Under what has been, in effect, nine months of lockdown and no cinema visits, I have watched a lot of films online and on TV. I seem to have begun to relive my early years – watching films from the 1940s to 1970s. Last week I watched The Godfather (1971) for the first time since I saw it on release at, I think, the Odeon High Street Kensington in 1972. I was compelled to watch it all the way through until 2.30 am. There aren’t many contemporary movies that could manage to hold my attention on TV and Coppola’s control of his large cast and major set pieces is amazing. But last night I found a film to match The Godfather. My memory tells me that I saw The Hill in a re-release double bill at the ABC Holloway Road, probably in the late 1960s. It was paired with The Cincinatti Kid in a double MGM package. If I’ve remembered correctly, it was a long programme, especially because at one point the print was trapped in the projector and melted, holding up the screening for a short while.
The Hill is a British picture, made by the American company Seven Arts for MGM British at Borehamwood and on location in Almería with an old Spanish fort used to stand in for a British military prison in North Africa during the Second World War. The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, the first, I think, of several films he made in the UK. The script by Ray Rigby was based on his own play and later became a ‘novelisation’. Rigby had himself been in a similar military prison and went on to write other novels based on his experiences, one of which I must have bought in the 1960s. He wrote widely for TV and the cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. The script won the Cannes screenplay prize in 1965.
The ‘plot’ is relatively simple. The prison in wartime is filled with a variety of soldiers from those convicted of minor offences to more serious cases, but all of which need to be dealt with if morale and discipline is to be maintained in battle. The prison is run by the RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) played by the incomparable Harry Andrews who runs a tight ship based on the idea that he can ‘break’ new prisoners and then ‘build them up’ into fighting men. His methods are brutal but effective. The officer in nominal charge (Norman Bird) spends most of his time with a local prostitute. The Medical Officer (Michael Redgrave) seems a weak and broken man himself, but he is responsible for the prisoners’ welfare. As in all classical narratives, the uneasy equilibrium is disrupted by external forces. In this case it is the arrival of a new Staff Sergeant from the UK, someone who was a prison warder before the war. S/Sgt Williams (Ian Hendry) is given the opportunity to ‘break in’ five new prisoners who have arrived around the same time. These five also seem to be familiar genre characters. Roy Kinnear plays Bartlett, a spiv type, stealing supplies and selling them to Arab traders. Jack Watson plays McGrath, the ‘hard’ man convicted of drunkenness and fighting and Alfred Lynch plays Stevens, the ‘weak’ man, a mild-mannered clerk who went AWOL, homesick and pining for his wife. The other two characters are more individuated. Ossie Davis plays a West Indian who has stolen booze from the Sergeant’s Mess and been found drunk on duty. As the only American actor in the cast, we might expect Davis to play a significant role in the narrative. But the most important character for the narrative development is Roberts (Sean Connery) who, as a CSM (Company Sergeant Major, a senior NCO) has been convicted of assaulting his officer and refusing to lead his tank company on a suicide mission. Roberts represents the ultimate challenge for Williams and for the RSM. The only other significant character doesn’t feature much until later. He is Ian Bannen’s more humane Staff Sergeant Harris.
The film’s title refers to a huge mound of sand carefully shaped and contained by stones from the desert. There is a wide and steep path of sand up one side and down the opposite side. This is the RSM’s ‘training’ device or more correctly, instrument of punishment and, indeed, torture. Prisoners are forced to march up and down the hill, with full kit or carrying bags of sand to be deposited at the top. The RSM knows the dangers of doing this, especially in the full sun/heat of the day and he is careful to push men only so far to exhaust them without killing them. Williams immediately uses the hill, testing out the new prisoners. I suggested that the plot was simple. We almost think we know what will happen from the moment Sean Connery appears. I’m sure some audiences will be trying to guess who cracks first and who wins out. I won’t spoil the narrative, but rather suggest that though much of the action in the film is familiar the ending is possibly not expected.
The key to the script’s success (alongside the performances and direction and Oswald Morris’ brilliant camerawork) is the use of ‘King’s Regulations’ as a pivot. This book of regulations governs procedures that deal with the conduct of all officers, NCOs and ‘other ranks’ in each of the three branches of UK armed forces. The book is the ‘bible’ of procedure and forms the basis for discipline. It confers certain rights and requires certain duties of all personnel. In narratives about military life it is a useful symbol for writers. NCOs in particular can to some extent bamboozle soldiers of other ranks in order to control them. But there is usually someone who has read the book, someone who challenges the system and who will be labelled a ‘barrack-room lawyer’ by the NCOs and officers. They must then isolate that soldier quickly before he gathers supporters and threatens insurrection. In The Hill this does indeed happen as the RSM is forced to send for the book when faced with a large group of angry prisoners. The problem here is that as a former CSM, Roberts (Connery) knows the ‘book’ very well and has thought through situations like this before. Some reviewers have called The Hill a ‘prison movie’ which is technically true of course, but actually it is a drama about discipline and responsibility. The RSM has made a mistake when the five new prisoners and the new S/Sgt arrive. He recognises immediately that Roberts is a problem and assigns the new man Williams to ‘break’ them (after they have been declared fit by the MO). His mistake is not to clarify the line of command because when S/Sgt Harris discovers what Williams is doing there will be a clash between NCOs of equal rank. The RSM and the MO must also agree on their own responsibilities for discipline and general health of all the soldiers in the camp. The perfect storm is due to hit the RSM because of Williams and the five prisoners.
