Friday, 30 September 2016

Out On Blue Six : Fun Boy Three feat. Bananarama

I've always loved the commitment the 'nanas had to sounding like three sixth form girls singing along down an echoey corridor to a pop song they'd heard on Top of the Pops rather than pop stars in their own right who appear on Top of the Pops! 

End Transmission

Villain (1971)

By the late 1960s, a lot of critics were shaking their heads in dismay and writing the obits for Richard Burton's career. He was, to their mind, a great actor who had simply squandered his talent on unwise choices. An actor whose best known role was not as they had hoped, the Shakespearean greats, but was instead that of Mr Elizabeth Taylor in the ongoing, glitzy and gaudy pantomime of their marriage. They were Brangelina, they were Kim and Kanye, they were Posh and Becks. They were all those and more; the celebrity power couple before the term had even been coined and, in that less celeb crazed time, Burton being so high profile meant just one thing to the critics - wasted potential.  

But the critics were wrong. Granted, Burton made some truly horrible decisions from the late 1960s and up until his untimely death in 1984, there were roles in populist fare that kept him from treading the boards where they felt his talent thrived and yes, he often sleepwalked through some of these appearances, but he was far from washed up. Because when Burton felt the material was worth it, he gave it his all and when he did, he was capable of turning in a fine performance that positively crackled upon the screen. His role in Villain of gangland kingpin Vic Dakin here, allows for just such a performance - a role so meaty he could truly get his teeth into and enjoy it with absolute relish. 

When we talk of classic British gangster movies, we talk of Get Carter (which Villain came hot on the heels of) and The Long Good Friday; films which benefit from two truly iconic gangster characters in Michael Caine's enforcer Jack Carter and Bob Hoskins' mob boss Harold Shand. These are characters which can stand comfortably alongside the greats from Hollywood, the home of the traditional gangster genre, with Caine as chillingly cobra-eyed as a Bogart or Raft, and Hoskins as snarlingly feral as Edward G Robinson. It's a shame therefore that Villain isn't as well known and as celebrated as these two films, because in Burton's Dakin we perhaps have our own James Cagney. Just look at that final speech he has here, it's right up there. Seriously, by the time the credits roll you won't care that Burton couldn't really do a cockney accent. He is Vic Dakin, and that demands your respect.

Dakin is a gloriously complex and creepy monster, obviously inspired by the Kray twins (who had been convicted of murder the year prior to filming) though with a particular emphasis on the certifiable Ronnie. When we first meet him he suggests a girl makes a cup of tea whilst he busies himself slashing her boyfriend's face off, his vicious nature also spares room for a sneering contempt for the ordinary nine to fivers of society ("Stupid punters - telly all week, screw the wife Saturdays") but at the same time this taciturn tough is utterly devoted to his dear old mum, who he treats like a mixture of royalty and precious bone china, taking her down to Brighton every weekend, feeding her whelks and then - as Nigel Davenport's detective remarks - drives home at 30mph to ensure she doesn't get hiccups. 

As with all our cinematic gangsters Dakin makes a fatal mistake that sees his power snatched away from him. Receiving a tip off from one of the clients of his lucrative protection racket, Dakin and his firm try their hand at armed robbery, with disastrous consequences. But this overreaching error isn't borne of some ambitious desire to expand his empire; Dakin's folly stems from the fact that he is starting to feel his (middle) age, and fears he is seen to be going soft in the eyes of Ian McShane's young chancer, Wolf. And going soft is the last thing he wants when it comes to Wolf, because he's in the middle of a rather tempestuous love affair with the younger man. 

Burton claimed he had no trouble pretending he fancied McShane, indeed he said he found it rather easy because he reminded him of Elizabeth Taylor! I always get envious watching Ian McShane films from the '70s because Burton was spot on, he was such a handsome fella, I wish I looked like him back then! 

Gritty and atmospheric, Villain is wonderfully evocative of '70s London with its crisp location shooting and its fashions of flares, roll neck sweaters and sideburns. Those long-gone London streets are populated by a great number of character actors and familiar faces that offer up an instant nostalgia hit to any British viewer of a certain age, and they deliver bluntly authentic dialogue (shocking in its day I presume) that came from the pen of no less a writing partnership than Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, better known for their comedies such as The Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet.  

