Film 2023: The Cat and the Canary


A few weeks ago, I re-watched the 1937 Will Hay film, Oh Mr Porter, which I remember seeing on a black and white TV, at home one midweek night, a long time ago, and thoroughly enjoying. The Cat and the Canary is another film from that same period, this time from 1939, also seen on TV in that same era, and making a very great impression on me. But whereas the Will Hay, though primitive and out-dated, archaic in its humour, was still enjoyable and still made me laugh quietly, in total contrast The Cat and the Canary was primitive, out-dated, archaic in its humour, and terribly, terribly unfunny and terrible. An object lesson in contrasts.

This film was the second, and most notable adaptation to film of the original 1920s play by John Willard, first filmed in 1927 as a silent. It stars Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. I used to find Bob Hope very funny, especially in the ‘Road to…’ films, but here I found him to be dreadfuly flat. The film plays to his strengths as a quipster, the comedy being primarily verbal but times having changed, even though Hope was reknowned as a fast talker, smothering the audience with funny lines, he’s far from fast in modern terms, a kind of mid-paced and curiously unemphasised perforance that ended up being irritating more than anything.

The Cat and the Canary is a comedy horror, ladling on the shadows, the sinistrality and the creepiness in a way that was very effective to my younger self eperiencing the film in his early teens, or perhaps much younger, but which now is only cliches that the film itself sends up via Hope. It’s a very stage-bound performance, befitting Willard’s original conception, set at night in a decaying mansion on an island in the Louisiana Bayous, where eight people are gathered who cannot leave. Ten years ago, the mansion’s eccentric owner, Cyrus Norman, died, leaving a Will that was not to be read until midnight in the Library on the tenth anniversary of his death. The lawyer who drew up the Will and knows its contents, the housekeeper who has maintained the property this past ten years and six relatives attend.

The two important ones are Hope as Wally Campbell, a radio actor, compyulsive talker and coward (Hope’s normal film persona) and Goddard as Joyce Norman, a noted magazine illustrator. Fred Blythe and Charlie Wilder are handsome young men, the former of whom is an ex-boyfriend of Joyce and still carrying a torch for her and there’s Aunt Susan, a poisonous old baggage and Cousin Cicily, a jittery spinster.

The Will comes in two parts, the first of which names Joyce as the solitary heir. However, given that there’s a streak of insanity in the family, Cyrus has provided that if his heir should die or go insane within thirty days of inheriting, the second part will be unsealed and the heir named therein shall inherit instead. And someone has tampered with and read both parts of the Will at a time and in a manner unknown to Lawyer Crosby. One of the beneficiaries, or possibly housekeeper Miss Lu, all exotic and mysterious, hearing the voice of the spirits, knows who’s named whereas only Crosby should know.

Add to this the presece of an armed insane asylum guard, looking for an escaped and homicidal madman who likes to crawl around on all fours and who’s nick-named ‘the Cat’ and you have all the ingredients for a routine horror thriller of the time, to be alleviated by Hope’s non-stop quips and his self-portrayal of the coward. And that’s the problem. The horror is too familiar, too cliched. It’s nicely put together but it’s still the same old things and it no longer spooks or scares. As for Hope, even the funniest line, the one I laughed at almost hysterically when first I heard it, and remembered it forever after, fell completely flat. There’s no energy to his performance, none of the manic quality that is needed to make wally work. Instead, he just comes over as the kind of defensive, insecure jerk who has to make his presence felt by talking all the time, trying to be funny any only coming over as a bore. Not what this kind of film needs.

Plot-wise, the film sets ‘the Cat’ up as the threat, the Freddy Kruegar of its day. but we know that will all turn out to be a bluff and that the real villain will turn out to be one of the beneficiaries, the scond heir. Though I was tempted to hope for the dithery Cicily to turn out to be the ruthless mastermind, which would have made for a brilliant twist, that was never going to happen: a decade later, maybe. Realistically, it had to be one of the three men and of course Wally had to be ruled out so that left one of easy-going Charlie or intense Fred. I shalln’t tell you which but, based on a lifetime of watching films, which out of those two would you expect it to be? Heh heh, right.

Two final points. Paulette Goddard was excellent: bright, lively, self-confident and as self-reliant as a film of this era and this type would allow her to be. Aside from their having been childhood sweethearts, you couldn’t honestly see why she would end up with Wally, but that’s films. She was slim, attractive, elegant and graceful and I couldn’t help but notice just how often the three men took the chance to cop a feel, touching her arms or her shoulders, invading her personal space as if it was their entitlement. Which back then it no doubt was.

The film didn’t really hold up for me on any level, but it’s final sequence, when Joyce ventures into and is trapped in the secret passages that permeate the mansion had a profound effect upon me when I first saw the film. The idea, and its dark, narrow, twisty conception here both thrilled and spooked me as a youngster, when I would have been both fascinated beyond measure and frightened to death about having access to a real-life one.

It didn’t do anything like as much for me today, but it brought back the memory, and brought back the way the film preyed on my mind for a very long time afterwards. which, as far as I’m concerned, makes the time spent watching this past-it’s-time movie this sunny morning worth it.


Film 2023: Flesh Gordon


Ok, let’s be honest, it’s a porn film. A softcore porn film, not that that was the intention when it was filmed. It’s cheap and nasty, full of shonky acting and sets and props that make ‘Acorn Antiques’ look like it was filmed on the biggest Warner Brothers stage imaginable. But deliberately so.

According to Wikipedia, Flesh Gordon was filmed in 1971 but was held back from release until 1974, for several reasons: the desire to gain a distribution deal worth $1,000,000, the threat of severe legal action over the hardcore porn sequences and the threat of legal action from Universal Studios for following too closely the plot of the first Flash Gordon serial. As a consequence of these difficulties, all but a fraction of the hardcore stuff was cut out, and has never been restored, despite there being a Collectors’ Edition running nearly twenty minutes longer, whilst Universal were headed off by the addition of a scrolling introduction of the kind used on Star Wars, paying tribute to the era of the first heroes, your Flash Gordons, Captain Marvels and Supermans, and claiming this film as a burlesque parody of them. Which it is.

I first heard of the film in 1975, from an acquaintance who was enthusiastic about it, enough that I wanted to see it for myself. I can’t remember when I did: probably the early Eighties, after we had gotten our first video recorder. That would have been after the 1979 big-budget Dino de Laurentis Flash Gordon movie. I have never seen that fim, only snippets of it, most of them accompanying the Queen title song as it was played on Top of the Pops.

I avoided the film for a reason: it was a gigantic blob of shite. A supposed SF film and the only person associated with it who had any scientific knowledge whatsoever being Queen guitarist, Brian May. But it was the presence of two people central to the film that convinced me not to damage my neurons by ever seeing it. One was De Laurentis, known for big-spectacle, big-production films without a lick of sense to them and the other was scripter Lorenzo Semple Jr: yes, that’s right, the guy who define and wrote the 1960s Batman TV series, a man whose writing evidenced an utter contemppt for the people who liked this sort of thing, Batman and, yes, Flash Gordon. ‘Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Universe’. Hack, plew!

But, as this guy Nigel described to me, and as I found out for myself, on the level that it is, in part, aiming at, Flesh Gordon is a triumph. It is integrated, it is sly and dry, it is wide-eyed where it needs to be and OTT when the occcasion calls for it. It is what it retrospectively claimed itsef to be, a burlesque of the original, and not just of Flash Gordon but of Errol Flynn, of Ray Harryhausen and of King Kong thrown knowingly in, and the acting, the sets, the ‘effects’ and the earnestness mirror the style and ethos of the Saturday Morning Cinema Serials to almost fastidious lengths. It’s all there. And as a result, Flesh Gordon embodies more of the true spirit of Flash Gordon than a thousand of De Laurentis’ cacophonous and empty-headed blockbusters could ever do.

Of course, you have to be prepared to accept the juenile level of smuttiness applied to the film. We already know that Flash has become Flesh Gordon, but to this we add Dale Ardor, Dr Flexi Jerkoff, Emperor Wang the Perverted of the planet Porno, yes, I think we’ve got it by now. And the sex side has become mercifully brief: piles of people, literally, writhe round in orgies and there is gratuitous nudity practically everywhere you rest your eyes, but it’s all very neutral and unarousing. Only two scenes of actual intercourse (more likely simulated rather than stimulated, to steal a line I read long ago) survive into the film we have, one of them lesbian, the first of them not coming until almost halfway through the story.

Nor, funnily enough, is there much profanity. Three or four ‘fucks’, one of them from the gloriously vivid claymated Great God Porno (who was originally going to be silent but who ended up being so expressive he was overdubbed with bland, drawling, lazy lines to great effect) but apart from that everyone talks pretty respectfully. Oh, I’m sorry, Dale (Suzanne Fields) spends most of her time screaming variants of ‘No!’ and ‘Get off me!’

Having mentioned her, I suppose I should credit the other main playes, being Jason Williams as Flesh, Joseph Hudgins and Jerkoff and William Dennis Hunt as Wang, so seriously camped up and OTT that in comparison Brian Blessed is a sensitive actor noted for his miniature and intellectual capabilities. But the acting is irrelevant. This is not some great or finely-tuned spoof played with delicate seriousness, like The Princess Bride, it is functional at best, it is Saturday Morning Cinema Serial acting restored to us as if it had never died out.

But the point remains. This ramshackle, seat-of-the-pants flown, silly, cheap, recreation of crude, amateurish films succeeds by being perfect in invoking all of that roughness to a degree that is awe-inspiring. In the form we know it, it is so all-including that the viewer begins to wonder if this is meant to be a sex comedy or if the sex was the price to be made to get such a faultless recreation made in the first place. Given the film’s back-story, that is probably just wishful thinking, but sometimes Art emerges from the grubbiest of motives and whilst watching this endeavour, we are entitled to wonder if somewhere there wasn’t a plan to produce it this way all along.

Film 2023: Charade


If I knew anything at all about Stanley Donan’s 1963 film Charade, up to and including the fact of its existence, I had completely forgotten it. I selected it to watch simply because it was available to be watched. Of course, before doing so, I checked a few details: stars Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, also Walter Matthau and James Coburn, a caper film, a comedy, a romance, all good. I would either like it or I would not and at least I’d get some fun put of explaining why it was bad. Well, I’ve been denied that last pleasure, because it was good, and a pleasure to be entertained by it.

Charade, written by Peter Stone, has been described as the best Alfred Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made and I’d go along with that description. It has the distinct aura of North by North-West about it, as well as elements of screwball comedy, not to mention what we now call romcom, though I personally loathe the term and think this film far superior to such a formula.

Audrey Hepburn plays Regina ‘Reggie’ Lampert, the wife of the mysterious and secretive Charles Lampert, who has taken her away from her job as a simultaneous French-English interpreter. Reggie is on holiday in the Alps with her friend and fellow interpreter Simone (Dominique Minot) and the latter’s six year old son, Jean-Louis. Reggie is unhappy. She confides in Simone that when she returns to Paris she intends to divorce Charles. She also engages in a slightly flirtatious conversation with a fellow American, Peter Joshua (Cary Grant).

Alas, the divorce is never to be. On returning to their apartment in Paris, Reggie discovers that the place has been stripped of everything bar the wallpaper and the built-in closets. Furthermore, the Police inform her that Charles sold everything at auction earlier in the week, raising $250,000, left Paris by train to catch a liner to Venezuela but was found dead in his pyjamas, thrown from the train. Poor Reggie is not merely a widow but an extremely confused one, up to her neck in a perilous situation without the faintest clue what is going on. Thankfully, there are people who do know what it’s all about but, in a manner essential to the plot, they cannot believe she doesn’t know everything there is to be known about what’s going on and, most importantly, where it is.

It’s a commonplace situation for a good thriller, one that also makes easy room for light-hearted and comedic elements, which we will have a-plenty. Poor Reggie is appraised of the situation by CIA Administrator Hamilton Brewster (Walter Matthau) whilst on a more moment-to-moment basis she’s taken under the wing of the aforementioned Joshua, whose reasons (and authority) are not questioned by the film and definitely not by the bemused Reggie, partly because she’s bemused but also because she already starts to fancy him.

(Hepburn was 33 when the film was made and Grant had his 58th birthday during filming. Because of the discrepancy in their ages, he was uncomfortable with the romantic aspect of the plot, and to accommodate that, the script was revised to have his character several times advert to this age, and make Reggie the ardent one pursuing him, an unusual reversal for the times but perfect for the film’s comic aspects.)

Brewster explains that, during the War, a team of five OSS operative were sent into Germany to delier $250,000 in gold to the French underground but returned empty-handed, reporting ambush, theft and the killing of one member, Carson Dyle. Instead, the men plotted to steal the gold, burying it for post-War recovery. But one man, Charles Voss, double-crossed them, got the gold first and on his own. He also changed his name to Lampert. The other three men, Herman Scobie, Leo Gideon and Tex Panthollow (James Coburn) are after it. They won’t believe for one second that Reggie doesn’t know where it is.

