There were 37 different films shown in Film Forum’s spectacular “Brit Noir” retrospective. I managed to see ten of them and sincerely regret having missed the rest — even those few I’d seen before. Camping out in the lobby, washing up in the men’s room, subsisting on refreshment-stand popcorn and pizza ordered in…this series might have been worth it.
(Six other noir or noir-ish films, all starring James Mason, were shown on successive Mondays from Aug. 17 through Sept. 12 in a “Mason Most Noir” series celebrating the great actor’s centennial. Of these, I saw only The Reckless Moment. The immortal Odd Man Out, also starring James Mason, is having its own two-week run from Sept. 4-17.)
SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948, dir. Lewis Allen) – Of all the “Brit Noir” films I saw, this was the most emotionally compelling. The femme fatale is a familiar figure in the noir cycle: Think Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. But here Ray Milland is the homme fatale who seduces impoverished widow Ann Todd into a criminal conspiracy. He engineers her hiring as a companion to unhappy aristocrat Geraldine Fitzgerald (beautiful and intense), who’s being driven to suicidal despair by the neglect of cold, aloof husband Henry Courtney. The deepening bond between the two women, their unavoidable caring and affection, runs parallel to Milland’s cynical manipulations of the fearful but desperately hopeful Todd. But don’t worry, Ray gets his… The various plot complications (bond theft, blackmail, Courtney’s accidental-death-that-looks-like-murder, etc.) play out in a late-Victorian period setting, expertly photographed with appropriate gas-lit gloom by one Mutz Greenbaum (a/k/a Max Greene).
SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950, dir. Anthony Darnborough & Terence Fisher) – Pretty good, not great. An English brother and sister (David Tomlinson and Jean Simmons) arrive in Paris for the Great Exposition of 1889, check into their hotel, spend the night on the town, and retire to their rooms for the night. When Simmons awakes, she finds that not only has Tomlinson disappeared but so has his room: there’s a wall where there had been a door. Meanwhile, the polite but unyielding French couple who run the place insist that she checked in alone (and the police concur, at least initially).
With only the help of expatriate British painter Dirk Bogarde, Simmons now must find potential witnesses to her brother’s presence, one of whom is a housemaid (or maybe she was a seamstress) who’s due to join her boyfriend for a hot-air balloon ride that very day. In a memorable and deftly directed sequence, Simmons races to the airfield and plunges through the crowd to reach this woman just as the balloon casts off, floats aloft…then catches fire and plummets to earth. The action later moves to a creepy nun-run convent hospital where the missing brother is…well, let’s just say that bubonic plague may not have been completely eradicated in France by the late 19th century.
THE CLOUDED YELLOW (1951, dir. Ralph Thomas) – Trevor Howard returns from an unspecified spy mission and reports “a bit of trouble” to his boss at British Intelligence, which sure sounds like he’s killed someone he shouldn’t have. Relieved of his duties and his gun, cast out into the job market (but with his former employer keeping tabs), Howard takes a gig as a live-in assistant to butterfly collector Barry Jones (the title refers to the species Colias corcea), who lives with wife Sonia Dresdel and their troubled orphan niece Jean Simmons on a isolated rural estate.
THE OCTOBER MAN (1947, dir. Roy Baker) and THE GREEN COCKATOO (1937, dir. William Cameron Menzies) – A double bill of films starring John Mills (1908-2005), the acclaimed English thespian and the father of my first shiksa crush, Hayley Mills (I was nine, she was fourteen, the world was young…). Mills is more convincing in the title role of The October Man (a suicidal depressive wrongly accused of murder in his shabby/genteel rooming house) than as a quasi-George Raft vaudevillian with underworld connections in the tepid, static Green Cockatoo, where he comes to the aid of an innocent country girl accused of killing a hoodlum. (Sound familiar?) The earliest entry in the “Brit Noir” series, Cockatoo‘s threadbare production values made The October Man look like Gone With The Wind.
NOOSE (1948, dir. Edmund T. Greville) – The opening shot: a smudged and tattered poster flaps in the stiff London breeze: “WE’RE UP AGAINST IT – IT’S WORK OR WANT.” This is the scene I singled out when my wife asked me to describe the differences between the US and UK noirs of the late Forties. Some scholars will dispute my characterization, probably with plentiful evidence, but my sense of (many of) the American films is of a chain of events that (or disturbed individual who) disrupts or upsets an overall atmosphere of rising prosperity, of relief that the war is over, that the combat-weary veteran has been returned to peacetime society and reunited with family. Meanwhile, back in Blighty, the industrial base has been destroyed, rationing is still in full effect, and an impoverished urban working class is living amid heaps of rubble left over from the Blitz.
Another major distinction is the archetypal character of the “spiv.” American movie gangsters could be cunning and canny but also had to be physically intimidating to a greater or lesser extent. But the spiv, as superbly portrayed here by Nigel Patrick, is a rather elegant gent who lives by his wits; when he needs muscle, he’s got to call in reinforcements.
This fast-paced and highly entertaining film is set in an East End underworld fueled by a busy black market in…uh, almost everything but especially ration cards. Carole Landis is a wisecracking American reporter working at a stolid British paper who investigates a young woman’s drowning in the Thames by hit men from crime boss Joseph Calleia’s gang. (In the poster image at right, the Calleia character of Sugiani is inside the noose.) Meanwhile, her just-discharged English boyfriend Derek Farr rounds up members of a local boxing club to go on the warpath against Calleia’s diverse enterprises. The latter’s heavy Italian accent and fumbling attempts at female seduction lends a comic edge to his menacing mien as the snappy dialogue flows fast and furious. More great cinematography, too — a terrific picture and sadly the one of the last films to feature Carole Landis. She committed suicide at age 29, the same year that Noose was released, reportedly as the culmination of an unhappy love affair with British actor Rex Harrison, who’d refused to divorce his wife Lilli Palmer.