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.
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.
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.
‘Doc’ learns how to kiss a woman’s hand . . .
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.
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).
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.
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 Gumshoe. Gumshoe 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.
This was the second of two ‘B’ Pictures Ida Lupino made at Columbia in early 1939. Director Ben Stollof had become known for comedy short films and then B pictures at RKO. Ida Lupino had already made one film with him in 1937, Fight For Your Lady, when she was loaned out to RKO by Paramount. Now Stollof appeared to be making a film to be ‘presented’ by Columbia. Ida would at least have had some idea of what to expect. She was upset to be working on films like this, a 66 minute ‘gangster comedy’, but she was also grateful for the work after ending her contract at Paramount.
The plot is straightforward. Ida’s character Lila has fallen for Fred Leonard (Lee Bowman) in New York. They have agreed to marry and Lila is to travel ahead to Macklin City where Fred’s mother Hattie is a rich widow and the owner of a bank. Hattie (Fay Bainter, the star of the film) tends to treat each of Fred’s successive girlfriends as a replacement secretary and she sets a bemused Lila to work on her correspondence. But then by chance she discovers that a protection racket is being operated in the city which bizarrely seems to be focused on all the dry-cleaning shops. Hattie is not the kind of woman to take any kind setback lying down and when she is charged a little extra by her dry cleaner to cover his rising costs, she finds out about the protection racket and sets out to fix the problem. The police and the city mayor seem to be powerless so Hattie determines to fight the local gangsters herself. This involves re-visiting one of her previous ‘good deeds’ when she reformed a mobster who is now her loyal helper. Frankie O’Fallon (Warren Hymer) is charged with finding a gang of reformed criminals to act as a ‘counter-mob’, breaking up this new racket.
Hattie is rich and can therefore pay the men and equip them with an arsenal of weaponry and a bullet-proof car. A crime comedy ensues with familiar characters. Fay Bainter (1893-1968) was only in her mid-forties but is dressed almost as a Victorian matriarch. She therefore refers to the familiar figure of the warring granny, the older woman who appears almost as a motherly figure towards the reformed mobster. Jokes can be made about her naïvety but we know that she is much sharper and more resourceful than the average dim-witted hoodlum. Bainter was in fact a distinguished stage actor who had not been long in Hollywood. In 1939 she was still ‘hot’ having achieved the rare accolade of two Academy Award nominations in 1938. One was for Best Actress, playing opposite Claud Rains in White Banners for Warner Bros. She didn’t win for that but she did as Best Supporting Actress for another Warners film, Jezebel – now remembered as a Bette Davis classic directed by William Wyler. Davis won the Oscar for Best Actress. Fay Bainter played ‘Aunt Bessie’ but she was only 15 years older than Davis. There is a story here I think about how Fay Bainter goes from double Oscar nominee to lead in a ‘B’ picture in the space of a year. It was only a temporary setback and she returned to ‘third-billed’ roles in ‘A’ films during the early 1940s. Ironically she would work with Lupino again in 1947 on Ida’s last Warners’ picture The Deep Valley, when Ida Lupino was the star and Fay Bainter was fourth-billed.
In this film, Lupino has little to do apart from point up the antics of Bainter’s character. She does give the film a little sex appeal, at the beginning offering a passionate farewell to her fiancé and later donning a slinky black dress in order to entrap the lead hoodlum in a nightclub. Overall, however, this is perhaps the flimsiest role for Ida that I’ve come across so far. Fortunately, she would soon get the more prestigious role in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that would give her a stronger promotional platform.
The Lady and the Mob can be found online by searching for the title.
My preference for trying to see films without preconceptions is relatively easy to do at film festivals as most of the films have received little or no press coverage in the UK. It can come unstuck though as it did with this film: as it is a ‘South Korean cop movie’ I thought, ‘What’s not to like?’. While it is a South Korean cop movie it is also a comedy and while there’s nothing wrong with that genre mix, I found the serious issues dealt with didn’t gel with the humour. The pastiche, slapstick and farce were too powerful in tone and overwhelmed the serious social issues the film tackles: sexist South Korea. This reaction is likely due to the fact I’m not South Korean (I hope my maleness wasn’t an issue) for the film played very well in its country of origin but, interestingly, only to women; as Richard Yu describes:
Perhaps the strong feminist undertones turned away men at the box office; while the film smashed box office records, Korea JoongAng Daily reports that more than three-quarters of the moviegoers were women. Online reviews also showed a stark contrast between men, who rated the film 1.6 out of 10, and women, who rated the film 9.6 out of 10. It turns out men don’t like being called out on misogynistic behavior—who would’ve guessed?
The behaviour is two-fold: sex videos used to humiliate women and patriarchal institutions blocking women’s progress in the police force. The sexual violence, in particular, is disturbing (it isn’t shown in the film) and so I found the comic episodes jarred. The opening starts like a Hong Kong action comedy, Steven Chow’s work sprang to mind, but with women doing the beating up. So far so good. Its humour is broad brush and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I couldn’t reconcile it with the social commentary.