And, given that the film is called Charade for a reason, it turns out that there’s a fourth man working with them, Alexander Dyle, brother of the dead man, Carson Dyle. Currently he’s working on gaining Reggie’s trust as Peter Joshua…

Is Cary Grant really going to turn out to be a villain? The film plays with that idea for a very long time, almost to the end, by which time Peter and Alexander turn out to really be Adam Canfield, professional thief, out to get the money for himself, or himself and Reggie. Or is he?

I shalln’t go into the plot much further as I don’t wish to spoil the film for anyone inspired to watch it. It has multiple twists and turns, it keeps its truth carefully hidden without being obscurantist, it’s seamlessly constructed and it has that element of sinistrality, of genuine potential danger underlying it, that raises the stakes. Yes, we all know that nothing really bad will happen, but the film maintains the edge of current danger that is always so effective.

(The YouTube copy I watched is the original film. Though filmed on location in Paris in 1962, it was released in December 1963, less than a month ater President Kennedy’s assassination. Whilst walking along the banks of the Seine, opposite Notre-Dame, Reggie says that they could be assassinated at any minute. In light of the circumstances, the word ‘eliminated’ was hastily and apparently very noticeably dubbed over the original. This version does not have the dubbing.)

One by one, the three conspirators, Scobie, Gideon and Tex are killed. Tex manages to scrawl a message in the carpet, one word: Dyle. Somehow he’s alive: the man Reggie has been falling in love with, Peter, Alexander, Adam, has to be Dyle, has to be the killer. Yes, there is an imposter, yes, he is the killer, yes, he is Carson Dyle, and if you’re smart enough and you understand films like this and how actors present themselves, you can work it out for yourself before the film tips its hands but you get no clues from me. Let’s just say that Reggie finally has to make a choice of whom to trust, and woe betide her if she chooses wrong.

But of course she goes where her heart is, and in an ingenious manner her choice saves her life before revealing, at the last, that he is a good guy, that he isn’t Peter, Alexander or Adam, all of whom were married but divorced, but Brian Cruikshank, who never has been married but will get a marriage Licence in time for next week, and who has been deeply involved all along.

This isn’t a significant film in any way. It’s an entertainment, and has no ambitions beyond that, nor is it ashamed of not being more. It tells a story, it thrills, amuses, excites and holds your attention for no better reason than to do so. Once upon a time, films used to do that, and were very professional about it. They were ‘well-made’ and Charade was definitely well-made. There are couple of minor things I could carp about, like why Reggie is so seriously attracted to a man a quarter century older than her, but when all’s said and done he is Cary Grant, and this was the early Sixties, and that’s good enough for me, ok? Well worth the time: I would happily watch this again.

Film 2023: The Wrong Box


This is a film I have seen before, more than once and perhaps as manny as three times previously, and which I enjoyed and found hilarious at least once, probably the first time. It was made in 1966, directed by Bryan Forbes, adapted from a novel co-written by Robert Louis Stevenson with his Stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, from a script by two American writers, Larry Gelbart, co-creator of M.A.S.H. and Burt Shevelove. It has an all-star cast headed by John Mills and Ralph Richardson, supported by Michael Caine and Nanette Newman (Forbes’ wife) not to mention a veritable hoard of British comedy stars, too many to even begin to list, but headed by Peter Cook and Dudlery Moore, with cameos of differing qualities from Peter Sellars and Tony Hancock. I thought I’d get the credits in first.

The film is a black comedy, though given the passage of time between then and not, it comes over as more of a pale grey. It’s also a farce: not the classic, high-speed, high energy farces of the grant Feydeux tradition, and certainly not teasing about se in any way, but nevertheless that’s the other basic element of the comedy.

The story concerns a Tontine, a very old-fashioned legal device, long-since outmoded in 1966 and not all that contemporary in 1889 when the novel was written. A Tontine was a legal fund created by equal contributions from each of its members, to be invested and increased by sound management, the kicker being that the pot went to the last survivor. You can immediately see the appeal to black humour: this set-up has legs. And indeed the film was a decent success all over the world, except Britain. And I can see why.

But first, more of the story. We start with the Tontine being signed in front of a class of twenty young boys at school: these are the beneficiaries. We then see several of them die, in hilarious, farcical, silly and just plain idiotic situations. I say hilarious, because that’s the attempt but in reality it’s close to ten minutes of screentime being wasted on obvious set-ups, presented without haste or energy or invention. In fact, that’s one of the two main faults with the film, that farce is at its best played with speed and lightness, the contradictions and the twists flung at the audience too fast for them to settle, just fly along in the wake of the actors, who are always at least two lines ahead of them at all times, and The Wrong Box is slow and ponderous, leaving its audience to dwell upon what it’s seen for long enough to realise that it doesn’t know where it is.

Once we reach the story proper, it’s sometime in the Nineteenth Century, earlier than 1889, more likely mid-Century. There are two surviving members of the Tontine, brothers Masterman (Mills) and Joseph Finsbury (Richardson), who live next door to each other but who have not spoken in forty years. Masterman, the older, is dying (but he has been for years). he shares his home with his grandson Michael (Caine) and his permanently sozzled butler, Peacock (the permanently sozzled Wilfred Lawson). Joseph shares his home with three cousins who are all orphans, the implication being that none are related to him by blood, julia (Newman), Morris (Cook) and John (Moore).

Joseph, superbly played as an impervious factoholic boor, is currently on holiday with Morris (a supercilious, devious and self-centred egg-collector) and John (a dumb womaniser), leaving Julia behind on her own, even though she’s a naif, innocent, fearful-of-violent-assault-but-preoccupied-with-it Victorian maiden. Or, as we would have put it in my youth, a drip. Julia and Michael have seen each other frequently, conceived a secret passion for each other, but have never spoken until now.

So: believing Uncle Masterman to be dying, and that therefore they – or rather Morris – will shortly inherit the Tontine, in excess of £100,000, Morris and John ring Joseph back to London, only for the train to be involved in a crash that they believe has killed Joseph, except that it’s actually the Bournemouth Strangler, as you’d expect, really. So they decide to conceal Joseph’s death until after Masterman’s death so as to collect the money. Only the beer barrel in which they hide ‘Joseph’s body gets delivered to Masterman’s house and they get the wrong box, containing a returned statue.

Much confusion and hilarity ensues.

To be honest, the confusion gets a good go but the hilarity is limited. As I said, it’s so slow. Some of that is the effect of time and our speeded-up reactions making it look lethargic, but some of that is that it is lethrgic in too many places. A modern re-make would need twice as much content in order to stand a chance. And another factor in the film’s failure now to rase more than the intermittent giggle or chuckle is that this is a very British, indeed English film. It’s set in England in the Victorian era (location footage was filmed on Bath’s Royal Crescent, which fits the bill perfectly), it’s based on a British novel, it features a cast of British comedy actors who either were stars of the time or would become so very shortly (one of the early deaths was played by Leonard Rossiter, several years before Rising Damp), it’s directed by a British Director and it’s written by two Americans. I don’t care if one of them was Larry Gelbart, the fantasy they are constructing is based on misperceived foundations. And it’s just not funny enough.

