played by Peter Finch, the ‘wild’ Australian (though born in London) who was a leading actor/star of British cinema at the time and not a new working-class actor like Albert Finney or Tom Courtenay. Secondly the film was directed by Ralph Thomas for producer Betty Box. Thomas and Box had been a successful working partnership since 1950 and The Clouded Yellow, a wonderful thriller filmed on location across the North of England. But they were best known as the team behind the ‘Doctor’ series of Rank comedies in the 1950s. This condemned them in the eyes of some critics. I think it’s time they were given more attention (which has in fact gone to Betty Box as a successful female filmmaker with a solid track record during the most ‘commercial’ period of British filmmaking).

Box and Thomas were highly efficient at producing successful mainstream films. This production was shot, like most of their 1950s films by Ernest Steward and included many other regulars working at Pinewood, the base for the Box-Thomas productions. The team constructed a replica of the House of Commons chamber and Cabinet room on a Pinewood set, but much of the film was shot on London streets – and seeing the London of 1960 is one of the bonuses. There is a very strong cast of supporting character actors with the terrific Billie Whitelaw as the neighbour re-buffed by Johnnie and Mary Peach as the 20 year-old model. The House of Commons features Donald Pleasance and Geoffrey Keen and a host of other well-known faces. I was also amused to see Oliver Reed, uncredited as a drunk man at a party (the original Mr. Buckethead?).

Johnnie has to listen to his local Labour Party members

Betty Box claimed to be uninterested in the politics as such and was aiming for an ‘entertaining film’. She was a young communist in her youth, but primarily for ‘social reasons’ – her older brother Sydney, head of Gainsborough Studios 1945-1950 was a committed Labour supporter. J. Arthur Rank who financed the film was a Conservative, but Betty Box was allowed to make her ‘personal projects’ as long as she also continued to produce the highly profitable comedies for which she is best known (e.g. the ‘Doctor’ series).

It is worth noting that dramatic narratives about Left-Labour MPs are more interesting in terms of personal morality. Tories, seen as less principled by many, have less to lose in some ways. No Love for Johnnie was followed in the 1970s by the TV serial Bill Brand (1976) an 11 x 1 hour episode narrative written by Trevor Griffiths and starring Jack Shepherd as a new left-wing MP. In 1988, A Very British Coup, based on a novel by Chris Mullin MP and scripted by Mullin and the great TV playwright Alan Plater was a three-part TV mini-series detailing the unlikely but ‘much wished for’ general election victory for a Labour Party led not by right-wing Blairites but by a working-class socialist played by Ray McAnally. The military and leading right-wingers plot against him.

Johnnie meets the PM (Geoffrey Keen)

As I’ve indicated, Wilfred Fienburgh was seen as a bright and perceptive politician, so the narrative of No Love for Johnnie has a strong base. The film script was written by Nicholas Phipps, a long-time collaborator with Box and Thomas as both actor and writer. He was joined, in a rather unlikely pairing, with the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler. Richler had lived in the UK since 1954 and published several novels. (There were several Canadians in British film and TV.) The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was published in 1959 and became a major film in 1974 with a young Richard Dreyfus in the lead. Richler had already written two films by 1960 and would go on to script Life at the Top (1965), the follow-up to the 1959 film. The representation of politics in No Love for Johnnie is both cynical and believable. There is a particularly good passage in which Johnnie has to cope with a ‘dressing-down’ by his constituency party and a crisis in his love life during a trip back to Earnley.

Unusually for a Betty Box production, the film did not become a box office hit, though many critics responded favourably and Peter Finch won a Berlinale prize and a BAFTA. I suspect that Talking Pictures TV will provide us with some more offerings that challenge the dubious canonisations of ‘British New Wave’ films and perhaps give us a better sense of the range of Betty Box productions. She stands as perhaps the most successful British film producer with a near 30 year career starting in 1946.

In this clip, the PM wants to see Jonnie who has been selected by Labour rebels to ask a an embarrassing question. The issue is one which is remarkably contemporary with Saudi Arabia moving into Yemen to attack rebels: