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).
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.
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).
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.
Adieu Engrenages! After 86 episodes spread over 16 years, my favourite TV series has come to an end. I’m not going to spoil the ending since all 86 episodes are on iPlayer in the UK and I’m sure there are still fans working their way through Series 8. I wrote about Engrenages when Series 5 ended in the UK in 2015. I’ve only followed the show since Series 5 so I can’t claim fandom as such. With all the episodes available, however, I have gone back to look at the opening episode. The change in the appearance of the actors over 15 years is quite remarkable. It looks to me as if the show must have been gruelling to work on – they look so fresh-faced and young in 2005. Nick Lacey has suggested to me that the shooting style changed after Series 1, possibly because it was a surprise hit and the makers then felt that they had a chance to re-envision the approach. In fact it was an enormous hit that perhaps put pressure on the production team.
I’m not going to repeat my 2015 post here and I will try to go back and watch the other series I’ve missed. Here I simply want to offer an observation about the final series. The long-running cop show has been a feature of US TV for as long as I can remember. In the 1950s Jack Webb starred in 276 episodes of Dragnet, in the 1980s Hill Street Blues lasted 144 episodes and Cagney & Lacey lasted 126 episodes. These were all forms of the police procedural deploying generic conventions not so different from those of Engrenages. Similar shows were produced in the UK and IMDb suggests that there were nearly 800 episodes of Z Cars between 1962 and 1978 – but nearly two thirds were wiped by the BBC. I’m most interested in the concept of ‘seriality’, the idea that that all the episodes in one series are constructed around a single primary crime fiction narrative. All the previous cop shows had recurring elements each week which were subordinate to the single narrative ‘episode story’. American TV developed the idea of a ‘narrative arc’ covering an entire season, sometimes with a ‘season finale’, but I don’t think it was until the early 2000s that the genuine serial form emerged especially in European crime dramas. I haven’t watched US TV for several years and I’ve never seen any of the US cable shows which developed the ‘long form narrative’ so I’m not making any comparisons here, except to note that US shows have generally had much longer ‘seasons’, with more than twenty episodes on occasions. For me the changes came with Nordic crime fiction drama serials such as The Killing and The Bridge. The Killing serial 1 was the key change for me with its twenty episodes of 57 minutes when it ran in 2007 in Denmark, but subsequent serials 2 and 3 both ran for ten episodes. Ten episodes seems about right to sustain interest. Engrenages has shifted from eight to twelve and then back to ten episodes for Serial 8. I’m interested here in how the narratives have been constructed across eight serials and in particular I want to investigate the principal recurring characters or rather ‘character functions’ across the serials.
The two central characters are Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and ‘Gilou’ Escoffier (Thierry Godard) with Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) as the only other ever present across every episode (though Gilou is missing from one). Laure is the leader of a local crime team – the equivalent of a CID team from a local police station in the UK and Gilou is one of her two deputies in a total team of around five. Joséphine is an ambitious and rule-breaking avocat who appears in court but because the French judicial system is different, she doesn’t really correspond to an English barrister. Joséphine always has a sparring partner, initially Pierre Clément (Fregory Fitoussi) and latterly Éric Edelman (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). For the first seven serials the ‘Investigating Judge’ (not that dissimilar to the District Attorney in the US or the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland) is Juge Roban (Philippe Duclos) but in the final serial he has retired and Juge Lucie Bourdieu (Clara Bonnet) replaces him. As a young woman, Juge Bourdieu is a possibly disruptive figure as we will see. Finally we have the characters who fill other senior police roles. The most consistent of these is Commissaire Brémont (Bruno Debrandt) who heads a Serious Crimes Unit – he is also the father of Laure’s baby daughter in the later episodes. Also in the later episodes, Laure has a new local boss, Arnaud Beckriche (Valentin Merlet) and a new deputy, Ali Amrani (Tewfilk Jallab).
I’m going to refer to the last episode here, but I think my comments will also refer to earlier episodes. My feeling is that Engrenages, as fits the various meanings of the title – gears, gearing, cogs, connections etc. – is constructed like a kind of whirling dance, a bit like one of those Scottish country dances where couples take part in what are effectively ensemble dances where first you are all together but at various points you pair off with someone else and at other times dance in a group. This may sound crazy but bear with me. The characters outlined above all work in the policing and judicial systems and by necessity they have to have relationships with each other to do their jobs. But there is also another set of characters, usually changing for each serial, the criminals. In Serial 8 there are three criminal groups – a gang based around a father and son, a drug smuggling operation and a group of of young Moroccan migrants aged under 14 who are used for ‘minor’ crimes by various parties.
My conception of the Serial 8 narrative would be interweaving pairs of characters. Laure holds the whole narrative together because she has working relationships with most of the other characters. Her problem throughout the serial is her long-standing relationship with Gilou. He is now in prison as a result of his ‘unconventional’ policing methods and his refusal to ‘name names’ – he takes the rap for colleagues. In the serial he gets out of prison as part of a deal to become a ‘plant’ in the gang of a major criminal. Nobody must know he is undercover so Laure is not supposed to know or to attempt to see him. But she still cares for him, can she keep away? What is worse is that Gilou is working for Brémont. Laure still has her job to do and in the past she would be working closely with the investigating judge. But the new judge doesn’t trust Laure and therefore Laure finds herself having to work through her boss – who then complicates things by getting involved in a sexual relationship with Lucie. Since she doesn’t have Gilou at hand, Laure finds herself working more closely with Ali (who unbeknownst to her is seeking to join another team in a promotion). Finally, Laure will once again become involved with Joséphine since she becomes the lawyer for the young Moroccan boy who Laure’s team have found is a suspect/witness in the death of another young Moroccan. It is this case that will allow Laure to become involved in the much bigger investigation which involves drug smuggling and the gang that Gilou is now part of. But in doing so she will find herself potentially at odds with Brémont’s Major Crime Unit and the Drugs Squad, not to mention the Armed Response Unit if the big showdown comes. Laure can’t pick and choose which aspects of the investigation to focus on, the investigating judge makes those decisions. On the other hand, Laure is very smart. It’s not until the last couple of episodes that we fully understand what will have to happen when all three cases come together and the major problem will be how will the police operation catch the bad guys without arresting Gilou as a gang member. The last episode is brilliantly staged I think.
While Laure is ‘dancing’ her way through encounters with all the other characters, they too are pairing/squaring up to their counterparts. Two worth picking up are those between Laure and Ali and Joséphine and Eric. The writers found a way to bring Laure and Ali together as teammates just as they found a balance between the impulsive actions of Joséphine and the more calculated actions of Eric. What I really enjoy about Engrenages is how the script is built around the genre conventions of the procedural but is also deeply-rooted in the emotions of the characters. I’ve also found it refreshing that the serials have gradually developed what feels like a genuine engagement with the diversity of Parisian culture. Ali as a character could be seen as simply there to represent the Maghrebi population in the city but his character has several functions. In one sense he represents a more conventional career-orientated younger police officer compared to Laure’s more emotional/committed approach. But he also finds himself caught between cultures and experiences with both the young Moroccans and the dodgy owner of a phone shop. Particularly intriguing are the interrogation scenes when he seems to rely on an interpreter at some points as if his own Arabic is not sufficient to understand the young suspects. On the other hand he is marked by senior officers as a rising star ready for promotion. When he cracks under the strain he’ll learn that on Laure’s team the motto is like the Three Musketeers, one for all and all for one.