Funny enough. I meantioned above cameos by Tony Hancock and Peter Sellars. Hancock plays the Police Detective who appears, out of nowhere in the last twenty minutes. This isn’t Hancock, the Lad Himself, the beloved dry wit of radio and television. This is Hancock on the way down, the ambition miscarried, the booze killing his abilities. His famously mobile face, his gift for expressions that without once becoming ridiculous could reduce you to stomach-hurting laughter without a word, was stiff and ineffectual. He’s purely a cameo, given nothing serious to do, there on and in name. It’s horrifylingly sad.

Ah, but Sellars. The former Goon, on his way up, building a carrer in film. he steals the film. he appears in only two scenes, playing opposite Cook, as Doctor Pratt, an addled, forgetful, shambles, losing his drift and his grip, in a small dingy room full of moggies, and he is absolutely hilarious. It’s a beautifully judged performance, bringing in a breath of the surreality of The Goon Show, and I will always, no matter how often I see the scene where, having scratched out his signature on a blank Death Certificate, he looks around vaguely for something to blot it with and delicately picks up and turns over a cute small black kitten to do so.

As for the end of the film, it launches into a would-be chase sequence involving horse-drawn hearses that wants to be frenetic but hasn’t a quarter of the pace or energy required. It also features The Temperance Seven (of ‘Winchester Cathedral’ fame) as a military band on a bandstand, and the revelation that neither Masterman nor Joseph is dead. And it stops indeterminately because the writers cannot think of an end, so the camera pulls away into the air over a silent and frankly uninspired quarrel, leaving its audience to ponder on potential wasted, and who was that rather attractive woman in the Salvation Army costume named Mercy (Diane Clare, if you really want to know). Hey ho.

Film 2023: Inspector Hornleigh Goes To It


This film was always going to be a flier.

Until recently, I had no idea Inspector Hornleigh existed, neither as a feature on BBC Radio, nor as a three film series, of which Inspector Hornleigh Goes To It was the last to be made. Hornleight was the creation of German writer Hans Priwin as a segment of Monday Night at Seven, a fifty minute show on the BBC’s National network between 1937 and 1940. The format was that each week the Inspector would interrogate various witnesses to a crime, only revealing at the end which had made a slip that betrayed them as a culprit. The challenge was for the audience to deduce which it was.

On radio, Hornleigh was a serious comedy but for the film series, which started in 1938, the stories and the Inspector were treated as comedies, as evedenced by the fact that on screen Hornleigh was saddled with a put-upon incompetent of a sidekick in Sergeant Bingham. Gordon Harker played Hornleigh. Bingham was played by a Scottish actor using rather more of his native accent than he would in his later, highly-regarded career. It was because I saw the familiar and welcome sight of Alistair Sim in a YouTube thumbnail that I found myself watching this old and cheap British wartime film this morning.

But I shalln’t be hunting out ether of the first two films in the series.

That isn’t to say that the film is bad, but it is to say that it’s not good, especially given that, as a comedy, it’s not really funny. in fact, not to split hairs, it’s not funny at all, thugh in that respect I was hampered by this being the third film. Relying on its audience’s familiarity with its predecessors, the film assumes we know all about Hornleigh and Bingham before it starts and just dumps us in it.

How it starts is that the fussy and somewhat egotistical Hornleigh is dictating his over-inflated memoirs to the two-finger typing Bingham whilst awaiting a summons to tackle the issue of Fifth Columnists: this is 1941 and Britain is at War. Instead, he and Bingham are sent undercover to enlist in the Army, as Privates, to get to the bottom of ‘scrounging’ (i.e., providing Army supplies to civilians via the Black Market, vital stuff like underpants, tinned pilchards and carbolic soap). The Fifth Column job goes to hornleigh’s rival, Inspector Blow.

However, when it becomes apparent that their presence undercover has been leaked to Germany, Hornleigh and Bingham start investigating how this has happened themselves and, despite this treading very heavily on Blow’s toes, they get to the bottom of the Fifth Column case and bring the chief villain to justice.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. Just as the film is not funny any more, at least not to 2023 minds and, I suspect, not that hilarious in 1941 except to audiences eager for entertainment, the plot’s neither complicated nor exciting, until, that is, it’s last seven or eight minutes. To take an example that illustrates both points, about a third of the way in, Hornleigh and Bingham have broken into the home of Dentist Wilkinson, who they suspect is collecting information from multiple sources, which indeed he is.

Whilst they are sneaking around inside the black-out, opening safes, reading papers, there is a knock on the door, from a Mr Blenkinsop (the name alone tells you all you need to know). Blenkinsop has a bad toothache and is determined to have it taken out by the dentist. He won’t take no for an answer. He’s rude, pushy, aggressive, dismissive of everything except getting his own way whatever anybody else’s ‘silly’ rules. In short, he’s a pain-in-the-arse. He’s a comedy interlude in a dramatic situation that Bingham has to deal with (by pulling two teeth out, the other one just coming out on its own). This goes on for the best part of ten minutes, interrupting what should be a very serious scene with knockabout comedy that, frankly, would have had trouble knocking a baby’s rusk over.

This is more or less what the film is, all the way through.

Which is not to say that it’s all a waste. Sim is, of course, good, and it’s not his fault that he’s given so little to work with. The film completely wastes his ability to bring an element of the sinister into his comic roles and restricts his range. The stand out performance however is that of Raymond Huntley as the chief villain, Dr Kerbishley. Huntley is smooth, composed, quiet and clearly highly intelligent. He was expert at playing parts of authority both straight and with a subtle comic edge that developed a satirical pompousness, but here he’s dead straight, utterly confident and without chewing even a square inch of scenery, exudes evilness.

And the film’s climax was actually very well thought-out and dramatic. It took place on the Mail Train, where an ingenious concept of registered letters to a fictitious address and a mobile radio transmitter from within the sorting carriage were combining to get the information broadcast from a non-fixed and thus untraceable location, which Hornleigh brought down with a sudden swing into intelligent and serious mode that may well have been better to have been employed from the start. the ending redeemed the film to quite a degree.

I very much doubt I’d watch this again, but it was an interesting exercise, even if perhaps more enjoyable in the blogging rather than the watching of. We should always try somethin new on a regular asis, even if something new means something very old.

Film 2023: I Married A Witch


I wondered if I’d ever seen this film before, on a Sunday afternoon, but from the unreasonably silly music over the opening credits, it was obvious that I’d not. I was interested in the film because I Married a Witch is one of the acknowledged inspirations for Elizabeth Montgomery’s wonderful Bewitched, though eerything that the two have in common can be summed up in just four words: I married a Witch.

The film was made in 1942. It’s a black and white romantic fantasy, based on an unfinished novel by Thorne Smith, creator of the once-popular Topper, and completed and published after his death by his friend Norman H. Matson. The film was pitched as a vehicle for the beautiful Veronica Lake, nick-named the ‘Peek-a-boo Girl’ for her hair-style that had her long blonde tresses constantly falling over her right eye (and who was in that respect the inspiration for DC comics’ wartime superheroine, Liberty Belle). Surprisingly, Lake takes second billing, to Frederic March, even though it’s obvious to see that he’s nothing but her stooge, and a pretty colourless one at that.

The film begins in the 17th century, as a Puritan community led by Jonathan Wooley prepares to burn two wiitches, a father and daughter, Daniel and Jennifer. An oak tree is planted above their ashes, to imprison their spirits forever, but at the last moment Jennifer places a curse upon the Wooley family, that they shall always marry unsuitable wives that will nag them and make them miserable.

It doesn’t sound like that much of a curse, though in an era when divorce was rare and horribly difficult, it may well have seemed more painful to the audience. To be honest, I didn’t think much of the film’s beginning with reference to the witches, who were being presented as mean and evil and nasty because they were mean and evil and nasty. I know this wasn’t a serious examination of witches, but they were presented so simplistically, and so children’s story book that it undermined the story. I’m always happier when a film takes its inner reality seriously enough to justify its characters’ actions within the plot.

Anyway, with a couple of stop-offs to show the curse working, we jumped to 1942. The current Wooley is Wallace (March), who’s attending a party to celebrate and promote two events happening in the next two days. Tomorrow, he is to wed Estelle Masterson and the day after is Election Day in his campaign to become State Governor. His biggest campaign backer is Estelle’s father, which explains a lot about why he’s going to be marrying her because, in modern parlance, she’s a bossy bitch who’s going to put her foot down and not let him push her around (alternatively, he could also be eager to get into her panties which, with her being Susan Hayward, is more than plausible).

This is when the oak tree is struck by lightning, releasing Daniel and Jennifer, initially as mobile plumes of smoke. They, and especially he, intend to celebrate their release by being mean and evil and nasty, especially with reference to the last of the Wooleys, Wallace. Intent on tormenting Wallace, who’s a stuffed shirt even when he’s being referred to as Wally, Jennifer gets her Dad to create for her a body, which he does by burning down the Pilgrim Hotel, just as Wallace is passing. He being the only one who can hear a female voice from inside, dashes in to rescue her and discovers that the body Daniel has created is Veronica Lake, naked. The rescue results in wonderful, election-guaranteeing popularity, but it also results in a beautiful, slender, naked blonde attaching herself to the would-be governor on the eve of his wedding.

This leads into the Second Act, which can be easily characterised as a low-key low-energy screwball comedy. Jennifer intends to get Wally to fall in love with her, so as to make his life a misery when he can’t have her but when her natural charms fail to work (told you he was a stuffed shirt) she resorts to a love philtre. But Jennifer overplays her hand and ends up being the one who drinks it, and she falls in love with him.

This brings Daniel into play, corporeally. He’s played by Cecil Kellaway. I know nothing about his career but I do know that he is superb here. He starts off comic, a drunkard, with a touch of the irish to him, but as the film progresses he grows in stature, and in genuine evil, malice and deviltry, until he becomes truly scary. Instead of helping the love-struck Jennifer to put paid to Wally’s wedding, and very successfully he does too, he turns it to his own ends, setting Wally up for his own murder, meant to lead to the electric chair, and electoral disaster. Kellaway sells his hatred brilliantly for what is, superficially, such a silly character.

But Jennifer breaks with her father. She and Wally get married hurriedly. She tries to tell him she’s a witch but he’s too busy with thoughts of her long blonde tresses and her lilywhite body to listen and, two or three long kisses later, she gives up trying to tell him. Until next morning when everything has been thoroughly and, we assume, repeatedly consummated. Even then,Wally oscillates between disbelief and fear of the scandal if it gets out. He doesn’t even really believe her, that is until she magics him 100% of the State’s votes, including that of his opponent.

But Daniel is having none of this. he will not allow Wally his happiness, nor yet his dauughter who has so far departed from her heritage as to not only marry a mortal but also reveal her witchery to him. At midnight they will return to the tree, and remain there until all trace of mortals is gone. Jennifer tries to escape but her father removes her powers and forces them to the tree where, at midnight, Jennifer dies in Wally’s arms.

But only for a short time. Love is stronger than witchcraft. she escapes her father’s reach, re-enters Lake’s body and pins her father in his smoke-form in a botttle of spirits, firmly stoppered and placed under lock and key whilst she and Wallace live happily ever after, subject to the usual terms and conditions of such films…

Though I enjoyed the film, there were certain aspects of it that could have been much improved upon. It’s old-fashioned in some ways, beyond it being made eighty years ago, and too keen to build itself upon unconsidered stereotyping. Frederic March was a dull lead in contrast to Lake, who was a breath of fresh air throughout and should have had top billing. And Hayward, in a supporting role, plus Robert Benchley as Wally’s best friend both did more than pull their weight.

I know little of Veronica Lake, other than her good looks, but the history of the film suggests she was difficult to work with. Joel McCrae turned the Wallace role down because he didn’t want to work with her again, March called her ‘a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability’, to which she retaliated by calling him ‘a pompous poseur’ (of the two, the film supports Lake more than it does March) and playing practical jokes on him on set. She clearly wasn’t a great actress, and was reliant upon her looks, but she seemed to be ideal for light comedy roles like this, and she was at home with the romantic aspects of her character.

So, an interesting experience. Bewitched‘s other filmic inspiration was the much later Bell, Book and Candle, which I’m half certain I have seen. If that’s available on YouTube, I shall reserve it for next Sunday.

Film 2023: Broken Arrow

Broken Arrow

Choosing a Sunday morning film is not a question of art or science, and it’s definitely not got anything to do with logic. I had no real reason, other than its availability to pick out Broken Arrow in the first place and its selection for today owed more to the fact that, after watching films made in the Thirties, Forties, Sixties and Seventies, this was the only one I had on my list that dated from the Fifties, and being made in 1950, only just that.

