Some of the most popular stars and most popular films of past decades are virtually unknown by modern audiences, simply because the films aren’t shown much. Of course, it is also true that tastes change and many so called ‘classic films’ were not popular at the time of their release. But I would argue that at least part of the reason is that screening rights are lost or held by libraries that can’t (or won’t) exploit them.
After many years of watching British films at the cinema or on TV, I’ve only seen two or three of the films of Anna Neagle, yet she was arguably the biggest star of British cinema during its years of peak popularity in the late 1940s. Neagle was a major star of stage (especially musical theatre – she began her career as a dancer) and screen from the mid 1930s to the 1950s. In 1943 she married Herbert Wilcox her director since 1933 with his own production company. Wilcox had developed a relationship with the Hollywood major RKO which involved some Hollywood-based films for the pairing. I mention this because Odette (a ‘Wilcox-Neagle Production’ made at Elstree Studios) was shown in the morning graveyard slot on BBC2 usually filled with RKO films, including British-based productions.
Anna Neagle’s most popular films were the trio of titles in which she was paired with Michael Wilding – Piccadilly Incident (1947), The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1948) and Spring in Park Lane (1948). These were frothy, lightweight romances and all feature in the BFI’s list of the 100 films with the biggest admission figures in UK film history (Spring in Park Lane is at No. 5!). If I’ve seen any of these titles, I don’t remember them and I’ve always assumed that they weren’t for me. I have seen the films of the more earthy female stars of the same period such as Margaret Lockwood (at No. 9 with The Wicked Lady), which have retained a stronger place in popular cultural memory.
So, Odette is a completely different film from what might be expected from a star with Anna Neagle’s persona. It’s a biopic about one of the most celebrated female agents of SOE (Special Operations Executive), a Frenchwoman living in the UK who volunteered to be sent to France in 1942 to aid the résistance. In a prologue Maurice Buckmaster, the British officer who sent Odette to France, introduces the film (in which he plays himself) and tells us that the events all took place and as far as is “humanly possible” the actors attempt to represent what actually happened. This I fear is rather a hostage to fortune as the film narrative is necessarily structured as a commercial feature and, although it is relatively early in the cycle of such espionage films, it is already evident that certain generic types are being developed. This is partly a function of casting. Peter Ustinov, that multi-talented personality who could speak several languages fluently but who always seems to play with a comic touch, is indeed a slightly comical figure, set against a stern but decent Trevor Howard. Marius Goring is the sophisticated and charming German military intelligence man. All three characters are immediately recognisable in the role that they play.
These generic touches are highlighted by the contrast in the scenes in which Odette is tortured by the Gestapo. It has been argued that the poor critical reception of some of Anna Neagle’s most popular films was that the fashion in critical circles was for the ‘harder’ and more intense drama found in neo-realist films from Italy in this period. The first and one of the most influential of these films was Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, Italy 1945) in which there is a particularly disturbing scene in which a Gestapo officer forces a priest suspected of aiding the partisans to watch a man being tortured. To find a similar scene of brutal torture in Odette is indeed disturbing. Little is shown but the brutality is suggested very well. This scene is matched by location footage of action shot in the south of France and in the Alps, often in long shot and again invoking the neo-realist style. But despite this, much of the rest of the film is conventional and doesn’t seem to exploit the possibilities that the extra budget for overseas shooting has offered. This is emphasised by a strange narrative device in the section dealing with Odette’s incarceration at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Several of the scenes set at the camp begin with an image composed in depth with a small orchestra of female prisoners playing in the foreground. Other prisoners are in the middle ground behind barbed wire and far in the background is a tall chimney belching black smoke. I assume that the chimney is meant to symbolise the industrial scale of the killings in the camp. Ravensbrück was not an ‘extermination camp’ as such but the women who worked as slave labour were killed when they were too ill or too weak to work – and some were gassed because this was less time-consuming than shooting them. In this analysis the image is powerful in the way that it represents the contradictory cultures of the camp – but its repetition seems to make its meanings banal. I sometimes felt that there were other scenes, especially between the two leads, which might have been triggers for later parodies of the stiff-lipped British officer and the brave female agent.
Anna Neagle judging on this performance was a fine actress and a charismatic screen presence, but she was rather older than the woman she played had been at the time (45 rather than 30). I don’t think that this is a problem and I was happy to accept her as a believable French agent, but it may be that she offered a slightly different presentation than might be expected from a younger woman. It would be interesting to compare Odette with Carve Her Name With Pride (UK 1958) in which Virginia McKenna plays Violette Szabo, another of the SOE agents sent to France. McKenna was much closer in age to her character – and had a rather different screen persona as an ‘English rose’ type.