Directed by first-timer Michael Tuchner, this is an acutely-observed piece with a great sense of place and character. It's a shame that Tuchner's potential never seemed to be achieved after this - he crossed the pond and back a few times to produce a series of TV movies and low budget offerings, some of them over here being good (the Play for Today Bar Mitzvah Boy, and reuniting with Clement and La Frenais to make the big screen spin off of The Likely Lads in '76) but most of them over there seem decidedly humdrum (Hart to Hart revivals and several movies of the week) along with some you simply struggle to categorise (Mr Quilp - a musical adaptation of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, and the Smith and Jones vehicle Wilt) He did make the big screen adaptation of Alistair MacLean's Fear is the Key the year after this though, and that's on my to-watch list.

In conclusion, whilst Villain isn't the British crime drama that deserves immediate reappraisal (that is of course Peter Yates' brilliant Great Train Robbery inspired 1967 film Robbery) it is nonetheless worth your time for a truly interesting lead performance by Burton and some really authentic progressive moves in the crime genre (the homosexual gangster, his seedy connections to parliament, the decline of old fashioned crime and uncompromising dialogue) But the downside is that its narrative is just too small-fry compared to Get Carter and The Long Good Friday and that is why ultimately it remains in the shadows.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Out On Blue Six : Diagram Brothers

Very pleasant objects...

They're not expensive at all.

End Transmission

Red Heat (1988)

"You think parakeet is feminine?"

So asks Arnie at one point in Red Heat. And I have to reply no, I don't actually Arnie. But I do think that opening scene to Red Heat is one of the most homoerotic ever committed to celluloid. Even watching it as a kid, I hoped my parents didn't walk in at that precise moment, for fear they'd get the wrong impression regarding my burgeoning sexuality. It's a scene that made me feel really awkward; I do not want to see Arnie's bare ass in a fight scene. And even though the scene features some naked girls on display too, it's worth pointing out that the one who positions her rather fine, large and shapely bottom under the bathing fountain has (to quote Him and Her) 'dykey hair'

In recent years Red Heat has become something of a perennial in the post pub closing time ITV schedules on a Friday night. Though I'm 99.9% sure they still edit some of the violence out in these screenings, which is weird considering we're talking gone 11pm at night.  

On the whole, you have to give credit to director Walter Hill for delivering a film which features an unashamedly Soviet hero when The Cold War was still, at best, lukewarm. Not for Arnie's Ivan Danko the scales falling from his eyes and the decision that America is the saviour of the world. He doesn't defect, it doesn't cross his mind for one second. Pretty impressive really. It's also fair to say that Red Heat gives Arnie one of his more credible action hero roles too; appearing in an urban America setting that actually allows him to play up to the fact that he sticks out like a sore thumb. 

Unfortunately, not all of the fish out of water stuff works and that's partly down to the fact that the buddy buddy relationship between him and Jim Belushi doesn't really fly. Indeed, Belushi had more chemistry and a more authentic buddy buddy cop partnership with the dog in K9! It's not really Belushi's fault, the character's underwritten and doesn't seem to serve the comedic purpose you'd originally imagine, after all it's Arnie who gets the best gags; "I do not want to touch his ass, I want to make him talk" and "I am not shitting on you" springs to mind. There's nothing here to suggest Belushi is, as the tagline had it, 'Chicago's craziest cop', which is a shame.

I'd really like to see what contribution Troy Kennedy Martin made to the final screenplay. Given how Hollywood mistreated many British screenwriting greats in the '80s, I imagine a lot of the man behind Z Cars, Edge of Darkness, The Italian Job and Kelly's Heroes ideas didn't make it to the screen, but I'm prepared to be surprised. 

Lastly, Gina Gershon is really pretty here, but has very little to do in accordance with the time; '80s buddy cop action movies just offered nothing for actresses really. Also, it's hard not to think of her as Larry David's hasidic Jewish dry cleaner these days!

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Help For Ignorant Blairites: The Red Flag Lyrics

Yes, attention Red Tories! You don't want to end up miming like John Redwood and becoming a clip to be laughed at on Have I Got News For You do you?

Of course you don't!

So here's your chance to learn the lyrics to The Labour Party Anthem...

If you intend to stay in the party you hijacked back in the '90s, dragging it into the middle ground (where people get run over, as Nye Bevan once said. What do you mean, 'Nye who?', Aw bless your ignorant prawn sandwich munching middle class souls) I suggest you learn this now, and learn it well.

Written by Irish political activist Jim Connell in the 1800s, it's the anthem of what you claim to be your party. If you don't know it, then you really have to question yourself. Especially in light of your bleating and snobbish slights that the current support Jeremy Corbyn has inspired is not Labour at heart.

The People's Flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its every fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high. 
Beneath its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

Look round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,
The sturdy German chants its praise,
In Moscow's vaults its hymns were sung
Chicago swells the surging throng.


It waved above our infant might,
When all ahead seemed dark as night;
It witnessed many a deed and vow,
We must not change its colour now.


It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.


It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man's frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.


With head uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.


Wordless Wednesday : Falls

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

I Hired a Contract Killer (1990)

Directed, produced and writer by Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki and starring Frenchman Jean-Pierre Léaud, it's fair to say this droll and quirky London based dark comedy has a European sensibility. It also possesses a curiously stilted air that befits its sense of dislocation and can be best exemplified by self-styled 'Queen of Liverpool' Margi Clarke - then at the height of her fame with TV's Making Out - going to great pains to carefully enunciate each line she delivers for a change.

I Hired a Contract Killer concerns Henri, a lonely émigré who left France because, as he says, no one liked him there. Having washed up in London, he has spent the last 15 years as a clerk at a waterworks department, where no one seems to like him either. When the department is privatised by the government, Henri is made redundant. Believing his life no longer has any purpose, Henri attempts to take his own life but is beset by ill-fortune; the rope snaps scuppering his hanging, and a gas strike means he can't do away with himself by sticking his head in the oven either. Determined to wave goodbye to this cruel world, Henri explores the dark underbelly of the capital and hires a hit-man (a taciturn Kenneth Colley) to put him out of his misery; but after meeting flower-seller Margaret (Clarke) in a pub, he finds a reason to live and tries to cancel the contract. 

Kaurismäki delivers a barely recognisable London yet it remains one which has a ring of authenticity, as befits seeing our culture through a foreign perspective. It's a deeply stylised film, with sharp colours providing contrast with the bleak overall cinematography. As the lead, Léaud lends the proceedings a suitably laconic, hangdog air - I especially laughed aloud at the scene where he stumbles upon a robbery at a pawnbrokers, a scene perfectly framed and performed by Kaurismäki and Léaud.

Look out to for a cameo from Joe Strummer as a pub musician.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Solidarity in the Labour Party

It was High Noon for Jeremy Corbyn on Saturday, but he needn't have been afraid. Jezza triumphed for the second time in a year, increasing his mandate with a bigger margin than that of 2015 and proving, hopefully once and for all, that he is the right man for the job.

But wait, predictably the likes of Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle were out in force yesterday claiming that they must stand together, and 'stay and fight' for what they believe in in the party, with Eagle announcing that she believed people were trying to force them out.

It's funny isn't it how the Blairites (I'm aware that Labour now view that term as abusive - seriously, I'm not making that up - so let me be clear, I'm using it in its traditional meaning; ie those MP's of the New Labour ideal, but was there ever another meaning? No. So get over yourselves and stop trying to claim you're being bullied when people use a term to sum up your ideals and position - you keep calling us trots, after all) saw nothing wrong with pushing out anyone who believed that socialism wasn't a dirty word back in the mid '90s, yet claim they are being victimised now when finding it is them who are currently out of step.

I don't know about you but I'm getting a little sick and tired of this battle from within for the spirit of Labour. I am sick of seeing Blairites take to social media to claim that anyone pro-Corbyn isn't really Labour at heart, and I am sick of this not just because its the kind of sneering snobbish bullying they claim Momentum and the Corbynistas do, but because it is primarily just a stupid notion. Pardon me, but I actually think any member who wishes to reinstate Clause 4 is a damn sight more Labour than anyone who saw no problem with removing it twenty years ago.

So here's the thing; we're all paid up Labour members. We don't agree on everything, but then do we really expect complete universal agreement? We should unite behind the things we are in complete accord over, which should be to oust the Tories from government and to end the austerity measures that is crippling this country. So it's actually really very simple, if you agree with the Tory austerity policies, and if you voted for them, then you are I am sorry to say not a Labour supporter and there ought to be no place for you in the party. There, I've said it. That's the only true way to measure it. The rest of us should band together and stop this detrimental internal snobbery and bickering. Now.

Sweet Lady Jane

Jane Birkin, 
photographed by Giancarlo Botti, 

Saturday, 24 September 2016

They Who Dare (1954)

All Quiet on the Western Front's Lewis Milestone returned to the folly of war with this 1954 adventure film based on the real life mission Operation Anglo.