On the plus side the editing is sensational (I can’t find out who did it). There are a lot of action sequences, which are nothing special, but the pace of the editing brings so much to the film. However, on one watching it was too fast to work out how it was working and as I won’t be watching it again I’ll remain forever puzzled.
As it turned out Miss and Mrs. Cops was the only disappointing film of the ten I saw in Glasgow; not a bad return.
Saloon Bar is available on another of Network’s ‘Ealing Rareties’ DVDs, this time Vol 10. It’s an interesting film for several reasons. Michael Balcon had returned to ATP and had changed the studio’s brand to ‘Ealing Studios’ from November 1938. Saloon Bar was released in October 1940 as the 14th ‘Ealing’ film. The film is generally dismissed by both George Perry and Charles Barr, though its IMDb entry suggests that it works quite well for modern viewers and David Quinlan scores it highly. Barr situates Saloon Bar as “the last Ealing film to belong completely, in both form and content, to the old order, an unambitious stage adaptation . . .” Perry argues it suffers from a “verbose script and a pedestrian pace”. One score I can agree with Barr – the film doesn’t seem in any way connected to the Ealing films that respond to wartime Britain even though the war was over a year old and the previous two films, George Formby’s Let George Do It and Pen Tennyson’s Convoy are both set in wartime. In that sense it seems out of place, set as it is in December 1938 according to the Execution Order. On the other hand, the stage play by Frank Harvey Jr. was adapted by Angus McPhail and John Dighton, who would go on to write many of the better-known Ealing films of later years. Saloon Bar is photographed by Ronald Neame who had worked at ATP before Balcon’s return and would become a successful director, writer and producer during the 1950s. It is directed by Walter Forde who had a long history with Balcon and made four Ealing pictures before leaving for America. One of these was Cheer Boys, Cheer (1939) which Charles Barr identifies as a ‘proto Ealing comedy’ – prefiguring the set up of the late 1940s comedies.
The Perry criticism doesn’t stand up in my view. Yes, there is a lot of dialogue but is generally snappily delivered and I didn’t find the pace pedestrian at all. The film is only 76 mins long with a hectic finale. The main plot idea is that a young man is falsely accused of murdering his landlady and is then convicted. Despite a petition to the Home Secretary, the minister refuses a stay of execution and the young man is due to hang early next morning. The pub (in Soho?) where the young man’s fiancée is a barmaid, bemoans his fate, but one regular, a bookmaker (a ‘turf accountant’) returning from a tour of racetracks, decides to do some sleuthing of his own. Can he find out the truth in time to stop the execution? This character, Joe, is played by Gordon Harker, a well-known figure in 1930s British Cinema who often played in comedy thrillers, exploiting his cockney charm. He had previously played the role on stage. Other well-known names in the cast include Mervyn Johns, Felix Aylmer and Cyril Raymond. This is a traditional crime thriller/whodunit with comedy elements. It also features flashbacks for the events leading up to the crime.
The story is set just before Christmas and the landlord of the pub is an expectant father. His wife, never seen, is upstairs, close to delivering number seven. This is the comedy sub-plot which also provides the ‘humanity’ of the Christmas story – a young man might hang at the same time that a child is born. The other Christmas touches include a gaggle of children carol singing and a couple in the bar sat by the window, oblivious to anything else but each other. The stage origins are obvious since most of the action takes place in the bar itself. But the streets outside do figure at various points and Ronald Neame provides some interesting expressionist shots of alleyways in a style which later would be called film noir. For American viewers I should point out that the ‘Saloon’ was the more salubrious of the various rooms of large pubs in England at the time, where middle-class patrons gathered – and where a waiter might bring drinks to your table. The ‘Public’ tended to be rowdier and the ‘Snug’ was usually the haunt of those who didn’t want to ‘mingle’ (particularly women) and were willing to pay higher prices. The pub in question is a traditional ‘local’ which is emphasised when an ‘outsider’ comes up to the bar and is ‘frozen out’ because everyone else is busy discussing the murder. At one point, Joe goes to the pub’s rival establishment, a place that has been tarted up with chrome and art deco interiors. This modernity means in Ealing terms we should be suspicious about it. One of the pub regulars is Sally, a woman who is ‘mother’ to the chorus girls in the theatre across the road – which may be a reference to the Windmill Theatre where static nudes were a big hit in the late 1930s.
