Time for a change this year, methinks.
I also share a birthday with R&B star Akon, whose hilarious collaboration with The Lonely Island, 'I Just Had Sex', is presented here for your viewing pleasure:
Time for a change this year, methinks.
I also share a birthday with R&B star Akon, whose hilarious collaboration with The Lonely Island, 'I Just Had Sex', is presented here for your viewing pleasure:
The title story is about a youth named Smith who is sent to Borstal after robbing a bakery. Borstals were youth prisons in the UK (named after the village near Rochester where the first one was established in 1902), which housed delinquent offenders under the age of 23. The Borstal model was abolished in 1982 when the Criminal Justice Act 1982 made provision for youth custody centres. The controversial British TV play ‘Scum’, written by Roy Minton (remade as a feature film when the original was banned), was an attack on the Borstal system.
Smith (his first name is never mentioned, rendering him effectively an Everyman given that Smith is the most common surname in the UK) demonstrates an affinity for cross-country running which, as he ruminates early in the story, is “a bit rare, having long-distance cross-country runners in Borstal, thinking that the first thing a long-distance cross-country runner would do when they set him loose at them fields and woods would be to run as far away from the place as he could get on a bellyful of Borstal slum-gullion”. Therefore, seeing an attempt to bolster his own reputation as a progressive jailer, the governor coerces Smith into competing for the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup For Long-Distance Cross-Country Running (All England), a prize that the gangly-limbed and fleet-footed Smith could win with his eyes closed. If he wanted to …
Essentially a first-person stream of consciousness, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ probes Smith’s mind as he reaches his anti-establishment decision. Whipsmart, attitudinous, cunning as a fox with criminal tendencies and blessed with, to quote William Ernest Henley, an “unconquerable soul”, Smith is perhaps Sillitoe’s greatest working class rebel. Even Arthur Seaton accepts the reality of lifetime at his capstan lathe, with booze, birds and brawling as the raison d’etre of the weekend. Smith accepts nothing, nor does he complain or seek to the shift the blame when the establishment demands recompense of him. Smith is the patron saint of everyone who has ever said “fuck you” to authority and lived it!
Most of the other stories are “slice of life” vignettes. ‘Uncle Ernest’ is about a lonely middle-aged man who befriends two prepubescent girls and starts buying them treats, seeing in them the daughters he never had. His intentions are purely good-hearted, but two bullying policemen warn him to stay away from them, their groundless assertion that “we know all about you” awakening in Ernest a guilt for something never done, never even contemplated, and yet a guilt so great that his final refuge is “through the swing doors [of] the crowded and noisy bar of a public house, his stare fixed by the beautiful heavily baited trap of beer pots that would take him into the one and only best kind of oblivion”. It’s a heartbreaking piece, more so for Sillitoe’s depiction of how the sisters, once they’ve cottoned on his generosity, start taking advantage of him.
‘Mr Raynor the School-Teacher’ starts off as a wry portrait of a man settling into the dull routine of work and the tedium of marriage, whiling away his life bullying his class into silence, the better to gaze at the buxom young woman who works at the haberdashery shop across the street. It’s only by the final paragraphs that Sillitoe plays his hand and the small collection of pieces cohere themselves into a picture of loss and helplessness.
‘The Fishing Boat Picture’ treads similar territory, chronicling the aftermath of a couple splitting up. Ostensibly, the man – Harry – seems content enough to live alone. He settles into the routine of work; reads his books; smokes his pipe. The picture of the title – the remaining item from a triptych (the other two broken during vicious arguments) – serves as an epitaph for their relationship. Then his estranged wife reappears on the scene and asks for it back. Harry relinquishes the picture philosophically enough, only to discover the next day that she’s pawned it. The story is a study in regret and ends unexpectedly.
The young lads in ‘Noah’s Ark’ are less like Ernest, Harry or Mr Raynor, and more like teeny versions of Smith in the title story. They skive off school, head to the Goose Fair (a yearly funfair that occupies a large recreational ground in Nottingham), cadge pennies for rides, pick up drop cigarettes, swear, sing rude songs and engage in the odd bit of petty theft. When their ill-gotten finances run out, they take to playing a dangerous game on the mechanical ride of the title, trying to ride for free while evading the bullish owner. Think ‘Emperor of the North’ with a little kid instead of Lee Marvin, a carnival ride instead of the train but still with Ernest Borgnine as Ernest Borgnine and you’ve pretty much got ‘Noah’s Ark’. It’s also an effective study of peer pressure and complicity, and captures that moment when a prank ceases to be a prank and becomes an altogether more serious matter.