The film’s cast is truly fabulous. Any British cinemagoer of the 1950s to 1970s is likely to believe that Harry Andrews represents every RSM and indeed any figure of British authority. Sean Connery in this film is not making his first major role after Bond as many accounts claim. He had already made Marnie with Alfred Hitchcock and Woman of Straw in 1964. Those were both ‘romance thrillers’ but The Hill takes Connery back to the grittier male narratives that he had made before he became a star and places him for star roles in later similar films. Ossie Davis would later become a beloved performer in Spike Lee movies but at this point in his career he had only small roles in films and was better known as a TV drama performer. In The Hill he has a significant role, offering a contrasting form of resistance to the system which undermines some of the inherent racism in the prison system. Equally important is Ian Hendry’s Williams. Hendry had been mainly a TV actor like Davis until the early 1960s when he rapidly rose to leading man status with the success of Live Now Pay Later (1962). The Hill should have further enhanced his status but his career seemed to plateau as he moved out of purely British films into more international productions. His power can be seen in his portrayal of S/Sgt Williams. Complementing the great performances and Lumet’s choreography of the action is the camerawork. This features an almost rhythmic pattern of high and low angles, close-ups and long shots, often with great depth of field, beautifully edited by Thelma Connell. As the tension mounts Oswald Morris uses a series of shorter lenses which distort the close-ups, making the angry faces low angle shots appear even more disturbing.
I checked out the contemporary reviews in both Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight & Sound and although both reviews recognise Lumet’s skill in the first half of the film, they both feel that the last section dissipates the tension that has built up with something that is “hysterical” (MFB) or “frenzied shouting and TV studio debating points” (Penelope Houston in S&S). I’m not sure if either of the reviewers understands the film – or perhaps I don’t understand what they are trying to say? Houston makes a point about the Ossie Davis character which puzzled me. She argues that that using ‘Negro’ (her terminology in 1965) characters like this “assumes a built-in audience response that encourages emotional double-dealing”. I’m still thinking about this and about an earlier exchange in the film in which the RSM suggests that ‘black men’ shouldn’t be drilled alongside white men. He seems to be implying that African soldiers must be treated separately according to Kings Regulations. But when Private King argues that he is West Indian and British, the RSM agrees he should be treated in the same way as the other prisoners. I’m not aware that the British Armed Forces operated any form of segregation in this way. Or was it something that only applied in the African regiments? To go back to Houston’s point, she might be correct that casting Ossie Davis in this role in some way upsets the dramatic balance, but most mainstream critics in the 1960s hadn’t yet got used to the idea that audiences could make their own readings of films and that the traditional way in which critics ‘judged’ a narrative was going to be challenged. These 1960s reviews also see the use of genre elements as automatically negative factors working against characterisation.
The Hill is still available on BBCiPlayer for 14 days from today. It has also recently been screened on Talking Pictures TV. If you are interested in these kinds of military dramas (i.e. not ‘war combat’ pictures), you may be interested in Tunes of Glory (UK 1960) and The Bofors Gun (UK 1968), both recommended.
The following trailer gives away several key plot details but does show the distinctive style of the film:
Talking Pictures TV triumphed again with a screening of this neglected title. Here’s a film packed with talent that received good reviews at the time but failed to make money and seems to have been forgotten, at least until 2017 when the DVD/Blu-ray label Indicator brought out a new dual format package stuffed with extras. There is indeed a great deal to say about a film which raises several questions about British cinema and ‘British Hollywood’ during the final days of cinema as mass entertainment in the UK.
The place to start is perhaps with ‘Swinging London’ – that strange concept, largely created by journalists and especially TIME magazine. There were a handful of films that seemed to catch a particular moment around 1966 but since then many more have been ‘claimed’ as examples of something that didn’t really extend much beyond a limited area of West London. The Deadly Affair ignores the ‘scene’ altogether and in fact ignores youth completely. Instead it becomes one of several films made in London by North American directors for Hollywood studios which invested heavily in British productions for several different reasons. It was the second British picture for director Sidney Lumet following The Hill (1965) and he would go on to make four more, The Sea Gull (1968), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Equus (1977). Lumet was joined in British production by Otto Preminger directing Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Canadian Sidney J. Furie who made The Ipcress File (1965), Stanley Donen with Arabesque (1966) and Martin Ritt directing The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965). Furie and Donen had both been in the UK making films since 1960 but left for the US when the American investment in the UK declined at the end of the 1960s. The titles listed above from these North Americans were all crime or espionage thrillers.
