This film is available on BBC iPlayer for three weeks. I hadn’t seen it before and thought it might make a useful comparison with Ford’s They Were Expendable from a weeks ago. Although I hadn’t seen it, I thought I recognised the title and I think I’d assumed at first that it was a comedy, something also suggested by the still used by the BBC on iPlayer. It’s set during the early part of the Pacific War in 1942 and stars James Garner, then just turned 30 and a contract player at Warner Bros., who had already established himself as the lead in the TV comedy Western series Maverick (1957-62). What I didn’t know was that Garner had been a decorated soldier during the Korean War. This background throws a little light on what Warner Bros. might have hoped for with Up Periscope.
James Garner is Lieutenant J.G. Kenneth Braden who has been trained as a naval demolition engineer and as a Japanese language expert. The film opens with a romantic sub-plot which sees Braden secretly checked out by an attractive young woman from naval intelligence. Unaware he has passed a test, Braden is then shipped to Pearl Harbour and soon finds himself on board the Barracuda, a submarine under the command of Commander Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). Braden’s mission seems ambitious and potentially dangerous for not just himself but also for the whole crew of the submarine – but only he and Stevenson know what it is. Stevenson has to get the sub close to a Japanese-occupied island so that Braden can get ashore unseen and carry out a daring spying operation – and then return undetected. If he succeeds he will have obtained vital information for a planned attack by US forces. If he fails many men will be killed in future action. What this narrative will then produce is a familiar underwater thriller in which the submarine faces Japanese aircraft and destroyers on its journey to the island and then a tense suspense thriller as Braden carries out his mission. The submarine drama is also driven by the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson as a ‘by the book’ captain whose actions are militarily ‘correct’ but perhaps not understood by his men. The light relief from the drama is provided by Alan Hale Jr., the son of the jovial character actor at Warners in the 1930s, who would later become famous for Gilligan’s Island on US TV (1964-1967).
Up Periscope! is a ‘WarnerScope’ and Technicolor presentation and it’s directed by Gordon Douglas who almost defines a ‘solid Hollywood studio director”. He made nearly 100 films and TV episodes/TV movies. Starting in the mid-1930s with shorts and then B pictures he came into the spotlight in the 1950s when he signed for Warner Bros, staying until 1965. He was probably best-known for Westerns/action pictures and crime thrillers and he made many well-known films during the 1960s. His last major picture was They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! (1970) with Sidney Poitier. He retired at the end of the 1970s. Up Periscope! was in safe hands and I certainly found the film gripping. I even fast forwarded a couple of sequences because the tension as Braden is on the island and mustn’t be seen by the Japanese got to me. I can understand some of the more negative comments in the sense that there are only a couple of (very good) war combat action sequences when the submarine is under attack. Much more time is spent on the spying mission, also very effective but the romantic sub-plot rather detracts from the main narrative, even though it is used as something Braden thinks about while he is waiting for darkness on the island. At 112 minutes the film is arguably too long for its main genre purpose. On the other hand, we might argue that the context of Braden’s recruitment for the operation and the sense of community that is engendered by Ensign Malone (Alan Hale Jr.) are important in grounding this wartime action.
If we do compare this film with a wartime film made in late 1945 such as the Ford film, that sense of community is a key element. In some ways the films are similar. Ford also includes a romance element but it is much more powerful (and doesn’t show a happy ending). He also sends MTBs out on unlikely and ambitious missions and Braden is a Lieutenant J.G. like John Wayne. The submarine is a much more enclosed and ‘closed’ world than the MTBs of the Ford film which means the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson is more personal. Edmund O’Brien has quite a difficult role and pulls it off well. The argument usually is that the wartime films need the propaganda power and big statements that the 1950s war films don’t really need at all. Like the Ford film, Up Periscope! is based on a book, in this case a novel by Rob White. White was born in the Philippines and served in the US Navy. He became quite a prolific author of what are now considered ‘Young Adult’ novels and this includes Up Periscope (the film has a U certificate in the UK, the most accessible certification for ‘all audiences’). White did serve in submarines as well as in aircraft and naval ships. Whether there is any basis in actuality for the story of Up Periscope! is unclear.