A similarly young protagonist is the narrator of ‘On Saturday Afternoon’. Left out of a trip to the cinema, he passes the time roaming the back alleys of his hardscrabble neighbourhood. Overhearing subdued looking man accounting for the coil of rope he’s carrying with the blunt statement of purpose “It’s to ’ang missen with”, the boy follows him out of curiosity. Thus he becomes witness to (and complicit in) a suicide attempt.
I’d be tempted to call ‘On Saturday Afternoon’ the jewel in the crown after the title story, were it not for the poisoned brilliance of ‘The Match’. Storywise, there’s not much to it: Lennox attends a Saturday afternoon football match with his mate Fred, becomes increasingly morose at the poor conditions (a murky fog renders much of the game unwatchable) and outright angry at the final score, which sees Notts County lose pitifully at home (fifty-three years after Sillitoe wrote ‘The Match’, Notts County aren’t doing much better). Lennox’s belligerence is at odds with Fred’s happy-go-lucky demeanour. Fred goes home to his new bride and makes the most of the rest of his weekend. Lennox, however, goes home and deliberately picks a fight with his wife. What Sillitoe pinpoints here is the moment when somebody does something for pure spite, knowing full well what they’re doing and how destructive the outcome will be, but pathetically unable to stop themselves. It’s a horribly realistic and psychologically accurate piece of writing.
Relationships are at the centre of ‘The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale’, Sillitoe here contrasting a volatile romantic relationship with the smothering influence of a mother unable to give up her son to the realities of growing up, life, love and the outside world. Mrs Scarfedale is a pinafore-wearing, house-proud Midlands version of Mrs Bates, constricting Jim with the taut knots of the apron-strings. Like ‘Noah’s Ark’ and ‘On Saturday Afternoon’, the story also deals with complicity.
The collection ends on an unexpectedly poignant note with ‘The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller’ which seems, for its first few pages, to be a back-streets of Nottingham vignette that could have been an early sketch for ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, but suddenly reveals itself as a nakedly autobiographical work.
The nine stories here add up to little more than 170 pages, yet ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ is a major book. Sillitoe’s ability to evoke a time and place is faultless; his dialogue has the rough-hewn poetry of real working class life. His characters rage and struggle, tearing themselves fully-formed from the page even though their creator has sketched them with deceptively few sentences. Sillitoe gets inside their heads. He understands them. He makes them all too familiar. Disturbingly familiar at times. And therein lies the genius.
Actually, scratch “revisit”. Two nights ago I watched ‘Straight on Till Morning’ for the first time. It’s one of those films that’s been on my radar for a while but which, for reasons I can’t even fathom, I’d never got round to seeing. All I can say is I’m glad I made the effort: a disturbing and multi-faceted film, I’ll be posting a review tomorrow.
In addition to the Hammer productions, I’ll be rounding off Shane Briant week with a look at his appearance in the ‘Sweeney’ episode “Chalk and Cheese” (he’s on the subject of one of Inspector Regan’s most memorable arrests).
First up, though, Robert Kenchington’s biographical volumes. These glossy, lavishly illustrated volumes (available online here), provide an excellent introduction to Briant’s career for the newcomer as well as offering a wealth of archive material – including many stills from the actor’s own collection – sure to be of interest to the seasoned Briant fan.It’s perhaps some marker of how critically overlooked Briant remains amongst his contemporaries (although the hero’s welcome he regularly receives at events tells a different story!) that Kenchington’s books together form the first biographical overview of his life and work.
‘A Talent for Terror’ succinctly guides the reader from Briant’s early triumphs onstage (his Hamlet was compared to Gielgud’s and Redgraves) to his iconic work at Hammer, a big-screen proving ground that gave him the springboard to appearances in big Hollywood productions. His small screen work in timeless ’tec shows ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Van Der Valk’ is also considered.
‘The Hammer Years’ does exactly what it says on the cover and considers ‘Straight on Till Morning’, ‘Demons of the Mind’, ‘Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter’ and ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’. As such, the stills on offer in this volume capture Briant at his most iconic (and, sometimes, demonic); better still, Kenchington’s informed analyses of the films are peppered with witty and evocative recollections from Briant himself.