Odette was a successful film that did have an impact and certainly moved audiences. I can see why that was the case but I do feel that it is a film with some inconsistencies – perhaps that saves it from the blandness that afflicts some other British films of the period, especially some of the war films. One last oddity. The late 1940s was actually quite a strong period for European cinema in the UK with several notable releases, including some Italian neo-realist films. There were also several European stars working for British studios as well as some European directors. I was intrigued to note that in Odette, several scenes began or ended with characters speaking in French or German which was not subtitled. Unfortunately I don’t speak either language well enough to know how ‘authentic’ this speech was. The dialogue was not of great import but it was certainly part of the scene. The lead actors mostly spoke in English of course, but occasionally they spoke in French. Peter Ustinov and Anna Neagle sounded fine in French but Trevor Howard’s accent seemed very poor to me and threatened the credibility of the character. I don’t know how to read this language usage – does it suggest that the industry was less sensitive than it became only a few years later? The problem of language use in films like this has remained throughout the last sixty years and still often undermines the commercial prospects of such films in the international marketplace. What does anyone think is the best solution?
Bradford has often opened with a new British film and British cinema has been an important element of the festival. On the face of it The Look of Love looks like a good choice. Michael Winterbottom is a celebrated if controversial director, Steve Coogan has done some of his best work with Michael and the subject matter is promising. . . . On the other hand, biopics are notoriously difficult to get right. Writer Matt Greenhalgh scripted one of the best with Control and I’ve admired Michael Winterbottom’s work since I first saw Welcome to Sarajevo on a big screen in 1997. After Wonderland in 1999 I was convinced that he was the most exciting UK director around. Since then I’ve liked nearly everything he’s done and I’ve been dismayed by the failure of most of his best films to get the recognition they deserve in terms of big audiences. I think Winterbottom’s problem has been to find a new writing partner after his successful collaborations with Frank Cottrell-Boyce and his irregular link-ups with Laurence Coriat. Before the screening my main concern was how the notorious workaholic guerilla filmmaker with thirty-odd films to his name would get on with a scriptwriter who had previously worked with first-time feature directors. You can’t really get a better combination of Lancashire names than Greenhalgh-Winterbottom, so I’m sure that they got on at a personal level, but for me the film didn’t work.
Let’s take the positives first. The audience clapped at the end and several people said how much they liked it. The performances in the film were all good and the soundtrack must have cost a few bob with some nice tunes from the 1960s-1980s. After that I start to struggle. The Look of Love tells the story of Paul Raymond, the Liverpool-born ‘failed entertainer’ who became a very successful impresario in the demi-world of first nude shows in the 1950s then strip clubs and his Revuebar in Soho and eventually a softporn publishing empire. His stroke of genius (sorry, there is a pun there which was not intentional, but that’s how the ‘nudge, wink’ world works) was to put his profits into property in the West End. By the late 1990s he was one of the richest men in the UK. But money can’t buy you love – even if you do know the Beatles. Raymond’s family life was a mess, particularly in relation to his daughter who would do anything to please her father. He was seemingly a father who could not really understand the damage that he did.
In the Q & A that followed, Matt Greenhalgh answered a question about what was not in the film (e.g. Raymond’s possible dealings with criminals etc.) by saying that there were too many stories. He also said that he hadn’t done deep research in Soho. Instead, it seems that he latched onto the story of Debbie, the daughter (played by Imogen Poots). He also implied that he didn’t get to tell that story fully, because the film was really the idea of Steve Coogan who wanted to play Raymond. Here is possibly the major problem with the film. Steve Coogan, whose performances in The Trip and 24 Hour Party People I admire, is miscast as Raymond, or rather he can’t or won’t, play Raymond as a ‘character’ in this fiction. He remains Coogan, on a couple of occasions addressing the camera to say “My name is Paul Raymond”, winking at the camera on another occasion and then doing Coogan impressions of Sean Connery later Marlon Brando.