The finale, the end of Serial 8, was just about right for me. I didn’t know what I wanted but I’m pleased with what I got. I know there will be different opinions and that’s fine. Nothing will replace Engrenages in my affections and I’ll miss Joséphine as much as Laure and Gilou. But I’d love to see some of the shows that the two women most responsible for the success of Engrenages are producing now. I know that the creative team is very large so I’m just picking out Alexandra Clert and Anne Landois as ‘creator’ and ‘showrunner’ for the majority of episodes. I remember a report of a discussion in New York in which Alexandra Clert was asked questions alongside the showrunner of Mad Men. The event was titled ‘Women, Work and Television’. Clert shocked her American audience by stating: “I’m not a feminist at all, I don’t share the ideology of parity.” Because I don’t watch US TV these days and I gave up on Mad Men after the first episode, I’m not well-placed to make any comparisons. The Mad Men writer Matthew Weiner responded to Clert’s statement by suggesting “Your show is full of feminist philosophy that you take for granted, which is that these women have jobs” and that this was possibly a case of a different generation i.e. Alexandra Clert was taking for granted what other women had fought for. I don’t think this is an explanation. French and American culture are simply different. There is a great deal to think about in Engrenages. I’d better try and watch those early serials before I come to any conclusions. I’ve also just discovered a very interesting take on the show’s representation issues, especially its depiction of ‘peoples of colour’ which points out how over 15 years France has changed considerably. How has Engrenages responded? There is work to do.
Gideon’s Day is now available in a 4 disc Blu-ray box set entitled ‘Ford at Columbia’. The other three titles are The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), The Long Gray Line (1955) and The Last Hurrah (1958). It’s an odd collection but each of the films is of interest and I like Gideon’s Day very much. It was very badly handled by Columbia back in Hollywood but the British arm of the studio made a very good job of the production in the UK, co-producing the film with Ford himself and using the MGM-British studio facilities. The film was beautifully photographed in Technicolor by Freddie Young. Gideon’s Day is a police procedural adapted from the first of a series of crime novels written by the prolific John Creasey under the pseudonym J.J. Maric. Creasey used 28 pseudonyms and wrote over 600 novels according to Wikipedia’s account. The film was initially released in the US under the title Gideon of Scotland Yard on black & white prints. Ford had a percentage of the potential profits so his treatment in the US was insulting. On the other hand, I’m not so surprised that the studio thought it wouldn’t do very well in the US since it is very ‘British’. Written by T.E.B. (‘Tibby’) Clarke, the writer of many Ealing films including The Lavender Hill Mob (1955), Gideon’s Day is delightful in many ways – even though it includes investigation of some very unpleasant crimes. It’s often described as a ‘comedy melodrama’. The Gideon novels (1955-76) also prompted a UK TV series known as Gideon’s Way (26 episodes of 50 minutes in 1965-6, tx on ITV and made by ITC on 35mm film). Ford appears to have been a fan of these kinds of stories and possibly of Creasey’s procedurals.
(The print broadcast on Talking Pictures TV in the UK uses the American title Gideon of Scotland Yard, but is in Technicolor and not cut.)
A typical Tibby Clarke script begins in the household of DCI Gideon (Jack Hawkins) during a frenetic family breakfast-time and proceeds to follow him through a day in which three different crimes are solved/averted with one involving police corruption, robbery, murder and attempted murder. The working day ends late at night with a repetition of a joke from the morning. Throughout the film Gideon’s bluff, authoritarian stance with an underlying warmth and humanity (a perfect role for Hawkins) is often undermined by comic moments. Tag Gallagher tells us that Ford remarked that Hawkins was the “best dramatic actor I worked with”.