Behind this inimically voyeuristic setting and its magnificently lurid title (a literal translation from ‘Nude … Si Muore’), Antonio Margheriti’s pacy and entertaining giallo is a classic whodunit bracketed firmly in the Agatha Christie tradition … only with a surfeit of jailbait in the kind of short skirts that immediately identify ‘Naked You Die’ as a film made in 1968. That it was released in some territories as ‘The Miniskirt Murders’ tells you all you need to know.
Things begin with the murder of a woman who remains unidentified until the final act. She’s naked when the killer strikes (in the bath), thus justifying the title. It is, however, one of the primmest bits of exploitation you’re ever likely to see, with nary a nipple or a glimpse of the delta of Venus to be seen. (Later, when another victim buys it in a shower – also unclothed – they fall with such balletic grace as to wind an entire shower curtain around their body.) The corpse is bundled into a trunk, the trunk strapped to the roof-rack of a taxi, transported to a station, manhandled onto a train, and finally transferred to a mini-van for the last stretch of the journey to St Hilda’s. Where it – and its grisly contents – are then shunted offstage for a good hour and twenty minutes.
In the meantime, we’re introduced to some of the girls: high-spirited wannabe crime-writer Jill (Sally Smith), stuck-up Betty Ann (Caterina Trentini), sexually precocious Lucille (Eleonora Brown) and her loyal friend Denise (Patrizia Valturri). Lucille is carrying on with riding teacher Richard Barrett (Mark Damon), much to the chagrin of equestrian Betty Ann. Denise knows all about it but is sworn to secrecy. Jill, though popular, pisses off the staff right royally with her tall tales and tendency to melodrama.
And speaking of the staff, a quick round-up: there’s headmistress Miss Transfield (Vivian Stapleton), newly promoted Miss Martin (Ester Masing), recently arrived relief teacher Miss Clay (Ludmila Lvova), the aforementioned Barrett, the elderly Professor Andre (Aldo de Carellis) and groundskeeper La Floret (Luciano Pigozzi). Miss Transfield tuttingly disapproves of Barrett’s popularity with the girls, Miss Martin owes her promotion to an implied dalliance with Miss Transfield, and La Floret gets his jollies spying on the girls’ shower room.
Not the kind of place you’d want to pack your daughter off to. And even less so once the murders start and the stately Inspector Durand (Michael Rennie) and his sidekick Detective Gabon (Franco de Rosa) turn up and ploddingly start putting the pieces together as the body count increases.
Between Fausto Zuccoli’s opulent widescreen cinematography, Carlo Savina’s jauntily inappropriate score (the sleazy saxophone as La Floret peeps on a disrobing Lucille predates just about every 1980s soft-core/erotic thriller soundtrack ever written), and a stratospherically high eye-candy quotient – look out for the achingly gorgeous Silvia Dionisio (she of ‘Waves of Lust’ fame) in a supporting role – it’s difficult to keep your eye on the ball, never mind an eleventh hour revelation of a crucial inheritance that tips you off to the why if not the who.
As well as being thoroughly entertaining and solidly made, ‘Naked You Die’ toys with identity, perception and gender confusion in a way that lays the groundwork for, amongst others, the two great gialli of Dario Argento’s mid-period majesty: ‘Deep Red’ and ‘Tenebre’. At the other end of the spectrum, Andrea Bianchi’s unapologetically seedy ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ also owes it a debt of dishonor. The sacred and the profane: ‘Naked You Die’ can claim one hell of a birthright.
We're hoping to have a website up and running by early next month; I'll post a link when it goes live. In the meantime, The Sillitoe Project continues here on The Agitation of the Mind next week with a review of 'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner'.
Sidney Lumet had a run of straight-up masterworks during the 70s which included ‘The Offence’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Network’. All are dynamic, character-driven and provide investigations into their protagonists’ state of mind. In particular, ‘The Offence’ and ‘Serpico’ are probing and disquieting enquiries into police work and moral compromise. Their main characters are a study in opposites. Whereas, in ‘The Office’, Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery) is a man in psychological meltdown who finally crosses the line during the interrogation of a suspected child molester, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is an idealistic but ambitious New York cop who admits early on that he’s looking for a fast-track to promotion, but whose sense of morality is challenged at every turn by cynicism, apathy and corruption.
