*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge -My 40 Favourite Movies: 22 – Dr No


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22: DR. NO: 1962. Director: Terence Young. UK. Spy thriller. Sean Connery. Ursula Andress. Joseph Wiseman. Jack Lord. Bernard Lee.
Adapted from the 1958 Ian Fleming novel of the same name by Richard Maibaum (US producer, playwright and screenwriter), Joanne M. Horwood (Irish screenwriter), and Berkely Mather (John Evan Weston-Davies. UK author). Music was by Monty Norman. Screen-time was 109 minutes. The producers were Hersche ‘Harry’ Saltzman (1915-1994, Canadian theatre and movie producer) and Albert Romolo ‘Chubby’ Broccoli (1908-1986, American producer – his daughter Barbara later inherited the Bond franchise). Saltzman had been reluctant to make a movie of the Bond books, but equally disinclined to sell the rights to Broccoli – hence their agreement to a partnership. Initially the project was something of an unloved orphan. The budget was set at just $1.1million – United Artists reluctantly put up $1million, with an extra $100,000 for the climax. Again, the production design budget was a mere £14,500, plus another £6,000 raised by the producers. Sean Connery was paid just £5,000 – “hulky and cheap”. Val Guest was one of the directors who turned down the job, before it was offered to Terence Young. Wolf Mankowitz wrote an early draft, but then quit, asking his name to be removed from the credits as he feared the movie would be a disaster. Eventually, box office takings worldwide were nearly $60million. It was to become an endless money-spinner.
Author and critic John Russell Taylor, writing about the James Bond phenomenon in Movies of the Sixties (1983), was not very complimentary: “With hindsight, it is amazing that the James Bond books took so long to arrive on the screen – not was it for want of trying. The creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming, began writing the books with the possibility of filming very much in mind, and at least one of them, Thunderball, published in 1961, was originally conceived as a film scenario. Fleming probably had no idea what a goldmine he had struck upon when he wrote the first one, Casino Royale, in 1953, and the film rights were disposed of for a modest sum soon after publication. It was to be followed by another James Bond book regularly as clockwork every year until Ian Fleming’s death in 1964. Little by little the books built up their sales until their success on screen was a foregone conclusion. They are all efficiently constructed thrillers: normally Bond spends about two-thirds of the story making his way into the exotic arch-villain’s clutches and the rest rather simple-mindedly fighting his way out of them, destroying his adversary in the process. James Bond, agent 007, with a licence to kill on Her Majesty’s secret service, is a 14-year-old schoolboy’s fantasy of sophistication. The ideals he embodies are to do with preserving one’s cool and knowing about food and wine, even while behaving as the perfect sportsman towards miscellaneous foreign cads and bedding a succession of indistinguishable girls resembling lush Playboy centrefolds.”
I was in my middle teens, and already with a more sophisticated taste in literature than the average 14-year-old, when I first read the James Bond books – eventually all of them, even For Your Eyes Only, his collection of short stories. The films came first, the books second. However, I never liked either Fleming as a writer, or his so-called hero. The early novels especially, Casino Royale and Moonraker, were awful; badly written, with two-dimensional characters and elements of sadism. James Bond was both a snob and a thug in a posh suit, not even especially believable or interesting – certainly not a very credible spy. I preferred Len Deighton’s more cerebral spy novels with the nameless narrator, who became ‘Harry Palmer’ in the movies The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and The Billion Dollar Brain, as played by Michael Caine. However, Deighton’s books were too complex and clever, and didn’t translate very successfully to the screen.
That said, the early Sean Connery James Bond films were entertaining, and for the most part followed the basic plot of the books. The popular consensus of many Bond movie aficionados is Goldfinger is the best, with From Russia With Love next. On the basis of the financial success of Dr No, both, of course, were big budget movies – From Russia With Love (1963), cost $2million and made $70million, and Goldfinger (1964), had a budget of $3million and box office takings of $125million. One rather silly plot feature in Russia has Bond descending from the British Consulate into the underground water cisterns to spy on the Russian (e.g. Soviet) consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. While the two consulates are near to each other, they are actually located in Pera, which is on a hill. The Ottoman water storage cisterns are across the Golden Horn, in Istanbul proper. However, my favourite James Bond movie is still Dr No, the first movie, although the sixth book. Saltzman and Broccoli had acquired rights to all the books except Casino Royale – hence why we had the awful 1967 abomination and it wasn’t until 2006 that that Daniel Craig version was made in the ‘official’ Bond franchise. At the time, 1962, there were still some legal problems with Thunderball, resulting in the happy choice of Dr No, perhaps both financially (given the reluctance of United Artists to come up with a bigger budget), and that it was set in Jamaica, Fleming’s backyard – literally, as much of the movie was shot near his estate of ‘Goldeneye’. Fleming was a frequent visitor to the film set, so perhaps – in retrospect – this was the book-to-film that really did have his seal of approval. When Thunderball was eventually made, in 1965, the budget was a colossal $9million, with a box office return of $141.9million.