This is a deft directing job by Ford. He moves swiftly through the interrogations and chases and keeps his own predilection for sentimental songs and bar-room brawls in check. Even so there is a genuinely funny pub saloon sequence and an almost slapstick fight. This was a period in British cinema when certain kinds of crime films and dramas were moving towards the greater realism that location shooting (usually in black and white) brought and at the same time films were starting to become ‘grittier’ in their representation of social issues. Gideon’s Day is poised between the Technicolor comedies which were so successful for Rank and the black and white crime dramas and procedurals which constituted the major dramatic genre. Jack Hawkins had already appeared as a Scotland Yard Superintendent in the Ealing film The Long Arm (1956) and as a reluctant would-be migrant to Australia in the Technicolor Ealing comedy Touch and Go (1955). In all three films mentioned here Jack Hawkins has a family and the family melodrama becomes part of the narrative. In Gideon’s Day the DCI’s long suffering wife is played by Anna Lee, one of Ford’s stock company and ‘family’. She had significant roles in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Fort Apache (1948) as well as The Horse Soldiers (1959) and two small parts in later Ford films. In the late 1940s she was mysteriously blacklisted during the anti-Communist witch hunts in Hollywood and Ford was keen to see her re-instated. Gideon’s daughter is played by Anna Massey, daughter of the Canadian actor Raymond Massey who had appeared for Ford in Hurricane (1937). Ms Massey was certainly lucky with her father’s friends. She must have known Michael Powell through her father and her next role would be in Peeping Tom (1959). The family melodrama is neatly tied into the police work of the day through a young PC played by Andrew Ray who had been a child actor and here adds comic touches to a series of incidents involving father and daughter.
Hawkins’ co-star on the film posters is Dianne Foster, a Canadian in US film and TV who also in 1958 appeared in Ford’s The Last Hurrah. I confess the name meant nothing to me before I looked her up and I assume that Columbia simply wanted a name alongside Hawkins that North American audiences would know. The UK cast is full of well-known supporting players and overall the cast list is extensive since Gideon deals with so many cases during the day as well as struggling with his interactions at home and imposing his authority in his office at the Yard. There are fifty speaking parts.
For me Gideon’s Day was a welcome surprise. I’d seen it many years ago but not fully appreciated Ford’s skill. He handles the shifts between humour and drama skilfully – the poster at the head of this blog entry represents the comedy tone very well. The London locations are used well without being too ‘touristy’. The narrative is exaggerated with Gideon ‘solving’ the three major crimes on the same day, though there is significant ‘collateral damage’ in each case. It’s almost as if several episodes of the later TV series had been compressed into a single narrative of 90 minutes. Perhaps not surprisingly there are some similarities to another Hollywood film made (partly) in London around the same time with Hitchcock’s re-working of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) for Paramount. I think Ford actually makes a better job of representing London by remaining faithful to the script and trusting his British cast. Dianne Foster is on screen only briefly (though it is a significant role) and the film is carried by the British leads.
The only significant error in the film from my point of view was the use of a copy of the Manchester Guardian as a ‘giveaway’ clue that leads to an arrest. The Manchester Guardian was indeed based in Manchester before it became the present day London-based Guardian in the 1960s, but it was also available in London as a leading ‘quality’ national newspaper. It could be used in the film to suggest the suspect was an intellectual criminal but as a clue a local Manchester paper was more likely to signify that the suspect had travelled down from Manchester. I suspect that the London-based crew didn’t read the Guardian and didn’t explain to Ford what the paper signified.
Tag Gallagher suggests that the lack of any Irish issues in the script meant that Ford could reign back his usual anti-Britishness and instead just enjoy presenting the wide range of characters with care. (However, the film was produced by Ford’s Irish pal Michael Killanin and there are several Irish actors in small parts.) It is possible to see Jack Hawkins as Gideon presenting a familiar Fordian hero with a loving family who are perhaps neglected because of the importance of his job, but just like the cavalry families that support John Wayne in Ford’s military pictures, the family still loves the heroic father figure. Ford completed the film efficiently and under budget (there is at least one continuity error which Ford didn’t re-shoot, following his usual practice). Both Gallagher and Joseph McBride recognise the merits of Gideon’s Day, but Lindsay Anderson gets in a bit of a tangle in About John Ford, his collection of interviews and critical pieces about Ford. At one point Anderson seems to be dismissing the film as old-fashioned and with no real artistry, writing at the moment in 1957 when he interviewed Ford during the shoot and took him to the NFT. Yet later in the collection he suggests that though 1957 was a critical low point for Ford, Gideon’s Day is actually “an engaging entertainment, an almost absurdist pastiche of its middle-class English genre”. He doesn’t seem to realise he had been down on the film earlier in the collection. Still, he redeems himself a little whereas Andrew Sarris is all at sea in The John Ford Movie Mystery. Sarris sees the film as “one of Ford’s most peculiar projects” and sees the film as a comedy about the bumbling English and their “tepid tea and beastly buns”. I don’t mind being insulted in a good cause but I think Sarris just misunderstands the film completely. On the other hand the inclusion of snatches of ‘London Bridge is falling down’ in the score by Douglas Gamley does underline the comic tone of many scenes. I heartily recommend the film as good entertainment and an example of what a great film artist can produce handling a simple genre film for a Hollywood studio.
