When I watch The Servant, it’s always the voice of Cleo Laine singing “All Gone” that echoes around my head for hours. John Dankworth’s smoky torch song is as integral to Joseph Losey’s haunting psychological drama as Barrett, the unctuous manservant played by Dirk Bogarde, or Harold Pinter’s trenchant script.
Nearly 50 years after The Servant was first released, that combination of mellow voice, strings and lyrics filled with regret – “Leave it alone. It’s all gone” – remains irresistible. For Tony, the hapless bachelor so brilliantly played by James Fox, it’s the melodious accompaniment to his fireside lovemaking with Susan (Wendy Craig). By the end of the film it has turned into something horribly discordant – those stabbing strings mocking his decline into a life of booze and degradation, orchestrated by the manipulative Barrett. Tony can smash the record player, but he can’t shut off the sound of his own destruction.
Though there’s a lot more to The Servant than one song, it’s a good indication of how everything we see (and hear) is perfectly calibrated by Losey, Pinter and their collaborators. From the moment Barrett first arrives at the terraced house just off the King’s Road, Chelsea, those ticking and chiming clocks are hard to ignore. Like Douglas Slocombe’s immaculate black and white photography, the timepieces contribute to the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere. When you add the exaggerated sound of a dripping tap and Barrett’s enormous shadow looming from the upper floors, The Servant would have made a great horror movie.
These days you’ll find more polyglot nannies in Chelsea than bowler-hatted Barretts, but this dissection of the shifting balance of power between callow master and wily servant remains fascinating. Dirk Bogarde dominates proceedings, of course, even when he’s offscreen. But it’s a measure of his greatness that he doesn’t completely overshadow the contributions of James Fox, Sarah Miles or Wendy Craig. The homoerotic subtext of the Tony/Barrett relationship has been much discussed, but there are only glimpses of camp when they squabble over domestic arrangements. The enduring power of this film lies in the fact that Barrett and his seductive “sister” Vera (played by Sarah Miles) remain unreadable and unknowable.
Far from being a sterile exercise in art house film-making, The Servant delights in sly humour – from the lingering shot of Thomas Crapper’s sanitary ware emporium, to an absurd conversation about ponchos and capes. Made four years later, Accident also has its lighter moments, as Losey and Pinter examine hypocrisy and infidelity amongst a group of middle-class academics.
Accident was adapted by Pinter from the novel by Nicholas Mosley, and visually it is the antithesis of the earlier film. We’ve moved from austere, wintry west London to the glories of an Oxford summer – punting, cricket, tennis and Sunday lunches that last all day. Bogarde and Stanley Baker play a pair of middle-aged dons who share a mutual interest in a beautiful but vacuous Austrian student (played by the very French Jacqueline Sassard). Her other suitor William (Michael York), supplies the doomed upper-class element in a story that begins with a fatal car crash and then shows the betrayals that led up to it.
Accident is a dazzling and seductive piece of film-making that gives Bogarde another excellent role as the conflicted Philosophy tutor, Stephen. Married with two kids and another on the way, he appears simultaneously entrenched in and detached from his world of privilege and beauty. He’s also frustratingly passive in the face of boorish behaviour by Baker’s character, Charley. There’s something theatrical about a film that locates many of its key moments – a birth, a violent death, illicit sex – offscreen. Like Stephen, the viewer is never quite in the right place at the right time, leaving many questions unanswered.
Unlike conventional romantic dramas, Accident doesn’t move towards an emotionally satisfying resolution to the web of tangled relationships. Sequences like Stephen’s meeting with old flame Francesca (Delphine Seyrig) don’t unfold in the way you might expect. So instead of a conventional montage, scored with appropriate mood music, we get pictures and dialogue that are jarringly out of sync. Even more startling is a conversation between Stephen and his wife Rosalind (played by Pinter’s wife Vivien Merchant) that takes place at the end of a long garden. When the reverse shot suddenly reveals that they’re also sitting right next to a river, it’s as though we’ve just cut to a completely different day and location.
Dirk Bogarde is far too cerebral to rank with mainstream 60s cultural icons like The Beatles, James Bond and Michael Caine. But the two emotionally complex films he made with Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter prove that style and substance weren’t mutually exclusive in that “swinging” decade.
A digitally restored print of The Servant was shown as part of the 27th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.
“Once upon a time in South Central . . .” Opening with police sirens, screeching tyres and the first of innumerable F-words, the aural landscape of David Ayer’s End of Watch seems very familiar. This LA-set police drama is not a radical reworking of the genre, but it does provide some new angles on a career in law enforcement. That’s partly because the “found footage” style of camera work allows the audience to walk (and run) in the footsteps of two very likeable LAPD officers.
Officer Brian Taylor (a shaven-headed, bulked-up Jake Gyllenhaal) and his Mexican-American partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) work out of Newton Division. Brian is studying film-making (as part of a Pre-Law course), so he’s constantly recording and commentating both during and after their shifts. Inside the patrol car it’s all banter and male bonding, as these buddies riff about their women – “Dude are you gonna hook up with a Mexican girl?” – and their aspirations. Outside, they save two kids from their crack-addicted parents, tackle a huge blaze and get into an impromptu fight with the angry “Mr Tre”.
For about half an hour, End of Watch reminded me of TV’s Southland, with its hand-held filming, dry humour and emphasis on routine crimes. But there is more going on here than ride-alongs and Brian’s budding romance with the perky Janet (played by Anna Kendrick). The opening scene shows our gung-ho heroes in a high-speed pursuit that ends with two men dead. That same fearless approach informs their later discovery of a house of horrors that is linked to drugs, people trafficking and a Mexican cartel. Warned that there is a hit out on them, a smiling Brian points out that everyone wants to kill them. Soon complacency gives way to panic in the bravura, all-guns-blazing, blood-soaked climax.
Writer-director Ayer’s previous films include Training Day, Dark Blue and Street Kings, so he’s certainly on familiar ground with the LAPD. The actors had several months of preparation for their roles and it has paid off – the Taylor-Zavala partnership is the linchpin of the movie. The softly spoken Gyllenhaal brings more self-confidence and physical presence than you might expect to his part as an ambitious young officer. Equally watchable is Peña, who wrings every ounce of humour out of Ayer’s droll script. David Harbour relishes his lines as veteran cop Van Hauser, the duo’s main antagonist: “Bad guys attack from the front. Department comes in from the rear.”
After Brian’s opening voice-over – “I am fate with a badge and gun” – I was worried that there would be excessive mythologizing of the LAPD here. Ayer’s film is certainly a long way from the LA of The Shield, where corruption and brutality are the only effective way to tackle crime. But I found it refreshing to have two heroes who aren’t weighed down by cynicism and tormented by inner demons.
With strong performances, a sharp script and some full-on action sequences, End of Watch is an entertaining ride. Its weak point is a narrow focus that never gives us much background on the cartel or its impact on the community. This is about the survival of two cops, rather than an examination of organised crime or the shifting demographics of 21st-century LA. So the local Mexican “enforcers” who eventually come after Taylor and Zavala prove to be annoying, incompetent and foul-mouthed, to the point where I wanted to mute them. The incessant use of the same expletive may be realistic, but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing.
Director Jacques Audiard describes Rust and Bone, his widely acclaimed follow-up to A Prophet, as a “gritty melodrama”. I wonder whether something got lost in translation. On paper, there is plenty here that would excite the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro González Iñárritu – bloody street fights, graphic sex scenes and a beautiful woman maimed by a killer whale. Yet Audiard’s low-key direction and refusal to choose gloss over substance ensure this unflinching drama never strays into soap-opera territory.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) travels from Belgium to Antibes with his five-year-old son Sam (the appealing Armand Verdure) to stay with his sister. Anna (Corinne Masiero) takes an interest in her vulnerable nephew, though that hardly makes up for Ali’s erratic parenting skills. A former boxer and kickboxer, the burly single dad veers between neglect (regularly forgetting to pick Sam up from school) and physical cruelty (shaking the terrified child when he’s disobedient). He’s well qualified for his new job as a nightclub bouncer, where he comes to the aid of Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard). She’s just been hit in the face during a brawl, and Ali stuns her with another clumsy (verbal) blow: “You’re dressed like a whore.” It’s hardly an auspicious start.
Tellingly, our first glimpse of Steph is her bare legs sprawled on the nightclub floor. She loses the bottom half of those limbs following an accident at Marineland, where she revels in her job as a whale trainer. Like the orca pool, disability can be dangerous cinematic territory, but Audiard spares us the full horror of the incident and its aftermath. So Rust and Bone finds beauty – even serenity – as the camera delves beneath the surface to show wreckage, a drifting body and a cloud of blood.
That same narrative restraint extends into Steph’s painful rehabilitation and growing dependence on Ali as a friend, supporter and part-time lover. The scenes in which Steph takes her first post-amputation swim and later removes her artificial legs to have sex with Ali, could have been sentimental, prurient or just plain weird. Audiard pulls them off with minimal dialogue and a reliance on Schoenaerts and Cotillard to find the emotional truth without embarrassment.
Though it doesn’t start out as a cerebral or deeply romantic relationship, Ali and Steph seem to understand that each needs their physical outlet in order to survive. Her self-image has been constructed around her need to be watched – both by her lovers and in the performance of her job. As she embraces one of her beloved orcas from the “safe” side of the tank, you can almost see the internal healing process. Similarly, Ali rejoices in the pain as well as the payouts that go with his masochistic sideline in street fighting.
Shorn of its usual cinematic glamour, the Côte d’Azur is shown here as just another recession-hit backwater – albeit with better beaches. Audiard and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine have a fondness for point of view shots, huge close-ups and camera angles that are sometimes perverse. So Ali’s first glimpse of the coastline at Antibes isn’t a breath-taking vision of blue ocean but a quick skim across the horizon from just over his right shoulder. A little later, he wakes from nap on the beach and the foreground of the frame is entirely filled by Steph’s giant nipples. Subtle it isn’t. But there are beautiful images here too, including the symphony of glossy black skin and foam as the whales go through the diving routine that precedes the accident.
Ali’s involvement in illegal surveillance seems like an unnecessary subplot here, put in purely to engineer a massive bust-up with his sister. They could have just fallen out over his treatment of Sam. But this is a minor fault in a film that knows exactly where it’s going from the moment Ali and Steph first meet, yet still keeps you wondering whether it will deliver the big emotional pay-off.
Marion Cotillard already has an Oscar for the baffling and convoluted La Vie en Rose, but I found her performance here far more impressive and affecting. When Steph loses her legs she is literally cast adrift – professionally and personally – and it’s fascinating to watch Cotillard rebuild this woman from the ground up. As her unlikely saviour, Matthias Schoenaerts gives us a man of many contradictions whose heart finally proves to be as reliable as his fists.
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan may have been thinking about The Titfield Thunderbolt when he made his often misquoted “never had it so good” speech in 1957. Released four years earlier, Ealing’s first colour film is an unabashed celebration of post-war optimism, community spirit, the glories of rural England, and the romance of the railways.
It’s the spring of 1952, and a notice goes up at Titfield station announcing that in a few weeks’ time British Rail will be closing the picturesque branch line to Mallingford Junction. This galvanises railway enthusiasts like the Reverend Sam Weech (George Relph) and squire Gordon Chesterford (John Gregson) into action. They apply to the Ministry of Transport to take over the running of the service, with funding from the bibulous Mr Valentine (Stanley Holloway), who’s seduced by the idea of a mobile bar. Lurking in the background are scaremongering hauliers Pearce and Crump, who plan to convert the village to the joys of bus travel – by fair means or foul.
The Titfield Thunderbolt was directed by Charles Crichton and written by T.E.B. Clarke, who’d made The Lavender Hill Mob two years earlier. This 60th anniversary DVD release was the first time I’d watched the film, and I can confirm that Douglas Slocombe’s digitally restored cinematography looks lovely. Regular visitors to Bath will particularly enjoy watching the countryside of North East Somerset speed past, with starring roles for Monkton Combe station (standing in for Titfield) and the village of Freshfield.
