Category: British Cinema

Man in the Middle (UK-US 1964)

This strange film turned up on Talking Pictures TV a couple of days ago. It is ‘strange’ not because of its theme or genre categorisation, which are relatively familiar, but for its production details and aspects of representations of racism in a very specific context. The outline plot is straightforward. In India in 1944 a group of military bases are shared by British and American units. One night an American officer enters the sleeping quarters of other ranks and shoots a British NCO in cold blood, firing several times in front of witnesses. The murder is very damaging for US-British co-operation in the preparations for an offensive against the Japanese. The US general in charge summons an officer to defend the shooter in a court martial which everyone agrees will end with the convicted man being hung. Even so, a proper defence case must be made so that both the British and Americans are satisfied (nobody mentions what the Indians might think). This is essentially a courtroom drama with the sub-text that it is the American military institution which is under scrutiny, even when there is a war to be won.

The defence bench in the court martial with Lt Winston (Keenan Wynn) next to Lt-Col Adams. This is a set at Elstree.

The production was an American package made by three independent production companies for Twentieth Century Fox – a CinemaScope film in black and white made at the Associated British studios at Elstree. The leading cast members and the producers were American but the crew and other cast members were British (Trevor Howard is listed as a ‘guest star’). There was some second-unit work in India but primarily this is a British production as part of Hollywood’s move to overseas shoots in the this period. Perhaps the most significant credit was that for the writers. The film is adapted from a novel by Howard Fast, the American author perhaps best-known for his novel Spartacus (1951), adapted as a film in 1960. Fast was extremely productive of novels and short stories. He was a prominent communist party supporter until the occupation of Hungary in 1956 and had worked for the US Office of War Information during the Second World War. I find it odd that the adaptation of Fast’s novel The Winston Affair (1959) was commissioned from the British writing partnership of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. Both Willis and Hall had experienced military service in the post-war period and Willis had written The Long and the Short and the Tall as a play which was then adapted as a film in 1961 (about British troops in Malaya in 1942). Alongside this, Hall and Waterhouse had a very productive partnership but their main genre was comedy and neither had much experience of the American military as far as I can discern.

Presumably this is second unit footage in India?

The film narrative works reasonably well as a courtroom drama. The central figure of the defence counsel is played by Robert Mitchum as Lt-Colonel Barney Adams who has experience of Army regulations and had acted before as counsel in a court martial. He arrives straight from military hospital, walking with a stick. His Silver Star and Purple Heart give him extra authority. Bizarrely, the Mitchum character is supposed to be the son of a West Point alumni of the local commander General Kempton (Barry Sullivan). Sullivan was just five years older than Mitchum. Mitchum is the film’s star and he plays to his star image but in a relatively restrained manner. The only really false note in the narrative structure is the relationship Adams has with a nurse played by the French-Chinese actor France Nuyen who was second-billed on the film posters. The nurse does have a functional role in providing a crucial document and in challenging Adams over his conduct of the case but the ‘romance’ is mostly irrelevant. However, Nuyen’s mixed race heritage is an indicator of a major issue in the film – racial difference and how it is handled in the American and British military administrations in India.

Lt-Col Adams approaches his jeep driven by Sgt Jackson (Errol John)

As far as I am aware, US military regulations in 1944 still maintained segregated roles and living/social arrangements for black personnel.There have been a number of novels and films that deal with incidents in which black GIs are discriminated against by white officers and men during their time in the UK during the Second World War, for example in the film Yanks (1979) and in the Nevil Shute novel  The Chequer Board (1947). In both narratives, the locals tend to support the black GIs (something corroborated by various newspaper reports from the period). The American authorities did not send black servicemen to all overseas postings, but they were sent to the Asian theatre as well as to the UK. I have only very limited knowledge of the American presence in India in 1944, but India was still a British colonial territory and forms of a ‘colour bar’ did operate in India, especially in social clubs. My feeling about the film is that although the second unit footage offers a realist presentation, mainly in long shot, of various Indian townscapes etc., the internal scenes do not feel in any way authentic. Rather they seem typical of many Hollywood films. In Man in the Middle, we are presented with an American officers’ club which some British officers attend. There appear to be Indian servants but I don’t remember any African-Americans. However, when Adams arrives at the base he is assigned a black driver (played by Trinidadian actor Errol John). When he visits his client, Lt. Winston (Keenan Wynn) in prison, the guards are mostly black. I wondered if this was meant to be realist or perhaps instead was meant to ‘speak’ to the Civil Rights supporters in the US in 1964?

Adams visits Winston in the military prison

When Adams manages to get some responses from Winston in terms of why he shot S/Sgt Quinn that night, the main issue appears to be Winston’s racist views. Quinn was white but appeared to Winston to be friendly towards ‘the blacks up country’. It’s difficult for audiences now, I think, to understand whether Winston’s racism is an issue as such since Adams’ only possible strategy is to present Winston as clinically insane. Does the US Army care either way as long as he is found guilty and can be sentenced? I won’t spoil any more of the plot.

Major Kensington ((Trevor Howard) probably has the best understanding of what is behind the shooting

Guy Hamilton directed the film as his tenth feature (he made Godlfinger in the same year and would go onto direct four Bond films). It was photographed by Wilkie Cooper, already a distinguished veteran of British cinema productions with music by John Barry. It’s perhaps not surprising that Trevor Howard steals the film when he roars into a scene towards the end of the film. He was very much ‘at home’ on the set and had worked with director Hamilton many times before. In this film he plays a Medical Officer, Major Kensington, posted ‘up country’ who just happens to have been a psychiatrist before the war. Interestingly, Adams, a career soldier, seems to get on with Kensington whereas he loathes having to deal with the two lawyers assigned as his assistants because they are enlisted men.

There is a long history in post-war British cinema of UK-US productions, either Hollywood studios coming to the UK to make films or British companies importing American stars (usually second division players but still stars to a UK audience). Sometimes such films work very well but there is often something which just seems ‘off’ in terms of British culture, especially if the films are made with an American audience in mind. The line that got me in the whole film was when Major Kensington visits the US Officer’s Club bar and Adams asks him what he is doing in an American bar. He replies that the beer is never cold enough in an English bar. I think Waterhouse and Hall must have felt they needed to include this line, which became a cliché as proclaimed by every American GI who went into a British pub in a wartime film. Perhaps it was a sly joke? The irony is that one of the most famous forms of bottled beer in England is IPA, a beer developed specifically in the 18th century for export to India with extra alcohol and hop content to ensure it remained palatable in the heat. ‘IPA’ is now also a popular ‘craft beer’ in the US.

Addendum

In its review (June 1964) Monthly Film Bulletin makes the observation that the film struggles to present American officers after they were satirised so expertly by Kubrick in Dr Strangelove (UK 1964), which was released in the UK a few months earlier. Watching the courtroom scenes, they did remind me of Kubrick’s earlier Paths of Glory (US 1957) in which a French military leadership attempts to convict a soldier at a court martial during the First World War, but selects the wrong counsel for defence.

The Clouded Yellow (UK 1950)

This is an important film for several reasons but it has suffered distribution problems and has perhaps not been as celebrated as it deserves. Its first claim to significance is that it was the production that launched the partnership of Betty Box as producer and Ralph Thomas as director – a partnership that lasted into the 1970s and which proved to be the most consistently profitable for the Rank Organisation, especially during the period of the ‘Doctor’ series of comedies in the 1950s. Betty Box had begun her career in wartime training films and then joined her brother Sydney Box at Gainsborough Studios where she ran the small production base in Islington. After a number of successful popular films, including the Huggett family comedies, Rank decided to ‘consolidate’ its empire, closing Gainsborough and re-focusing solely on Pinewood as its production base. The plans to make The Clouded Yellow were caught up in the closure procedure. Having already committed to The Clouded Yellow as a project when it was passed to her by her brother, Box decided to go ahead with the production using her own money to ensure the film was completed. The film was then released by Rank through General Film Distributors, but appears to have been picked up by Columbia in the US. It was scheduled as an Eagle-Lion release in the US but Rank wound up that company before the American release date in November 1951. A DVD did finally appear in 2008 but only in a cut version. Finally in 2010 a full 91 minute DVD became available in the UK. With PAL speed up that does equate roughly to the original 95 minute running time. Even so, there did seem to be a few frames missing in the version I watched.

Trevor Howard in 1950 was at the peak of his early fame

The first shot of Jean Simmons in the film as she turns to see Trevor Howard

The second key feature of the production is the script by Janet Green, her first for a film production. She had been a stage actor and had written a play in 1945. Her work was distinctive and as well as thrillers her scripts often picked up on social issues such as racism in Sapphire (1959) and persecution of ‘homosexual’ men in Victim (1961). There are flaws in the script of The Clouded Yellow but it still convinces as a tightly-plotted work with some original features for a British film in 1950. Betty Box in her memoir tells us that Eric Ambler worked on the script when Green was unavailable. As well as Green as a writer, Betty Box also had Geoffrey Unsworth, one of the most distinguished cinematographers of all time as her DoP. She also had a stellar cast, headed by Trevor Howard at the peak of his early fame as a leading man and Jean Simmons (British actress of the year in 1949) in her last British picture before her move to Hollywood. There were several notable players in the supporting cast, including Kenneth More and others like Geoffrey Keen who would become well-known in 1950s and 1960s cinema.

The noir scenes in Newcastle

Outline

David Somers (Trevor Howard) arrives back in the UK from a foreign trip, passing through customs at the airport without a passport. He’s a British agent now seemingly disgraced because of his failure on a mission. His boss suggests he should ‘retire’ and find a quiet job. Somers eventually takes up a temporary job cataloguing a collection of butterfly specimens for Nicholas Fenton (Barry Jones) a collector in Hampshire. The ‘Clouded Yellow’ is a ‘migratory European butterfly’ often seen in Southern England and less commonly across the whole of the UK. Jess Fenton (Sonia Dresdel) seems very concerned about the mental state of her niece Sophie Malraux (Jean Simmons) who had lost her parents when she was a young child. Somers befriends Sophie and when she is suspected of murder, he attempts to smuggle her out of the country (something he presumably did as part of his time as a British secret service agent). The chase that ensues involves scenes in London, Newcastle, the Lake District and finally Liverpool.

Kenneth More in an early and untypical role as Willie

Commentary

The film is structured partly by the choice of location which in turn influences the use of genre conventions. The opening of the film and the beginnings of the chase are set in London and mainly in the West End/Whitehall area familiar from many films. The country house in Hampshire offers a very different environment and this section of the film does suggest the gothic romance of something like Jane Eyre or its Val Lewton conception, I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Somers is sent from a London office London and eventually finds himself in a large house where a young woman is seemingly kept under close scrutiny and may be under some form of ‘control’ by her guardians. Although the house is ‘light and airy’, there is still a sense of ‘disturbance’ and one fateful night the young woman goes walking in the grounds.

The large numbers of police comb the fells in the Lake District

The sequence in Newcastle includes a chase at night and this may be the basis for the suggestion that this is a film noir, such is the depiction of the city. It is also in Newcastle that we get a sense of Somers’ network of contacts, but also that he is under close surveillance by his former service colleague Willie (Kenneth More) who has been assigned to find him (to protect the prestige of the service). The Lake District footage involves a different aesthetic, reminiscent of some American crime stories in which scores of police in cars, on motorbikes and even with the aid of a helicopter (unusual for 1950) scour the hills around Ullswater. The framings become characterised by very long shots of the police on hillsides and big close-ups, especially of Jean Simmons fearing capture.

This American poster makes the link to Hitchcock and Reed

The film’s denouement in Liverpool includes two distinctive elements. Somers’ contacts involve members of Liverpool’s Chinese community, the oldest in Europe and located close to extensive docklands in 1950. The docklands themselves and the warehouses and railway network necessary to move the huge tonnage of goods provides the spectacular setting for the finale. The entire chase sequence from London via Newcastle and then the Lakes has prompted many reviewers to cite Hitchcock’s 1935 romance-thriller The 39 Steps as an important influence. That film was made by Gainsborough as were other Hitchcocks such as The Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Along with Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940), these titles were used in promoting the film. Placing The Clouded Yellow alongside Hitchcock is justifiable but there is a difference in the sense that any romance between Somers and Sophie is only hinted at rather than exploited as potentially erotic. Jean Simmons plays Sophie as young and Howard is her protector. She was actually 21 while he was 36.

Newspaper puns?

Somers’ motivation is presented by the script as the ‘freeing’ of a young woman from a trap. Depending on your point of view, the script is either clever in the way it weaves the symbol of ‘entrapment’ through the narrative or possibly ‘over the top’ if you don’t like melodrama. Sophie is known in the press reports as ‘the Butterfly Girl’. We’ve already noted that the Clouded Yellow butterfly is a migrant, just like the contacts Somers has in Newcastle. In another strand, Somers reacts very strongly to the odd-job man at the Hampshire house (played by Maxwell Reed) who traps rabbits to sell. C. A . Lejeune in The Sketch magazine (December 1950) described the film as “Lively, extravagant melodrama and don’t bother your head about the symbols”. The Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in November 1950 thought it “not excitingly enough made to compensate for its improbabilities and clichés”. But these rather silly statements by esteemed critics didn’t stop the film being successful and pleasing many audiences. It repaid Box’s faith in her decision to back it with her own money and established her partnership with Thomas at Pinewood.

Somers and Sophie with their Chinese contact in Liverpool

I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Clouded Yellow for the second time with a better print than on my first viewing and I think I appreciated it more. As well as the performances by Howard and Simmons and the photography by Unsworth, what distinguishes the film is the location footage for the chase sequences. Although more films were being shot on location at this time, few made such extensive use of authentic locations with Howard and Simmons expected to traverse real streams and climb on real hills. There is a nice press release from mid-1950 pointing out that  Jean Simmons survived her scenes in the Lakes but twisted her ankle on the set at Pinewood. If you are a train or bus enthusiast I recommend the film highly. But we could do with a Blu-ray, please!

Here’s a short extract from the noir sequence in Newcastle:

Looking for Light: Jane Bown (UK 2014)

A self-portait of Jane Bown from the 1970s (when she started using the Olympus-M1 camera)

(All the images in this post are by Jane Bown and ©Jane Bown Estate or the Guardian/Observer)

Currently streaming on MUBI, this is a documentary about the legendary photographer who spent most of her working life at the Observer Sunday newspaper. MUBI has ‘programmed’ it in a strand entitled ‘Portrait of an Artist’. This places Jane Bown in the company of some much more flamboyant artists such as David Lynch, whereas she was seemingly a shy and mysterious figure, though also dogged in her quest for the best portrait she could produce of celebrities profiled in the Observer. The documentary-makers Michael Whyte and Luke Dodd present Looking for Light in a simple format of interviews conducted at points towards the end of Bown’s life (she died aged 89 in December 2014) and witness statements by ex-colleagues and public figures who have been photographed by Bown. Interspersed and against a black background, Bown’s photographs are presented ‘full screen’ (mostly portrait-shaped in a standard 1.85:1 frame). Bown nearly always worked in black and white, using only available light to produce very strong images. The images are presented without sound and must have looked even more impressive on a cinema screen.

One of Jane Bown’s best-known images. This portrait of Samuel Beckett was one of just three shots Bown was able to capture as he exited the stage door of the Royal Court in 1976.