James Garner appeared in many films but for UK audiences he may be better known as Brett Maverick in the various TV series or later as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. I hadn’t seen him this young before, but his later persona is already visible at times as the suave, cocky conman. His role as the intrepid frogman spy was one he felt forced into by Warner Bros. There is another connection to TV series besides Garner and Hale because the submarine’s pharmacy steward is played by Edd Byrnes who was also in Maverick but better known I think in 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64). Warren Oates plays a submariner in what I think is the earliest of his performances I have seen. I don’t know if he played with Edmond O’Brien again before The Wild Bunch in 1969. Up Periscope! is well-made entertainment but not much more I think and catching sight of Warren Oates was one of its pleasures for me.
The Siege of Pinchgut is remembered as the fifth film made by Ealing Studios in Australia and also the last film made by Ealing as the entity headed by Michael Balcon. By 1958 Ealing had negotiated a deal to make films at ABPC’s studios at Elstree and release them in the UK through Associated British Pathé (although Rank still distributed The Siege of Pinchgut in various European territories). This last film was made mainly on location in Sydney with some scenes shot back at Elstree. The cast is mainly Australians in the smaller parts but with leading players from the UK and Hollywood star Aldo Ray in the lead role. I’ve known about the title for a long time but delayed watching it until now – in preparation for a Zoom event led by Dr Stephen Morgan, the Australian film scholar based in London. I’m not sure what I expected but ‘Pinchgut’ turns out to be a local name for a 19th century fort built on a rocky outcrop located in the wide entrance to Sydney Harbour. Its official title is Fort Dennison and it was used as part of the penal colony’s operations in the 19th century and as a defensive feature for the harbour in the 20th.
The plot of the film is straightforward. An ingenious prison break sees Matt Kirk (Aldo Ray) evading recapture and seemingly set for an escape from Sydney with his brother Johnny (the Canadian actor Neil McCallum who was based in the UK). British character actor Victor Maddern plays Burt and Italian actor Carlo Giustini plays Luke, the other two members of the gang who spring Matt. But the boat taking them out Sydney harbour breaks down and drifts towards Pinchgut and its three inhabitants, the Fulton family. Matt Kirk believes he was wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit (but he does have a criminal background). His aim is to persuade the Attorney-General of New South Wales to grant him a re-trial. But now he can’t escape the city and negotiate a re-trial from a safe place. I don’t want to spoil the plot of a suspense thriller but the authorities become aware of the four men on the island and that the Fultons, father, mother and daughter (Heather Sears as second lead in the film in the same year that she appeared in Room at the Top), are hostages. At this point the narrative becomes a tense siege drama because of the presence of an ammunition ship in the harbour. Kirk threatens to use the naval gun on the island to fire at the ammunition ship and its cargo of gelignite. Such a move could kill thousands as had been seen in various wartime explosions such as that in Bombay in 1944 (which one of the gang had observed as a naval rating). On the other hand, the island is within range of sharpshooters stationed on the Harbour Bridge.
The film is in my view a well-made and engaging genre film. It was submitted to the Berlin Film Festival in 1959 at a time when commercial British films were often accepted at festivals and it was shown in competition for the Golden Bear. However, it wasn’t particularly successful at the UK box office and it received a thumbs down from some UK-based critics. The Kine Weekly described it on release in October 1959 as a “hearty action melodrama” and a “very good British booking”. The Monthly Film Bulletin Review by ‘JG’ (possibly John Gillet?) suggests that the central issue of Kirk’s ‘innocence’ is not properly established but equally the some of the dubious decisions of the politicians and the police authorities aren’t satisfactorily worked out. In the end the film strives for its ‘entertainment’ impact with Aldo Ray’s presence appealing to the US market. Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book takes a similar line but expresses it slightly differently, accusing the film of a confused stance over the violence in the film – as much the violence of the authorities as of the gang. The film gives a kind of moral endorsement to the authorities that they have not earned. Barr suggests that this confusion is “typical of the weakness of ‘fifties Ealing”. I can see that these analyses have some force but it’s a pity that Barr has such a clear agenda in his overall study of Ealing that he doesn’t spend time on any of the plus points about the film.
The Siege of Pinchgut was directed by Harry Watt, the former documentary director from the 1930s who moved into fiction features with Ealing during the war and who made five features as part of Ealing’s attempt to create a ‘Commonwealth’ presence for the company. He made two films in East Africa and three in Australia, beginning with The Overlanders in 1946. Ealing attempted to build up Australian filmmaking facilities by investing in the National Studios in the Sydney suburb of Pagewood but a combination of financial constraints on Ealing initiated by Rank’s John Davis and a lack of support by public funding in Australia stymied future development. The Siege of Pinchgut which used only location shooting in Sidney with interiors back in the UK, proved to be the last attempt by a UK studio to establish itself in Australia. Watt’s documentary background is featured in several aspects of the film including the evacuation of dockside Sydney and the attempts to remove the explosives from the ship. These ‘procedural’ scenes are matched by the excellent cinematography of Ealing regular Gordon Dines. I was reminded of his great work on Pool of London (1951) for the exteriors but also impressed by the studio work inside the fortifications of Pinchgut. I was struck also by the evacuation itself and the sense of an Australian city preparing for a major disaster. I was reminded of the other major disaster scenario of the period, the adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel about nuclear war, On the Beach (1959), shot presumably around the same time but in Melbourne. I think it is also worth mentioning that by making the fourth gang member an Italian, hoping to get back to Italy and buy his own fishing boat, this film, like Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob (1966), points to some of the problems being experienced by Australia’s new migrants.
Overall, I don’t think this film represents the kind of ‘sad’ ending implied by Charles Barr. I note that during the film’s Elstree shoot, Aldo Ray contributed to a fair amount of promotion for the film. I don’t know why the proposed production slate with ABPC didn’t take off – it may have been that the company became too interested in building up its TV interests. I certainly think this film is worth a watch. I recorded it from Talking Pictures TV which broadcast it in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. There is also now a new Network Blu-ray (Region B). Network discs are very good in my experience.
Director Olivier Masset-Depasse, who co-scripted with Giordano Gederlini and François Verjans (based on the novel Derrière la haine by Barbara Abel), delivers a delicious thriller that at least one review suggests is Hitchcockian. It certainly opens with a master class in misdirection as Alice (Veerle Baetens, who was also excellent in Broken Circle Breakdown), prepares a surprise for her close friend and neighbour Céline (Anne Coesens). The film’s set in early ’60s Brussels and the milieux can’t help referencing (for me at least) the television series Mad Men (US, 2007-15), particularly as there’s a passing resemblance between Baetens and January Jones, who played Betty. The set decoration (by Séverine Closset) is as immaculate as the bourgeois lifestyle of the two couples as are Thierry Delettre’s costumes. The period is further mimicked with the gorgeous cinematography, by Hichame Alouie, which could be mistaken for the Technicolor of the era.
It’s a thriller so a disruption of some violence is necessary but I won’t spoil that. Suffice to say the relationship between the two, who at the start are like loving sisters, changes. The film is impressive in how it presents the psychological pressures and responses to the situation; it is entirely convincing on how two people, who are very close, can suddenly become suspicious of each other. Jessica Kiang, in her Variety review, nails it when she describe the protagonists as ‘expressive but unreadable’: ideal performers to keep the audience guessing.
Where the film trumps Hitchcock is the focus is entirely on the women; the husbands are little more than marginal. While Hitchcock used his ‘ice cool’ blondes to investigate his idea of female sexuality, here the women as mothers have agency. The men spend their time failing to acknowledge difficulty or, in the case of one, abnegating all responsibility.