It’s fun watching these light railway novices trying to outwit the scheming Crump (Jack MacGowran) and Pearce (Ewan Roberts), who’ll stop at nothing to derail the service. But the beginning of The Titfield Thunderbolt hints at what could have been an even better film, with a more satirical edge. Take the early scene in the pub, in which the amiable Weech almost comes to blows with railway veteran Dan Taylor (Hugh Griffith) over which man has the superior knowledge. “One doesn’t need a knowledge of working slang to operate a locomotive!” retorts Weech, in a sharply scripted demonstration of book knowledge versus hands-on experience.
Another key sequence sees the luxuriantly mustachioed man from the Ministry granting the villagers a one-month trial period to run the train. Trade unionist Coggett (Reginald Beckwith) launches a futile protest about the use of unpaid labour on the line, in tones reminiscent of Peter Sellers’s Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack (1959). This proves to be story less concerned with politics than preserving the status quo in the decade before the first Beeching Report sounded the death knell for many railway lines. So it’s left to Jimmy Stewart look-alike John Gregson to give a barnstorming speech about how the end of the train service would condemn the village to death: “Our houses will have numbers instead of names!”
With no Alec Guinness in the cast, this Ealing comedy is very much an ensemble effort. George Relph probably has the most substantial role as the vicar-turned-driver, who switches between singing hymns and behaving like an excited kid let loose on a giant Hornby train set. A deadpan Hugh Griffith lets his pipe do the talking in their combative and eventful working relationship. Stanley Holloway always seems to get the last word as the permanently sozzled Valentine, and there’s strong support from Naunton Wayne and a pre-Carry On Sid James.
Fittingly, though, the real star of this film is The Titfield Thunderbolt herself (in real life the famous Lion locomotive), brought out of storage to save the day for the embattled train crew. Repainted for the film, Lion’s long career dates back to 1838 and lasted until the 1920s. These days Lion is a museum piece – on display at the Museum of Liverpool – and the same might be said about this colourful romp, championing the plucky volunteer spirit at the heart of the English countryside. Trainspotters will be in their element; fans of Ealing’s darker and more subversive films may be less enchanted.
Animal lovers will be moved to tears by the opening of René Clément’s World War II drama, Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits). As terrified families flee Paris during the summer of 1940, adorable six-year-old Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) and her parents are caught in the Nazi air bombardment. Amidst the chaos and terror Paulette is orphaned and her beloved dog Jock dies in her arms. Unable to grasp the enormity of her loss, the child tries to retrieve the dog’s tiny corpse from the river, as though life can still be salvaged from this day of doom.
Her saviour appears, in the shape of Michel Dollé (Georges Poujouly), youngest child of a farming family. They may be a bit rough and ready, but Michel’s mum and dad (played by Lucien Hubert and Suzanne Courtal) give the dainty Paulette a warm welcome. She does turn her nose up, though, at a glass of milk topped off with a dead fly. Together, these kids find their own way to deal with the unfathomability of death, by creating a makeshift animal cemetery in a nearby mill. But in his eagerness to please Paulette, Michel violates the rituals of burial and religious observance that sustain both his family and the wider community.
With its morbid subject matter and a haunting guitar theme by Narciso Yepes, I was worried that Forbidden Games might be a grim watch. Nothing could be further from the truth. Clément and his co-writers bring humour and vivid characterisation into the domestic world of the Dollés, which helps to balance the drudgery and tragedy of lives blighted by war. Those qualities are exemplified in the sequence where Michel’s brother, Georges, lies on his deathbed after being kicked by a horse. Though the patient is clearly beyond the reach of either prayer or medicine, Mme Dollé pins her hopes on the healing powers of laxative. Meanwhile, the hungry Michel attempts to summon divine intervention, but like the foraging mouse his mind is really on a loaf of bread that’s just inches away.