(Nick Lacey offers his view of this film in an earlier posting here.)
Street Corner was chosen last week by the cineaste Carol Morley for her Friday night online film club viewing. It was directed by Muriel Box and written by Muriel and her husband Sydney from an original idea by Jan Read. Since I’m keen to see Muriel Box films, I followed the link to a free streaming of the film. It’s an interesting film for several reasons. The semi-documentary style and focus on ‘social problems’ as dealt with by women police officers manages to combine elements from Gainsborough’s ‘social’ films of the 1940s (when Sydney ran the studio) and the range of social problem melodramas that appeared during the 1950s. The film also relates to a sub-genre about women in uniform such as The Gentle Sex (1943) about women in the forces in wartime or the munitions workers in overalls in Millions Like Us (1943) as well as Ealing’s later The Feminine Touch (1956) about student nurses in the NHS.
The three stories, which are interwoven in this procedural about four women working from Chelsea police station, each focus on an issue which seems to be particularly ‘suited’ to investigation by women. This reads very differently now but when “cops in skirts”, as the dialogue has it, first appeared, they were expected to deal with certain kinds of cases. One here is a child at risk from negligent and potentially abusive parents and the second is about a young woman who has gone AWOL from her WRAC posting. The third is about a young mother who is caught shoplifting and then seems to be falling into a classic ‘good-time girl’ narrative. This latter story is the most extended and leads into a familiar crime story about a bungled robbery and its aftermath. The Monthly Film Bulletin review at the time is rather ‘sniffy’ and refers to what it calls ‘The Blue Lamp formula’. I think the film has some saving graces but I have to agree that the four women do appear to “have the makings of a good hockey team”. They seem very middle-class.
The main problem for the film, which is technically very good in its use of location work by Box’s long-term collaborator Reginald Wyer, is that attitudes towards women and police work have changed so much since 1953. It’s also quite disconcerting that the cast is awash with actors who would later become very well known in British film and TV. I’ll name some of them here but there are many others. Fans of the sitcom Porridge will be amused to see a young Brian Wilde, already ‘typed’ as a worried man. In many scenes, that woman in the background or at the front desk in the police station will be Dandy Nichols, Thora Hird or Dora Bryan. Terence Morgan is typed as the wide boy/spiv jewel thief, aided and abetted by Michael Medwin in painted ties and light-coloured suits. Michael Hordern appears as a rather bemused Detective Inspector with Maigret pipe. But it’s the female leads who provide the flavour of the narrative.
Anne Crawford was well-known for her upper middle-class roles in both Millions Like Us (slumming it until Eric Portman as a factory foreman sorted her out) and They Were Sisters (1945). Here she is still recognisable as an older WPC. Rosamund John who featured in The Gentle Sex is the efficient Sergeant and Barbara Murray is the younger and more sophisticated WPC, caught in a posh dress shop trying on hats when she spies a suspect. To be fair all the action is around Knightsbridge and Chelsea. The fourth woman is the plain clothes WDC played by Sarah Lawson. Eleanor Summerfield has rather a thankless role as the WRAC but she does well and Peggy Cummins plays the would-be ‘Good-Time Girl’ (the subject of the Gainsborough film with that title featuring Jean Kent in 1948). At one point the Peggy Cummins character is in a nightclub (see above) which a police inspector later identifies as a place where “escaped girls from Approved Schools hang out” – a direct reference to the earlier film (which Muriel Box co-wrote).