The film wants to tell the story from the 1950s to the 1990s. Raymond was born in 1925 so he was in his late 60s by the end of the film. Coogan does actually look a little like Raymond in his 60s, but he also always looks like Coogan. He’s not really helped by the film’s production design. The 1950s sequences use black and white but from then on, Soho looks more or less the same over the next forty years. You have to guess from the clothes which decade is which. For someone who was once the most audacious director around for devising a unique aesthetic approach, Winterbottom seems to have abandoned the task this time. It’s probably not helped by the absence of Marcel Zyskind whose camerawork has been the basis of that aesthetic since he acted as operator for Robbie Muller on 24 Hour Party People in 2002. (He shot two episodes of the third series of The Killing in his native Denmark in 2012 instead.)
At the end of the Q&A we got the inevitable (and justifiable) question about the film’s objectification of women. Of course, a film about a man who runs strip clubs and a soft porn publishing house has to show something, but the question (from a well-known film studies professor) was why was the film so complicit, so chummy in its representations of Raymond – and why were there no male genitalia to complement the numerous full frontals of dozens of actresses? It’s a fair point, but my feeling is that the film simply didn’t offer anything ‘strong’ to react against. Raymond wasn’t a hypocrite. He didn’t peddle Page 3 or attack women like the Daily Mail does now. He published ‘top shelf’ magazines and ran clubs that made money from the gullibility of men seeking excitement. The acres of flesh seemed to me just dull, but that was what much of that softporn world in the UK was like in the 1970s and 1980s. British representations of sex were at one time mostly comical. If they were sexy it was because of an element of realism – the ‘Readers’ Wives’ aesthetic if you like. It’s ironic that in one scene it’s just possible to glimpse a poster of Joe Losey’s The Servant (a poster for Billy Liar appears in another scene). There is much more eroticism in one look from Dirk Bogarde or a wriggle by Sarah Miles than in the whole of The Look of Love. Having said that, at least the women in Winterbottom’s film looked ‘real’ and not sculpted and plucked like Christmas turkeys. Anna Friel and Tamsin Egerton as Raymond’s wife Jean and his girlfriend Fiona Richmond make the most of what they are offered, but they deserved more. There is a story in here, probably more than one, but they need to be told in such a way to bring out not just the personal relationships but also something about the changes in British social life over the period. If it had more bite the film would be more entertaining and might also generate some debate.
I went to this screening by accident and it was only afterwards that I learned that this was the most anticipated Polish release of the year. It opened in Poland and in the UK and Ireland on 21 September and you still have the chance to see it at selected Cineworld multiplexes. The title refers (I think) to one of the songs by Hip Hop trio Paktofonika who were active between 1998 and 2000. The film is a music biopic of sorts covering the short career of the trio from Silesia in industrialised Southern Poland.
It’s always fun to watch a film with absolutely no pre-conceptions. I don’t know a great deal about Hip Hop and I had no knowledge of the band. Because of this I relied on what I knew of youth pictures and social realist dramas. In some ways the film reminded me of Flying Pigs (Poland 2010) the football-based drama shown at this year’s Bradford Film Festival.
Since I didn’t know this was a true story, I did wonder at one point if this would become a social realist drama rather than a music film. I compared it to Ken Loach or Shane Meadows, the Dardennes Brothers and other realist filmmakers. It is presented in a CinemaScope frame and there is heavy use of shallow focus, especially against the grim housing estates of Katowice. Also, the palette seems to have been reduced to greens, blues and browns to emphasise the drabness. It seemed both stylised and observational in its aesthetic approach and I was interested to learn that the director Leszek Dawid trained at the famous Lódź film school, specialising in documentaries. He won a prize at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival for this film and prizes also went to Marcin Kowalczyk as ‘Magik’ and Dawid Ogrodnik and Tomasz Schuchardt, the two supporting actors playing ‘Focus’ and ‘Rahim’. My feeling certainly was that these three young actors – and the other performers playing friends or family – were some of the strongest elements in the film. There are some similarities to the UK film Control (about Joy Division) and I was quite impressed by the music, even if I don’t know much about it. The weakest part of the film seemed to be the script (remember I didn’t know it was based on a true story) and I didn’t really understand why it ended as it did. I was relieved to see that the festival reviewer felt the same way.
Find out more about the true story and the coverage of the film in the Polish media on Culture.pl and the Polish Cultural Institute. The surprising feature of the Culture.pl coverage is the reference to the importance of the film in critiquing ‘degenerate Polish capitalism of the post-transformation era’ and the attack on consumerism (i.e. the band’s ‘art’ against the consumerist society). The festival review also refers to the film’s script as being claimed as a “post-1989 Man of Marble” (the famous film by Andrzej Wajda), but then finding its statements about consumerism naïve. I guess we are so used to these kinds of narratives in Anglo-American films that the anti-consumerism didn’t really register with me – it just seemed like a conventional element in a music film about ‘rebel’ musicians. Another lesson about watching films more carefully and more objectively perhaps?
