Does British film culture appreciate its filmmakers enough? John Boorman is one of the most distinctive producer-writer-director figures to have made films in the UK. He left the country to work in Hollywood but then to settle in Ireland partly, I think, because he felt that filmmaking in the UK was not a serious undertaking. He has been recognised in the UK with a knighthood but not with the level of appreciation by his peers that he deserves.
The General was perhaps the last of Boorman’s films to make money and to achieve critical recognition, though he has completed four films since (the last of which was Queen and Country in 2014). The General was screened in competition in Cannes and Boorman won the Best Director award for the second time. It is now streaming on MUBI but in a print which is slightly different to that which appeared in cinemas in 1998. The film was released as a ‘Scope picture in black and white and therefore not a film that Hollywood studios were prepared to pick up for distribution – i.e. to pre-buy and therefore to effectively co-finance. Boorman had to make the film using his own resources and to borrow a large chunk of the budget from the bank. He also received some Irish public funding. Only after the Cannes win did Warner Bros. agree to distribute the film in Europe. Boorman has argued that in the 1990s no studio would support black and white films because TV stations wouldn’t show them. His film was eventually released on home video in the US. The film was actually shot on colour stock and printed to monochrome and the version on MUBI is presented with almost all the colour bleached out and just some vestiges of pale colour visible in certain scenes. Boorman talks about lighting for colour and black and white at some length in an interview printed in Sight and Sound, June 1998.
The ‘General’ of the title is the Dublin cat burglar turned gang-leader and ‘folk hero’ Martin Cahill who became a well-known figure in Ireland during the 1980s and early 1990s. He was assassinated in 1994 in a hit claimed by the Provisional IRA. Boorman credits Paul Williams for his book on Cahill published in 1995. Because Cahill’s story was so well-known, Boorman decided to start the film with his assassination and then narrate the events as one long flashback. His choice of black and white was also partly concerned with wanting to create some historical distance. It’s not difficult to see why Boorman was attracted to the story. Many of Boorman’s films feature protagonists prepared to take on the world and Cahill was a rebel, a very complex personality but also one easy to engage with, despite the vicious and cruel aspects of his behaviour. He is played in the film by Brendan Gleeson who in 1998 was just beginning to break through in lead roles in Irish films. From the photos I’ve seen Gleeson bears some resemblance to Cahill and he obviously researched the role carefully.
Cahill was an interesting figure for several reasons but primarily because he was a working-class lad who, at least initially, became a thief and a burglar because of his family’s fairly desperate economic situation. In an early scene we see him refusing to be rehoused because it would mean losing his place in a community he felt comfortable living within. Later he developed a more sophisticated persona as a joker who was eventually rehoused by the council closer to the affluent suburbs of North Dublin and gradually his ambitions as a criminal developed substantially. He taunted courts and played the system quite intelligently while at the same time developing the kinds of habits that would trip him up eventually. He had no real vices apart from crime except for a love of posh cars and motorbikes – flaunting his wealth while still ‘signing on’ the dole. The ‘Robin Hood’ tag came about because he divided the spoils of his major crimes equally among his gang members. But he could also be horrendously violent to any of his gang who disobeyed orders and his criminal activity was also damaging to the community he purported to support. Boorman does not take sides. He presents Cahill in context and offers us a police inspector (a composite of real Garda officers) played by Jon Voight, who is in some ways a similar kind of a figure but with police authority behind him. I’ve only given a brief description of Cahill – there is much more to add that the film presents in interesting ways.