Jane Bown had a ‘difficult’ childhood. She never knew her father who died when she was five. Her mother was a private nurse and Jane was brought up by various aunts – or ‘aunts’, one of whom was her mother. This family background is explored by Jane and her son Hugo in the documentary. However, her family life during her career at the Observer is kept mostly under wraps. She had a long marriage to the influential retail fashion executive Martin Moss and at home she was known as ‘Mrs Moss’. At the Observer she was always ‘Jane Bown’. Her childhood is discussed partly because it might explain aspects of her unique work practices. For instance, as a teenager she would often attach herself to other families or groups, enjoying being in the background. When she attended the only Photography course available after she was demobbed from the WRNS in 1946 her shyness might have resulted in failure to succeed but she did produce a few outstanding photographs which eventually led to her first work for the Observer in 1949 – the daunting task of producing a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, then one of the best known figures in the UK.

The interviews tend to focus on Bown’s shyness and her very distinctive approach to her work. She became part of the ‘family’ culture under the editor David Astor (whose family formerly owned the paper but placed it in the hands of Trustees). This connection does perhaps suggest a kind of ‘cosy’ upper middle-class conservatism and Jane Bown  was at least economically and socially ‘comfortable’. But she also developed her photographic practice and honed it to perfection. It involved little preparation about the subject, but attention to detail with her search for available light and the opportunity to ‘catch’ her subject in a natural pose. She generally took a roll or two of 35mm film images in less than half an hour and often just 10 to 20 minutes. I don’t want to discuss the practice in detail here but there are various web sources that do this and these are recommended: Luke Dodd wrote an obituary, you can see many of the photos on the Guardian gallery and this entry on PhotogpediA is very useful, with further links. (See also this entry on Anatomy Films.)

A member of station staff at Earl’s Court station on the District Line, c.1960

Doing further research on webpages like the above, I discovered that Bown’s early photography that did not become well-known until an exhibition and an accompanying book entitled Unknown Bown 1947-67 appeared in 2007. Some of the images from the exhibition appear in the 2014 film. When she started on her photographic career, Bown was not interested in famous people as subjects, instead she was pre-occupied by ‘space and texture’. This resulted in images that sometimes show unnamed people in slightly odd situations, some at work. The best seem to me to be almost Bert Hardy-like and to be valuable documentary images of British society. I would like to have known a little more about this time of Bown’s life as some of these images are terrific.

Mill hands in Rochdale going to a byelection hustings in 1958

I read the Observer during the 1970s and 1980s so many of the portraits seem familiar and certainly the style. I knew the name Jane Bown and I think I appreciated the work at the time. Now many of the photographs seem very rich in meaning. Germaine Greer, who introduced the Unknown Bown in 2007, linked Bown to the approach of Cartier-Bresson in finding the ‘decisive moment’ when she went off on her travels to find interesting subjects – often children. Bown at that time worked with a Rolleiflex, the camera of choice for art photographs.

Björk in 1995

Watching the 2014 film now with its stretch back over 70 years of creating images, I wonder if the world of photography and image-making has changed fundamentally again in the last eight years? What would a young woman interested in becoming a photographer in 2022 make of Jane Bown’s career and her portfolio? Apart from the technological changes in photography, it must be difficult to appreciate the changes in the concept of ‘celebrity’ and the circulation of images produced by citizen journalism. The other issue is the extent to which Jane Bown was ‘unrecognised’ during her career, because she was a woman? I’m not sure about this. I suppose the highest profile figure as a female photographer for me in the 1970s/80s was Annie Leibovitz as chief photographer on Rolling Stone magazine. Later on in the 1990s I remember working on aspects of an exhibition by Nancy Honey in Bradford. I think that there were successful women in photography but they were ‘exceptional’ and not necessarily particularly ‘sisterly’ towards other women. There is a sequence in the film where Bown refers to Diane Arbus as a photographer she didn’t like and Martha Gelhorn, the famous war correspondent as a woman who didn’t like the portrait that Bown produced. But she photographed many famous women and produced stunning images. One of the best ‘statements’ in the film comes from Edna O’Brien who was certainly very responsive as a sitter and understood was Bown was doing.

I liked this film very much and went back to re-watch several sequences. I appreciate the measured pace and the moments of silence. I’m not sure what younger audiences make of the film. The celebrities are all named briefly by a subtitle, but even I struggled on a couple of them I didn’t recognise. My only criticism really is that I wasn’t always sure who was interviewing Jane Bown, but that’s a minor point. If you are interested in photography or artistic practice or if you enjoy finding out about women’s lives over a long career you might enjoy this film very much.

Robbery Under Arms (UK-Australia 1957)

In 1956 the film adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel A Town Like Alice was a big commercial and critical success. It starred Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch with Joseph Janni as producer and Jack Lee as director. Finch was a bankable name in Australia and in the UK, partly because of his well publicised drinking and affairs with female celebrity figures. Because the film had an Australian dimension involving the capture of Australian troops as well as British settlers in Malaya at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1941, Janni and Lee were eager to to make another film with Finch in Australia. They eventually decided on a new version of an already four-times adapted novel set in the late nineteenth century. They used the same pair of writers, W.P. Lipscomb and Richard Mason plus an additional writer, Alexander Baron and two of the other cast members from the earlier film. The experienced Harry Waxman shot the new film mainly in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia as well as in the Pagewood Studios in Sydney and Pinewood in the UK. This adventurous production links the film to both the Australian genre of the ‘bushranger’ film and to the cycle of British-Australian films produced by Ealing Studios starting with The Overlanders (1946) and finishing with The Siege of Pinchgut (1959). Peter Finch was a supporting player in one of these, Eureka Stockade in 1949, and he starred in The Shiralee in 1957, immediately before working on Robbery Under Arms. Ealing had in fact tried to make their own adaptation of Robbery Under Arms at several points over the course of their Australian production period.

Peter Finch as Captain Starlight

Robbery Under Arms was written by the Australian author Thomas Alexander Browne using the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood. It first appeared serialised in a Sydney magazine from 1882 and was then published in book form in 1888 and has remained in print ever since, becoming a classic of ‘Australian colonial fiction’. Originally used to refer to ‘transported’ men who escaped into the bush to evade the authorities, ‘bushranger’ became a descriptor for any criminals who carried out ‘robbery under arms’ as the official charge sheet put it. Film versions of the novel were among the first Australian films in the 1900s with further adaptations in 1911 and 1920 and a later TV movie in 1985 starring Sam Neill. The novel is long with several episodes. The 1957 version cuts several of these and presents a more linear narrative. It also sets the story slightly earlier in 1865. The most striking decision is the casting of Peter Finch as ‘Captain Starlight’, the rather glamorous and seemingly aristocratic leader of a bushranger outfit. Although Finch was appropriately cast as the character, Starlight isn’t the leading character in the narrative. Instead, the leads are two brothers Dick (Ronald Lewis) and Jim (David McCallum) Marston. Dick is the leader of the two and the narrative begins when, exhausted after a successful spell of sheep shearing, the pair decide to seek adventure. They find this when they discover that their ex-convict father is working with Starlight on a cattle drive of a thousand stolen head. It seems like exciting and lucrative work but they will find themselves always having to avoid the colonial police force as well as angry ranchers. Their involvement with a pair of sisters (Kate, played by Maureen Swanson and Jean, played by Jill Ireland) causes further complications. The main events in the narrative are familiar from Hollywood Westerns – a stage hold-up, saloon brawls etc.

A publicity still of Indigenous warriors (from the Network DVD gallery) The black & white publicity shots were standard at this time – although the film was in colour, most print publications were still monochrome in the UK

Indigenous Australians appear in the form of trackers, working with both Starlight’s gang and the colonial police, and warriors encountered in the bush. The resolution of the narrative is inevitable as a ‘posse’ of locals aids the colonial police to hunt down Starlight’s gang. He may be the ‘gentleman’ thief but some of his companions are more brutal. Mothers will lose young sons and settler culture in Australia does not come out well, apart from a local brother-sister combination who seem honourable. The Marstons might have followed their example but that would not fulfil the genre expectations.

This tableau composition of the Marston family is a publicity still presenting Marjorie Anderson as the mother with her sons Dick (back left), Jim and daughter Eileen (Dudy Nimmo)

As with other British productions in Commonwealth/Empire territories, the appeal of the film is found in the Eastmancolor images of the mountains and plains that present the action. One of the odd aspects of the production is the IMDb suggestion that the film was shot in ‘open matte’ Academy ratio (1.33:1) but intended to be projected with masking to create a widescreen (1.75:1) image. I watched the Network Region 2 DVD in Academy and that seems to be the format for other DVDs as well. I think the amount of cropping/masking for a widescreen image would destroy many compositions so that suggestion sounds unlikely to me. There is also a discrepancy in the running times listed for the UK, US and Australia. The Region 2 DVD runs 95 minutes which with PAL speed-up is closest to the UK cinema running time of 99 minutes. Australia seemingly got 5 minutes more but the US 16 mins less.

A major release by Rank

The film received a mixed response from critics but was certainly a box office hit in Australia and seems to have got a wide release in the UK. The two main criticisms seem to have been about the quality of the performances and the poor script. Personally, I found all the performances to be fine. There is some criticism of the mix of speech patterns by the British actors as leads and Australians as support but this probably matches some of the interchanges of the 1860s. For the critics in the 1950s the script was on the one hand filled with passages, especially in the opening scenes, when the pace was too slow but overall included two many ‘action scenes’ and didn’t develop the relationships between characters. I think it likely that the film was seen as both very similar to American Westerns but also vastly inferior. This seems to miss the film’s genuine interest in its Australian story and I’ve written about it here in preparation for work on other Australian Westerns. Australian film history begins with such films but production declined during the 1930s and didn’t fully revive until the ‘New Australian Cinema’ of the 1970s. The British productions in Australia between 1946 and 1959 at least helped to keep local production alive during the lean years.

David McCallum with Jill Ireland as Jean

Two repercussions for the actors involved in the Robbery Under Arms production were that David McCallum and Jill Ireland married during the production, having met on Hell Drivers which was released in the UK earlier in 1957. They later migrated to Hollywood where McCallum starred in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Maureen Swanson, who shares second billing on the UK poster above with McCallum, was a rising star at this point and she had featured in A Town Like Alice and other Rank productions, including a second billing in a Norman Wisdom comedy, Up in the World (1956). As Ronald Bergan points out in her obituary (she died in 2011), Swanson didn’t fit into the group of ‘Charm School starlets’ as she had trained as a ballet dancer but she was also not one of the young ‘sex bomb’ types such as Diana Dors or Joan Collins. Yet after Robbery Under Arms, in which the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer says she gives a “Rhonda Fleming-like performance”, she moves into UK TV and then retires in 1961 after marrying into the aristocracy. Her performance as Kate reveals an actor with passion and Rank lost a potential major star.

