Film 2018: That Sinking Feeling

Year’s full end is rounding out, with apologies to Tom Yeates, and for a third and final time, my Sunday morning DVD choice turns to Bill Forsyth. That Sinking Feeling, which he wrote and directed, was made in 1979, on location in Glasgow (which is another way of saying that the film could not afford sets) and starred members of the GlasgowYouth Theatre, who took part unpaid. There are low-budget films and then there’s That Sinking Feeling, which Forsyth himself described as ‘no-budget’.

And it shows, in the film stock, in the absence of sets, in the way the cast, talented though they are, are nevertheless rough and awkward, and the setting of Glasgow – albeit, as Forsyth quickly asserts, a fictional Glasgow bearing no resemblance to the real Glasgow, yeah, right – is grimy, wet and unprepossessing. Yet that’s the film’s strength. Slickness and high-res quality would break this slight but absurd tale of unemployed youngsters setting out to fill in some time, and get rich beyond their wildest (limited) dreams by steeling 93 stainless steel sinks.

The no-budget retriction makes a story that’s deftly tuned to its soft-edged surrality by grounding everything in a naturalism that’s enfirced by every cel of the film. Forsyth gets his points in quickly to set everything up: first a scene where the gangly Vic (John Hughes) hesitantly approaches a hamburger van, asking the price of a burger, is told it’s 35p, thinks it over very carefully, then says he’ll come back tomorrow. Then Ronnie (Robert Buchanan, the film’s prime mover) talking in the Park, in the rain, to the statue of Earl Roberts, disparagingly comparing the luminary’s honours with his own two O-levels before kicking a bench in frustration at not having a job. And lastly Wal (Billy Greenlees) and Simmy (Douglas Sannachan) standing in a warehouse doorway, sheltering from the rain, until Wal just wanders off, shoulders hunched into the collar of an inadequate jacket.

It’s a concise indication that these lads, all school-leavers in their late teens, have nothing. They’re going nowhere, with no money on which to do it, and the days are very long when there’s nothing to do. Sensibly, Forsyth presents this without commentary, beyond Ronnie’s reference to having (only) two O-levels and, later on, Alec (Allan Love) having been sacked from a job in the accounts section of the warehouse they rob. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the socio-economic conditions of the back half of the Seventies or the personal failings of these inexperienced kids. The point is that they are ordinary people, and they are screwed.

Which is the justification for Ronnie’s ambitious plan to rob a local warehouse of stainless steel sinks, going for £60 a pop in the stores.

Of course it’s absurd. Nicking sinks? With no plans to cash them in afterwards? It’s silly, and more than slightly desperate. But that’s the point. What the lads have got is nothing to do. They have no point or purpose. They have long days in which to exist. We see them in a bubble, without families to detract from their directionless state. They compare notes on the best way to kill themselves, a lightweight moment but a serious consideration, about which Forsyth comes up with the film’s best line, “There’s gotto be more to life than killing yourself.”

And that’s what we understand about the robbery. It’s a job, it gives them something to do, it fulfills something that life isn’t doing for them. Forsyth never goes there, never waves it in our face, but it’s plain to see. The scheme rapidly expands to encompass a dozen or so old schoolmates, including a couple of girls, though they don’t play an active or significant part.

It’s a very simple plot, one that we instinctively know would never work in real life, even in these ramshackle, downtrodden years. Vic suggests two of them dressed up as cleaning women to distract the guard whilst a key is smuggled out to the waiting gang. They have a van, a baker’s van, semi-nicked by Bobby (Derek Millar, the oonly one who has a job), they have ample hands to carry, not to mention a ninja look-out in the shape of Andy (John Gordon Sinclair, here appearing just as Gordon Sinclair, who has a minor and mainly sily role but who steals every minute he’s onscreen, as the most naturally talented actor in the bunch). What could go wrong?

Well, that’s the sort of question that dogs a Dortmunder Gang book, and That Sinking Feeling knows it well, but the job is pulled off successfully, the gang get away with it, and you last see them enjoying the cakes and rolls from a stolen bread van and conjuring up a second job, stealing gallons of Irn Bru and selling it out of their own tanker.

But it’s in the details that the film enjoys its most comic moments. Vic volunteers to dress up as one of the cleaning ladies, embracing the idea of dressing up as a woman with far too much enthusiasm, especially for his girlfriend Mary (Vic seems to be the only one with a girlfriend: Mary – Janette Rankin – is the only named female role in the film and her role is strictly limited but you can easily imagine her into Gregory’s Girl as a Carol or a Margot). Wal’s the other woman and, of course, when the watchman (Gerry Clark) turns out to be a greasy and pathetic sleaseball, it’s Wal he fancies his chances with, to Vic’s steaming frustration.

Alec is the complete dumbhead, forever getting things wrong. Ronnie is hooked on cornflakes and milk. Andy complains about Ronnie promising him endless riches and touching him for 37p to pay for their coffees: the lady at the counter is symapthetic, agreeing that you need money to carry out a robbery.

But the film effortlessly elevates itself into straight-out surreality with the Van Driver (Eddie Burt). Bobby, who’s studying chemistry at Night School, concocts a sleeping potion to put in his thermos of tea. What he doesn’t tell Ronnie is that his only experiment was on a mouse, which slept for four months.

Eddie the driver falls asleep in an instant, behind the wheel. He has to be lugged all the way through the robbery, snoring stentoriously, his right hand raised, gripping an invisible thermos cup. Bobby, anxious to test his his potion, gives some to the warehouse cat, which is found snoring. Both wind up in hospital, where it’s worked out that Eddie will wake up in 2068, asking for his breakfast. The Doctor spirals off into a resonant fantasy of the world eighty years on – the ring road will be finished! – whilst all the patient in the next bed can do is complain about the (clearly dubbed) snoring.

This isn’t a laugh out loud movie. It’s a film of chuckles, the odd chortle and, as we get more and more into the characters, a decent amount of giggling. In a silly way, it’s almost a feelgood film. We are on the gang’s side, and wish them well. They won’t get rich. Wal sells four sinks to a gallery owner (Richard Demaco, sportingly playing himself, who mistakes them for an art installation) for £200, and the film’s brief closing shot is of the minor gang member whose ambition is to buy an electric guitar and decent amps, who we see sat in his bedsit, playing his guitar with an expression of quiet contentment.

But they’ve had fun, they’ve shared a purpose, they’ve had something to do. For a few days, a couple of weeks maybe, they’ve mattered, if only to themselves. The job has been a success because it’s been a job. If they do it again, it’ll probably blow up in their faces. Maybe they’ll give up the Irn Bru idea for something a bit more practical? Or maybe this is the height of theirambitions and the experience of working towards a goal will alter their lives to the extent that they’ll be fit for whatever real jobs there may be.

That we can speculate in such a manner about the future lives of a bunch of absurd kids is a testament to Forsyth’s writing and direction. That Sinking Feeling is no Gregory’s Girl, and it’s completely of its time – the massively flared jeans, the long hair make it almost into a social documentary – but it’s underlying situation is more serious than his later, more popular, more successful films. Maybe that’s why it never showed a profit?

For America, where the film came out in 1983, the film was dubbed with less overtly Scottish accents – Edinburgh voices, not Glasgow – and that’s the version that came out on DVD in 2009, but the BFI remastered two-disc set from 2014 restores the original soundtrack, and yes it’s occasionally incomprehensile, but it feels righter.

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