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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.

Being the story of how black-and-white Britain shook off it’s post-War privations and learned how to Swing. The following films may not strictly fulfill the criteria of noir, or even crime, but all of them do, I think show all those components in telling a social history of Britain, its vices, fears, hidden histories and fetishes, reflected through the lens of pop culture. It is a journey that seems to accelerate time – from a lonely old woman in the bombed-out remains of a monochrome northern town to adventures in gangland ultra-violence in a thoroughly Futurist landscape – all in the space of five years. Years in which the war babies – with the help of some outsider American exiles – reached adulthood and made their mark on society like no other swathe of upstart youngsters before or since.

As with many films in the Brit Noir canon, it takes a visiting foreign director to illuminate the strange quirks and idiosyncrasies – some might say perversions – inherent in this country’s DNA. Obsessive perfectionist Otto Preminger, an Austrian-Hungarian exiled in Hollywood with his own haunted past, relocated his adaptation of Evelyn Piper’s source novel from New York to London to create the sinister shadow world in which this troubling mystery unfolds.
Ann Lake (Carol Lynley), is a single mother recently emigrated from New York in the company of her brother Stephen (Keir Dullea). Oblivious to the connotations of untrustworthy fey folk, she enrolls her four-year-old daughter Bunny in the Little People’s Garden nursery, leaving the girl with the cook as she dashes off to complete her day’s errands. When Ann returns, her daughter is nowhere to be found – the cook has been dismissed and the rest of the staff deny ever having seen Bunny. The police, in the reassuring form of Laurence Olivier as Superintendent Newhouse, are duly summoned.
Searching the upstairs rooms of the nursery, they come across the institution’s elderly founder, Ada Ford (Martita Hunt) working on her book – a collection of children’s nightmares. As if this wasn’t creepy enough, when Newhouse accompanies the Lakes back to their rented accommodation, there is nothing to show that a little girl had ever lived there. The insinuation that Ann has made the whole story up is reinforced when Stephen tells Newhouse that Bunny was the name of his sister’s childhood imaginary friend…
The intrigue plays out in a darkly magical landscape of rambling Hampstead mansions, a dolls’ hospital tended to by Magwich’s earthly incarnation, Finlay Currie, and the fabulous Art Nouveau Warrington Arms pub, with a classic turn from Noël Cowerd as a leering, luvvie landlord bent on seducing the unfortunate Ann. Spooksville sounds are provided appropriately enough by The Zombies and the ending, crafted by screenwriters John and Penelope Mortimer, supplies what folklorists will recognise as the real definition of a fairytale ending.

  • The Whisperers (Bryan Forbes, 1967) 
    released on UK DVD - out of print

In his 1961 directorial debut Whistle Down The Wind, Bryan Forbes made the best film ever about children, with Alan Bates as a fugitive criminal and Hayley Mills as the schoolgirl who mistakes him for Jesus. Six years later, he made the best film ever about what it means to be old. Dame Edith Evans plays Mrs Margaret Ross, an eccentric dreaming her way through subsistence in boarding house rooms full of yesterday’s papers, voices heard in dripping taps, bowls of soup from the Salvation Army and the rationed warmth of the library, where the discarded elderly congregate each day.
She has but one ally, Mr Conrad (Gerald Sim), the man from National Assistance who decodes her fanciful letters and awards her shillings for new shoes. But when her spivvy son Charlie (Ronald Fraser) pays a visit, leaving behind a package full of money – the spoils of a robbery – Mrs Ross mistakes her dreams for reality and thinks her ship has come in. One trip to the National Assistance later, big-eared and iron-hearted Mrs Noonan (Avis Bunnage) relieves her of her ‘inheritance’ with forensic cruelty – including feeding her methylated spirits and wheeling her comatose body home in a handcart. Worse is to come – though rescued in time to recover from the ensuing pneumonia, Mr Conrad does Mrs Ross the disfavour of locating her errant husband Archie (Eric Portman), who rapidly becomes embroiled in the local underworld.
With astonishing performances from Evans, who deservedly won the BAFTA, a satanic Portman, the ever-reliable Leonard Rossiter and Forbes’ regulars Bunnage and Sim, this is a film that exposes the bleak heart of postwar England. The bombsite exteriors of Oldham in terminal decline rendered in unforgiving monochrome by Gerry Turpin, who also won the BAFTA for Cinematography.