I’m not sure why I missed this film in 1998. I certainly remember its release but I guess I must simply have been too busy with full-time work to be able to see it. I’m conscious that the image of Ireland within the EU has changed since the 1980s but Cahill’s story has remained within the consciousness of filmmakers. Joel Schumacher’s film Veronica Guerin (Ireland-UK-US 2003), about the killing of a well-known journalist, also features Martin Cahill and his gang and much more recently the Irish TV crime serial Hidden Assets (Ireland 2021) features the ‘Criminal Assets Bureau’ set up in order to trace and recover the money and valuables stolen by the likes of the Cahill gang. Hidden Assets stars Angeline Ball who in The General plays one of the two sisters from Martin Cahill’s childhood who he eventually makes part of his family – he married one and with her consent also had children with her sister. The other notable actor in The General is a young Adrian Dunbar who plays Cahill’s closest gang member Noel Curley. This is ironic in terms of viewing in the 2020s since Dunbar is now one of the key figures in the success of Line of Duty, the TV series about the unit investigating police corruption in the UK.
The other aspect of The General is the sense that this is about a city and a country that has changed profoundly over the last 25 years. Ireland has thrived as an EU member, in many ways overtaking the UK in wealth creation and liberating itself from many of the restraints that held back Irish society for so long. Boorman made a film exploring the effects of the so-called ‘Irish tiger’ economy in The Tiger’s Tail (2006), again starring Brendan Gleeson. Irish cinema has also developed, throwing off its much of its dependence on the UK and US and finding its own stories. The 1990s was also the time that Roddy Doyle’s novels about working-class life in North Dublin were filmed – The Commitments (1991), The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996). The other impact on Irish life that has been important in changing the country was the Good Friday Agreement that came into force in December 1999 and which reduced the activities of the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries, both of which play a role in Martin Cahill’s story. He dismissed both sets of paramilitaries and this lack of political awareness was a major factor in his downfall.
The General is a very entertaining watch, made with real flair, crowned by a superb central performance by Brendan Gleeson and with strong contributions by the supporting cast. Boorman uses two Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack which work well. As well as streaming on MUBI, The General can be rented cheaply on Microsoft (but I don’t know which version this might be).
Powerhouse/Indicator’s 4 film box-set of ‘Ford at Columbia’ includes this fascinating and rather good title alongside three more from the 1950s, The Long Gray Line (1955), The Last Hurrah (1956) and Gideon’s Day (1957). This post is based on a viewing of a rented Blu-ray from the box-set. Because I haven’t got the whole box-set I haven’t seen the printed booklets that accompany each film, but the Blu-ray carries several useful extras.
The general consensus is that this film is somehow outside John Ford’s usual territory. Sheldon Hall’s presentation on the film entitled ‘A Trip Outside Ford Country’ is included on the disc. It’s true that if we consider Ford’s peak period to be between 1935 and the early 1960s, then this film is certainly ‘outside’. Most of Ford’s films in this peak period are rural, historical, set in small and often military communities. The most common genre is the Western. The Whole Town’s Talking is, by contrast, urban and contemporary and generically it refers to crime/gangster films and comedy, specifically screwball comedy. There are very few of Ford’s familiar actors or crew from the later period and the two stars are Edward G. Robinson and Jean Arthur. Edward G. Robinson hadn’t appeared for Ford before and wouldn’t do so again until close to the end of Ford’s career in 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn. However, Jean Arthur had worked with Ford on two films in the early 1920s, Cameo Kirby in 1923 and The Iron Horse in 1924, in minor roles at the start of her career. By 1935 she had finally established herself as a lead at Columbia. Ford was in 1935 coming off a long period of working mainly for just two studios, Universal in the 1910s and early 1920s and Fox in the later 1920s and early 1930s. Although he had already made dozens of films over a period of 20 years, he didn’t yet have the kind of prestige he would later gain (he won his first Oscar for his next picture, The Informer) and so this one-off at Columbia was likely to see him treated as an honoured guest director, but still one who would have to work within the studio’s usual structures. The point about the earlier work is, however, that Ford had made most kinds of films by this stage and there was no reason to suppose he wouldn’t make a good job of this one. Also during the early 1930s, Ford had worked with the cinematographer Joseph August, so he knew one part of the production was locked down (August and Ford worked together four more times after this film.) The story had been written by W. R. Burnett, famous as the writer of Little Caesar (1931), often quoted as the first ‘gangster’ picture and an early starring role for Edward G. Robinson. Later Burnett would write High Sierra (1941), the film that finally clinched Humphrey Bogart’s leading man status. Columbia must have been confident that Burnett’s story (with a screenplay by the staff writers Robert Riskin and Jo Swerling) would make a profitable picture and therefore brought in not only Ford but also Edward G. who was a contracted player at Warner Bros. Jean Arthur was by now a contract lead player at Columbia and there is some suggestion that her performance in this film encouraged Frank Capra to use her in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936.