Here’s the trailer with English subs (beware that the comments below give away the ending if you don’t want to know it – but if you know about the band, you’ll know the ending anyway):
Nothing was going to get to me to see this film because Thatcher is one of the few people I’ve truly hated in my life (I still do). However, it dawned on me that as I’m teaching a topic called ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ (Mona Lisa, 1986, and Riff Raff, 1991) I needed to go. My reluctance was reinforced by reports that the film didn’t deal with her politics: a striking omission. It turned out I needn’t have seen it, the film tells us nothing about ‘her’ Britain, but I was bowled over . . .
. . . by Meryl Streep, who out-Streeps herself with a performance for which I do not have the superlatives. That didn’t surprise me, but I do think this is an extremely good film despite not dealing with the politics in any detail. Anyone who is not familiar with the evils of Thatcher’s Britain will not get much of an inkling of how divisive she was; although we seemed to heading for a similarly fractured society under Cameron’s coalition. The film is actually about dementia and it’s logical to choose a person who was one of the most powerful in the world for dramatic effect. Using a fairly standard biopic device of looking back, the film picks out key moments from her life (and history) but it’s focus, unlike many such films, is on the present and not the past.
The early years Thatcher, superbly played by Alexandra Roach, did enlighten me in its portrayal of the hideous patriarchy of the Tory party. Clearly, to get beyond that prejudice required an enormous degree of determination and if she ever had the ability to consider others, then it was probably squeezed out of her at this time.
Then there’s Streep who (almost) makes human in inhumane. She has been admired as a fine actor for many years. Much used to made of her ability with accents (Out of Africa‘s Danish for example) but that didn’t prepare me for her ability to portray the fiend of the ’80s. Whether it’s the politician about to topple Heath, or the eightysomething fragile old woman, Streep embodies Thatcher perfectly.
This is looking like another box office triumph for the UK Film Council backed film; the quango stupidly abolished by the Tories on entering office.
Tatsumi is a rather wonderful film that was released domestically in Singapore after winning plaudits at various festivals. It’s an unusual animated film that successfully manages to combine a biography of a Japanese manga author with representations of several of his stories to produce a coherent narrative. But as director Eric Khoo remarked after its screening here in Oslo it still has to go to the Tokyo International Film Festival and that will have a bearing on how the film fares in the Japanese market. It’s due out in the UK in January 2012 via Soda and international sales are stacking up via the German agents The Match Factory.
The Oslo screening was accompanied by an exhibition of the original artwork used in the film and introduced by Eric Khoo himself.
Eric Khoo was once himself a comic book artist but he had not thought that he had the patience to undertake an animated production . . . until he read the autobiographical manga, The Drifting Life by Tatsumi Yoshihiro published in 2009. See this website for previews of Tatsumi’s work in new Canadian published editions. Tatsumi (born 1935) became associated in Japan with a new form of manga dealing with much more realist themes and named gekiga, a term Tatsumi is said to have originated and which was taken up by some other writers. This might be seen as similar to the development of ‘graphic novel’ as a term in North America. Khoo’s problem was that he didn’t speak Japanese and he knew he must get full co-operation from Tatsumi himself. He managed to arrange an interview via a friend at Fuji Film and managed to convince Tatsumi that any film that he made would be faithful to the Tatsumi drawing style.
