Every First Time Watch Part 3 – Historical Dramas

BEAU BRUMMEL: THIS CHARMING MAN (2006, Philippa Lowthorpe)

Beau Brummell was apparently an impoverished dandy who used his friendship with the Prince Regent (a dippy Hugh Bonneville) to advance his position in society and dodge the many creditors who were knocking at his door. There’s a big glossy Technicolor 50s’ movie starring Stewart Granger and Peter Ustinov which covers more ground but I much prefer this low-key approach. The focus is entirely on the relationship between these two men and a small group of hangers-on. Brummell is stylist and advisor to the Prince Regent, mostly providing fashion tips like don’t wear powdered wigs and go easy on the white make-up. But Brummell overreaches himself and damages the relationship by falling in with persona non grata Lord Byron (Matthew Rhys) then calling his boss fat at a society event. Everybody here is a dreadful snob but the actors make them sympathetic. Pompous though he may be, Bonneville’s Prince genuinely thought he’d made a friend so his cruel response to having his fragile ego damaged is understandable. Brummell is played by a peak-period James Purefoy so it’s difficult not to like him or feel sorry when he’s cast out by all the other fancy wanks.

THE CLEOPATRAS (TV series, 1983)

There’s seven Cleopatras hence the pluralised title and this eight-part series goes through them like a slasher movie. It starts in 145 BC and ends in 35 BC with the death of the most famous Cleopatra of them all. This is such a strange and entertaining show. On the one hand it has that overstuffed feeling common in British television costume dramas of the 70s’/80s.’ Everything’s filmed in a studio and the actors are dialling up the theatricality to the nines. But there’s HBO levels of nudity and violence while the editing uses wipe transitions which I can’t ever recall being used in a BBC costume drama. Philip Mackie’s screenplay has plenty of gallows humour. Kings and Queens die in a variety of gruesome ways and their deaths are treated like a terrible sad joke, then it’s oh well then, on to the next one.

THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH (TV mini-series, 1985)

Mini-series covering the the race to reach the South Pole between the ill-fated Captain Scott (Martin Shaw) and his methodical Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen (Sverre Anker Ousdal). It doesn’t start out as a race. Scott had been punted from the navy for crashing a battleship and only undertakes the expedition in search of glory for the British Empire and to wind up Ernest Shackleton. Amundsen’s original destination was supposed to be the North Pole but he found out his old mentor Frederick Cook was already there so he made a last minute decision to change his route surprising both his financial backers and his crew. It’s an even-handed account giving equal time to both men. The Last Place On Earth offers a revisionist review of Scott’s voyage undercutting the myth of British exceptionalism while also presenting the conditions that breeds that superiority complex. The final episode manages to be incredibly moving and infuriating. Scott fails but gets the glory and his journals are edited to make him seem more heroic. Conversely Amundsen gets to the Pole but makes enemies in high places at home for refusing to fulfil his original journey to the North. Worse still is the condescending attitude he experiences from British and US audiences when he tours afterwards. “You’re the guy who ate the dogs” a New Yorker says to him.

PRISONOR OF HONOUR (1991, Ken Russell)

Ken Russell playing it straight here with this TV movie made for HBO based on a notorious late 19th century scandal. The Dreyfus Affair dragged on for over a decade and divided French society at the time. It also in retrospect feels like a precursor to the conflicts of the first half of the 20th century. Colonel Picquat (Richard Dreyfuss) is appointed to investigate Dreyfus (Kenneth Colley) knowing full well he’s supposed to find evidence of the man’s guilt. Instead Picquat becomes convinced the Jewish army officer is being used as a scapegoat by his superiors. Prisoner of Honour is unusually restrained for late-period Russell but it’s well worth a look. Russell went back to TV after this reuniting with his old Monitor colleague Melvyn Bragg making yearly arts documentaries for The South Bank Show and a well-received adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1993).

Every First Time Watch During Lockdown Part 2 – Thrillers

THE DEADLY AFFAIR (1967, Sidney Lumet)

Despair seeps out of every frame of this adaptation of John LeCarre's debut novel Call For The Dead. London is a drab and grey city whose only respite from suffering seems to be a pint in a grotty pub or a trip to tortuous West End productions of Macbeth or Edward II. James Mason plays Charles Dobbs (Paramount held the rights to the name George Smiley), an MI5 operative whose suspicions are aroused when a Foreign Official kills himself shortly after Dobbs interviewed him about his student affiliations with the Communist party. A visit to the dead man's wife (Simone Signoret) indicates a wake-up call was placed by the victim for the following morning. An unusual move before a suicide. LeCarre's worldview is bleak and unforgiving and Call For the Dead laid down the groundwork for his Smiley stories. Smiley as the quiet observer of a human tragedy overshadowed by the machinations of the Cold War. The Deadly Affair captures this tone all too well. It makes the Harry Palmer films look glamorous and Callan seem like a cheerful bloke. Mason makes it work though. Not the best Smiley, but the most sympathetic version

EYE OF THE NEEDLE (1981, Richard Marquand)

Tense WWII thriller starring Donald Sutherland as a seemingly well-mannered English gentleman who is outed as a Nazi spy and flees to Scotland where a U-boat is waiting for him off the coast. Big Ian Bannen’s chasing after him so he’s wise to run. He’s desperate to get back to Berlin with information about the forthcoming D-Day invasion but he gets shipwrecked on a wee island and ends up lodging with unhappy housewife Kate Nelligan and her embittered invalid of a husband (Christopher Cazenove). Sutherland is chilling as the outwardly charming but utterly ruthless killer who will do anything to get home. There’s a moment where we learn a little about The Needle’s aristocratic upbringing and his life before the war and a portrait emerges of somebody who’s always been a loner, but this is primarily an old-fashioned chase movie. It could have been made 30 or 40 years before and it would have starred James Mason or Dirk Bogarde.