Street Corner is credited as a production of London Independent Producers and made at the ‘Gate Studios, Elstree’. But the film is distributed by GFD (General Film Distributors), the distribution arm of the J. Arthur Rank Organisation. The Gate Studio was a single sound stage bought by Rank in 1950 with the intention of making religious films. Sydney Box decided to go independent when Gainsborough closed but he initially needed Rank for distribution. Muriel Box directed three films for the new company before working on films for other producers. She was in many ways the most prolific woman, as both writer and director, in the British film industry during the studio period.
I’m not sure what to make of Street Corner. It’s lively with some very good action sequences and I found it easy and enjoyable to watch. My main complaint is about the tone of the four women police officers. Rosamund John apart, the other three sound like head prefects talking down to younger girls who should know better. I’m surprised at this because the Boxes had great experience with social issue pictures and working-class characters at Gainsborough and before that for Sydney’s Verity Films. It occurs to me that perhaps the portrayals are realist in terms of the kinds of women who were recruited by the police in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Metropolitan Police was the biggest employer of women officers of all police forces but still had only around 200 women who were given specific roles and segregated from male officers in terms of ranks and facilities until the 1970s and the Equality Laws of the period. The Met is thanked for its co-operation in making the film on the credits. Certainly the film is important not just as a film directed by a woman in the early 1950s but also because of its depiction of working women, using their intelligence, bravery and range of skills in capturing criminals and resolving some social problems. The film was re-titled for the US market (possibly to avoid confusion with an earlier film titled Street Corner). But Both Sides of the Law is not a good title for me – it implies possible police corruption.
The Wild Goose Chase was in competition at Cannes in 2019. I think that the Cannes competition place was won because this is a French co-production of the fourth film of writer-director Diao Yinan, a filmmaker who began as a writer for the Sixth Generation director Zhang Yang in the 1990s soon after his graduation from drama school in Beijing.
His previous film, the thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (China 2014) won the Golden Bear at Berlin and was released in the UK. I’m sorry I missed it. This new film is described in the French press notes as a polar and US critics have described it as a film noir, but I’m grateful for the press notes in which director’s own statement suggests a hybrid of polar and wu xia (martial chivalry film). He refers to that rather wonderfully envisaged concept of the jianghu or ‘marginal world’ where things and people are not quite what they seem. I think I remember this concept as worked out in A Chinese Ghost Story (Hong Kong 1987) and The Bride With White Hair (Hong Kong 1993) both featuring the much-missed Leslie Cheung. The polar provides the battle between police and criminals and the jianghu describes the ‘marginal world’ in which the action takes place. As Diao himself puts it, the police are not in uniform, they are disguised in this night-time world where all kinds of things can happen, especially on the misty lake and in the chaotic backstreets of the town.
The film begins with a meeting at an underpass beneath a railway station on a dark and wet night. The central character Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is waiting for his wife, but a mysterious woman Liu Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei) in a slinky red top appears and tells Zhou that she has been sent instead. Several flashbacks will then reveal why this meeting is taking place before the narrative moves into the inevitable noir/polar ending. I must confess that I found some of the jumps in time between sequences slightly bewildering so I’m having difficulty trying to discern a linear story. I don’t think that would worry the director. He suggests that he is more interested in ‘movement’ through the dark world than a psychological study of the ‘doomed man’ and the femme fatale. The opening is in fact quite slow but things soon speed up, moving into a series of sometimes surreal and always fascinating set pieces and chase sequences. Diao suggests that each of them has a basis in reality – a news story or something he himself had noticed. One sequence presents a ‘conference’ of local criminal gangs, meeting for a demonstration of how to steal motorbikes and a subsequent re-organisation of territories for each gang. But the aspect of the film that really caught my attention were the scenes on the ‘Wild Goose Lake’ itself where prostitutes posing as swimming beauties ply their trade. I can think of a few American films noirs where a couple are in a small boat on the water in the fog, but the most striking image I remember is the boat trip in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).