Sean Connery was to became the definitive Bond for many, myself included. He brought an element of menace to the character which was completely lost during the Roger Moore years. Again, we have a time capsule of Jamaica, which itself only achieved independence in 1962. The plot still has a freshness about it, an originality – while the scriptwriters added a certain an element of black comedy – perfectly accentuated by Connery – that blunted the often brutal violence and casual sex. People are shot out of hand – the MI6 agent Strangways and his secretary (amateur, one-off, bit-part by Dolores Keator, whose house they were filming in – I hope the blooded floor rug wasn’t hers) – Bond shoots Professor Dent, various Dr No underlings, while the ‘dragon’ – a giant motorised flame-thrower – incinerates Bond’s black Jamaican assistant, Quarrel – the first of a number of quite nasty deaths in the movie series – think Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) painted gold in Goldfinger, or Corinne Dufour (Corinne Cléry) torn to bits by Hugo Drax’s dogs in Moonraker. In the books, Strangways, Quarrel and CIA agent Felix Leiter had all appeared before, in the novel Live and Let Die (1954). In the Dr No novel, Bond’s love interest Honeychile Rider was staked out, to be eaten by crabs, but when making the movie the crabs proved uncooperative and lethargic, so the director opened for Honey Ryder (as she had become, played by Ursula Andress) to be simply slowly drowned instead – not nearly as imaginative or nasty! The biggest difference between book and movie was the ending – in the book Dr No was smothered to death under guano (birds’ droppings), but in the movie we already have the template for virtually all Bond movies thereafter – the ‘big bang’ of the villain’s secret lure being spectacularly blown-up by Bond activating the nuclear reactor into meltdown. In 1962 that was comparatively original (a nod towards Kiss Me Deadly perhaps?), but eventually it became – like much of what passed for a plot in later Bond movies – samey and monotonous. Yawn. Even the last reel – Bond and girl escaping together, cue having nooky – became a cliché.
Nearly 60 years on, both Connery and Moore are no longer with us, likewise the original ‘M’ (Bernard Lee, 1908-1981), ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewelyn, 1914-1999), or Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell, 1927-2007). The franchise grinds on, but I lost interest long ago, with Octopussy (1983), so even before Roger Moore’s final effort, A View to a Kill (1985). Moore never took the role seriously, and it showed. His Bond was lacklustre, smirky, lazy, repetitious. George Lazenby’s Bond (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969), wasn’t bad, at least again it followed the book pretty much, if only he hadn’t been arrogant son-of-a-bitch and full of himself off-screen. Connery made a one-off non-Eon Bond, a re-make of Thunderball entitled ironically Never Say Never Again. The producers were Jack Schwarkzman and Kevin McClory. It wasn’t bad. Budget was $36million and box office was $160million, so no dud financially. There was obviously still a hunger for a Connery Bond. MGM now have the film rights. Sean Connery then reappraised Bond one last time for Eon again in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), but which already now bore no resemblance to the original book. I admit to having no desire to watch any of the Timothy Dalton Bond movies (1987-89), nor Pierce Brosnan (1995-99), or Daniel Craig (2006-15). Another break, and Craig’s latest, perhaps aptly named No Time to Die, was supposed to be released in 2020, but is now scheduled for 2021. Personally, I think the franchise should have been killed off long ago, certainly by the early 1990s, or perhaps replaced with ‘Jane Bond’. Even if we are re-entering a new Cold War, times have changed. Bond would now either be a mercenary, a simple-minded gun for hire, or sitting with a lap-top, engaged in cyber warfare. The silly, mindless destruction of various locations around the world is tedious and tiresome. Where will James Bond, the most un-secret secret agent and mass-murderer, trash next? Please, put us out of our misery.
My comments from 22/10/1988:
Doctor No (1962), the first Bond film with Sean Connery, and the one film which remained fairly true to the book. Thereafter, and especially with debonair but ‘Saintly’ Roger Moore, the Bond movies bore less and less resemblance to the Fleming originals in either plot or mood until eventually only the titles were left. The books, mediocre literature as they were, had a thread of character development, a continuity from one to another, which the films completely sabotaged, partly by taking them mixed up and sequentially at random. Doctor No was several books in from the first Bond book Casino Royale. Jamaica, Strangways and Quarrel had all appeared before, in an early book. One has the impression in the film that the last hectic and rather silly 20 minutes were done in haste, or that several reels were missed. The character of Doctor No, like all the later villains, is a cardboard megalomaniac, bordering on being certifiable (although, to be fair, that was also very much Fleming’s style, having the subtly of a Cold War comic strip), but in the film his demise is strangely without much drama or tension, unexpected only in happening so quickly after the lengthy build-up. The subsequent escape of Bond and the girl is totally illogical, but the formula (used in almost all Bond movies since) of the spectacular sets being blown up, seems as if the scriptwriter got tired, or the producer did a hatchet-job in the cutting-room.
A later film with Roger Moore did a much more gripping version of virtually the same theme – as Bond simultaneously sends the nuclear reactor into critical (thus providing the obligatory fireworks), diverts the laser-beam or whatever which threatens the American spacecraft or missile (in Doctor No it was a radar beam), rescues the latest girl from death (or a fate worse than death, in the nastiest but most imaginative way) while exterminating the super-villain. As the post-Connery Bond films became so repetitious as to merge in one’s memory into a single bland canvas of caricature, I cannot even recollect which film this was! But the finale was definitely a rerun of Doctor No. [It was actually The Man With the Golden Gun.]
One other observation: Connery was without doubt the best Bond, and the truest in appearance and mood to the character of the books, although [one story is that] Fleming disliked him because he was Scottish! Compared to Moore (who appeals to Fleming’s snobbery) you are aware how in the earlier films, 007 was really just a thug in a dining-suit who takes pleasure in his job of ruthless executor of the Queen’s enemies. “Why did you do that?” wails Ursula Andress after Connery has viciously stabbed a black Doctor No henchman and thrust his body underwater in the jungle river. “Because I had to.” He answers before spreading fresh mayhem elsewhere. By comparison Moore was too immaculate, to frivolous, too urbane. Connery’s dead really were dead!

Danger Man: s03 e21 – The Man with the Foot


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For most of this episode I was hoping that it would all turn out to be a dream, or a hallucination, or even some equivalent of Number 6 reading ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ to the Village kids but my hopes were dashed. ‘The Man with the Foot’ was real, alright, and meant to be taken as an actual story. If that were so, then there was no explanation for why the whole thing made no sense whatsoever.

‘No explanation’ was the common characteristic of the whole episode. Things happened. They’re supposed to lead us into the expectation of introgue, espionage, danger, with the intention of leading us up the garden path, but the looseness of everything, especially the writing, betrayed an underlying laziness. It was supposed to be a puzzle, an enigma, so why botheer to make it at all plausible.

The facts are simple. In the open, Drake arrives at a lonely barn to rescue his superior, Derringham (Bernard Lee), who’s been kidnapped by Solby (Hugh McDermott). Who Selby is, why he’s taken Derringham and how he knows Drake is Drake and the recognition codes is never explained. But Drake is blown, and can’t operate whilst Solby is around. He is sent on holiday. He decides to take that holiday in sunny Spain, at a hotel in the south, near Gerona on the road to Barcelona. It rains incessantly. One consolation, for the viewer at least, is that the hotel is run by Maruja, and she is played by the gorgeous Isobel Black.

Drake’s hardly arrived when Monkton arrives at the Hotel. Monkton is being plated by Robert Urquhart, and this time it’s a comedy role, and not a funny one either. Monkton is also a spy, freelance, selling to the highest bidder, though how on earth such a bumbling cluck evrer learns anything successfully is beyond the scriptwriter’s imagination. Monkton is the man with the foot, so-called because of his habit of parking in wet places and stepping ankle deep into dark puddles.

This wet foot, for some reason that I think has nothing to do with Spanish hotel customs, gets him into Drake’s room to dry his shoe and sock at Drake’s fire. Seeing Drake, Monkton decides to stay. Drake leaving him alone in his room, as you do, leads Monkton to exaggeratedly pick the lock on his case. He decides to watch Drake, because something is obviously up. There is talk of lairs, Drake’s friend Gomez will have to shoot him if he succeeds. Patheticly obvious stuff.

Monkton takes his suspicions to Solby, who’s deliberately losing tons of money at the casino in Bierritz. Why? What was Monkton doing there, why does he contact Solby, is he working for him, does he know Drake to be Drake? Who knows? Drake’s supposed to be on holiday until Solby is taken, whereupon he’s unblown, but it doesn’t take a minute’s thinking to realise that that’s nonsense, and it’s doubly nonsense if Monkton also knows. If he knows. We don’t know, we’re only watching this.

Anyway, what Drake and Gomez are doing is tagging wolf cubs so their movements can be monitored. This draws Solby out into the open so he hadd Drake can have a chase scene, on foot and by car that goes on that it becomes obvious that it’s just there to fill airtime cheaply. Solby’s captured, Drake can go back to work, the episode is over, Patrick McGoohan is no doubt wondering why he has to put up with stiff like this after so many good episodes, and I’m going to to have to call this episode a complete clunker from top to bottom. Except for Miss Black, of course.

Danger Man: s02 e17 – Whatever happened to George Foster?