As soon as the film begins we experience a glorious tracking shot along the rows of desks in an office. It isn’t on the scale of the famous shot from The Crowd (1928) but in its own way it is just as beautifully choreographed. One of the extras on the Blu-ray is a video essay by Tag Gallagher which analyses much of the camerawork. It’s necessary to set up the office and the first comedy situation as the little man who runs the office becomes faced with a dilemma because the one person who is missing is Arthur F. Jones, the mild-mannered accountant played by Edward G. Robinson. I won’t spoil the gag. Jones is the central character in the narrative, except that he has a doppelgänger, a murderous gangster, ‘Killer’ Manion, who has escaped from prison and is suspected of being somewhere in the city. Inevitably, Jones will get arrested as Manion and then inveigled into a scheme to try to catch the real Manion. It’s a classic comedy, and especially romantic comedy, idea for constructing a narrative. In her role as ‘Miss Clark’, Jean Arthur is the single woman in the office who ‘Jonesy’ (as she calls him) secretly admires. His role as Manion’s double will bring them together.
There is an enormous energy about the film in its crowd scenes, partly because Robinson and Arthur give lively performances and partly because of that strange convention that bedevils Hollywood crime films, causing police to arrive armed to the teeth in busloads and every photographer in the city jostling for space in the press briefing rooms. Ford and August handle all these scenes with aplomb and it’s interesting to see Ford working in this swift kind of screwball comedy. There is some remarkable optical work in doubling Edward G. without the use of digital FX. There are also some nice sight gags including the one above of Ettiene Girardot as Mr Seaver, Jonesy’s boss. I don’t think it’s making fun of a short man to enjoy the difference in height. There is an exciting finale but the weakness in the film for me is a failure to fully exploit the potential of Jean Arthur’s character, i.e. the screwball comedy elements get lost in the mix. (The Blu-ray disc includes an enthusiastic and enjoyable presentation on Jean Arthur’s career by Pam Hutchinson, but unfortunately there isn’t very much about her work on this particular film.) There is a suggestion that aspects of the original story don’t appear in the final cut as there were concerns that they would contravene the newly operational Production Code, so several plot developments take place off-screen (a kidnapping and Manion’s violence in prison). Having said that there is already a great deal squeezed into the film’s running time of 93 minutes. Two bits of IMDb ‘trivia’ are worth mentioning. First there is one of the worst ‘goofs’ I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood feature in which either continuity or the edit team missed the consequences of an action. It drove me mad for a while – Ford did have a reputation for sometimes not worrying about tying up loose ends. The second trivia point is that IMDb claims that this film prompted a Hindi cinema Shah Rukh Khan starrer Duplicate in 1998.
I’ll remember this film for Edward G. Robinson’s dynamic performance, Jean Arthur’s comic chops and Ford’s energetic direction. Oh, and there is another Fordian character with a running gag featuring Donald Meek as a claimant for the reward after he first spots Jonesy as Manion early in the film. Meek appeared in several Ford films, including as the mild-mannered booze salesman in Stagecoach. In retrospect it is a shame Ford didn’t continue with this kind of busy comedy.
As I’ve been complaining that Netflix don’t give enough exposure in cinemas to their films I felt obliged to go and see The Irishman. ‘Obliged’ doesn’t suggest enthusiasm, the lack of which is partly explained by the 209 minute commitment but I was also wary of the film being compared to Goodfellas (US, 1990), which I didn’t like. My fears were well founded, though I do find myself way outside the critical consensus on this one. The first half an hour was so bad I considered leaving but it improved in the middle when political interference by the mafia became the film’s subject. I forced myself to finish the film when the social context disappeared toward the end.