If The Whisperers portrays the last of black-and-white England, Herostratus projects so far into the future that it sank upon its release and was left decaying in vaults until 2011, when it was resurrected by the BFI’s Flipside reissues series. Astonishingly, Australian abroad Don Levy actually began work on it in 1962, when he was first commissioned by the BFI’s Experimental Film Unit. A PhD student in Theoretical Chemical Physics, he was part of the same Cambridge generation as Peter Cook, who worked with him on his first movie Ten Thousand Talents. Levy gravitated into the counter-culture orbit and wanted to explore themes of perception and memory with this mesmeric, multi-dimensional piece.
Named for the Greek myth about the man who burned down the temple of Artemis to achieve immortality, it’s story revolves around poet Max (Michael Gothard) who pitches to a marketing firm that they make a spectacle out of his planned suicide. He envisages a sacrificial act of protest against an uncaring society, but instead finds himself the centre of an exploitative celebrity circus.
It is a film of rich visual textures. The opening with a scene, of Gothard running down the road, looks phantasmagoric, like a Francis Bacon painting coming to life. To capture the most beautiful outdoor light, Levy had his cinematographer Keith Allams film every day at ‘the golden hour’ before twilight and his lens also captures the rapid transition of London throughout the five-year shoot, including the demolition of the Edwardian terrace in which Max lives to make way for the A40 Westway that would haunt the imagination of writers, directors and musicians ever after.
There is documentary footage dispersed between the narrative, which gives a sense of transitory images of pleasure and pain, sex and death, newsfeed and consumerism blipping through the mind of its tortured protagonist. The young Gothard – later the Inquisitor in Ken Russell’s 1971 The Devils – makes an arresting start to his film career, alongside Gabriella Licudi as duplicitous PR Clio. A satire, a dream, a nightmare – despite rave reviews, the commercial failure of Herostratus drove the director off to a teaching job in America, never to exhibit a feature again. In a bleak coda, both Levy and Gothard took their own lives, the director in 1987, the actor in 1992. But the inspiration others took from this fiercely brilliant statement of intent would help shape some of the best British cinema in the decade to come.

A film that anticipates many of the key hallmarks of early 1970s Brit Noir, Twisted Nerve came from the pen of screenwriter Leo Marks, whose previous tale of warped sexuality Peeping Tom (1960) brought the same kind of ignominy to the career of Michael Powell as this would for producer-director twins, Roy and John Boulting. It reunited leads Hywel Bennett and Hayley Mills from the brothers’ 1966 The Family Way, recently described in The Guardian as “the warmest, most life-affirming film” of its era, to produce its negative image.
As psychopathic Martin Durnley, Bennett inveigles himself into the life of Mills’ trusting librarian Susan Harper by pretending to be a vulnerable young man with learning difficulties called Georgie. Actually the scion of rich, cossetting mother Enid (Phyllis Calvert) and loathed stepfather Henry (Frank Finlay), he hatches a murderous scheme that hinges on securing himself a room at the boarding house run by Susan’s mother Joan (Billie Whitelaw).
To compound the queasy nature of the carnage that ensues, Martin’s proclivities are blamed on a ‘twisted nerve’ he shares with a Down’s Syndrome brother, discarded in a care home for what is described, with all the tact of the era, as ‘mongoloids’. For this nonsense, the film was forced to provide a spoken disclaimer over the opening credits. There is plenty of casual racism and sexism around the breakfast table, most of it initiated by Barry Foster, a creepy colossus of this era, who will reach his zenith five year’s hence in Hitchcock’s Frenzy.
It is a film born under a bad sign – director Roy’s romance with Mills, 33 years his junior, begun on the set of The Family Way, had already caused a scandal: “I couldn’t have been more vilified if I had seduced Bambi,” he later said. Marks’ lack of judgment is bewildering – a prodigy himself, in his work as a cryptographer for the Special Operations Executive he was a clandestine hero of World War II (see his 1998 memoir Between Silk and Cyanide). And yet, for its haunting Bernard Hermann score (later pilfered by Tarantino for Kill Bill), Bennett’s flesh-crawling performance and all the rotten ju ju contained within its woodshed, this is still a film anyone interested in this genre will find worth seeking out.