Anglo was a somewhat ill fated Special Boat Service raid on the island of Rhodes that occurred in 1942. Carried out by eight SBS commandos and four Greeks, the mission's aim was to take out two Luftwaffe airfields on the island to scupper the enemy bombers attacks on Royal Navy convoys. Whilst the infiltration and attack on the airfields were a success, the unit's return to the rendezvous point to get off the island was besieged by bad luck - only two men made it off Rhodes, with the other members of the raiding party captured or killed. In the aftermath of Anglo, the depleted SBS was merged with the SAS (Special Air Service) and They Who Dare takes its title from that Regiment's motto 'Who Dares Wins'.

As a film, They Who Dare explores the heroism and professionalism of soldiers but also questions the limits of such courageous qualities and intentions in a suitably cynical manner in light of the grim coda of the mission it seeks to recount. As a result, it's a curious mixture of the traditional gung-ho 'men on a mission' wartime biopics that came out in the immediate postwar period, and the more pessimistic, gritty approach of a more mature anti-war feature. This mix isn't exactly successful alas, but the contradiction is perhaps best exemplified by Dirk Bogarde's starring role as the group leader, Lt Graham.

Being habitually somewhat effete in his performances and of the matinee idol mould, Bogarde was never what you'd call the archetype man of action or professional warrior, yet his CV contains some respectable instances of starring roles playing just that in everything from The Password is Courage to A Bridge Too Far, and that's not to mention is own impressive career in army intelligence, where he attained the rank of major and received a total of seven medals. Watching They Who Dare knowing of his own personal experiences in the war, you're left wondering if his service had any bearing on his portrayal of Lt Graham, a leader racked with self doubt, yet possessing an almost sadomasochistic desire to take risks and push things too far simply for 'kicks'. There's a strong character study to be had here on just what kind of man led such daring raids that went on to form the genetic make-up of a regiment that is still employed and world renowned to this day, but They Who Dare isn't that film unfortunately, despite the promise of what might be in Bogarde's performance. 

Indeed outside of Bogarde, They Who Dare is something of a weak film. The intensity and dimension inherent in his character is not shared with any of the supporting cast, made up of cardboard cutout stereotypes of the jovial partisan foreigner - all big beards and bigger back slapping laughs - and the inimitable Sam Kydd playing his usual cheery working class squaddie, this time with an annoying habit of replying to everyone with a song he had just made up that always has the line 'Confucius says' - yeah that gets old quick. Bogarde's fellow officers include William Russell (credited here as Russell Enoch) is Bogarde's faithful second whose sole characteristic seems to be that he draws caricatures, Denholm Elliott fares a little better with a thoughtful depiction of an academic type finding his talents required for behind enemy lines operations, but it's just one of those films where you can all too easily guess who makes it to the end credits, and who doesn't.

Whilst the change of tone isn't necessarily muffed, it is hampered by these stereotypes, some dreadful dialogue and an alarming tendency towards histrionics, whilst the special effects look to have been done on the cheap even by 1954 standards. If they had perhaps concerned themselves more with character and less with spectacle they may have had a minor classic on their hands here.

Friday, 23 September 2016

The Silent Enemy (1958)

The Silent Enemy remains a somewhat low-key but very interesting war film, interesting primarily because of the influence it would subsequently have on future films, most notably those in the Bond franchise.

The film attempts to depict the life and wartime exploits of the legendary British frogman Lieutenant Lionel Crabb, R.N.V.R, known to all as 'Buster' Crabb. It was based on the biography Commander Crabb by Marshall Pugh and released on the wave of publicity and fascination that arose from Crabb's disappearance and likely death whilst secretly investigating the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze and its propeller design on Naval Intelligence orders in 1956.

The film opens with an incident from 1941, the Italian manned torpedo raid on Alexandria, which saw their frogmen plant limpet mines on the hull of two British battleships, attacking and disabling them. This was to be first strike in a concerted Italian effort against British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean and, in Spain, the Italian underwater expert Tomolino observes the British base in nearby Gibralter, planning their next move against a British convoy. Concerned by this new Italian tactic, the British navy assign bomb disposal expert Lionel Crabb to head up their response. Crabb quickly develops a flair for diving during this posting and begins to form a team of divers who can intercept the attacks from the Italians and defuse their bombs, as well as investigating the suspicious death of General Sikorski of the Polish Army, whose B-24 Liberator aircraft crashed in the waters off Gibraltar in 1943. Infiltrating a Spanish dock, Crabb and his team identify the torpedo-laden ship the Italians are planning to attack from and launch an unauthorised and pre-emptive strike against them, destroying the ship and foiling their plans. In recognition for his efforts during the war, Crabb was awarded the George Medal.