Broken Arrow is a Western starring James Stewart. The Fifties was the last great era for Westerns. It has a high reputation and, after watching it, deservedly so, but I knew nothing about it before watching it. For me it’s one of those films that belong to Sunday afternoons, letting Sunday dinner subside, sprawled in an armchair, watching a film on one or other channel. I assumed I might already have seen it in that very context but I doubt it: if I had seen the film before I remembered nothing of it.

The film is based on the historically true story of how the Apache Indian leader Cochise, in Arizona, came to make peace with the United States government. Stewart plays Captain Tom Jeffords, a former Army scout with a deep sense of decency, who works to bring the two sides together, Jeff Chandler as Cochise and a sixteen year old Debra Pagett as Sonseeahray, the ‘Indian Princess’ whom Jeffords loves and marries, and whose death sets the seal on peace.

Yes, I think you’re already guessing that that’s Hollywoodisation, the tarting up for dramatic purposes, because it’s highly unlikely that a love affair played any significant role in bringing together two peoples, two nations, who hated and feared and hadn’t the faintest clue about each other, but the film takes its dramatic falsity in its stride and never allows it to interfere with its primary story of the terrible dangers and involved in getting human beings of different cultures to see what they have in common ahead of where they differ.

It’s not like we don’t have any modern day equivalents to draw upon, is it?

Broken Arrow is a classically liberal film, broad-based in its understanding, condemning of hatred and bigotry. It was one of the first post-Second World War Westerns to treat the Indians sympathetically, as people whose culture and ways were in themselves strong and true, and with their own honour, instead of squalling, whooping, bloodthirsty savages and primitives. This was evidenced by the decision to have the Apaches speak in ordinary English, unstereotyped, and supported by the casting. The nature of the story practically mandated having Jimmy Stewart as the lead – could you seriously imagine John Wayne in such a role? – whilst Chandler was an inspired choice as Cochise: tall, strong, solid, impassive, charismatic without doing anything. He is utterly conincing as both the War Leader and tactician who can weld a nation into one entity, and as the enforcer of peace upon a nation that feels under threat, that is scared of weakness, but which trusts him when he decides it is necessary to change.

And the film as a whole emphasises the dignity of the Apache by choosing to frame their utternces, even down to themost casual, in a formal language, never florid, open and honest and filled with an immense dignity.

Debra Paget, the third star, is the least essential to the film. Her role is not exactly cheesecake, but she is only there to provide romantic interest and, at 16 to Stewart’s 42, one that looks a bit iffy in this day and age. She’s a naturally attractive young woman, which is what is required of her, but not a stunning beauty and in comparison to her co-stars she’s inexperienced but suitable for an undemanding role. Once it’s estalished, with practically no justification beyond the perfunctory ‘love-at-first-sight’ that she is drawn to tom, her youth and freshness supplies most of what the part needs. It’s as romantic as all get out, but it convinces that she is in love with both the present and the future she envisions for them, even down to their grandchildren.

Which plays to the climax. A three month Armistice, a trial for a peace Treaty, has been agreed and has been going well for twelve days. It has been broken once, by renegade Apaches led by Geronimo (played, incidentally, by the only native American to get a major part in the film, Canadian Jay Silverheels, better known to the generation I would shortly be born into as Tonto in The Lone Ranger), driven off by Cochise’s braves. Now, white Indian haters who believe the only reliable peace will come when Cochise is hanging from a tree, set up an ambush. Jeffords is badly wounded. cochise escapes death and kills the ringleaders. Sonseeahray is killed.

One ambusher survives. Jeffords wants him, demands him. All thoughts of peace, of the sheer effort required, have fled him. he wants revenge, cold-blooded, hot-blooded revenge. In a scene that, nowadays, would be derided as white-hating, as ‘woke’, Cochise denies him. Peace is not the easiest of things. It demands sacrifice. Not the sacrfice of a young bride, days after her wedding, full of the future, but the sacrifice of the selfish desire to rend and kill in the hope that it will somehow dull the pain of loss, the most terrible of losses.

Sonseeahray’s death brings the two nations together, in shared mourning of her death, in respect for tom Jeffords’ loss. It’s unashamedly sentimental, but its emotionl core is honest, and Stewart’s voiceover, which attempts to elevate her murder as putting the seal on the peace, to be kept in her name, may be seen as wishful thinking, as Hollywood, but it stands as a means of consolation, an idealisation, a need to find purpose in the senseless that will enable Jeffords to live hereafter. there are worse epitaphs.

So, by neither art, science nor logic, a wonderful choice.The film was credited with infuencing a more nuanced approach to Indians in the decade’s Westerns, though it didn’t make that much difference to the Wayne western. Nowadays, you wouldn’t get Native Indian parts played by White stars in make-up, but we make progress one step at a time, and nowadays we wouldn’t increase the films innate power by restraint, frankly the reverse. A great film.

Film 2023: Sleuth


Sleuth was one of the most highly-regarded films of 1972, adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his award-winning play of the same name, and applauded for the performances of its two actors, Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, playing successful detective story writer Andrew Wyke and hairdresser Milo Tindle respectively. I didn’t see more than a clip from Barry Norman’s Film 72 at the time and, though I wanted eagerly to see it, and the film appeared on TV a number of times, circumstances always intervened and I missed it every time.

Now, courtesy of YouTube, I have finally watched it, half a century later. And, at the risk of spoilers by puttin the conclusion up front, I think I liked it better when I didn’t know what it was about.

That’s a little bit of a harsh judgement. The film is very clever, the story full of twists and turns, the acting of a very high standard, these are, if you like, inarguable facts. It is my own personal response to these things which is less than whole-hearted. I have seen very little of Laurence Olivier as an actor, and what I have seen has impressed me far less than his world-wide reputation (the day he died and the world’s newspapers were full of headlines about him, I was far more moved by the loss the same day of Mel Blanc).

To be honest, I disliked Olivier as Wyke. A large part of that was because Wyke was written to be not so much disliked as detested – loud, aristocrat, pompous, condescending, patronising, racist, classist, smug, superior, misogynistic, openly unfaithful, the list goes on and in truth Wyke has not one single warming characteristic – and Olivier compounds the distaste I felt by his sneering, pseudo-intellectual, nasty performance, constantly adopting patronising accents across the whole spectrum, showing off and setting himself above and apart from, well, everyone else, all beneath him.

And there were several other aspects of the film that I did not find congenial, the opening and incidental music for one, brassy and bouncy and altoether feeling wrong for what was a very cerebral story. Sleuth originated as a play and its translation into film does very little to conceal that. It’s a two-hander, conducted inside the one building, and ninety percent dialogue with very little action. It’salso two hours and eighteen minutes long. That’s a suitable length, excluding intervals, for a night at the theatre, but without intervals, it’s definitely overlong for a straight-through film performance.