At points the film becomes a police procedural but the central plotline focuses on the large reward offered for Zhou’s capture. Zhou himself decides that if anyone is to get the money it will be his wife and child. But how can he ensure that this happens and who can he trust?
The key to the unusual locations is the regional setting of the film in Wuhan, a major city region and large urban sprawl in Hubei province. Diao searched for locations around the many lakes in a 200 km radius from the centre of Wuhan on the Yangtse River. He then decided to use local Wuhan dialect rather than standard Mandarin. Kwei is Taiwanese and she had to learn the dialect, as did Hu Ge. Most of the large cast are local actors or non-professionals. The production must have been relatively expensive because of the many nights (50) of shooting complicated action scenes. It seems strange that Diao would create a film for which most Chinese audiences would need subtitles. The international audience will have subtitles anyway and won’t appreciate the local dialect. So is this a rare hybrid genre-art film. Obviously this works for the South Korean auteurs such as Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook, but their films are blockbusters at home as well as arthouse/specialised hits abroad. From the Unifrance website (all French films listed) it looks like the film could be distributed in the UK by MUBI so I’ll be watching out for it on my stream and hoping it gets into at least a few cinemas.
I’ve enjoyed researching the film and I think now that I’m beginning to understand a bit more. There are some extremely violent incidents (which are also quite unusual) to go alongside the surreal sequences. Overall the film is exciting and fascinating for anyone interested in Chinese cinema and that distinctive blend of Chinese and French crime genre ideas. I’m intrigued to see that this has now become an aspect of mainland cinema. I’d be interested to know what HK filmmakers like Johnnie To make of this film. Which brings me to Hu Ge. He is quite distinctive as a tall Chinese whose looks certainly equip him for the role. One review I saw suggested that he had a presence like Robert Mitchum in RKO noirs. I’m not sure that is quite right, but he does reming me of other actors in crime noirs. This is definitely a film to look out for.
Article 15 opened the recent London Indian Film Festival and went on to win the festival’s Audience Award. It took me a few days to realise that it was also released in UK cinemas and fortunately I managed to catch it before it disappeared. Like most contemporary Indian ‘independent’ films it seems to have struggled in Bradford. That’s a shame because this is a hard-hitting drama that had me pinned to my seat for 130 minutes. The title refers to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution of 1950 which lays down equality in the eyes of the law for all Indian citizens irrespective of religion, ethnicity, caste, gender or place of birth. In reality it has been very difficult to uphold the rights enshrined in Article 15, especially in village communities where traditional values prove difficult to challenge.
Writer-director Anubhav Sinha and his co-writer Gaurav Solanki have written a script which sees the familiar figure of a sophisticated urban police officer (an officer of the IPS – Indian Police Service) sent to rural Uttar Pradesh to take charge of a district police station – only to find himself immediately embroiled in a case which challenges all his beliefs. (The suggestion is that his posting is some form of ‘punishment’ by the Home Ministry or senior management of the IPS.) The IPS is an ‘All India Service’ that operates across the Union and provides senior officers for state police – I think the officer here is a Superintendent of a Rural District. The narrative is loosely inspired by two historical cases of gang-rape in 2014 and public flogging in 2016. Three young teenage girls go missing but two of them are soon discovered murdered and their fathers charged with honour killing. The new police chief is suspicious about the swift resolution of the case and the subsequent failure to find the third girl. He discovers that caste discrimination is at the centre of the problem which further involves exploitation of child labour and communal tensions around election campaigns. The narrative develops as a police procedural with political interference.