The real Crabb, photographed in Gibralter

Laurence Harvey as Crabb

Crabb may not be the well known name he once was (after all it is some sixty years since his mysterious disappearance in a Cold War incident that will not be revealed by official records until 2056) but he was unmistakably a true British hero. William Fairchild's film ought to stand on a par with Lewis Gilbert's biopic of ace flier Douglas Bader, Reach For The Sky, released two years prior to this, as both films try to get under the skin of what was clearly a very courageous, but also complex and eccentric breed of hero. Laurence Harvey's dark locks are dyed blonde for the role and he also wears a full naval beard to deliver one of his more memorable performances, coming off occasionally like a cross between James Robertson Justice, James Bond and Roger Moore's diving hero character ffoulkes from 1979's North Sea Hijack.

Which brings us neatly on to the question of inspiration. The lead character in North Sea Hijack is undoubtedly based on Crabb, whilst Ian Fleming was compelled to write the Bond novel Thunderball in both the wake of Crabb's disappearance and the release of this filmed biopic. The splendid underwater cinematography on display here from Otto Heller - including the underwater hand-to-hand battle scenes between British and Italian divers (which didn't actually happen) - is certainly a key influence on the similar underwater segments of Terence Young's subsequent adaptation of Fleming's novel, and indeed of other Bond film to feature similar scenarios that has followed.

It's not an historically accurate film, but it is an enjoyable one although a little slow moving. It boasts a fine supporting cast, including Michael Craig as Crabb's lifelong diving buddy, Sydney Knowles (who, before his death at the age of 90, claimed Crabb was killed by MI5, rather than the KGB, because of a desire to defect to Russia) and Harvey's friend and fellow South African Sid James, playing it mostly straight as Chief Petty Officer Thorpe. However, I believe it was this film that ended their friendship as James became angered by how fame had gone to Harvey's head by this point and the allegedly disgraceful attitude he took towards the crew during filming.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Tony's Last Tape @ Liverpool Everyman, 22/9/16

Tony Benn is brought back to life in Liverpool this week thanks to the Everyman's staging of Nottingham Playhouse's touring production of Tony's Last Tape.

This one-man, one-act piece from Midlands playwright Andy Barrett takes as its cue both the rigorous life-long habit the late socialist Labour MP had for documenting his life via a personal audio diary, and the Samuel Beckett play Krapp's Last Tape which it occasionally mirrors and draws comparisons with.  

It's a compelling showcase for the actor Philip Bretherton, a performer with a considerable body of work but who is perhaps best known as yuppie literary agent Alistair in genteel sitcom As Time Goes By, who captures something of Benn's voice and mannerisms but is altogether a more nuanced performance than a mere impersonation. Its a lovely subtle turn that captures the frailty of the aging Benn, but who allows for a flash of youthful righteous indignation at the merest whiff of injustice...or mention of Blair and Kinnock!

Barrett's play is at times witty, and at times deeply poignant. The play concerns Benn's determination in the small hours of a rainy night to mark the final full stop on his politically active, methodically documented life. Here in his study, in the bowels of his house (a wonderful design job from Rachael Jacks) he intends to make his last tape, and he's in ruminative mood; the play doesn't just reference Benn's political past, it also focuses on his personal past too, principally his grief at losing his beloved wife Caroline in 2000, and his brother Mike during the war. But it is in the political threads that we can see the contemporary and topical parallels with what is occurring right now on the left; you'd have to be spectacularly short-sighted not to spot the link between Benn and his fellow firebrand Jeremy Corbyn, and the play has something to say about how key protest is - never mind all this 'we have to be an opposition' nonsense. We have to fight, as Tony Benn clearly and passionately tells us before the curtain falls.

This was an enjoyable production that ran to a satisfactory 75 minutes without an interval, thereby ensuring it did not outstay its welcome and is well directed by Giles Croft. Tonight's 'opening night' performance offered an 'Afterwords' chat with Bretherton and the company, but I'm afraid I had to leave to catch my train and so missed this pleasure. Overall, the Everyman once again came up trumps; it really is a lovely space, though smaller perhaps than the production is used to, but this actually lent itself to the intimate nature of the piece rather beautifully. Unfortunately, I did find myself sitting to an old duffer who presumed he was sat at home in front of his TV rather than in the theatre, which meant he provided his own commentary at several key stages, burbling away to himself and remarking 'good' every so often, to show that he was enjoying it. I was also sat in front of a belching woman too, which was also pretty distracting! Ah well, the programme - a sparse affair - was free and a good night was had by all.

Tony's Last Tape runs at the Everyman until this Saturday.