Well, what a strange episode that was.

I had great problems watching this latest Danger Man story because I found it difficult to fathom what it was all about. Once it was complete, the story made sense and the point of it, not to mention the thread, was a lot more cohesive, but as things were progressing, I found several elements of it to be thin, the development jumpy and a number of aspects of the main thrust were left without explanations that helped to contribute to a curiously non-determinative ending.

We began in media res, a South America country, Santo Marco, undergoing riot in the streets, cars burning, people milling around, one of them John Drake, looking hot and bothered, his hair disarranged. The crowd permits a woman to pass through it into a cafe/bar, which is then sealed. From a balcony across the street, Drake sees this tall, dark-haired, elegant woman dispensing bulging white envelopes. Of course, these contain money, lots of it.

To spare you any of the beating about the bushes the episode provides, what is happening is that political agitation in Santa Marco is being paid for, as a preliminary for revolution to overthrow a Government that has done much to help this poor, backward country drag itself up by its bootstraps, not for any political principle but for simple greed: the Government is proposing to nationalise the oil fields and mines that make so much money for a rich, overseas, yes, British businessman and millionaire. Drake sets out to stop this.

The first part of the episode is incredibly bitty. Drake follows the dark-haired woman back to her office in London, at the Society for Cultural Relations with South America. She is Certhia Cooper (Jill Melford), though I heard it being pronounced as Sophia throughout and she and Drake have a waspish conversation in which he tries to get out of her who is behind the Society, whose money is being diverted from cultural things. When Certhia proves to be obstructive, Drake ropes in an old friend and former workmate (but not in his real job), who is not an editor in Fleet Stret. This is Pauline (Adrienne Corri, making a second and regrettably last appearance, looking rather nice in a kind of attractive rumpled style). Pauline is an old friend of Certhia, who despises the woman, is mock-jealous of Drake’s interest in her but who will provide vital evidence throughout the episode.

Drake proves to be a nuisance so he’s summoned to a meeting with the man behind it all, Lord Ammanford (the excellent Bernard Lee, whose presence stabilised the episode and raised it to a higher plane by his quiet solidity). For some reason, throughout this whole sequence, the cast seemed to swallow the name of Ammanford so that I couldn’t hear what they were saying until at least halfway through. Every other word was clear, so what story lies behind that oddity I’d love to know.

Anyway, Ammanford, who never speaks harshly, who professes admiration for Drake and his principles, more or less admits the accusations, but makes it plain that he will do nothing to change what he is doing. More pertinently, he makes it even more plain that he is very rich, and that that status gives him power in a great many spheres. He knows people, even including Drake’s real boss (Ammanford knows better than to fall for Drake’s cover at World Travel), Sir Joseph Manton, who more or less immediately closes Drake’s original assignment and sends him on a month’s leave.

And Ammanford makes it plain that he is untouchable. He can frustrate and block Drake, he can ruin him in any way he chooses, and Drake cannot touch him. We see that immediately as Drake is refused a seat on a half-empty plane to Santo Marco because it is full: on an airline of which Lord Ammanford is Chairman.

There will be many such obstacles, including physical ones. Drake will be beaten up, will be framed for drunk driving and possessing stolen property, taken into custody, his existence denied on the special Government telephone number that’s supposed to clear his way.

What Drake is doing is trying to find out about Lord Ammanford (name now spoken clearly), who he is, where he comes from, what has he done, and if there is anything that can be used as a lever against him. Even this is still bits and pieces, but it’s bits and pieces with a purpose. Facts are set up and slowly broken down. Ammanford is supposedly Peter Jones, from a small village in Wales (cue overhead shot of the Menai Bridge, the Straits and a far too brief glimpse of Snowdonia behind them). Posing as a writer doing a book about the Valley’s proud son, Drake uncovers loads of people who knew Peter Jones all his life, looked on him as a son, and describe him in completely contrasting and impossible terms. So Ammanford is not Peter Jones then, especially as Drake arrives at the remote farm in time for Peter Jones’ funeral. Who is he then? (and you were wondering what the episode title had to do with the price of fish).

This was where the episode lost it, and badly. Ammanford is married, very happily, a grandfather. His personal life has been built very securely and warmly, and he is Peter to the gently concerned Lady Ammanford, who comes from monied stock. And Ammanford ultimately turns out to be George Foster, a driver at a car hire firm in Birmingham. What’s more, he was a married man, with two children, when he met the future Lady Ammanford (who had a sister). And he still has a legally wedded wife and children, enjoying a lap of luxury so long as they keep their mouths shut, making the marriage to Lady Ammanford, who the Lord clearly loves and is dearly contented with, clearly bigamous.

But once that sole fact is established, the story wants nothing more to do with George Foster. Who he is, where he came from, how he became Peter Jones, how he met Lady A, how he kept the secret from her, what the significance of the sister is, none of these are addressed. The backstory has not so much got holes in it as it’s a dirty great lump of Swiss cheese.

Because all that matters is that Drake has got the goods. Even though Ammanford points out there’s not an editor would print, or even read that story, nor a businessman who profits off Ammanford that would listen to it. The Lord is insulated, the fact of his power rather than his wielding of it protects him absolutely. But he has not taken into account the one small, but in its way gaping hole in those defences: Lady Ammanford. She doesn’t know, and he cannot hurt her by allowing her to learn that the whole of her life with the husband who still means so much to her has been based on a horrific lie, but a lie that, Liberty Vallance style, has solidified into a warm truth. And Drake has prepared 200 photostats to be sent to as many prominent people as he can think of, if Ammanford doesn’t withdraw on the spot from Santo Marco: he cannot guarantee that Lady Ammanford will not get to hear of it.

Ammonford gives way. He admits to losing, a clearly galling prospect, saying Drake has won, but our man corrects him: he hasn’t won, the people of Santo Marco have won, and he departs, leaving the envelope of evidence with the erstwhile George Foster. It was a bluff, it’s the only copy. Equanimity will not be disturbed.

But what of the ladies? What of Certhia and Pauline (who was also a gem in this loosely constructed tale)? In keeping with its lack of concern for ‘peripherals’, we left them in the middle of things. Drake, on the run from the Police, has taken refuge with Pauline. Enter Certhia, looking for Drake over the matter of a bribe that has been suggested. Of course, if he can be exposed to the Police… He may be hiding in the bathroom but his jacket’s over the back of the couch. Certhia wants to leave, Pauline tries to keep her there, wants a girl-to-girl conversation but, when all else fails, resorts to grabbing Certhia, and starting a roll on the couch/floor catfight that we see far too little of for any sexual implications to be evoked, but which provides cover for Drake to retrieve his jacket and blow the gaff. And that’s it as far as they’re concerned. We dont even get to know who won. Cehia had the advantage of height and reach, but Pauline was in slacks so had greater manouevrabilty…

No, this was just typical of an episode whose key characeristic was loose plotting and dangling ideas. As long as the main story, the distant plight of Santo Marco, was solved, everything else could be discarded, unwanted. Overall, despite its good points, of which Bernard Lee was the most consistent, this was probably the worst episode I’ve seen thus far, though given the generally high level, it would be more accurate to say the least best.

Film 2019: The Battle of the River Plate


It’s back to the Powell/Pressburger box-set for this and the next Sunday, with the 1956 film The Battle of the River Plate. The film is about a notable naval engagement in the early months of World War 2. It is unusual in the Archers’ collection in being an entirely straight film, lacking any of the flair or fantasy that the pair usually brought to their roles, and it is also the earliest of their films that I saw, less than ten years after its making, in our first house at Brigham Street, in black and white on our old 405-line telly, on what must have been a Sunday afternoon.

The film breaks down into three phases. A voiceover explains the set-up: that in order to disrupt the British War Effort, the German Navy targeted merchant ships to deprive Britain of supplies and starve it out. The film begins with the sinking of the MS Africa Shell by the fast-moving, heavily armoured Admiral Graf Spee, underhe command of Captain Hans Langsdorf (Peter Finch). Africa Shell‘s Captain, Dove (Bernard Lee) is taken aboard the Graf Spee and treated decently and honorably by Langsdorf.

During the War, the Archers faced a lot of difficulty over their depiction of sympathetic Germans, and with Langsdorf we’re here again. But this is apparently an honest depiction: indeed, the film sets out to be as truthful to the actual facts as it can, basing itself on the book written by the real Captain Dove (who was a technial advisor and also played a minor role as a fellow prisoner of Captain Dove!)

The first part of the film takes place on the Graf Spee. Langsdorf gives Dove (and the audience) an exposition of their tactics and actual superiority, Dove is allowed to see a lot of the ship, before the rest of the prisoners are transferred abroad, after which we only see them in their cramped quarters, and hear the sinking of the MS Doric Star.

The scene switches to the South Alantic, off the coast of South Africa. A British hunting pack, consisting of Ajax (the flagship), Achilles and Exeter is under tthe command of Commodore Harwood (Anthony Quayle). Harwood has been studying the Graf Spee‘s movements and is convinced it will be heading for their waters. He draws up plans to attack, to split theGerman fire by having Ajax and Achilles attack one flank and Exeter the other.

There is a long, tense sequence as everyone stands ready and lookouts are constantly searching the horizon, until at last one sees smoke. This leads into the battle sequence, which takes up twenty minutes of the film, and is a pretty comprehensive depiction of every stage of the action, even though it’s telescoped from the hour the battle took in real life, with the first six minutes in real time.

The authenticity of the battle, and indeed of all the scenes at sea, in enhanced by the generous co-operation of the Royal Navy in lending actual ships, and even more so that Achilles was ‘played’ by the original ship, still functioning over fifteen years later (the same thing went for the Cumberland, which arrives late in the film).

Though Exeter is so badly damaged it has to withdraw, the attack forces the Graf Spee to flee, ending up in Montevideo, Uruguay, a neutral country. This signals the film’s third and most impressive phase, as the tension slowy rises over the outcome. The original audience, only a decade after the War’s end, would have knwn what was coming, but not perhaps the step by step details.

Because Uruguay is a neutral country, the International Conventions require that the Graf Spee is entitled to remain for such time as is needed to restore it to seaworthiness, but it may not receive any assistance towards making it fit for battle. The Germans want two to three weeks, the British and the French 24 hours. The Uruguayans, a small nation but a proud one, determinedly reject German protest and the implicit threat of international blackmail and the consequences of  German victory in the War.

What might happen is the subject of much debate and preparation. Harwood, newly promoted to Rear Admiral and knighted, analyses Langsdorf’s options and determines he will attempt to break out, under cover of night, and try to lose the British. Harwood’s squadron is enhanced by the arrival of Cumberland, but the clever spread of misinformation gives everyone in Montevideo the impression of a large British fleet lying in wait.

The climax comes on a bright Montevideo evening (the scenes of Montevideo harbour are filmed on location with thousands of local extras). American reporter Mike Fowler (Lionel Murton) provides a live commentary that is radioed to Ajax. Harwood decides to move in, despite the risk of infringing neutrality. Interned or sunk, either would be a massive blow to German propaganda.

Graf Spee sets out with a skeleton crew, followed by a German merchant vessel. It travells three miles, at sunset, and stops. A party of men are taken off. At 8.00pm exactly, the end of the Uruguayan ultimatum to depart, the ship is wracked with explosions from stem to stern. It has been scuttled. The Battle is over.

One historical fact is omitted from the film, though a final scene in which Dove, a fellow Captain, commiserates with the shaken and morose Langsdorf hints at it. In true Captain’s tradition, Langsdorf wanted to go down with his ship but was persuaded to return to shore to ensure his crew receied the amnesty due to them, and which is promised unasked in the film. Having secured this, Langsdorf committed suicide.

Though it lacks the characteristics we expect from a Powell/Pressburger film, and whilst it is a low-key film emotionally, led by the stiff upper lip, and an almost entirely masculine one, The Battle of the River Plate was all the better for being treated in this semi-documentary fashion. You can’t imagine any War film being made like this film now, for there are no personal stories, no heroic actions nor tragic deaths, the story is not milked for screen drama, and because it is true to what happened. This approach was needed, in respect for the men who fought the battle, and in respect for the audience of men who had lived what happened, if not in Ajax, Achilles or Exeter, then in other heavy and light cruisers, in battleships and destroyers, and merchant ships, only a little more than a decade, and knew the score. My Uncle was one.

In a way, it would have been better to have bypassed this film today, saved it for a month, for the Sunday of the week I am going to Portsmouth, to the Naval Dockyard, to see what I can of my father’s National Service in the Royal Navy. It would have set the scene remarkably well.

As for my memory of this being the first Archers film I saw, let me return at the last to Lionel Murton, as the American reporter, Mike Fowler, who gets the film’s last line. Murton was English/Canadian but, because of his accent, generally played Americans. This war film didn’t attract me much, but I recognised Murton with whom I was familiar for his role as sidekick to Dickie Henderson, a popular English comedian (popular with my parents, certainly, not least because he was clean), whose successful sitcom was one of those converted to comic strip form in, I think, TV Comic, which I read avidly back then.

Murton stayed in my mind because I knew him, and he iss an integral part of that final phase of the film, where one does not have to know how things end in order to feel the rising tension, as the diplomats plot and deflect, and the crowds wait to see what will happen.

The Battle of theRiver Plate was made because Powell and Pressburger couldn’t justify a trip to a South American film festival without it being a working holiday. Their partnership was coming towards an amicable end. They had suffered four successive commercial flops, but this would be a final success. The film was ready for release in 1955 but Rank held it back a year to have it selected as the Royal Film Command Performance. It was Britain’s fourth most popular film of the year.

And in its strange, deliberately stilted fashion, it is a minor masterpiece. There are better films (and worse) in this eleven-disc boxset, but I wouldn’t swap this for any of the omissions.

 

Film 2018: The Third Man


I have what I like to think of as a modestly eclectic film DVD collection. I like no one type of film, but I do have some categories. So far, we have had a sub-titled French film, a cult classic and an animation, so it seemed appropriate to close out the month with a classic Forties Black and White.

I chose The Third Man because I wanted a serious film, not a comedy. There are so many things which make this legendary film what it is, a near perfect example of what can no longer be done in cinema. Though it’s set in Vienna, and the Vienna of its year of production, 1949, making full use of the bombed out city, its ruins’ cleared grounds, its brokenness, though it stars two Americans and an Italian, in addition to Trevor Howard, though the city itself deserves a credit as a leading player, it is still a British film, and regarded as one of the very best we have ever produced.

And that shows it the film’s sense of restraint, it’s careful underplaying. There is much opportunity for melodrama, indeed the film’s story reeks of it, but director Carol Reed marshalls his cast into a naturalistic performance that echoes the sense of weariness, the post-War malaise, the overriding feeling that something once valued has gone out of the world, and that it is the time of the crooked, the selfish, the villainous, against which resistance is ultimately futile, because of the sheer volume of tarnished living that it faces.

My first exposure to The Third Man was, unusually, in print. The screenplay is by the noted novelist, Graham Greene, who prepared by writing a novella, to get right the atmosphere of seediness, decay and foolish romanticism. This was never meant to be published but was released as part of a Complete Works series, in which form I borrowed it from the Library. It is, curiously enough, the only Graham Greene I have ever read.

The film changes several things: originally, the ‘hero’ is Englishman Rollo Martins, who becomes American pulp western writer, Holly Martins when layed by Joseph Cotton, and Harry Lime, the villain, is also English. It is narrated by Major Calloway (Howard), and the ending is different, over which Greene had a major disagreement with Reed, and lost. Later, he agreed that Reed was completely right.

The Third Man is couched as a mystery. Holly Martins arrives in Vienna at the summoning of is lifeling friend, Harry Lime, who has offered the broke pulp writer a job. However, only hours before, Lime has been killed in a road accident outside his building. Martins attends his funeral, as do the beautiful Anna Schmidt, Lime’s actress lover, and Major Calloway, of International Police Headquarters, who is glad to see the back of Lime, a racketeer and black marketer.

Martins, who is as much a frustrated romantic, a white knight, as any of his western heroes, refuses to believe Calloway, indeed dismisses as unimportant anything Lime might have done, and determines to stay in Vienna to clear his friend’s name. And his amateur enquiries turn up person after person who advise him to leave Vienna, not to get involved in what is not his business. All of which make Martins the more determined to stay, especially as there appear to be discrepancies in the story. Lime was killed by a truck driven by his own driver, whilst with two friends, and certified dead by his own Doctor, arriving moments later. Did he die immediately or leave multiple messages for his friends? Was he carried to the sidewalk by two men, or three?

So far, so much pulp cliche, even down to Calloway’s ongoing exasperation at Martins’ interference. But Calloway isn’t some Chandler-esque corrupt cop, however much Martins wants to paint him as such. He’s a decent man who knows that Martins is wrong-headed, that he is ignorant, that he is blinded by his loyalty to his old friend.

And even before Calloway begins to open up Martins’ eyes for him, to give him free reign with the Lime file, to show that Lime is trading in black market penicillin, and is responsible for death and worse, Martins is falling deeper, coming to love Anna Schmidt.

Who wouldn’t? She’s a sweet, anxious, lovely-looking woman (Alida Valli, billed her as simply Valli, born a Baroness of an Austro-Hungarian family) who’s know in trouble with the authorities. The passport that identifies her as Austrian is a forgery, procured by Harry: in truth she is Czech, and as such falls under Russian authority, and will be repatriated once she is in their hands. Anna is lost at Harry’s death, as detached and weary as the stricken Vienna, a woman alone in need of assistance. Of course Holly falls for her. But Anna loves Harry, still. He is the only one for her.

And whilst all these standard ingredients are being combined to produce a familiar story, we are constantly being jerked out of it by Reed. There is the unfamiliarity of Vienna, emphasised continually by Austrian speech, untranslated (when Anna’s lodgings are raided by the police there is a splenetic response by her horrified landlady, rich in the shame of the police being in a house like hers, not a word of which I understand, but the whole sense of which I get), and by Reed’s constant intercutting of faces in close-shot, real faces, curious onlookers, looming before our eyes, their dead eyes looking in on what is happening.

But the point of The Third Man is to overturn all that. Harry Lime is guilty of everything they say of him, Holly Martins’ quest is as foolish as Major Calloway thinks it, and Harry Lime is not dead: he never has been.

Vienna is already a part of this film, but the scene of revelation brings the city into its sharpest focus. A drunk Holly, coming as close as he ever can to entertaining Anna, but at the same time realising how far he is from her heart, leaves her apartment in the dark of night, odd, harsh shadows filing the street like dark matter. A man hides in a doorway. Holly challenges him, expectinh some watcher, some spy trailing him. But Anna’s cat and a stray light from the window of a Viennese angry at Holly disturbing the night, reveals Orson Welles, Harry Lime, with a self-satisfied smirk.

