Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tea and Larceny in Berkeley

The PFA has announced the lineup for their Tea and Larceny: Classic British Crime Films series. They have pointedly avoided the word "noir" since the Castro is screening its own British Crime Film Series titled Rialto's Best of British Noir from September 11 to 16.

Brighton Rock and It Always Rains on Sunday screen at both the PFA and the Castro so I'll probably save a trip to Berkeley and catch the Castro screening of both films.


Steve Seid's program description takes a swipe at the Castro series which is screening The Third Man or The Fallen Idol.

Here at home, we may have our “mean streets,” as Raymond Chandler called them, but England has its own bleak equivalent, a cobbled stretch paved in battery and betrayal. Tea and Larceny is no parlor game for the well-behaved teetotaler, but a boisterous gathering of gin-soaked malcontents bent on mayhem, malarkey, and murder most foul. Not necessarily noir, each film does set its sights on misdeeds of lurid ambition, corrupted love, or poorly pent pathology. We’ve avoided the usual suspects such as Carol Reed’s The Third Man or The Fallen Idol, instead digging up cold cases like I Met a Murderer, So Evil My Love, The October Man, and the foul-scented No Orchids for Miss Blandish, as well as the recently exhumed Brighton Rock and It Always Rains on Sunday. Beyond the dank country manors and fog-draped alleyways, beyond the prim sitting rooms and cliff-edged highways, lies a scheming sensibility that is England’s own. Though a few films, like Obsession and Night and the City, have ties to the tough mugs of American movies, most give up the goods as only the Brits could do it—it’s all menace hiding behind the manners.


Brighton Rock (1947)
The brilliant author Graham Greene (The Third Man; Our Man in Havana) provides the source novel and screenplay for this Dickensian glimpse into the underbelly of a typical British seaside resort, where sun, sand, and carnivals camouflage another town entirely. In run-down Brighton, the boardwalk is lined with pasty day-trippers and incompetent singing acts, but it’s also patrolled by teenage Napoleon Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough). Pinkie is looking to make his mark in any way possible, whether literally, with that knife he’s constantly twirling, or through murder or, even worse, love, by seducing a naïve teenage girl. With a choirboy’s looks and a killer’s cold stare, as alien to his fellow gangsters as he is to “civilians,” Attenborough embodies a psychosis matched only by James Cagney in White Heat. “Brighton Rock shows, as clearly as anything ever did, Greene’s preoccupation with the allure of sin,” writes Terrence Rafferty; “virtue is uninteresting, and moral weakness, grubby and persistent, is the main attraction.”

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
“Almost the definitive British postwar film” is how historian William K. Everson described this Ealing Studios noir, shot through with a despairing realism that prefigures the next decade’s kitchen-sink tendencies. It’s another rainy Sunday in London’s East End, its row houses, street markets, and narrow rooms populated by tea sippers and thugs, wide boys and spivs, temperance groups and coppers. Luckless cons work to offload the fruits of a botched raid (roller skates), a band leader aims his lechery towards a naïve young beauty, and, in one particularly cramped home, a fugitive hides in the upstairs bedroom, protected by a housewife who was once his lover. All dreams are dead ends; all trains return to the East End. Director Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets; Dead of Night) ably juggles multiple story lines and flashbacks, while a final chase scene through the steam and shadows of a London rail yard adds an Anthony Mann-like noir flourish to its poetic fatalism. Bertrand Tavernier called it “a masterpiece...a brilliantly written choral work.”

The Snorkel (1958)
A debonair and diabolical villain turns a piece of scuba-diving equipment into an unusual instrument of murder in this clever chiller from the Hammer studios. Before the opening credits, we witness Peter van Eyck perpetrate what ought to be a perfect crime, rigging a room in his Italian villa into a death chamber for his wife. Her demise is ruled a suicide, but the killer’s stepdaughter is the suspicious type; while she tries to unravel what really happened to her mother—and to her real father, who also died under dubious circumstances—a menacing relationship develops between sinister stepdad and troublesome teen. Formerly a cinematographer for David Lean and others, director Guy Green brings an inventive eye to the proceedings, which dive to a sardonic denouement.

Noose (1948)
“We don’t have any gangsters here,” claims a London newspaper editor to his hot-to-trot reporter from Chicago at the beginning of this energetic programmer, a fascinating combination of American noir aesthetics with British slang, style, and location. Yankee fashion hound Linda Medbury (Carole Landis, who died tragically after the film was made) quickly proves her boss wrong, uncovering a ruthless London crime ring led by the fast-talking Bar Gorman and the slick Sugiani, neither of whom will stop at killing women to keep their empire going. Fortunately Linda’s got her British hubby on her side, an ex-commando who’s organized a gang of his own (complete with Chelsea jerseys) to help smash the syndicate. A John Alton–esque sense of light and shadow, as well as director Edmond Greville’s impressive visual flourishes, provide a flair that’s pure Hollywood noir, but the zippy insults, class concerns, and seedy postwar settings are as British as they come.