I’m surprised the film wasn’t released, as far as I can tell it was restricted to festival screenings, in the UK as the Mad Men-setting could have offered a cultural handhold for those reluctant to try out difference. Then again, UK’s insularity seems to be peaking (I won’t mention Brexit); one block of flats in Norwich had messages posted on doors demanding only English be spoken. Typically, there was a grammatical error in the message emphasising the poor education of the idiot who seems to think Britain is, and was, a great country.
The third film from the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’ offered another change of direction. Saturday Afternoon is written, directed and produced by the Bangladeshi auteur Mostofa Sarwar Farooki in a co-production with Indian and German companies. Farooki has had success with several films in major festivals such as Busan and for this film he had a $500,000 budget and international stars and crew. The 86 minute feature starts with some street scenes on a quiet Saturday in Dhaka during Ramadan. It cuts to a man washing his hands in the washroom of a restaurant bar and from that point a single take is used to explore the tense drama unfolding in the building in which a small group of terrorists are holding hostage the staff and diners. The screenplay is based on/inspired by a real news story from 2016 in which 5 terrorists held hostages in a bakery shop/café resulting in multiple deaths of hostages and terrorists.
The single take shoot by DoP Aziz Zhambakiev (known for several high profile festival films from Central Asia) is not there as a gimmick and instead it is used mainly to keep up the tension as the camera swings around the action. This is a brutal film with the terrorists, who belong to an unnamed Islamist group, separating foreigners and locals and killing at will. The deaths are not shown in detail but we hear the shots and see the bodies being dragged away. Nobody is safe. The gunmen seek out atheists and non-observant Muslims as targets even if they are Bangladeshis.
Hostage dramas are problematic as film narratives if there is little chance of escape for hostages or even for perpetrators. What expectations do audiences have? When the narrative begins the police are already on their way and Farooki decides to end his film before the final shootout. The audience doesn’t know if anyone will survive. This means it makes most sense to discuss the narrative as a ‘hostage procedural’ – what do the gunmen do, how do they do it and why do they do it? Their aim appears to be to get publicity for their cause. They have a leader who is mostly in the background and may be a foreigner. There are three active men dealing with the hostages. One is generally calm, one much louder but seemingly in control, but the third, who speaks only English (?), is close to losing control and shouts loudly. All are killers but some appear more impetuous than others. The Indian Bengali actor Parambrata Chattopadhyay plays Polash, the most controlled of the three. They contact the police by forcing a hostage to call her mother who has a police friend. When they pass on their demands to the police they monitor what happens on the TV news. The script is sharp about the use of mobile phones, though I thought I saw a mistake. As well as the three active terrorists there are others in the building guarding entrances/exits.
The second way to think about the narrative is as a stage drama. The single take turns the restaurant into a theatre stage. We wonder if the terrorist leaders will maintain control and eventually we realise that there is a specific sub-plot about saving a hostage who the terrorists seek to identify and kill. This creates a suspense narrative. Will this character be exposed? In this kind of narrative the audience is also asked to consider attitudes and human emotions. What kind of morality is at play? How can the hostages collectively defeat the terrorists? What makes a person willing to sacrifice themselves to save somebody else? I’m sure there must also be questions about Islam and about how Muslims are supposed to behave in situations like this. Killing people because of religious belief (or the lack of belief) is completely bewildering to me. I note that several reviewers have praised the film for its approach:
Through this approach, by highlighting the tragic ridiculousness of the whole terrorist rhetoric, Farooki manages to highlight the benefits of tolerance and education, but at the same time stresses the fact that in the area, guns and not words or thoughts are the ones in command. (Asian Movie Pulse)
I wonder if the film really does highlight tolerance and education? I don’t think we can definitely say the terrorists are ‘uneducated’. When terrorists are prepared to die for a cause it’s very difficult to argue with them. The best strategy would seem to be to tell them very little, to try to distract them without provoking them. Having said that, foreigners are going to be killed anyway and perhaps only the locals who know enough about Islam to second guess the answers to the terrorists’ interrogation stand much chance. According to Deborah Young in her The Hollywood Reporter review:
Unfortunately, [the film] has been banned in Bangladesh on the grounds it could “damage the country’s reputation” and incite religious hatred. The only thing this Bangladesh-Germany co-prod could do to the country’s reputation is improve it, and its plea for religious tolerance is nothing short of touching.
It seems we will struggle to see how the film goes down in Dhaka itself but international reviewers think it works. I’m not sure I could say that I ‘enjoyed’ Saturday Afternoon, but I was certainly impressed by the filmmaking skills and intelligence on display by the cast and crew. As well as Farooki and Zhambakiev I’d also like to pick out two local actors, Zahid Hasan and Nusrat Imrose Tisha as well as the Palestinian actor Eyad Hourani (Omar, Palestine 2013). I’d like to pick out more but this is a film short on info about cast members.
The Guilty is Gustav Möller’s debut feature, a low-budget creation based on his own story. Jakob Cedergren plays Asger Holm, a cop reduced to answering emergency calls because of – at the start of the film – an unspecified mistake. Like Locke (2013, UK-US) it is a one-location film, though it expands to an adjacent room rather than just inside a car. The benefits are a cheaper made film; the challenge is to keep it interesting.
Cedergren’s performance and Möller’s story are likely to keep most gripped throughout the film and Philip Flindt, the sound effects editor, ensures that the narrative space of the phone calls is created with a magnificent aural landscape. However, it is more than an exercise in style for, as the title suggests, the film investigates the nature of guilt. The slow reveal of Holm’s transgression, and what’s actually happening with the caller he’s desperately trying to help, add a psychological dimension. It can’t quite be called Dostoevskian but there’s enough cerebral nourishment to go with the visceral thrills.
In my initial tweeted response to the film I suggested that the direction needed more imagination. Given its low-budget origins, however, this is a little unfair and Möller does a good job. The way Holm isolates himself in another room as he gets deeper into trying to save the distressed woman and his physical reaction to frustration are all satisfyingly cinematic.
Möller has worked on a couple of episodes of Follow the Money (Bedrag, Denamrk, 2016-) (the first season, at least, was good), one of the plethora of ‘Scandi noir’ TV series that have brought brilliant grimness into our homes. The Guilty is another satisfying example from the dark side of Scandinavia.
I watched this recently in preparation for an event on film noir and enjoyed it very much. It’s a significant film in many ways, though its short running time (82 minutes) seems to indicate a ‘B’ picture. The cast and crew and the sheer artistry of the film do, however, point to an ‘A’ picture from RKO. Researching the film, I came across a fascinating website, The Film Noir File: A Dossier of Challenges to the Film Noir Hardboiled Paradigm written and compiled by Dan Hodges. I should have been aware of this site because it explores the arguments against the conventional academic film histories of film noir and also the supposed American uniqueness of the genre/style. I would tend to support both of the main aims of the website.
The Spiral Staircase challenges the ‘paradigm’ of film noir in one sense and ‘fits’ it in another. It is not based on the kind of ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction of the 1930s/40s, but it is directed by an émigré German director, Robert Siodmak and photographed by another, the Italian Nicholas Musaraca (who had worked in Hollywood since the 1920s). In fact, Siodmak and Musuraca were two of the principal ‘creators’ of film noir as later described by Hollywood film scholars. Musaraca worked under Val Lewton in RKO’s ‘B’ unit in the early 1940s on films such as Cat People (1942) and would later shoot the film noir classic Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947). Siodmak came to RKO after early noirs such as The Phantom Lady (1944) and The Suspect (1944). He would go on to make another recognised noir classic, The Killers, also in 1946.
So, how does The Spiral Staircase challenge the paradigm? The first films noirs to be studied extensively in retrospect were based on hard-boiled crime stories, often featured a ‘doomed man’ and a femme fatale and were contemporary in setting (though they might update 1930s stories to the 1940s). The Spiral Staircase is based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, a British writer who turned to crime fiction in the 1930s. Three of her novels were adapted for cinema, beginning with The Lady Vanishes in 1938 (UK, Alfred Hitchcock). She died in 1944 and didn’t see either The Spiral Staircase or Unseen (1945). The Spiral Staircase was adapted by a radio drama writer Mel Dinelli.