A long-running feud between the Dollés and the neighbouring Gouards forms the subplot, with Michel’s sister Berthe romancing deserter Francis (Amédée). But while that relationship is played mainly for comedy, it’s the bond between the worldly Michel and the innocent Paulette that gives this film emotional weight. The 12-year-old Michel eagerly assumes the role of educator and procurer of small animal corpses and crosses for their graves. He’s astonished by her lack of religious knowledge, when she fails to identify the figure of Jesus on a crucifix. Yet Michel’s own education is undercut by superstition, as he reveals his fear of being grabbed by the dead if he enters a graveyard at night.
Georges Poujouly and Brigitte Fossey inhabit their roles here so fearlessly that it doesn’t seem as though they are acting. At times Clément’s direction is very precise – the traumatised Paulette instinctively touches her dead mother’s face before comparing it with her own, still-warm flesh. Yet these young actors aren’t overburdened with sentimental dialogue or the allegorical elements of a story about childhood tainted by war. I particularly liked Paulette’s blunt reaction to Michel’s gift of three crosses purloined from his brother’s funeral – “They’re awful!”
Forbidden Games initially met with a mixed reaction from French critics and was refused entry to the official competition at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. But it went on to win an Oscar and a Bafta, as well as the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. While I wouldn’t label Clément’s movie anti-religious, it’s not reverential either. Luis Buñuel would have revelled in a plot that culminates in acts of wholesale vandalism in a churchyard; Clément shines a light on the foibles of these villagers but he doesn’t mock them.
In the documentary that accompanies this DVD, Brigitte Fossey speaks warmly about her experience working with Clément and how she craved the attention of co-star Poujouly. Laurence Badie, who played Berthe, is a lot less affectionate on the subject of her love scenes with Amédée.
Mist rises through the trees in an eerie-looking landscape, as pan pipes play on the soundtrack. Momentarily, I thought I’d dropped in on the action at Picnic at Hanging Rock. But this is the post-credits sequence of René Clément’s And Hope to Die, a 1972 crime thriller adapted from the novel Black Friday by David Goodis.
Thriller is the wrong word for a story that’s more adept at evoking the spirit of classic westerns than delivering action or suspense. It does get off to an exciting start, as Frenchman Tony (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tries to evade a bunch of vengeful gypsies, before leaping from a train near the Canadian border. He witnesses a shooting (at the photogenic Montreal Biosphère), then accepts a wad of notes from the dying man. But the killers grab Tony and take him to an isolated country house, where their leader Charley (Robert Ryan) is plotting an audacious kidnapping.
The bad news is that there’s far too much down time between the action-packed opening and the climactic job, involving a fire engine, a talking doll and a character called “Toboggan”. The domestic scenes between Tony (affectionately dubbed “Froggy” by his captors) and the rest of Charley’s gang often drift from tension into tedium. I’ve never watched paint dry, but I’m guessing it is on a par with watching underemployed criminals trying to stand three cigarettes on end.
I don’t mind a few loose ends in a plot, but there’s a lot here that simply doesn’t make sense. If Charley really wants his missing money back, why doesn’t he just get on with torturing and killing Froggy? It would lop half an hour off the running time, and spare poor Sugar (Lea Massari) the pain of a broken heart. I also wondered how one of the gang sustained fatal injuries from ripping the seat of his trousers, after being thrown from a moving car. Finally, who is that cute kid losing his marbles in the baffling prologue sequence?
I stuck it out with And Hope to Die because of Clément’s directorial flourishes and the quality of the performances. Trintignant doesn’t have the swagger of Jean-Paul Belmondo, but he’s great here as a fugitive living on his wits and discovering his own honour among thieves. Aldo Ray’s burly ex-pugilist Mattone has dubious taste in cardigans and no luck with women. The nurturing Sugar and wild child Pepper (Tisa Farrow, sister of Mia) give us all-too believable variations on romantic idealism — the Frenchman is their means of escape. But it’s in the ebb and flow between Tony and Charley that Clément seems to be drawing on classic western scenarios of the ageing gunfighter and the young interloper. In one of his last screen roles, Ryan is superb – ruthless, wistful and utterly resigned to his fate.
