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The British writer Cathi Unsworth is not only famous for her brilliant detective novels ("The Not Knowing", "The Singer", "Bad Penny Blues", "Weirdo", "Without the Moon"), but she is also a well-known journalist, music and film critic. Cathi Unsworth has notably worked for the British Film Institute’s DVD-Bluray new releases of forgotten masterpieces of cinéma made in the UK : Man of Violence and That Kind of Girl. So she offers us here a shrewd and well-written travel guide into four decades of British criminal movies. If it leaves aside no British Noir film masterpiece, it sheds a new light on many films that had fallen into oblivion and that undeniably deserve to belong to a relevant criminal film DVDthèque. Each and every title evoked by Cathi Unsworth comes along with the most recent available references in French if possible, otherwise in English.

  • Sapphire (Basil Dearden, 1959)
    available on Strawberry Media DVD (UK import)

  • A year after the Notting Hill race riots, Dearden attempts to address the thorny topic of integration by working the problems of a socially evolving London into a murder mystery frame. A beautiful young woman (Yvonne Buckingham as the eponymous Sapphire) is found murdered on Hampstead Heath, an autopsy revealing a further outrage – she was pregnant. When her doctor brother (Earl Cameron) arrives to identify her body, detectives Hazard (Nigel Patrick) and Learoyd (Michael Craig) are startled by his blackness – Sapphire had appeared to them to be a white girl. Illusions continue to be shattered throughout the course of their investigation, which leads the blatantly bigoted Learoyd and more circumspect Hazard into the nightclubs and youth clubs through which Sapphire passed, collecting more impressions of intolerance and ignorance from all sides as they go. A real litmus test of the prevailing values of the age, it remains uncomfortable and thought-provoking viewing to this day.

Fleeing from the McCarthy blacklist, Joseph Losey’s arrival in Britain was America’s loss and noir’s gain. With Robert Krasker as his cinematographer and Stanley Baker playing villain Johnny Bannion, this is arguably the first film to realistically portray the inside of a British jail, where rival gangs clash under corruptible guards and a dark streak of humour is essential for survival. Baker based his character on his friend Albert Dimes, the swaggering bodyguard of gang boss Billy Hill, and the details of his immaculate wardrobe and jazz hipster pad are as meticulous as Baker’s performance. With roughly half of the film spent on each side of the bars, Bannion leaves prison to find a bunch of upstart criminals moving onto his patch, just as, in London gangland, Billy Hills’ firm were about to be usurped by the Kray twins – though tellingly, in Losey’s film, the new breed are American. Things come to a head, as they tend to do, at a racecourse, the footage of which is ripe with real life characters, notably the black tipster Prince Monolulu who dressed as an African chief.

Normally in lists of Brit noirs, Val Guest’s 1960 Hammer production Hell is a City with Stanley Baker would be up next. But Sean Connery, his Hell Drivers cohort Herbert Lom and Alfred Marks steal a march with this neglected gem, which might not have such a great title but thankfully comes without an embarrassing subplot about the detective’s need to impregnate his wife. The Frightened City very much reflects the memoirs and pulp novelisations of Scotland Yard’s finest from this era, with a plot about protection rackets, greedy accountants and property developers that still resonates today. Connery has grown into a magnetic persona to match his saturnine looks, Lom is ever-reliable as the mastermind and Marks is superb as the owner of a Tiki bar and organiser of the local muscle. It is the villains and not John Gregson’s lantern-jawed but rather uncharismatic DI Sayers who own this film, which is also blessed with early British pop mogul Norrie Paramour’s evocative score.

After spending the Fifties playing amiable medical man Simon Sparrow in the Doctor series of comedies, Dirk Bogarde risked all with this film. Having just left the Rank Organisation that had made him a huge star, he portrayed a closeted barrister who puts himself on the line to defend the blackmailers of homosexuals, at a time when to be a gay man was still a criminal offence. The deeper irony being, of course, that Bogarde himself was a closeted homosexual who was viewed as a heartthrob, lending the scenes between his character, Melville Farr, and Sylvia Sims as his beautiful wife Laura, an extra level of poignancy. Like The Criminal, Victim is laced with brilliant period detail: the furtive language employed by the clandestine gay community and the murky characters who inhabit the pubs and drinking dens around Charing Cross where blackmail victims are stalked. With wonderful supporting turns from the ever-urbane Dennis Price and a demonic Derren Nesbitt, this is perhaps Dearden’s finest hour.