So Evil My Love (1948)
Ray Milland is both repellent and compelling in this Victorian thriller, directed with bleak panache by Lewis Allen (The Uninvited). Milland plays a charming thief, forger, and all-around blackguard who spots a prime mark in Ann Todd, a missionary’s widow and proprietor of a boarding house where Milland takes up residence. Under the influence of Milland’s advances, the straitlaced Todd abandons her inhibitions, eventually becoming complicit in larceny and blackmail—but her seducer will learn that a woman’s passion, once unleashed, can be difficult for even the most calculating con artist to control. A carefully drawn backdrop of British respectability heightens the drama of Todd’s decline: as so many English mysteries have proven, crime can be all the more thrilling when draped in crinoline.

The October Man (1947)
“I couldn’t have done it...could I?” In a twist on the wrong-man theme, this hybrid of playful murder mystery and psychological melodrama stars John Mills as an innocent man whose own self-doubt makes him a suspect. After a bus accident kills a child in his care and leaves him with a fractured skull and troubled mind, Mills seeks refuge in a small hotel whose very proper residents greet him with a mixture of curiosity and condescension. When an attractive lodger goes out to post a letter and doesn’t return, the neighbors, the police, and Mills himself all begin to wonder whether he might be responsible. Erwin Hillier’s cinematography shrouds the action in an atmosphere of misty, pervasive melancholia, and Mills brings an otherworldly, fretful presence to Eric Ambler’s alternately sardonic and empathetic scenario, which hints at the struggles of men shattered not by accident but by the recent war.

She Played With Fire a.k.a. Fortune Is a Woman (1957)
As we all know from Double Indemnity, insurance and romance can be a dangerous combination; this little-seen mystery by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (Green for Danger) adds to the formula a touch of British Gothic. Sent to investigate a Christmas Eve fire at one of those country manors that always seem to harbor dark secrets, insurance adjuster Jack Hawkins encounters an enigmatic family, including an imposing matriarch and a young wife (Arlene Dahl) with connections to Hawkins’s own past. “We’re all escaping from something, aren’t we,” says Mother; her son sagely advises, “Be careful in this dark corner.” As Hawkins tracks a trail of fraud, forgery, and worse, schemes and suspicions proliferate—as do classic Launder-Gilliat supporting characters—and nightmares overlap with reality and art.

The Long Haul (1957)
Racketeering is the principal cargo in this well-tuned tale about a trucker in trouble. Victor Mature (in a role intended for Marlon Brando) plays Harry Miller, a deactivated G.I. stranded in England with his Liverpudlian wife. Harry signs on as a driver for a lorry combine only to find that mobsters rule the road. Joe Easy (Patrick Allen), the ruthless thug who runs Easy Hauling, plays it fast and loose with his freight, but not as loose as his curvaceous cohort Lynn (Diana Dors, the British Monroe). Once Harry catches sight of her, Dors becomes the soft shoulder on a road to nowhere. Though Hell Drivers (September 6) emphasizes rivalry among the drivers themselves, both of these big wheelers saw the hauling biz as a shiftless world of lowballers and hijackers. Caught up in the momentum, Harry must choose between a pedestrian life with wife and child and the felonious fast lane. The Long Haul offers no rest stop for the wicked.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948)
“It has all the morals of an alley cat and the sweetness of a sewer!” blared a contemporary review of this controversial 1948 noir. No Orchids bubbled forth from the depths of British Poverty Row studio Renown to shock the English nation with its casual brutality (multiple murders in cold blood in the opening reel, another killing involving a grandfatherly innocent bystander) and leering perversion (“I don’t have ta drink ta want you,” opines one ruthless Romeo). The film concerns a hard-partying society dame who falls for her vicious kidnapper, a crime syndicate overlord. Simultaneously revolting and revolutionary, its Z-grade budget, inexpressive cast, and total disregard for bourgeois sensibility make No Orchids play like some unholy alliance of Ed Wood and Georges Bataille, a Poverty Row Grand Guignol. Monthly Film Bulletin declared it “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen”—in other words, unmissable.

The Krays (1990)
This brutal neo-noir depicts twin brothers who became two of Britain’s most notorious criminals. Hailing from London’s tough East End, the Kray brothers learn early to claw their way up. They take their mother’s advice—“Don’t fight each other; fight them out there”—to extreme lengths, building a London club empire atop a pile of mutilated bodies. As they gain power, the Krays’ idiosyncrasies deepen. Ronald, the more violent of the two, grows increasingly unpredictable and paranoid. Reggie takes a desire to care for his wife to smothering extremes. As played by real-life brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, of British New Romantic pop group Spandau Ballet, the Krays are cool, suave charmers who cling to each other and their beloved mother. The film is particularly attuned to the plight of women in postwar Britain: they must grow up, while men “stay kids all their lives, and they wind up heroes or monsters.” The creepy Krays don’t break this vicious cycle.

The PFA series screens a few a more films (most notably Night and the City with Richard Widmark) but Labor Day Weekend plans will not allow me to see all the films in the series.

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