A publicity shot of Maureen Swanson as Kate in Robbery Under Arms

Robbery Under Arms is a film with flaws certainly but I don’t think it deserved the critical reaction it received. I enjoyed the film and particularly the cinematography and the performances by Maureen Swanson and David McCallum (both initially from Glasgow). This is an interesting introduction to Australian stories on screen before the emergence of the 1970s New Cinema. As well as on the Network DVD, the film has also appeared on Talking Pictures TV in the UK.

The Edge (UK 2019)

The Edge is a sports documentary about the England Test cricket team. Released in cinemas in July 2019 soon after England won the Cricket World Cup (50 Over white ball game) it is now available on DVD and digital download and is free in the UK on BBC iPlayer for the next couple of weeks. Presented in ‘Scope format with some spectacular footage and voiceovers by Toby Jones, the documentary does have the feel of a cinema feature and follows Warriors (UK 2015) the earlier film by Barney Douglas. That told the story of a cricket team from the Masai in Kenya who came to Lords in London, the home of English cricket. As well as presenting the ‘feelgood’ journey for the team, that documentary also featured a discourse about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) still an issue in the Masai community. The Edge has a similar overall approach. While it has a conventional sports documentary structure about the rise (and fall) of a team that reached a peak of No. 1 ranking in world cricket, it is also about the mental stress of top level sport and the personal stories of specific players.

The crucial question about the documentary is whether it can appeal to a wider audience than simply cricket fans (although there are many such fans around the world). How much do you need to know about cricket to appreciate the highs and lows that the players and coaches experience? The film does work as a compelling narrative about a group of young men, presenting the drama of their encounters at major Test venues but it doesn’t attempt to explain how the game works or to offer any basic facts  – the individual and team scores in the most significant games. This could be frustrating for both fans and the wider audience. Like its American equivalent, baseball, cricket is a game in which statistics are important for fans and players alike.

If you don’t know cricket and cricket culture I think some of subtexts in the film are difficult to grasp. Test cricket is the ‘highest’ and most demanding form of the game, played by national teams in a series of 5-day games. Cricket expanded from its English base, first to Australia and then to many other parts of the British Empire from the early 20th century. There are now ten Test teams recognised by the International Cricket Council with several more ‘Associate Members’. Because of the Imperial background there are issues about race and class in the history of cricket which still have an impact today and events in The Edge do in some respects refer to this history.

The narrative begins at the point in 2009 when England were at rock bottom. Zimbabwean Andy Flower, already associated with England as a coach, was appointed as full-time director of the England Test team. Flower is presented as a tough coach and a man who had left Zimbabwe after criticising the undemocratic policies of President Robert Mugabe. He was actually born in Apartheid South Africa and in the England team when he took over there were four players who had been born in South Africa. Captain Andrew Strauss and wicket-keeper Matt Prior came to the UK as children, but batsmen Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen came as adults, gaining qualification status to play for England. The squad of 13 featured in the film comprised five young men educated at private schools (which often have cricketing facilities) and six who came from state schools (plus the two schooled in South Africa). Monty Panesar, the second spin bowler in the team, was the first Sikh to play for England and the only non-white player in the squad. I mention these distinctions simply because they represent references to the colonial history of cricket and the different cultures associated with private and state schooling. Up until the 1960s English cricket teams often comprised ‘gentlemen amateurs’ and professional ‘players’ with the distinction clearly marked in terms of status. Unlike the England football team, most of whom are likely to share a similar educational background, the cricket team has potential divisions which can be damaging, especially on tour. Perhaps because of this, Flower chose to take the team squad on a rigorous team-building course in a Bavarian forest devised by the German military. They were a talented group of players and this exercise arguably helped them to become much more effective as a team.

Cricket is as much in the head as out in the middle

The trajectory of the narrative is over the next few years during which time the team won several Test series and were eventually seen as the No. 1 team in world cricket. The apogee of their journey was a 3-1 defeat of Australia in Australia in 2010-11. But it would also be in Australia three years later that the team would finally fall apart. What fascinates followers of élite team sports is as much the implosion of a team as its rise to pre-eminence. Cricket, as the documentary shows, is an unusual sport in that it is all about the cohesion of the team but also the capability of each individual to cope with the pressure of performing in their individual role to the highest possible standard. All professional cricketers are highly skilled at playing the game of cricket, but only a few have the mental strength to play a 5-day Test on a consistent basis. As a batter or a bowler or a specialist fielder each player has a lone battle on the pitch. To captain the side, especially when things go wrong, is also onerous and for a variety of reasons the successful captain Andrew Strauss in this case was under great pressure.

Each of the thirteen players speaks in the ‘talking heads mode’ of the conventional documentary but some are singled out to enable the narrative to be clearer. Strauss the captain trying to keep things under control, Graeme Swann the joker, Steven Finn as the youngest feeling the media interest or Tim Bresnan as perhaps the most bemused by the whole set-up of the team and the tour and Monty Panesar seemingly as the outsider in the squad all feature. But the biggest stories concern Kevin Pietersen, considered the best batter but also a controversial ‘celebrity’ figure and Jonathan Trott as the mild-mannered player most visibly affected by the mental health issues associated with cricket. These two are at the centre of the story and James (‘Jimmy’) Anderson is presented as the contrast, a calm figure who seems able to deal with it all. An early sequence in the film includes an extreme long-shot of Jimmy running along the sands of a river estuary, heading for a large post in the distance. Like a similar sequence later in the film of Jonathan Trott walking in his cricket gear across a crop field these kinds of ‘creative’ images contrast with the interviews, archive footage and clips of the players’ own video footage. There is a music score by Felix White of the Maccabees which works to stitch the different types of material together. ‘The Edge’ has several meanings. It refers to that sense that all élite players have that something extra that makes them Test players but it also warns us that they are often on the ‘edge’ of their self control and the stress can push them too far. But in cricket, the ‘edge’ also refers to the moment when a bowler induces the batter into a false shot and the ball makes the slightest of contacts with the bat and is edged into the hands of the waiting wicket-keeper or slip fielder. It is these tiny margins that separate the winners and losers in Test cricket.

Test cricket is only available on Pay TV in the UK and the live games are expensive with tickets difficult to come by for certain games so I haven’t watched much since the 1970s but this documentary kept me engaged throughout. Barney Douglas and co-writer Gabriel Clarke (a sports doc specialist) have crafted an entertaining documentary well worth catching.

The Souvenir (UK 2019) and The Souvenir: Part II (UK 2021)

Joanna Hogg is now established as an auteur director. These two films are her fourth and fifth features. She’s at that stage where her films tend to be nominated for various awards, but at the moment only a few translate into wins. However, The Souvenir was voted ‘Best Film of 2019’ by 100 international contributors to the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Top 50 Best Films list. ‘Part II‘ screened at Cannes in Directors’ Fortnight in 2021 as a ‘Special Screening. Several of my female friends and colleagues have praised Joanna Hogg’s films highly but when I watched the first two, Unrelated (UK 2007) and Archipelago (UK 2010), I was rather ambivalent about them – impressed by the filmmaking skills, not so much by the characters and the stories. It is my problem no doubt but Joanna Hogg is an upper middle-class filmmaker who creates stories about similar people and they don’t appeal to me. To be fair, she has said in interviews that she understands that some audiences “can’t stomach them”. During Covid lockdowns I started to watch Exhibition (UK 2013) on a streamer but gave up after a short time. I would never do that in a cinema, so perhaps lockdown viewing was the problem? Because of this history I approached these two new films gingerly. I actually started watching Part II on MUBI and then discovered that the first film was scheduled to appear on the same streaming service a few days later, so I stopped and waited to watch the two films in order. I read that Hogg herself said that they should be watched together, so thanks to MUBI I was able to do that. I also now realise that Part II would make little sense if I hadn’t seen the first film.

Julie and Anthony in the Knightsbridge flat

These two films are inspired directly by Joanna Hogg’s own experiences and they follow Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young woman in her early twenties, as she starts at film school in the early 1980s and begins to develop her ideas about the feature she wishes to make for her graduation film. At the same time, she begins to find out more about herself through a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an older man she meets at a party. The two narrative strands are directly connected because Anthony questions and challenges her about her artistic intentions. The films’ title is a reference to a small painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, completed in 1778. Anthony shows the painting, which depicts a young woman beginning to carve a name or an initial on a tree, to Julie when he takes her to the Wallace Collection in Marylebone. The girl in the painting seems to be another Julie in the novel of that name by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – see this useful blog entry. The style of painting is Rococo but right at the end of that period and associated with the concept of sensibilité during the Enlightenment. The young woman’s joy at receiving a letter from her lover is presented in a carefully framed and delicately detailed image which communicates emotion. The same young woman might be shown very differently in a mid-19th century realist French painting. In Hogg’s film the painting possibly illustrates Anthony’s argument about realism which is articulated several times in response to Julie’s initial plan to make her film a form of emotional drama taking place in working-class Sunderland and based on black and white documentary photographs and 16mm footage shot earlier by Julie herself. This is one of several references to art and cinema in the film. Although I vaguely recognised the painting, I had to research it in detail to make this reading. Since the painting and the Wallace Collection are referenced more than once in the film this is setting the audience a challenge.

Camerawork and mise en scène present the difficult relationship between Julie and Anthony

Anthony presents himself as ‘working at the Foreign Office’ and speaks with a public school/Oxbridge drawl. He’s perhaps fifteen or sixteen years older than Julie and has a daughter. He is mysterious about what he actually does at the Foreign Office (if he does indeed work there) and Julie will face some serious questions when she realises how he has treated her and what he hasn’t told her. He writes her love letters, inveigles his way into living in her flat, criticises her and calmly offers advice. I’ve read several reviews that suggest he is ‘charismatic’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘disturbing’. He manipulates her in ways that might be considered abusive today but he is himself damaged rather than controlling. I don’t want to spoil the narrative and I’ll simply point out that many reviewers find the romance ‘delicate’ and ‘melancholic’. Anthony is certainly a complex character and the relationship with Julie no doubt engages many audiences and is described by some as ‘immersive’. Joanna Hogg’s approach is not to write a script as such but to give her characters a summary of their roles and to create interactions on set. Hogg has worked consistently with editor Helle le Fevre since Unrelated. Le Fevre edits during the shoot and discusses scenes with Hogg at regular meetings but says “I work from the cutting room. I don’t go on set, and I don’t need anybody in the cutting room. I’m as far away as possible from the set, because then I see everything fresh.” (Interview on Seventh Row) The process works well and accommodates Hogg’s practice of casting professional and non-professional actors in scenes together. Burke is an experienced actor but Swinton Byrne  had no prior professional experience as far as I can see. She appears with her mother Tilda Swinton in several scenes in which mother and daughter create alter egos as Julie and her mother. Honore Swinton Byrne is very good indeed and her attractive personality comes across seemingly effortlessly without any obvious technique. Tilda Swinton’s performance as a ‘county lady’ is extraordinary, but like Tom Burke’s, seems constructed specifically for a purpose.

Anthony introduces the idea of fantasy rather than realism to Julie in this awful location. Those Union Jack ‘drapes’!

Because the two Souvenir films have been discussed so much and Joanna Hogg has given interviews, we know a great deal about how the film was made (with support from BBC Films and the BFI). It appears that the production re-purposed a former RAF base in Norfolk which stood in for the fictitious film school and the film school scenes and those in Julie’s flat were created on sets within a former hangar. The outdoor scenes were then shot on various locations. But in a sense the location footage doesn’t add any kind of realist material. Hogg doesn’t use any of what is often referred to as dead time – travelling too and fro. But sometimes those inconsequential moments can tell us a great deal about characters. Julie is a young woman in London who never seems to be catching a bus, travel on the tube, shop in a street market. Instead we just see Harrods’ chimney from the window of her flat. This means that key aspects of 1980s London such as IRA bombings, political protests and uprisings of Black youths are only referred to on a radio broadcast, discussed at dinner in her parents’ home or as a muffled explosion outside the flat. The narrative takes place in a bubble.

Julie and Anthony visiter her parents (she’s here with her mother played by Tilda Swinton). This could be a landscape from a Michael Powell English country scene.

At one point Anthony suggests that Julie should think about Powell and Pressburger, the Archers, as British filmmakers who use aspects of fantasy in their films. I realise now that Joanna Hogg is a fan and as I type this she is discussing, with Martin Scorsese, The Film Foundation’s screening of a new 4K restored print of I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945) in an online recording. In the mid 1980s several of Powell and Pressburger’s films were being restored by the National Film Archive and if you were lucky you might see Michael and/or Emeric in the cinema when they were first screened. In film studies this was the period when P&P and the whole idea of a British cinema that was not solely ‘realist’ was being debated and rescued from the dead hands of earlier critics. Was Joanna Hogg there in the Odeon Leicester Square or the cinema of the Museum of London for such screenings? She tells us now that seeing I Know Where I’m Going was important for her and she has joined Scorsese’s Film Foundation – he also acted as Executive Producer on The Souvenir.

The older men who are Julie’s tutors at the film school played by Steve Gough and Dick Fontaine

Julie on set in Souvenir Part II

Joanna Hogg’s filmmaking influences are most on display in The Souvenir Part II. The second film concerns Julie’s recovery from the experience of her relationship in the first film. She follows Anthony’s advice and, as a form of catharsis/therapy she changes her graduation film into an attempt to ‘process’ what happened in her relationship. She has to deal with a bunch of older male tutors at the film school who aren’t sure about what she is doing as well as her her generally very helpful peers who become her crew but don’t always understand what she is asking of them. The part of the second film that I enjoyed most was the dream sequence in which Julie herself is presented in a fantasy world. She is played in the rest of her graduation film by Garance (Ariane Labed, the Greek-French actor-director). The dream seems to me to be very P&P and includes elements from Hogg’s film school interest in the musicals Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse’s red dress. Part II is only meaningful as a companion piece for the first film. This film demonstrates that Julie is finally learning something about film. In the first film, the screen image is 1.66:1, the widescreen shape of the French New wave. In the second film all the standard aspect ratios from Academy through to ‘Scope make an appearance at some point. The students themselves discuss French cinema of the 1980s (the Cinéma du look) and there is a part for an ‘up himself’ director and alumnus of the film school played by Richard Aoyade that runs across the two films. In the second film he is making a musical and this seems to refer a specific moment in 1980s British cinema – the flop of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (UK 1986). I should also mention the cinematography in the two Souvenir films by David Raedecker. Occasionally this breaks away from the short takes in interiors and offers us long shots which are more expressive in their presentation of the story events. Hogg also uses several British New Wave songs in The Souvenir and other pieces of music in Part II which I didn’t recognise. Robert Wyatt’s version of Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ in The Souvenir is quite startling given the oblique references to politics in the film.

One of the long shots from Souvenir

I could happily spend more time investigating Julie’s film education but the real question is what to make of the two films together. The first film could be a standalone romance drama and the two together have been argued to be a narrative of a young woman’s gradual understanding of her own creativity. Everything is very ‘meta’ and arguably quite brave. It’s been suggested to me that Hogg’s playfulness here involves her own sense of how naive she was as a young filmmaker. It’s interesting to look up her career and to realise that her five auteur films have been made since the 2000s and that she spent around fifteen years working on music videos and television drama series, none of which I’ve seen. I think overall my view of her work hasn’t changed very much. My admiration for her skills and creativity has certainly grown but I’m still not emotionally moved by her characters. It did occur to me that a mini season of films about filmmaking drawing on memories of youth in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s might see the two Souvenir films shown alongside Shane Meadows’ This is England (UK 2006) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (UK 1999). Here’s the trailer for The Souvenir Part II – a couple of shots in the trailer remind me of Lynne Ramsay’s work? Oddly, the two Souvenir films have different distributors in the UK which might make them difficult to see together, so take the opportunity now if you can on MUBI.