And it’s clever. It’s very clever, conspicuously so, the dialogue pointed and full of traps and under-meanings (Morrisey ripped off a line from the film for ‘This Charming Man’, the one about the jumped-up pantry boy who never knew his place). But as I said, this level of pointed dialogue, with few silences, demanding concentration, especially when attached to shots of the scenery, over and over, especially the attractive female painting (taken to be of Wyke’s wife, Marguerite, ostensibly played by the non-existant Eve Channing, a compound of the two stars of producer Joseph Mankiewicz’s famous All About Eve, but modelled upon Joanne Woodward) was exhausting over that length. If it could have been trimmed by, say, twenty-five minutes, I would have found it more compelling.

I’ve mentioned ‘Eve Channing’: the film displays its overt cleverness by listing a cast of four supporting players, none of whom actually appear. Michael Caine masuerades as one, does voices for two others and ‘Canning’ only appears in the portrait, but it’s an indication of the level the film intends to operate on and it’s slightly off-putting,giving the vague impression that the film considers itself superior, like Wyke.

But what, those of you who have also ever seen the film and are considerin watching it may be asking, is it about? Be warned, spoilers are to follow. Where it all starts is that Milo Tindle, half-Italian, Soho-born, a hairdresser coming up in the world, is conductin an affair with Maruerite wyke, and the two wish to marry, which requires her rich, well-bred and successful husband to consent to divorce. Andrew has invited Milo to his Wiltshire mansion to discuss this.

The first act consists of turning this scenario into a complex game involving faking a burglary by Milo to steal jewellery in order to be able to afford the high-maintenance Marguerite, which morphs into an angry, elaborate, patronising ploy by Andrew to first humiliate then kill the jumped-up lower-class wop who thinks he can take Wyke’s wife away from him.Milo is shot in the head at point blnk range and killed, before the halfway point.

The second act, two days later, features Wyke being questioned about Milo’s disappearance by an ‘Inspector Doppler’. Doppler is a parody of the kind of stupid policemen Wyke writes for his hero, St John, Lord Meridew, to outwit and baffle, complete with broad Wiltshire dialect and full collection of cliches. He’s also Michael Caine, heavily made- and padded-up. This is obvious to the audience but oblivious to Wyke, ‘Doppler’ proves far more intelligent than Wyke would ever give him credit for, teasing out all mannr of clues which point to Milo’s murder and forcing Wyke to admit everything he did, which is now reinterpreted as a game, to test Milo’s ‘mettle’, to utterly humiliate him. The shot to the head was a blank cartridge. Once ‘Doppler’ forces all of this out, and is arresting Wyke for a murder he know never happened and which he didn’t do, the ‘Inspector’ strips off his make-up etc to emerge as Milo, who has turned the tables, despite Wyke’s attempt to pretend he had seen through it before the end and was playing along. Honours even, one set all.

But that’s not Milo’s intention. He’s not satisfied with that. He means to beat wyke. To this end, he has murdered Wyke’s Swedish mistress, Thea, in his mansion, and planted clues to frame Wyke for it. The police are due in fifteen minutes: can Wyke find the clues first? Yes, with a lot of help from Milo, plus a great deal of degrading panic. Milo’s won, completely. He taunts Wyke and preares to leave. But he’s taunted Wyke beyond endurance. Wyke plans to re-run the burglary plot and this time kill Milo, despite Milo warning him that he’ll be found out, he’s already given the Police a full account of what happened in the first act. wyke refuses to believe him,shoots and kills him. Then the Police arrive.

It has the neatness and compactness of the best stage plays – J.B. Priestley comes to mind, obviously – but as I said before, it’s clever but too clever. This is a story that’s out to impress you by how clever it is, how intricate. But it misses by a mile then sense that either of its characters, with whom we are asked to spend a lot of time, are realistic human beings, people with whom we can have any sympathy, let alone empathy, for the emotional aspect of what they’re experiencing, because the emotional aspect is in no way real. Fittngly, but unhappily, for a film so consumed with games, the many devices Wyke has about his home and the games both he and Milo play, the whole thing is a game: unreal, and lacking.

Having waited 51 years to finally see it, I know now what Sleuth is about. It’s about cleverness, but nothing more. And I like my films to have more than just cleverness. A long time ago, I came up with a maxim, an aphorism, that the irreducible minimum requirement of fiction is that it makes you care about something that never happened to someone who never existed. On that basis, I liked Sleuth better when I didn’t know what it was about.

Film 2023: The Hound of the Baskervilles


Being of a contrary nature when it comes to publicly popular phenomena, it is obvious that I could never really get into Sherlock Holmes. I can’t explain why it is that I never felt drawn to reading any of the original stories or novels, nor why what very little I have read (none of which I can remember) held my interest as Holmes has done for literally millions of people.

Nor, with the controvesial exception of the Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman series, have I ever been interested in watching the many films or television series adapting and expanding upon the Great Detective. Clearly, this morning has been an exception.

I might not have shown interest in Holmes prior to this but he is one of those ubiquitous characters that you cannot not know about. Holmes. Watson. 221b Baker Street. Mrs Hudson. Inspector LeStrade. A Study in Scarlet. And, most of all, The Hound of the Baskervilles. I’ve never read it, never seen any adaptation of it, yet I knew by way of cultural osmosis, most of the salient points about the story. I did not know the more esoteric minutiae about the story without looking at Wikipedia so only now do I know that Baskervilles was Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story for eight years after ‘killing’ him off, though it’s set two years before ‘The Reichenbach Falls’, and proved to be so popular that the author was forced to bring Holmes back to life.

Nor was I aware that this 1939 version, the first to star Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the leading roles (one of the classic, indeed definitive portrayals of the pair) was actually the seventh adaptation (four in Germany, two in Britain, the first American production), and the first to set the story in Victorian times as opposed to contemporary. Not only that but, because the producers were uncertain as to the commercial viability of Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone was only second-billed to Richard Greene (the future ITV Robin Hood of glorious childhood memory and that belting theme song) as Sir Henry Baskerville.

The film is shot in black and white and takes great pleasure in swirling everything, especially the London streets, with mists. Though the overwhelming majority of the story takes place on Dartmoor, the shooting is obviously studio set, with elaborate rocky tors and outcrops and painted backdrops of surprisingly high quality, the designers having been told to go to town on creating the gothic atmosphere. Never having been to Dartmoor, I can’t vouch for the accuracy or otherwise of the staging, which was exaggerated enough to make me suspect more imagination than fidelity, but I’d have enjoyed exploring the place myself.

The film was fairly faithful to the novel.Comparing the Wikipedia summary of the latter with what I’d seen, the only substantial change appeared to be in third-billed Wendy Barrie’s role. She plays the love interest, Beryl Stapleton, stepsister of Jack Stapleton, a young and enthusiastic scientist who is the murderer, being a hitherto unknown heir to Baskerville Hall who murders Sir Charles and tries to murder Sir Henry to get his hands on the estate (though when you look at the hall and where it stands you have to ask yourself, why?). Sir Henry falls in love with Beryl and she with him and they get engaged. In the film this is all above board, true blue and honest, but in the book Beryl was actually Stapleton’s wife and was abused and browbeaten into playing up to the young Baronet to expose him to the hound. The film also drops the character of Laura Frankland, the estranged daughter of neighour Frankland (who’s retained as comedy relief) and who, on promise of marriage to Stapleton, lured Sir Charles to his death.

Given the influence of the Hays Office, you can quickly see why this psychosexual tangle was cut out and replaced by true love and firmly closed-mouth kisses.

I was also interested in the way that Holmes was missing from the entire middle of the film. Of course, by osmosis, I knew he was in hiding on the Moor, in disguise, observing but it still seemed strange to exclude the leading character from so much of the story. However, learning that this was Conan Doyle’s return to Holmes after eight years, having killed him off because he was tired of the public clamour that would not let him write anything else, it no longer seemed unusual at all.

Overall, I enjoyed it. Rathbone and Bruce went on to star in thirteen more Sherlock Holmes films, and I wouldn’t mind betting there are at least some of these I could find on YouTube, but I shalln’t rush out to hunt for them. Sufficient unto the Easter Sunday is this.

Film 2023: Oh, Mr Porter!

oh mr

This is a very old film, possibly the oldest I’ve watched since I started enjoying these private Sunday matinees. It’s a classic, hailed both in its time and after, regarded as the highlight of the career of its star, Will Hay, and a film and performance that was a massive influence on British comedy for decades to come. I have fond memories of watching it one evening, in midweek, in the era where films were a regular component of the television schedules: for some reason I’m convinced it was a Tuesday night. A film on tv on Tuesday night mid-evening, we are in another world, aren’t we?

Dad recommended I watch it. He liked Will Hay. He’d likely seen the film in the cinema in the past, though he was only eight when it was made. It’s a perfect film for an eight-year-old, and I may have been that age myself when I saw it. It’s not so funny now, not when you can see the naievete, the simplicity (not crudeness, the film is never crude), the slapstick nature of the story and the characters.

Hay was a big star. In 1937, only George Formby and Gracie Fields exceeded him in popularity in British films. He’s mostly forgotten now, which is a shame, but the character he conceived and who he played in various settings is perhaps too familiar to us now from all those who’ve taken it up. He began as a headmaster in a sketch that he performed hundreds of times, and carried the basic character with him. Hay played authority figures were incompetent but who strove blusteringly to conceal their incompetence from those beneath them, despite their obvious awareness of what he really was. in his time, this was satirical, anti-athoritarian, and led to his films getting A certficates instead of the U they should properly have had.

Oh, Mr Porter! which took it’s title from the popular Music Hall song sung over the titles, also co-starred Hay’s regular supporting actors, Moore Marriott, who played toothless and stupid old men, and Graham Moffatt, who played insolent overgrown schoolboys. This was one of six films in which they appeared alongside him, though Hay did not enjoy working with them, feeling that they restricted him to repetitive routines. Shades of Tony Hancock, whose character was informed by Hay’s comedy, and who grew to resent the noion that he was part of a duo with Sid James.

The film? Hay plays William Porter, a lowly railway employee who fails at ever job they give him. His sister, married to the Chairman, insists he be given a job commensurate with her social standing. Given that, if he doesn’t, her husband will have to accept William coming to live with them, finds him a job as stationmaster at Buggleskelly, a remote, rural Northern Ireland station, practically on the border with the Irish Free State (as it then was), a place that goes through stationmasters like shit through a goose. Porter arrives to find the station staffed by Deputy Stationmaster Jeremiah Harbottle (Marriott) and Porter Albert Brown Moffatt). He also learns that the station is supposedly cursed by the ghost of Joe the One-Eyed Miller, who tried to prevent the railway coming through and who was killed by an engine.

The first forty minutes are basically engaged in setting things up and showcasing Hay in Porter’s bumbling attempts to upgrade and increase the importance of this no-horse plsce in the back end of nowhere, whilst dealing with the aftermath of Harbottle and Albert’s little schemes (since they don’t get paid, they take their wages by scavenging animals from the trains and bartering tickets for trains that don’t run in exchange for food: understandably, the aggrieved locals expect Porter to sort it out).

The plot, once it arrives is, according to Wikipedie, derived loosely from Arnold Ridley’s play, The Ghost Train, of which I have heard many times but never seen (Ridley played Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army, not the only connection with that series). Porter arranges an excursion train to Connemara. A mysterious character who we recognise instantly as ‘Joe the one-Eyed Miller’ but Porter naturally doesn’t, buys all the tickets and demands departure at 6.00am, not 10.00am as planned. The train sets off, ostensibly carrying the non-existent Buggleskelly Wednesday and several suspicious looking crates, to their away game. (The astute viewer suspects them to be rifles. The astute viewer is astute.)

The excursion train promptly disappears. Everyone, especially Harbottle and Albert, who were sleeping it off at the time, believes there was no such train, and Porter’s loopy. Porter is fired. Before he leaves though, he’s determined to find his train, especially after Albert mentions the old, boarded off line that leads to the Free State… See, I said you were astute.

From here to the end is pure slapstick, running, chasing, hiding, sliding down windmill sails and kidnapping the entire train full of guns and runners for a high speed run across Ireland, Porter and Harbottle in the cab burning everything in sight to keep the pressure up, Albert on the carriage roof, hitting every head that looks out with a shovel. The little boy me would have been exhausted, crying with laughter, long before the end. The Old man me smiled a lot, laughed from time to time, but enjoyed it still.

Oh, Mr Porter! is dated, but not in the way that films like Barbarella and Bedazzled are. Rather, I would draw a distinction and say that it’s aged. It influenced a generation and more of British comedy, not least the afore-mentioned Dad’s Army, whose co-creator Jimmy Perry identified the relationship between Captain Mainwaring, Corporal Jones and Private Pike as inspired by Hay, Marriott and Moffatt, a connection impossible not to see once it’s pointed out. It’s only failing in 2023 is that what it influenced and inspired has left it looking dull, and a bit slow. Not Will Hay’s fault, it’s the curse of all pioneers. But after my generation, who saw films like this every week, have gone, who will then remember?