Adapted by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler from Peter Maas’s biography of Serpico, Lumet’s film kicks off in high gear with a police car tearing through the nocturnal streets, Serpico in the back seat, shot and bleeding badly. When word reaches the station house, the first comment is, “Wonder if a cop did it.”
It sets the tone. Lumet flashes back to Serpico as a rookie, his strict moral code soon coming to the fore. Partnered with an older cop who doesn’t bother to respond when the dispatcher puts out a call about a rape in progress, Serpico hauls ass to the scene. There are four perpetrators: three escape. Serpico collars the fourth. Back at the station, the youth takes a kick to the balls and a beating with a telephone directory. Serpico has no part of it.
As he tries to establish a career, moving to plainclothes assignments and taking courses in fingerprint analysis, he gets a worm’s-eye view of corruption, from bribe-taking to pay-offs. His friend Tom Keough (Jack Kehoe), who was wangled a mayor’s office assignment thanks to political connections, becomes Serpico’s unlikely ally as he tries to take his concerns through the proper channels while at the same time protecting himself. A string of transfers convinces him that corruption is endemic across the force; and as the higher-ups increasingly stonewall him, he realizes that it encompasses many levels.
Coming a year after his flawless performance as Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather, and with his reprisal of the role in ‘The Godfather Part II’ still a year away, ‘Serpico’ basically sealed the deal for Al Pacino, confirming him as one of the great acting talents in contemporary American cinema. Lumet surrounded him with a wealth of great character actors: John Randolph, Tony Roberts, John McQuade (in his final role) and M Emmet Walsh. Even the uncredited swathe of the cast list contains F Murray Abraham, Judd Hirsh and Tony Lo Blanco.
Does anything need to be said about Pacino’s performance. He’s unafraid to delve into the personal consequences of Serpico’s rigid morality, showing him venting his frustrations on the women in his life, losing the flamboyant Leslie (Cordelia Sharpe) and driving away the loyal Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young) as he vents the frustrations of the job on her. He also captures, with chilling immediacy, Serpico’s professional isolation, culminating in a scene where Serpico goes into a drug den only to find himself (quite literally) trapped and facing down the business end of a small calibre gun while his colleagues hang back and let him take a bullet.
Lumet’s direction is unshowy and unobtrusive – a hallmark of his career. He makes superb use of the location work. There is also a great understanding at work of the dynamics of mise en scene, particularly in a scene where Serpico is upbraided by a group of fellow cops during an off-the-record meeting in a park. Lumet contrasts the uncluttered openness of the exterior with a sequence of shots where the heads of Serpico’s colleagues fill the screen, their cheap shirts and bad ties all but out of shot. What remains is the hatred in their eyes. It’s one of the best representations I’ve seen of someone being surrounded.
Lumet pulled off a comparable seen a couple of decades later in ‘Night Falls on Manhattan’ where Andy Garcia is the only character seated as a group of men in suits surround him, firing off questions. There’s the obvious metaphor of standing (as in “standing in judgement”), but more than this Lumet frames the shot to cut off Garcia’s questioners at shoulder-height: effectively, they’re faceless.
‘Night Falls on Manhattan’ was underrated, as was ‘Q&A’ – unjustly so – but both demonstrate that Lumet’s fascination with the machinations of bureaucracy and the moral compromises of the law and those who are entrusted to withhold it were lifelong concerns. Lumet’s swansong, ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’, was again a crime thriller, shot on the streets with a fierce realism, and proved that the man never lost his edge. Cinema is poorer for losing him.
Shout it loud, then, that the rest of ‘True Grit’ is just as good. Going back to the morality (and almost comedic absurdity) of Charles Portis’s novel, the Coens get it intuitively right in every aspect that Hathaway got it wrong. Gone the wooden characterisation of LaBoeuf by Glen Campbell; in its place, a fine and entertainingly self-deprecating supporting performance courtesy of Matt Damon. Gone the missing-the-point casting of then 22-year old Kim Darby as the 14-year old narrator and all-too-young heroine Mattie Ross; in its place a simply remarkable turn from Hailee Steinfeld, authentically 14 at the time of shooting, and yet inhabiting the skin of her character with a depth of nuance and a genuine screen presence that many seasoned performers three times her age would weep to achieve.
But it’s Steinfeld who comes out of nowhere and provides the emotional core of every scene she’s in – which is basically the whole movie! That she came away empty-handed on Oscar night is a crime.