The Deadly Affair was adapted from John le Carré’s first novel Call For the Dead (1961). It was preceded by Martin Ritt’s film of the third le Carré novel for Paramount in 1965. Paramount bought the rights to both the novel and the character name ‘George Smiley’ and so Lumet’s lead character became ‘Charles Dobbs’ as played by James Mason in this adaptation for Columbia Pictures. ‘Dobbs’ is an interesting name. It reminds us of Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and the sound of the name suggests a solid, downbeat character. As played by Mason, Dobbs does seem on the edge of losing his status as an intelligence officer with a long service career. He is quite different from the ‘George Smiley’ portrayed by Alec Guinness in the BBC TV series. Mason’s performance alone makes the film worth watching, but the overall cast and crew of the film is remarkable.
The complex plot sees Dobbs charged with checking out a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office who is suspected of leaking documents to East German agents. When this character commits suicide, Dobbs is suspicious, especially after meeting the man’s widow played by the magnificent Simone Signoret. When Dobbs is removed from the case he decides to pursue his own investigation with the help of a retired police inspector (Harry Andrews) and one of his intelligence colleagues (Kenneth Haigh). Carré’s interest in Smiley seems to have been in the moral questions he faces. Here ‘Dobbs’ has a young wife (Harriet Andersson) typed as promiscuous who he discovers is entertaining one of his wartime agents (Maximilian Schell) who has recently popped up in London. The starry cast also includes Roy Kinnear and Max Adrian. Lumet was always interested in the theatre and he includes in this narrative two sequences, one a rehearsal for a production of Macbeth and the other a performance of Marlowe’s Edward II by the Royal Shakespeare Company directed by Peter Hall. These feature a host of leading stage actors of the period including Michael Bryant, David Warner and Timothy West as well as Lynn Redgrave as a bumbling stage manager (a comic performance, immediately recalling her role opposite James Mason in Georgy Girl (1966)). Corin Redgrave also has a small role. I suspect that there might be some ‘intertextuality’ in the choice of these plays but I don’t know Edward II well enough to work through them. In the main the sequences serve as a kind of Hitchcockian machine to enable plot development and suspense.
The other creative inputs match the stellar cast. The script is by Paul Dehn who began by winning an Oscar for his work on the Boulting Brothers’ Seven Days to Noon (1950). Another spy/agent film in 1958 was followed by Goldfinger (1964) and then a run of prestige /’quality’ pictures up to his final credit in 1974 for Murder on the Orient Express, again for Lumet. The run included The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Quincy Jones produced the score for the film with a ‘themes song’ by Astrud Gilberto. The extraordinary ‘look’ of the film was the product of the experienced John Howell as Art Director, the similarly experienced Thelma Connell as editor and the superlative work of Freddie Young as cinematographer. Lumet had wanted to make the picture in black and white but Columbia refused. Young ‘pre-flashed’ the filmstock on some set-ups and managed to drain out much of the colour. The film also features many interior scenes and night-time scenes on London streets. For me the use of locations was a highlight of the film. In some ways the film is a reminder of location shooting in 1950s London films such as Sapphire (ph. Harry Waxman, 1959), but with the more subdued colour. Lumet, thankfully, ignores all the tourist scenes and takes us into the ‘non-swinging’ parts of Chelsea, to Battersea in South London and down the Thames, reminding us of all the British films noirs which used London so well (e.g. the ending of Night and the City (1950)). Unfortunately there are only a few locations shots from The Deadly Affair online.
I moved to London in 1967 so this might explain my fascination with this representation of the city. This representation is much more the ‘real’ London I remember than the tourist London that featured in later Hollywood films. But I enjoyed the performances just as much. I must return to my recording of the film to study the interchanges between Mason and Signoret. Sidney Lumet has often been praised for his work with actors and I realise there are many of his films I haven’t seen as well as others I should re-visit. I’m not really a fan of Le Carré’s novels (I admire them, but I’m less keen on the style) but this film adaptation won me over. I think the performances help make this more of a melodrama about trust and honour. The narrative has a dark resolution. It’s a film to be savoured by adults and an antidote to James Bond escapades.
I urge you to look out for the DVD/Blu-Ray from Indicator. There is some confusion about both the initial release date of the film and the timings of the film. The BBFC archive suggests that the film was submitted for certification in October 1966. Wikipedia gives this as the release date but it seems more likely that IMDb’s February 1967 date is accurate. On the other hand, IMDb and Wikipedia give a UK runtime of 115 minutes but the BBFC quotes 106 minutes and ‘No cuts’. The Blu-ray appears to confirm this.
Here are the credits and a short scene: