The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late ’40s and ’50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.
By Michael Barrett
Boring British Movies
Growing up as a callow nascent film buff, lost in the candy store of VHS tapes and TV Guide, I gathered that British films were mostly dull old things. With a few exceptions, they were talky sub-Hollywood productions, at best well-acted but lacking oomph and pizzazz and élan and je ne sais quoi. I partly got this impression from English critics, and some of the tatty VHS and TV prints I saw reinforced this idea.
As the years passed, I had to note more and more exceptions until the old canard became festooned with mental asterisks and parentheses. Today, with so many classic British films that haven’t circulated in the US finally hitting Region 1 in sparkling restorations on Blu-ray, I’m officially concluding that the spotty dismissal of British cinema is what deserves to be dismissed.
I believe three factors have been at work in promoting this fiction about boring English films. The first is that critics and reviewers everywhere seem to be blind to the qualities of their own country’s film production. This partly explains why English critics seemed dismissive of their own cultural legacy. It’s the natural result of having to sit through every uninspired local movie and getting so weary that you take it all for granted.
Thus, Americans had to be told by postwar French auteurists that Hollywood’s popular cinema was full of artistic masterpieces. Meanwhile, those same French critics were awfully hard on their own national cinema, referred to derisively as “the cinema of quality”, and only now are historians re-evaluating much of that material.
Similarly, the upstarts of New German Cinema, in an understandable attempt to differentiate themselves from a compromised past, swept out “Opa’s kino” or “grandpa’s cinema”, and it’s been taking a while to examine that legacy. I think we’ve been slow to study Franco-era Spanish cinema for similar reasons, and pre-war Italian films. In Russia and China, there are times when it has been policy to avoid praising specific eras.
I fancy certain critics in Hong Kong or India have had to to be informed of the value of much of their blatantly commercial cinema by foreigners. Even today’s American reviewers are more comfortable dismissing mainstream Hollywood in praise of foreign films. Perhaps upstart critics in Brazil or Bengal shall one day inform Americans of the masterpieces of superhero cinema. This brings up the second factor: the passage of time tends to make things more interesting, not less, contrary to what people have long assumed about “dated” cinema.
In addition, a third factor is more specific to English culture, where it’s considered bad taste to toot your own horn. British cinema has been created by vulgar self-promoters like J. Arthur Rank (literally banging a gong) and brassy boots like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger or Hammer’s Michael Carreras or the Kordas (imported Hungarians) or Anatole de Grunwald (imported Russian) or the imported Yanks of Amicus (it helps to be a bloody foreigner), and they faced whiffs of critical sniffery about the sort of thing that just isn’t done.
But then, there’s the work. The British Film Institute and others have been beavering away, restoring their country’s legacy, because it’s all they can do, poor dears, and the results are continually dropping our jaws and making us rewrite our impressions of drab British cinema. These thoughts are triggered by yet another handful of British postwar classics of the late 1940s and ’50s arriving on Blu-ray to put paid to the old libels. Let’s take the films in the order of public unleashing.about:blank
Brighton Rock (1948) Director: John Boulting
Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock (1948) (IMDB)
This dark Catholic gangster thriller opens with a statement that might have been crafted by the Brighton Chamber of Commerce. We’re told that Brighton is a wonderful vacation spot an hour from London, but that between the wars it had “back alleys” of crime that caught police attention. “This is a story of that other Brighton — now happily no more” avers the prologue, as though such things are gone with the war, and a headline quickly establishes that the story takes place in June 1935.
Maybe so, but the extensive location shooting also makes the movie a documentary of postwar Brighton as a tatty pleasure-land for the lower and middle classes. This detailed and populous film, shot in expressive high-contrast black and white, provides a rich snapshot that seamlessly mixes location and studio work. It’s normal that studio sets provide all sorts of angles and shadows, but even the outdoor locations are presented with distortion and clamor.
Scripted by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan from Greene’s 1938 novel, which he called one of his “entertainments”, the film is loaded with Catholic dialogue and symbolism, sometimes carefully underlined. For example, both the villainous Pinkie and his naïve girlfriend identify as Catholics and believers, with Pinkie declaring “Atheists don’t know what they’re talking about” and “Of course there’s a hell.”This recalls Mephistopheles’ famous statement in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Just to make sure every viewer makes the same connection, another character quotes this later in the film. And when Pinkie commits a significant malapropism by referring to a “suicide pax”, his background as an altar boy requires him to spell out that “pax” is Latin for “peace”. Such underlining could be heavy-handed but it’s mostly delightful for recovering English majors.
Wait, we’re forgetting the story. At 17, Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) is a cold, affectless gangster who has assumed control of his little four-man racket since the death of a previous leader he loved. After being introduced in a moody, shadowy title portrait excerpted from later in the film, Pinkie makes his first appearance in the story as a pair of hands playing cat’s cradle. The hands are jutting up into frame, tangled in their string, foreshadowing the hands of Harry Lime poking up through the sewer grate in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), another thriller by Greene. These be-stringed hands might make us think he’s going to strangle someone, but he never does.
He does, however, push a journalist to his death from a thrill ride (called Dante’s Inferno!) in the movie’s most vivid and terrifying set piece. With glowing ghouls and ghosts flashing subjectively in the viewer’s face, this nerve-wracking and extravagantly edited sequence almost anticipates 3-D. For a moment, Brighton Rock turns into a horror film. Apparently, some English critics of the time found it objectionably horrible because of two razor-slashing scenes — that crossed a the line into depraved violence.about:blank
Aside from the details of Pinkie’s troubled relations with his three followers (we might call them disciples, although they don’t prove that disciplined, and there will be a Judas), the film details his relations between two diametrically opposed women who seem to fill him with horror.