Lime runs, his exaggerated shadow pumping elbows and knees against the wall of a curving street, and disappears into thin air in a deserted square. Or rather much thicker air: a disbelieving Caloway starts to believe once he sees the access to the Vienna sewers.

By now, the story has attained the elegant inevitability of a classic tragedy, though tragedy is supposed to be about the fall of a great man and there is nothing great about Harry Lime. He comes out of hiding to meet and talk with Holly on the famous Wiener Risenrad, the gigantic ferris wheel. Lime is smooth, cynical, callous, keeps addressing Holly impersonally but quasi-intimately as ‘old man’. He speaks of how easy it would be for him to kill Holly. He is still willing to cut Holly in, and will meet him any time, anywhere, without the Police.

And there’s that famous line about Switzerland and the cuckoo-clock, supplied by Welles himself, when the scene needed another few words for timing. Not original, not actually accurate, but a self-illuminating moment.

Martins has seen enough. In return for Major Calloway getting Anna out, safe and free, he will lead Lime into a trap. But Anna won’t go. She knows Lime is alive. She knows everything he’s done and she cares no more than he does, when set against her love for him. More than anything, however, she will not be the price for his betrayal. She tears up her new Passport, lets the train leave.

For a moment, Martins’ old romanticism returns. He can’t turn Lime in, wants to leave, now. En route to the airport, Calloway plays dirty one last time, a stopover at the children’s ward, the ones who ‘survived’ Lime’s watered-down penicillin. We don’t see them, we see the nuns, and Calloway, and Martins looking from cradle to cradle. That won’t ever happen in film again, where there is nothing too terrible, too wrenching to be seen. Really, we don’t need to see damaged children, we only need to hear how Joseph Cotton has Holly Martins say, “Ok, you win,”, but no-one will ever take that much of our hearts and imagination on trust, and we are the poorer for it.

So the trap is set up. Figures hide in the dark, An old man, with a stick, selling balloons in the night, with an ancient, gentle dignity that is all he retains, reminds us of the world we are observing. Anna enters the cafe to denounce Holly. When Harry comes to the back door, she warns him off.

There is a chase, across bomb-sites, through streets, into the sewers, the famous climax. Martins follows Calloway and the stolid, reliable Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), the right hand man who reads and enjoys Martins’ books. Lime twists and turns, he runs and jumps, he hides and dives, but the operation is too big, too detailed. All escapes are closed off. Inevitably, he crosses paths with Martins. Paine sees the danger, tries to protect the amateur, and is shot and killed by Lime. Calloway shoots and wounds Lime, who crawls away. Still the white knight, the lone gunman, the Oklahoma Kid, Holly takes Paine’s gun. Lime has found a stair but he is too weak to lift the grating. Calloway yells for Martins to kill Lime, he’s too dangerous, don’t take chances. Harry is anything but. He can either be taken or killed. He nods, once.

Thus we come to Harry Lime’s second funeral, same grave, same priest. Even the same mourners, in Anna and Holly. Calloway gives Martins a lift, to his plane. They drive past Anna, determinedly walking away. Martins asks to be let out, to wait for her. Calloway knows what is to come but leaves him there anyway. Holly waits by the side of the screen/avenue, as Anna walks along its centre until she draws level with him, and walks on, towards and past the camera. Martins lights a cigarette, throws the match down in dejection.

In Greene’s novella, she listens to him, leaving the door open. Reed and David Selnick, who had provided Cotton and Welles, refused the happy ending as artificial, and by heavens they were right, as Greene later acknowledged, whole-heartedly.

Thus The Third Man. I haven’t mentioned the photography, its use of angles, its contrast between light and deep shadow that makes every image a patchwork, so much hidden, so much exposed. For years, his aficionados have claimed that Welles undertook large parts of the direction, encouraged by hints from Welles that he later, properly, dispelled, but it’s true that the film could not exist as it does without Citizen Kane and its look.

And there is the famous soundtrack, composed and played by one man and one instrument, the hitherto unknown Anton Karas, discovered by Reed playing in a Viennese Heuriger, or wine-bar, and catapulted to a world-wide fame he never wanted or enjoyed. Karas’s soundtrack is the indelible sound of Vienna, and his ‘Harry Lime Theme’ an astonishing world-wide best seller.

A brilliant film deserving of all its reputation, a seemingly conventional murder mystery turned on its head and exploded, a story about the conflict between love, loyalty and duty to things bigger than yourself, a portrait of a time and place that we respond to with a misdirected romanticism of our own, even as, on the surface, we hope it will never come again, though a part of us wants to walk those streets and cast our own shadows, greater than ourselves, without dying for it in a sewer, whose smell is sweeter than our own crimes.