Despite its title, this is not a film in which anyone actually gets killed – but is important in this story for its exploration of London’s hidden subcultures and a star turn from Mrs Vincent Price that succeeds in leading it into horror territory. As with Bunny Lake, an American auteur casts a forensic eye over our national peculiarities, this time it’s What Ever Happened To Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich lifting up the carpet at the end of Swinging London and finding all manner of creatures squirming naked in the daylight.
Beryl Reid plays actress June Buckridge, stalwart of a long-running soap opera Applehurst, in which she portrays the titular nurse George, who ministers to the sick and lonely of a fictitious country parish of gilded memory, à la The Archers’ Ambridge. As we shall see, such rural communities were very much under threat from modernity, a plight reflected in the George’s fate. As her scooter-riding soap alter ego slyly suggests, in reality Buckridge is a butch thespian with whose domestic life is anything but bucolic.
She shares her Chelsea mews pad with a much younger woman, Alice (Susannah York), who goes by the name of ‘Childie’ and feigns a similar type of simpleton innocence to Hywel Bennett’s Georgie, the authenticity of which fires their sado-masochistic relationship. Any signs of transgression result in fierce punishment – such as being made to eat her master’s cigar butt, an act the unrepentant Childie still manages to turn to her advantage. In both her personal and professional relationships, Buckridge is the author of her own demise. After drunkenly accosting a couple of nuns in a taxi, she is brought before the Applehurst series director, the malevolent Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) who has her own ulterior motives in arranging the demise of Sister George. Croft issues an impossible ultimatum that aims the wrecking ball squarely at Buckridge’s crumbling façade.
Focusing his lens on forbidden territory, Aldritch filmed the most memorable sequence at one of London’s most legendary lesbian nightspots, The Gateways Club in Chelsea, where, as can be seen from the footage, half the clientele dressed as gangsters and the other half as their molls – and was operating a strict ‘women-only’ policy by the time he pulled off this feat. What he captured for posterity may have landed him with an X Certificate at the time, but has been of endless value to social historians and celebrants of queer culture ever since.

  • I Start Counting (David Greene, 1969)
    never released on DVD/Blu-ray

This film’s setting, amid the rebuilding of Bracknell, perfectly maps the geography of the post-War Home Counties and holds up a mirror to its central theme, the traumatizing adolescent awakening of Jenny Agutter’s Wynne Kinch. On top of the usual angst a 14-year-old girl must endure – a bitchy best friend (Claire Sutcliffe’s Corrine), the unwanted attentions of a moody bus conductor (Simon Ward in a role not dissimilar to Hywel Bennett’s Twisted Role turn; Bennett himself also makes an appearance) – Wynne is adopted and nurses a powerful crush on her older step-brother, George (Bryan Marshall). Oh, and there’s a killer on the loose, picking off her fellow schoolmates by the lake near her former home, a quaint old cottage now condemned to be demolished, the family having been relocated into a new block of flats and doubtless thankful for the indoor toilet.
A series of coincidences convinces Wynne that George is the murderer and she sets about trying to save him from himself with the authentically fervent determination of a teenager obsessed. Part of this involves returning to the old house to hold séances with George’s former fiancée – who came to her premature end in the cellar – which instead draws more menacing corporeal attention her way.
Like Hayley Mills, Agutter’s place in the British imagination is largely defined by her role as an innocent, which was to come in her next cinematic outing, as Bobbie Waterbury in Lionel Jeffries’ 1970 The Railway Children. But she is both compelling and convincing here, in her first starring role, as the besotted Wynne, unwittingly digging herself ever deeper into danger and despair. Along with Basil Kirchin’s dark pastoral score, the pristine precincts and high-rises add to the film’s feeling of dislocation. It captures the moment when communities from the bombed-out East End were relentlessly dispersed across London’s satellite cities by town planners fixated on vertical concrete solutions to the urgent housing problem, that senselessly eradicated huge swathes of the country’s undamaged heritage. It is precisely this Brutalist landscape that will inspire the next wave of brilliant British noir.