I’m exaggerating, it’s not a terrible film: how could it be with a great cast at the top of their form? It’s particularly good to see Al Pacino, whose appearances have been infrequent recently, playing union boss Jimmy Hoffa. He dials down his sometimes over-the-top schtick to give nuance to a larger-than-life character. When Heat (US, 1995) was released it was hyped as the first time Pacino and De Niro shared a scene. They do so again, De Niro plays Frank Sheeran (the Irishman) who became Hoffa’s minder; this time they are in pyjamas. It’s a knowing touch that scriptwriter Steve Zaillian and director Scorsese (they also collaborated on the vastly superior Gangs of New York, US-Italy, 2003) bring to the film which gives it a valedictory feel. I wonder whether some of the lauding of the film is because it harks back to the (so-called) glory days of Hollywood where brilliantly produced and thought-provoking movies were made. It’s unlikely that the major studios would produce anything like this these days: $150m for a non-franchise film?! The opening shot reminded me of the dolly at the start of Mean Streets (US, 1973) with a pop song high in the mix; this was the director’s breakthrough film. It’s bravura filmmaking but also, because of its association with a movie from 50 years ago, old-fashioned. Scorsese’s association with the gangster film (Casino, US-France, 1995, was also better than this), as well as the lead actors, Pesci came out of retirement to appear, all give it an end of the road feel.
I didn’t like Goodfellas because I felt the film actually thought the psychopaths it portrayed were good fellas. That tendency is not so pronounced in The Irishman but it is still an issue when we are clearly meant to feel sorry for Sheeran at the film’s end. If I cannot care about a character then I have difficulty engaging in a film; by care, I don’t necessarily mean ‘like’. Why are we supposed to sympathise with a heartless relic?
The $150m has been well spent. In an interview in the current issue of Sight & Sound, costume designer Sandy Powell states that De Niro had 102 costumes, there are 160 speaking parts and 7000 extras. The film does look great. It’s a tribute to Scorsese and his crew that these vast forces, in a narrative that crosses five decades, cohere across the three and a half hours duration. However, it is Scorsese’s direction that disappointed me most. It was too workaday (shot-reverse/shot prevailed) and one high angle shot used to establish location (on the way to Hoffa’s final meeting) is used three times within a few minutes that, for me, simply emphasised how long everything was taking. There was none of the ‘operatic’ grandeur of Gangs of New York; though Bradshaw uses the term in his review.
The marginalisation of women is also an issue for me, but I’m not blaming the film for that as it is a result of the world being portrayed. That the marvellous Anna Paquin gets only six words of dialogue is worth remarking upon, especially as she is used as the film’s moral compass. However, that is the point, because women did not get a say in this world, violence ensued. It would be good if Scorsese, in his twilight years, revisited Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (US. 1974).
Three films from the Russian director Alexei Balabanov were screened at BIFF last year and they proved very popular with festival regulars. Sadly the director died in May 2013 aged only 54 – as did the star of Brother, Sergey Bodrov, in an accident during a film shoot in 2002. Screening Brother was therefore both a follow-up and a tribute.
Brother was both a big box office hit and a critical success (but also creating controversy with claims that it was fascistic and ‘not Russian’ in its appeal to Western audiences). The film exhibition business was still recovering from almost complete obliteration in Russia in the 1990s so much of that ‘box office’ must have come through video copies, legal or otherwise. It isn’t difficult to imagine younger audiences quickly latching on to Sergey Bodrov as an attractive young man dealing out a form of ‘justice’ on the streets of Leningrad/Saint Petersburg.