One of the best time capsules of post-War, pre-Swinging London is this courtroom drama about four young East-enders on a night out that ends in murder. Retold in flashback, two different narratives take shape as the antics of the four – routinely described as ‘Teddy Boys’, the scourge of the nation – are seen from contrasting angles. All are simply eager to escape the confines of their family homes. Ginger (Tony Garnett) an apprentice builder working on the new high rises, is dying to show off about his new job. Stanley (a mesmerising Dudley Sutton) needs respite from his dying mother. Barney (genuine bad boy rocker Jess Conrad) has an eye for the ladies and Billy (Ronald Lacy) merely wants to have fun. As they traverse the city from the condemned slums of the East to the bright lights of the West, so too do they cross all the heavily entrenched class boundaries within this literally shifting landscape. Canadian-born Furie had an eye for youth culture – he would go on to delve into clandestine biker and gay culture with 1965’s The Leather Boys, casting Sutton in another memorable role, then make the ultimate Cold War cool of 1965’s The Ipcress File.

Forbes’ second film as director was an adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks’ novel about a pregnant, unmarried young woman adrift in the boarding house land of early Sixties London, who finds solace in the company of fellow outcasts. Transferring the book’s setting from Fulham to Ladbroke Grove, Forbes pinpointed exactly where a woman in such straits might find succor in a carved-up Victorian terrace, alongside an angry young man novelist, West Indian musician, ageing lesbian actress and a couple of working girls, all ruled over by imperious landlady Doris. Forbes wove magic casting Leslie Caron as the compromised Jane, Tom Bell as her inky-fingered suitor, Brock Peters as jazzer Johnny, Pat Phoenix as the tart with the heart, Avis Bunnage as Doris and Cecily Courtenage as the lonely thespian. John Barry’s score – particularly the scene where Johnny’s band let rip in one of the locale’s ‘mushroom clubs’ — perfectly captures both the hopeful spirit and melancholic undertow of the time and place.

The Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963) Hammer were so aghast at Losey’s mash-up of juvenile delinquency, science fiction, Pop Art and horror that they sat on this film for two years before daring to release it. Today their fears seem bewildering – this is one of the finest, most original and thought-provoking movies ever to emerge from The Studio That Dripped Blood. Opening with a memorable, finger-clicking paean to black-leather, we are introduced to Weymouth’s fearsome bikers, a gang led by King (Oliver Reed, looking like a prototype Droog with his leather gloves and twirling umbrella) stalking tourists lured away from the safety of the seafront by his jailbait sister, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), to beat up and rob. But this soon gives way to a much stranger and more resonant storyline about a secret nuclear research facility just across the causeway on the Isle of Portland, where sinister experiments have been taking place on innocent young children. This haunting vision of the potential hell of the new nuclear age is also where the first band of punk took their name.

From the opening shots of dawn breaking over the sex cinemas and beat clubs of Old Compton Street to the sound of a dustbin lorry and Kenny Graham’s mournful jazz score, this film more than any other evokes the real Soho. As a strip-club compère who has 24 hours to repay his gambling debts or else have his face rearranged with a razor, Anthony Newley gives a monumental performance as Sammy Lee. Running from his brother’s shop on Petticoat Lane and back across town to the pool halls and jazz basements of Soho in his frantic quest to raise funds by any crooked means necessary, he must also deal with a summer fling (Julia Foster as innocent northerner Patsy) who’s turned up on his doorstep looking to rekindle his fickle flame. Sammy’s frantic journey is beautifully captured by DP Wolfgang Suschlitzky, and the casting is superb – particularly Warren Mitchell as Sammy’s long-suffering brother, Miriam Karlin as Mitchell’s much more knowing wife and Robert Stephens as the epitome of a sleazy strip club manager.

Idle aristocrat Tony (James Fox) wants to hire a man to help him settle into his new house in Chelsea, and in efficient, tasteful northerner Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) he thinks he has made the perfect choice. Taking care of everything from the colour scheme of the interiors to the ready supply of alcohol, Barrett is soon in firm control of the situation. So why is it that Tony’s girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) finds Barrett so sinister? Could it be that the butler – and his sister Vera (Sarah Miles), who is soon employed as the housekeeper – are not everything they seem? Based on the book by Robin Maugham and shot in a house across the road from the one belonging to his uncle W Somerset, who supplied some of the furnishings, Losey’s masterpiece of noir captures the moment the Establishment began to crumble – as it would this very year over the Profumo scandal – to the shock of the young, northern, working class new.

To end with, the actor we began with and Dickie Attenborough’s feel for the macabre once more infuses this performance as a reluctant kidnapper, urged on by his Spiritualist wife, in the darkest of all his collaborations with Forbes. His performance as Billy – in turn repressed, tender, then spitting like a viper – is matched by that of Kim Stanley as the demented Myra. Their scheme, for Billy to snatch the daughter of a local celebrity and then hide her in their creepy home while Myra achieves fame helping the police with their enquiries, is terrible enough to begin with. But it is undermined by the madness of grief that is Myra’s true motivation, and that the investigating officer is played by the none-more-sinister Patrick McGee. The film’s failure at the box office could perhaps be down to the awful coincidence of the real deeds of murderous child-snatcher Myra Hindley that year. Yet these two characters and their motivations were recently been mined to great effect in the popular BBC series Psychoville, a testament to the film’s psychological powers of endurance.

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Par Cathi Unsworth - le 24 avril 2020

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