A little-known film now, which is surprising, given that it shares so much in common with the most justly-celebrated Brit Noir film of all time that it is referred to in this household as Get Scouser. Like Mike Hodges’ 1971 masterpiece – to be discussed in due course – this film is taken from a novel, Patrick Hall’s 1967 The Reckoning. Both films relocate the regional settings of their source material: Hodges transplanting Ted Lewis’ original Jack’s Return Home from Scunthorpe to Newcastle, Gold switching Hall’s Birmingham locale to Liverpool. This director, a member of the radical realist Free Cinema movement alongside Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson, would score his greatest success with his Thames TV adaptation of Quentin Crisp’s Naked Civil Servant five years later. But he lays down some strong stuff in this admirably gritty tale of “lapsed Irishman” Mick Marler (Nicol Williamson), whose existence between two contrasting worlds is put into an existential crisis.
In London, he is a successful businessman, working for the ominously named Grenfell, a corporation he is trying to convince to enter the computer market. But his social climbing activities are abruptly interrupted by the news that, back in Liverpool, his father, John Joe, is dying. By the time he reaches his bedside, John Joe has passed away and Mick is disturbed to find fresh bruises on the old man’s body. Retracing the movements of his last night, Mick calls in at the Irish Social, where John Joe’s best friend Cocky Burke (JG Devlin) lays it out for him – his father was murdered by a marauding bunch of Teddy Boys. The Irish don’t go to the British police for help; they take matters into their own hands. So – between trips back to London, where his relationships with both his boss, John Hazlitt (Paul Rogers) and social-climbing wife Rosemary (Ann Bell) are deteriorating fast – Marler tracks down the delinquents and makes them pay.
His journey takes him through a world of verité – and now vanished – working class culture, the best of which is an Exhibition wrestling match that ends in a mass-participation punch-up, none of which looks staged. From here, Marler is spirited to safety by lonely housewife Joyce Eglington (Rachel Roberts) and finds both temporary sanctuary and perhaps an echo of what he has left behind in her amorous embrace. Williamson, who here resembles a gaunt Richard Harris, does not have quite the glowering charisma of the young Michael Caine, but their similar vengeful voyages through the long night of a northern industrial city’s soul suggest it would be very surprising if Mike Hodges had not at least taken a few notes.

A film about a pair of American twins taking a summer holiday in Swinging London which, upon its release, proved so controversial that it got banned from theatrical release and then listed as a video nasty. The main object of outrage from crusading northern housewife Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers and Listener’s Association and the many concerned hacks who took up the baton, was the pivotal incestuous relationship between leads Jacki and Julian (Judy Geeson and Martin Potter). Although the predatory pimps, transvestite prostitutes, dope-smoking swingers and pseudo-Satanic rituals that lubricate its lurid plot probably gave them further pause, there is one kernel of society outrage wrapped in its psychedelic swirl which other film-makers of the era would be rapidly returning to.
That is, the connections between peers of the realm with gangsters, that were threatened to be exposed by The Sunday Mirror when, in 1964, they got hold of photographs of former Tory MP Lord Robert Boothby cavorting with Ronald and Reginald Kray. As described by Krays’ biographer John Pearson in his exemplary The Profession of Violence, this story was suppressed by Britain’s top solicitor, Arnold Goodman, at the behest of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, The Mirror duly sued and fined an astronomical amount for libel. What could not be published would subsequently be fictionalised in a handful of films from the early 1970s.
This incarnation of Boothby takes the form of Michael Redgrave as James Harrington-Smith MP, who first encounters the twins at a party of groovy people on one of the houseboats docked in Chelsea Harbour. It is Jaki whom he is drawn to and later, when the twins lives become imperiled, tries to help but ultimately lets down for fear of bringing scandal upon himself. This was interesting casting, though, considering Redgrave shared certain similarities with Boothby – both living reckless dual lives that were shielded by their noble public personas.
Goodbye Gemini is also notable for capturing Chelsea at a time when real rock stars and their consorts held court in the mansions of Cheyne Walk, where the twins holiday in splendour. The scenes in which they visit The Chelsea Potter pub, hang out on houseboats and and invite sinister pimp Clive (Alexis Kanner) back to their house to perform a ritual with their teddy bear familiar Agamemnon that climaxes in murder and insanity are redolent of the era when Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg brought their rock’n’roll circus to the same Elizabethan riverfront – and point to a fertile strand of films to come in which these worlds will continue to collide.