Bodrov plays a young man just demobbed by the Russian Army who arrives in his home town, quickly gets into trouble and is packed off to Saint Petersburg to find his older brother who his mother believes is in a respectable job. He isn’t and soon he has recruited his younger brother to help him in a battle with local gangsters. What follows is mostly conventional for the gangster film across all major film industries. What distinguishes this film is the setting – the city still recognisable as the Leningrad of Eisenstein except in colour – and the young hero Danila who makes things happen as quickly as the young Corleone in Godfather 2. Danila repeatedly tells people that he was only a “clerk at HQ” but he is adept at handling weapons, modifying them and using them imaginatively. He kills without compunction but with efficiency, but he has a sense of honour and he keeps his word. He enjoys Russian rock music and he has an eye for women including a tram driver. (The ancient open tram is the star attraction in the mise en scène of the city.) It isn’t difficult to see why Bodrev became popular so quickly.
The charges against the film are not easy to explore. Danila befriends an old man in the vegetable market who turns out to be German but this may be a code for Jewish. Either way, Danila needs a supportive group and he works with them whilst making noises about other groups that suggest ‘learned’ prejudices. There is a reference to gay characters and I don’t feel able to properly discuss the range of representations – Russia is generally presented as a hard-drinking society with social behaviour to match (although Danila also visits a post-hippy party as well). Based on the reputation for extreme violence in the films shown last year (which I didn’t see) Brother seems to keep within the boundaries of mainstream entertainment cinema and on that level I enjoyed it very much.
Dismissed by David Bordwell because of the “formulaic” direction by Derek Yee, this film from Jackie Chan’s production company is indeed flawed in many ways – but it’s also pretty interesting for several reasons. The narrative begins in North East China in the 1990s. Villagers are discussing the possibility of emigration to Japan, especially as one of the elderly villagers can prove that she is a ‘Japanese orphan’ – one of the children born during the wartime occupation of China. A group of villagers beg her to claim them as her children so that they can legally enter Japan. Xie Xie (Xu Jinglei) has an aunt in Tokyo and she leaves China. When he has heard nothing from her for a considerable time, her ex-boyfriend ‘Steelhead’ (Jackie Chan as a tractor mechanic) decides to follow her. The ship carrying him and other ‘illegals’ founders on the Japanese coast but Steelhead eventually finds his way to Tokyo and refuge with a Chinese community in Shinjuku which includes Jie, his ‘brother’ from the village. For the remainder of the narrative Steelhead moves steadily from an illegal being hunted by the police to a petty crook and then on to a gang-leader taking on the yakuza. He also develops a second relationship with a Japanese-Chinese woman, Lily, since Xie Xie is by now beyond his reach.
The concept behind the film sees Jackie Chan attempting a ‘serious’ dramatic role. Although there are action sequences, Chan does not perform outrageous stunts or display his kung-fu skills. Instead he plays a hard-working man who is pushed first into crime because of his illegal status and then into leadership of his Chinese community in self defence. This Hong Kong production tells a mainland story that is also about a social issue in Japan. It obviously draws on yakuza genre narratives, but offsets this quite heavily with a ‘moral discourse’ that perhaps derives from Chinese social films (at various times Steelhead acts in an almost altruistic fashion – even though it puts him in danger). As well as the Japanese setting, the plot also involves a Taiwanese gang which Steelhead and his group must replace on the streets of Shinjuku. Language is an issue in the film, although of course the English subtitles draw attention away from the mix of Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and other Chinese dialects.
I found the film to be confusing at times, partly I suspect because it has been re-edited. It is also very violent. Despite a sometimes poor critical response, the film seems to have pleased many of Chan’s large numbers of fans. In passing I learned something I’ve not thought about before – the film was not released in mainland China because there are no age-related certificates there. Chan is reported to have been concerned that this 18 certificate film in the UK would be unsuitable in an unregulated cinema market where children might see it.
I’m not really in a position to judge Jackie Chan’s performance in this role as I haven’t seen enough of the earlier work which made him such a big star. For what it’s worth, I thought he did a good job – but I must confess that I did think about those films where older stars like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood played action roles that seemed unlikely. Chan was only in his early 50s in this film and there was nothing wrong with his action sequences but he seemed a good 10-15 years too old for the specific role of the ex-boyfriend/fiancé.