Barr and others tend to suggest that 1930s British films featured older men and occasional younger women, a mainly middle-class milieu and a general sense of tradition triumphing over any sense of modernity. Saloon Bar certainly features many of these elements, but it also has, for me, a vitality that prepares us for the Ealing films to come over the next few years during the war. Keith Johnson from UEA offers an interesting analysis of the film as part of his trawl through Ealing’s entire output. The pub is remarkable as a studio set. For those of a certain age, the ‘Watneys’ brand of beer will cause a sharp intake of breath. In the late 1960s this was the brewery which seemed hell-bent on destroying ‘real ale’ with its keg beer ‘Red Barrel’. I was intrigued that the bar boasted a pinball machine. I only remember pinball machines in cafés, coffee bars and arcades – though they were quite common in Student Union bars! (Intriguingly there are two pinball machines in the rival, ‘modern’ pub.)The other intriguing cultural reference is to cycle-racing at Herne Hill velodrome. Joe claims that cycling there gave him powerful legs and he shows them off in the bar. The ensemble cast is very good with a nice turn by Mervyn Johns as Wickers, the owner of a ‘wireless shop’ (he sells radios). Wickers perches on his special seat by the bar, never moving and downing glasses of ‘Special Ale’. He talks using exaggerated language delivered deadpan and confusing for barmaid Ivy. These touches reveal an attempt to represent a recognisable ‘local’, albeit in the centre of London and the film ends with everyone coming together to celebrate the freed man, the new baby and Christmas round the corner – with a ‘lock-in’ which includes the local bobby.
This screening in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season at HOME featured a Q&A with director Felix Chong chaired by season curator Andy Willis. The director’s responses made for an entertaining post-screening discussion but it was the film itself that made the most impression. Interest in the screening meant that we were in HOME’s biggest cinema auditorium and the film was projected from a 35mm print in good condition for its UK première appearance.
Once a Gangster is a comedy crime film with the same mix of slapstick and violence as The Pilferer’s Progress earlier in the season, but it is much more concerned with what used to be term ‘intertextuality’ in the high period of postmodernism. In other words, many of the laughs in the film are based on recognition of the comic targets drawn from other films. The basic premise of the narrative mirrors that of Johnnie To’s Election (2005) (showing later in the season at HOME). The election of a new triad chairman is being organised and three candidates are being promoted by their supporters, two of them very reluctantly. The film’s climax will involve a search for the authentic Dragon Bone – the symbol of the chair’s authority (here neatly stamped with the legend ‘Made in Hong Kong’). The innovation here is a prologue set several years earlier in which we see a young chef joining the triad in order to be successful in the restaurant business. This is ‘Roast Pork’ who will become one of the contenders for Chairman in the main narrative. Meanwhile ‘Swallow’ (or ‘Sparrow’) has been in prison and is nominated by his mother as another candidate. The joke here for HK crime film fans is that these two contenders are played by Jordan Chan and Ekin Cheng, stars of the 1990s series Young and Dangerous.
Felix Chong takes a pot-shot at his own work as well. He was one of the main scriptwriters on the Infernal Affairs trilogy in the early 2000s and here he introduces an undercover cop played by Wilfred Lau as a ‘look-alike’ Tony Leung. This hapless character is the personal assistant of the third contender for Triad Chairman, the equally gormless ‘Scissors’ (Conroy Chan). There are probably several more references like this but they escaped me during the screening. I did react to the music which from the opening credits announced the nature of the fictional world about to be presented to us. I recognised the reference to Italian popular films and later Felix Chong confirmed that he had chosen “spaghetti western music” simply because he thought it was funny. The film also delivers several very funny sight gags, some with an almost cartoonish quality (including a nod to the ‘One-Armed Swordsman’).
The film overall has a strange ‘out of time’ feel. A series of flashbacks are presented in grainy, scratched and colour degraded stock but the prologue and the ‘present’ both feel like they could be the 1980s. ‘Swallow’ emerges from prison proclaiming the ‘wise words’ of Milton Friedman, the economist responsible for the spread of monetarism in the 1980s. Friedman did visit Hong Kong and promoted its economy as a good example of the ‘free market’. I guess his ideas do fit a gangster’s conception of the world but I thought the appearance of Friedman’s book was the most terrifying thing in the film. The book appears in a scene featuring a bookshop and several audience members responded to this with recognition of the current censorship by the mainland government and the ‘disappearance’ of booksellers. There may well be references to the 2010 political situation in the film, but I didn’t notice them.
In the Q&A Felix Chong admitted that the film had not been a big hit. He told us the budget was small and that he had only 20 days to shoot the film so in the circumstances he did rather well! Most interesting, he told us that when he screened the film, both police officers and gangsters asked him how he knew so much about what happened in these kinds of situations. We take this with a sackful of salt perhaps but I take much more notice of his comments that the ‘godfathers’ of crime are now sending their sons (and daughters?) to university to get MBAs. In the film, Swallow is a reluctant contender for triad chair because he wants to go to Hong Kong University to study economics (again a trope recognisable from Election in 2005).
Felix Chong also wrote and co-directed three Overheard films (2009/11/14). Two of these have already been screened in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season and the third is tonight with Felix Chong again present for a Q&A. I wish I could be there – I’m sure it will be another treat.