A brilliant three-hander between Stanley Baker as Mr Graham, the bored banker who plans the ultimate score, and his treacherous accomplices Lady Britt Dorset (Ursual Andress) and her roué husband Nick, the Earl of Dorset (David Warner). Baker, the hardman hero of Brit noir since the early 1950s, toils in the bowels of his Mayfair moneylenders, almost unrecognisable in regulation suit, tie, bowler hat and brolly – an echo of the equally repressed Tony Hancock in The Rebel a decade earlier. But it’s not a love of art that stirs in this aching breast. It’s commerce that fires the heart of the man of the nascent 1970s – and it’s precisely the dull repetition of his days that aids Graham to perfectly choreograph and execute his act of defiance, relieving his employers of £300,000 without them even noticing.
However, it’s not a role he can act alone. Help comes in the perfect form of the beautiful Lady Britt, who roars up in her newly acquired sports car to discuss why her account has become overdrawn. Her husband, she explains, has sufficient motivation of hefty gambling debts to lend them a hand. After meeting Warner, who resembles a stray Their Satanic Majesties Request-era Rolling Stone, at the Victoria and Albert Museum for a spot of verbal jousting, Graham formulates a plan that will test to the limits the dandy Earl’s dressing up capabilities.
As Baker himself pointed out, this is a film in which: “every time the characters speak to each other, they’re lying.” To add to the scintillating dialogue, this also a wonderful, colour-saturated portrait of a lost bohemian London, where raffish aristocrats doss down in crumbling Ladbroke Grove piles whose decadent décor reflects the influence of the 1966 V&A Aubrey Beardsley exhibition. Their neighbours would be the Windrush generation of West Indian immigrants, art students from the Royal College, fashion designers like Anthony Price and Zandra Rhodes and musicians like Marc Bolan, Elton John and Roxy Music.
Johnnie Dankworth’s cool jazz score soundtracks a world in which the prevailing, upwardly-mobile mood of the 1960s reaches its zenith. The working class revolution in fashion, music, cinema and popular culture has rearranged, if not toppled, previously unthinkably entrenched class barriers – the poverty-raddled, shell-shocked post-industrial world of The Whisperers could be a hundred years distant and anything seems possible. And then the future arrives, in the form of our next and final film, like a boot to the face…

Time has done little to diminish the impact of A Clockwork Orange on the Britain that first viewed Stanley Kubrick’s horroshow vision of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel. In its Allen-Jones inspired fetishistic fashions and interiors, its setting in the newly-erected Brutalist housing estate Thamesmead in southeast London, Walter/Wendy Carlos’ sublime electronic remaking of Beethoven and its mocking use of totalitarian imagery, it lay down all the flammable trails that would ignite five years later in the form of The Sex Pistols and punk.
By then, the film had long since been pulled from UK circulation. Kubrick banned his own film in 1973, after a spate of ‘copycat’ rapes and violence reported on by a hostile press and police turning up at his St Albans’ home convinced him that it had become a template for evil. Certainly, in the early 1970s there were gangs of ‘Droogs’ reported across the country, dressing like the film’s delinquent gang, led by Malcolm McDowell as Alex, a bowler-hatted, false-eyelash-sporting lover of “the old ultra-violence”. Interestingly, Kubrick thought Alex shared similarities with Richard III – one of Johnny Rotten’s stated heroes.
Until the director’s death in 1999, the only way you could see the film in Britain was on a dodgy video obtained from somewhere on the Continent. But separating it from its audience only increased its revelatory glory when it returned, fully restored, to cinema screens. So much time had elapsed it was possible to pinpoint the director’s own little homages within it to the history of British delinquent cinema – when the Droogs race their car into the suburbs, the sequence is reminiscent of Edmund T Gréville’s 1959 Beat Girl, and the star of that film, Gillian Hills, is picked up by Alex, along with Gaye (Rocky Horror Show) Brown at The Musik Bootick record shop (actually the Chelsea Drugstore). There was a kernel of Alex in Oliver Reed’s gang leader King from Joseph Losey’s 1963 Hammer anomaly and punk signifier The Damned – Kubrick paid such keen attention to everything of cultural significance this is possibly not a coincidence. But what remains so impressive is his grasp of the future unseen – A Clockwork Orange still looks and feels like a parallel universe Britain yet to come. Not for nothing did The Guardian vote it the Best Arthouse Film of All Time.

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Par Cathi Unsworth - le 1 mai 2020

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