To produce the film, Khoo’s company Zhao Wei films worked with Infinite Frameworks (ifw) a company based in Singapore and the Indonesian island of Batam (only 40 miles away by fast boat) with whom Khoo had made several previous films. This local co-operation produced Tatsumi relatively quickly and inexpensively – without sacrificing any quality. They developed a very simple animation style that used Tatsumi’s original drawings as a model but also colouring some of the earlier black and white outlines. In this YouTube clip, Khoo and the animators explain how they approached the task (beware it is also an ad for Intel and Hewlett-Packard!):
Tatsumi was a young teenager in the immediate post-war period in Japan under the Allied Occupation. His first success as a manga story-teller came early and he was inspired by both competition from his brother and by meeting one of the leading manga/anime figures of the day Tezuka Osamu. But eventually Tatsumi tired of what he felt were the constrictions of manga aimed primarily at children and he developed the gekiga form in the late 1950s. Interestingly he returned to his memories of the immediate postwar period in his new work. Stories such as ‘Hell’ (the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb) and ‘Goodbye’ (about a prostitute whose clients are American GIs) set up a tone that is also present in more contemporary (i.e. 1970s) stories about alienation from work and family in ‘Beloved Monkey’, ‘Occupied’ and ‘Just a Man’. I’m fascinated by these two periods of Japanese Cinema (and literature) so I found these stories – and the surrounding material relating to Tatsumi’s struggles to get them published – very engaging. It will be interesting to see what kinds of audience reactions the film gets on its international release. I would hope that it would receive as much attention as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but I think that film has a much more recognisable story and theme. I would urge you to give Tatsumi a go. I’m sure that you will recognise some of the images from Japanese Cinema and then find the story of Tatsumi the artist as interesting as I do.
Angels of Evil is a stylish Italian entry into the crime biopic genre which has seen a recent resurgence with the success of the two Mesrine films starring Vincent Cassell. It’s also related to another recent biopic, the mammoth take on the international revolutionary criminal Carlos. But perhaps it is best considered alongside recent fictional crime sagas such as Animal Kingdom, Un prophète and Gomorra.
The central character in Angels of Evil is Renato Vallanzasca, a Milanese street kid born in 1950 who gravitates towards bank robberies and eventually becomes Italy’s ‘most wanted’ partly because he becomes involved with the deaths of police officers. The film begins with one of his many prison terms and then reveals his story in flashback. What is noticeable is the extent to which Vallanzasca’s no doubt partly romanticised biography so closely resembles a typical crime genre narrative. For instance, his gang includes his blood brother from the streets, Enzo, a man who may have learning difficulties but who is certainly a highly dangerous companion, and his ‘little sister’ Antonella from the same background. Renato’s parents remain supportive throughout (it seems barely credible that in one of his breakouts from prison, Renato goes to his parents’ flat).
Generically, the film is very close to Mesrine and Renato is represented as almost a Robin Hood type figure, a generally honourable character who shows up the inadequacies of the police and prison service and appeals directly to the public. I was reminded at times of the idea of the Italian ‘outlaw’ figure and Eric Hobsbawm’s ideas about ‘social bandits’. I haven’t seen Francesco Rosi’s film about the Sicilian bandit Lucky Luciano but I wonder if there are any parallels. Vallanzasca is not a rural bandit of course. But his street origins in the early 1960s do mean that he is an ‘outsider’ and one of the narrative strands in the film deals with his attempts to oust the more established crime families in Milan. I’ve seen criticisms of the film complaining that given its time span (primarily the 1970s and 1980s) it doesn’t say enough about the changing nature of organised crime in Italy. I confess that I couldn’t keep track of all of the action in the film and the various groups from different crime organisations but I did note that Renato (like all ‘old-time’ criminals in genre films) bemoans the young thugs and their mindless violence, believing that he himself was ‘honorable’. I’ve just finished reading an Italian crime fiction novel about the Calabrian criminal families and I was intrigued to see that they get a mention here alongside the Sicilians.
I thought Angels of Evil was an enjoyable (if very bloody) genre film on a par with Mesrine but lacking the intensity of Un prophète or Gomorra. The central performance by Kim Rossi Stuart is its strongest element alongside the two young women played by Valeria Soleano and the Spanish actress Paz Vega (as Antonella). The multi-lingual German actor Moritz Bleibtreu plays one of the gang members. Rossi Stuart also starred in director Michele Placido’s earlier crime film Romanzo criminale (2005) – a very similar package about a criminal gang in Rome in the 1970s which I haven’t seen. Overall I have to agree with a reviewer who suggested that the film reveals a cast and crew who most enjoyed dressing up for the 1970s/80s scenes.
Angels of Evil is that now rare beast – a widescreen ‘popular’ European genre picture that struggles to get even a limited UK release, even though it was part-produced by Fox International Italy and Canal+. Once, such films, often dubbed, received a wide release in the UK. Ironically, Italian domestic production is on something of a roll at the moment scoring multiple hits at home. Angels of Evil opened at No4 in the Italian Top 20 in January 2011 (when 4 out of the Top 5 were Italian ‘domestic features’). When it dropped out of the Top 20 after four weeks the film had taken $3.76 million. It might do quite well when it opens in France in September.