Whatever else you can say about Clément’s penultimate film, it isn’t short on talking points. Ryan also starred in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and that film’s elegiac qualities seep into the final scenes here, though without the accompanying buckets of blood. Tony’s ominous train-station “reception” feels like a mini homage to the celebrated opening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. If those gypsies lurking in the bushes had been Native Americans, this could have been a western.
With its attractive photography, autumnal colours and a haunting score by Francis Lai, And Hope to Die will linger in my memory in a way that more efficient thrillers haven’t over the years. It was the recurring image of the marbles cascading down the stairs that hooked me: even more poetic than a slo-mo hail of bullets à la Peckinpah.
“Why can’t you scientists leave things alone?” Cinema in the 1950s often focused on the dangers caused by experiments that went horribly wrong. But Ealing’s The Man in the White Suit isn’t a sci-fi movie about marauding giant ants, or a cautionary tale about the nuclear arms race. This is a bleak but brilliant satire about industrial unrest, class conflict and shattered dreams in the British textile industry.
Sidney Stratton (played by Alec Guinness) is an ambitious young chemist, who’s determined to perfect his formula for an indestructible new cloth. He inveigles his way into an unpaid position at the factory owned by Birnley (Cecil Parker). The bean-counters there wouldn’t know an electron microscope from a hole in the ground, but they do spot a few anomalies in the accounts. Luckily, Birnley’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood) takes a shine to Sid, so he’s given the time and money to pursue his dream. But there’s a big snag: winning the “endless losing battle against shabbiness and dirt” might be great news for consumers, but it would also deal a death-blow to the industry.
If you know Ealing mainly for lighter films like The Titfield Thunderbolt and Passport to Pimlico, this is a far more cynical portrait of postwar Britain from director Alexander Mackendrick. He’d already made Whisky Galore! (1949) for Ealing and would later direct the wickedly black comedy The Ladykillers in 1955. But The Man in the White Suit, which was co-written by Mackendrick with John Dighton and Roger MacDougall, isn’t remotely cosy, heartwarming or “Home Counties”. It’s set in an archetypal North of England town, dominated by narrow terraced streets, sooty factory chimneys and an overriding sense of “where there’s muck there’s brass”.
There are also elements of film noir about the look and content of this film that wouldn’t be out of place in 1940s Hollywood. Guinness’s Sidney is constantly embattled, held captive or in flight from his enemies on both sides of the class divide. When he’s not fleeing in his luminous white suit, Sidney hides around corners at the factory, or lurks in the shadows at Mrs Watson’s boarding house. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe uses atmospheric shots of the banister rails at the Birnley mansion to emphasise that there’s no escape for Sidney.
Joan Greenwood’s husky-voiced Daphne isn’t a femme fatale here, but her pursuit of the single-minded Sidney is driven less by romantic yearnings than by a desire to escape the overbearing men in her life. Sidney, who dazzles Daphne with his discourse on “long-chain molecules”, doesn’t even notice that he has another ardent admirer in down-to-earth factory worker Bertha (Vida Hope). This is a film in which the hero’s eyes light up not at the sight of female beauty, but the vision of a lab full of gleaming test tubes.
Guinness was undoubtedly Ealing’s greatest star, but even his skill can’t make Sidney into a figure you really care about. He evolves from a bumbling boffin in a tin hat and cricket sweater who keeps blowing up his lab, to a thoroughly divisive figure who threatens an industry’s survival. But there’s never a sense that he’s gained any perspective or grasped that his invention could have serious consequences – for rich and poor. The Man in the White Suit is a film I admire for its pacy direction, smart script and superb performances, but I don’t relish it in the same way as Kind Hearts and Coronets.
A restored print of The Man in the White Suit is being re-released in UK cinemas this month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of director Alexander Mackendrick’s birth. The new DVD/Blu-ray release is a bit of a disappointment though. There’s a brief featurette “Revisiting the Man in the White Suit”, with contributions from Stephen Frears and Ian Christie, but no audio commentary or detailed look at Mackendrick’s career.