The film has a very distinctive look, ‘feel’ and sound design. Cinematography by Ewan Mulligan on his third shoot for the director is extraordinary. Many of the scenes take place from ‘dusk to dawn’ so that the villages are constantly dark and dim, lit by torches or fires. As one journalist puts it: “Even the weather becomes a metaphor for the fog of lies in the village” (Gayle Sequeira, Film Companion website). When there is full daylight, the image is often de-saturated so that the world is reduced to tones of grey, green and yellow and mists shroud scenes. Mulligan cites Tarkovsky and Gordon Willis as his inspiration. Both cinematographer and director were aware of the likely comparisons with American narratives about crusading cops going into the Deep South and grappling with traditional communities. The ‘feel’ of the film comes as much from horror films as from procedurals (Mulligan has a background including horror shoots). The use of music in the film is both unsettling and unusual. Much of the time the use of music cues to emphasise shocks and a general feel of ‘dread’ seems overplayed. The film opens with Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and closes with a rap number. In between, the credits suggested several songs but I don’t remember hearing them – there is far too much going on. The title credits suggest two main production companies for the film, the private company Benaras Mediaworks (which also produced Sinha’s two previous films) and the TV/Music company Zee Entertainment. I’m not sure if Zee’s involvement makes this a mainstream film, but ‘Bollywood’ it ain’t. It’s getting increasingly difficult to distinguish what might be an Independent or ‘Hindie’ film.
Language itself is one of the key elements of the film. Though most of the dialogue is in Hindi, the central character of the senior officer Ayaan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) speaks English at key moments and there is a joke about his use of ‘Fuck’, uttered when he is angered by what he finds. In a confrontation with the senior CBI agent sent to take over the case, Ranjan’s background (private school, time spent in London) and his use of English is criticised, suggesting he doesn’t understand the locals. He is advised to use Hindi but he retaliates by suggesting that the agent speaks Hindi as a second language. (The agent is played by the Tamil actor Nassar.) One of the strengths of the film (and possibly a weakness in appealing to mainstream audiences and non-Indian audiences) is the detailed dialogue exchanges about caste and about politics. I was intrigued to learn that it is an offence to ask someone what caste they belong to. This matters little in the investigation and Ranjan gradually uncovers the the hierarchies that exist in the villages and how they are present among his police officers. I would have been more lost if I hadn’t spent time learning about Scheduled Tribes and Castes in studying other Indian films. One of the key images in the film is the extraordinary sight of a man lowered into an overflowing drain and emerging completely coated with filthy material. I was reminded of Court (India 2014) and Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) films which explore the injustices and discrimination suffered by Dalits.
Although the central theme about caste discrimination and corruption in the police and local government is prompted by gang-rape, the violence towards women is not really explored in detail. Ranjan has a partner Aditi who is an activist/journalist but for most of the film she only communicates with him by phone/text though she does join him towards the end of the narrative. There are also a couple of significant female characters in the district who are key to Anjan exposing the corruption. It’s also important that the rapes are presented as being about power – over the women, over all workers and power used to maintain caste discrimination. I don’t think it would have been possible to explore the legal framework around rape in the necessary detail in this film. I hope it will be explored in similar films in the future.
The performances are are all very good. I realised later that I had seen Ayushmann Khurrana’s first film role as the lead in Vicky Donor (India 2012), a very different kind of film, though in its own way a challenge to the mainstream. I’ll try to find some of his other films. I’m not sure about his hair style for Article 15!
The film may have struggled in Bradford but it has made a big impact in India and in other international markets. It had grossed Rs 34 crore (nearly $5million) after just a week on release in India with over $1 million overseas. In the UK it just missed the Top 15 with 55 screens earning £50,000 in the first weekend. I noted that it screened without an Intermission in Bradford, whereas Indian reviews suggest it still had one there. I think an Intermission might have diminished its power, but on the other hand it might have enabled some reflection on what was an intense first half. Reading various reviews, the one that stands out is the Sight and Sound (August 2019) review by Naman Ramachandran who argues that the Indian state was long seen as ‘secular’ but that Narendra Modi’s two election victories have seen the rise of the ‘Hindu state’. In this context, the failure of the state to enforce the rights of all and to in effect allow caste discrimination is a truly terrifying prospect. The film’s resolution suggests the possibility that the community can come together to search for the missing girl but doesn’t promise that such cases won’t arise again.
Official trailer (no English subs but a reasonable representation of the visual style):