Ethel Lina White was born in 1876 in Abergavenny so it isn’t surprising that she set her 1933 novel Some Must Watch in the Welsh borders. It was adapted as The Spiral Staircase and transposed to early 20th century New England, but still featuring an isolated country house. Though the adaptation sees a few characters altered, the important point here is that the central character is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a young woman who has lost her voice after a childhood trauma and is now the ‘ladies companion’ of the bed-ridden Mrs Warren (the formidable figure of Ethel Barrymore). The local town is experiencing the terror of a serial killer and the film opens with the murder of a young woman in a hotel while below an audience (including Helen) watches an early film screening. When Helen returns to the isolated country house (in a rainstorm), Siodmak reveals the shoes and single voyeuristic eye of the murderer hiding in the shadows on the stairs of the great old Victorian gothic mansion. The film’s title refers to the staircase down to the extensive basement/cellar. If you want more background on the book and film (with possible SPOILERS) there is an interesting post on ‘Le curieux Monsieur Cocosse | Journal’.)
We can guess what will happen, but the film is highly engaging with its narrative twists and turns and the superlative camerawork, lighting and set design make it always watchable. Helen is both ‘damsel in distress’ and investigator (and arguably the ‘final girl’ as identified in the horror films of the 1990s). As well as Helen and Mrs Warren, the film also features two other significant female roles played by Rhonda Fleming (who went on to lead roles in the 1950s) and Elsa Lanchester (wife of Charles Laughton and dogged by her early Hollywood success in The Bride of Frankenstein). The narrative draws primarily on the suspense thriller repertoire. The visual style suggests the horror film as much as the film noir and it is supported by a strong soundtrack mix of effects referring to the terrible storm outside, the banging of windows and shutters and the sound of the wind and rain. Horror and film noir arguably have roots in common in German expressionism of the 1920s and the same roots also apply to the particular cycle of female-centred melodramas that became popular in the 1940s. Many of these reveal a certain kind of paranoia about being in the ‘old dark house’. In Gaslight (UK 1940 and US 1944), both films adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play, a woman in London becomes fearful that her house is subject to strange events. Her relative was murdered in the house some time ago but is her present husband trying to frighten her? Ingrid Bergman is the frightened woman in the Hollywood version with clear film noir links. The Spiral Staircase also links to the Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in distress’ film Sorry Wrong Number (1948) in which she plays a woman who is bed-ridden, like the Ethel Barrymore character in the Siodmak film and similarly fearful of an attack. These melodramas are also films noirs.
Melodrama implies other familiar conventions. Helen is affected by her trauma so that she can’t speak – and therefore can’t ask for help or convey what she knows quickly. In the scene above she looks at herself in the mirror, a common image from melodrama that might suggest that there are two Helens or that she has something to hide that might not be revealed to the other characters. The mirror also allows the composition of images which are ‘disrupted’ in their presentation of narrative space. Here the deep focus which operates throughout the film shows the dining room below. In this case, the mirror image helps conjure up Helen’s fears that being unable to speak will be dangerous in the febrile atmosphere of her gothic surroundings. This image also gives an indication of the detailed set design and ‘set dressing’ which adds greatly to the power of the images. The art direction duties are credited to Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. D’Agostino worked on 27 films released in 1946. The Spiral Staircase certainly benefits from the experience and expertise of personnel working within the studio system. Helen’s ‘lack’ of a voice is also a feature of certain melodramas where such ‘lacks’ are often seen as symbolic. In this film, the lack is also imagined by Helen in a sequence representing her internal thoughts and in another where a visual effect obscures her mouth.
I think that Dan Hodges is right to challenge the ‘paradigm’ of American film noir. So many different kinds of films have benefited from the application of themes and style features associated with noir. I think I’d describe The Spiral Staircase as a noir melodrama melded with the suspense thriller/horror film.