THE FLORIDA STRAITS (1986, Mike Hodges)

Mike Hodges made this TV movie for HBO in-between Morons From Outer Space (1985) and A Prayer For the Dying (1987) and it’s better than both of those theatrical releases. Raul Julia plays a Cuban political prisoner sent to America after his release, who on his arrival immediately hires a boat owned by sailor Fred Ward to take him back home to find the gold coins he threw from his plane on a mission twenty years ago. Really he just wants to speak to the woman he left behind. Like most films about men going in search of gold nothing works out as planned and the journey becomes more important than the destination. Hodges has a talent for undercutting machismo with vulnerability and in terms of mid-80s’ actors you really can’t do better for leads than the late Raul Julia and Fred Ward.

NIGHT MOVES (1975, Arthur Penn)

Always wanted to see this having heard so much about it. Night Moves was written by Scottish writer Alan Sharp who somehow despite being from Greenock was able to write authentically American genre pieces. Gene Hackman plays an L.A. based private investigator hired by an actress to find her missing teenage daughter which he does easily enough. But solving this case only makes matters worse and leads him onto a more complicated mystery involving a smuggling operation. The details are a little hard to fathom but this feels like a movie that needs multiple viewings to get a handle on. It has the same sense of fatalism Sharp brought to the western The Hired Hand (71, Peter Fonda) and deserves its reputation as one the best films of the 70s’.

A Magnum For Schneider (TV, 1967, Bill Bain)

A Magnum For Schneider aired as part of ITV’s Armchair Theatre series and marks the first appearance of Edward Woodward as David Callan, a burnt-out assassin forcibly retired and now working as a clerk in a bookkeepers office. James Mitchell’s script undercuts the 60s’ trend for glamorous spies by presenting a drab, conflicted, lonely man. Callan is recalled by his former handler Hunter (Ronald Radd) to carry out a hit on a German arms dealer but it’s a rush job, with no back-up, and the police are watching the target.

Hunter runs SIS, an intelligence unit specialising in removing potential threats using a variety of underhand methods. Schneider (Joseph Furst) is a red file case, meaning he’s marked for death. Hunter’s right-hand man Toby Meres, played by Peter Bowles, an actor who specialises in cads and bounders and whom I once saw give a director a bollocking during an LFF Q&A, wants to carry out the hit himself. However Hunter wants to find out if Callan has really gone “soft.” The worst thing a man can be in this game. If Callan can kill Schneider then he can invited back into the fold. If he fails then he’s no longer a problem. Either outcome is acceptable.

Hunter chose Callan for the hit because he works in the same building as Schneider. In fact Hunter implies he got Callan the job at the bookkeepers so he would already be in place when the time came to eliminate Schneider. Callan contrives to stumble into Schneider on the stairs knocking the box he’s carrying and sending its contents to the floor. Callan picks up a model soldier and correctly identifies its regiment. Schneider’s annoyance quickly gives way to delight at meeting somebody who may share his hobby and he allows Callan into his office to show off his toys. They bond over their military backgrounds and shared love of history. Though Schneider emphasises he only plays at war these days. “I do not care for blood Mr Callan. Not any more.”

Though these two old soldiers have much in common they are also complete opposites. Callan is taciturn and sad. Schneider outgoing and friendly. He even has a younger girlfriend, Jenny (Francesca Tu), who cares a great deal for him and knows all about his criminal activities. Callan’s only companion is a small-time criminal nicknamed Lonely (Russell Hunter) who helps him acquire a firearm. Though their relationship seems to develop over the course of the first season, here Callan bullies Lonely, making fun of his personal hygiene and threatening him.

You can feel the violence simmering under the surface with Callan. Woodward gives him a slightly hunched demeanour, and in his interactions with Hunter he speaks hesitantly, like he hasn’t spoken to anybody in months. When he breaks into Schneider’s flat and moves through it trying to evaluate the man’s life we hear his thoughts in voice-over, a drab Hamlet in an overcoat reflecting on whether or not he should make the kill. Schneider keeps a record of killings he’s been involved in hidden in a safe and Callan knows Schneider has to go.

Had A Magnum for Schneider remained a standalone play its bleak final scene would be the perfect ending. They have to walk that back in the season 1 opener The Good Ones Are All Dead which tells a variation on the same story, but this time with a less sympathetic antagonist, an unrepentant Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight in London. Mitchell also gives Callan a tragic backstory, no doubt to make this embittered loner palatable to audiences more used to likeable heroes. I’m halfway through the surviving episodes from season 2 now. It’s filmed in monochrome with film inserts for location scenes and I cannot imagine how this downbeat show maintains the same feeling of despair when it switches to colour for its later seasons.

Villain (1971, Michael Tuchner)

Wonderfully off-kilter gangster film that feels like a bridge between British comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1971, Charles Chrichton) and the grittier British crime films that would emerge in the 1970s’ and 80s.’ Villain manages to be both disturbingly violent and very funny. It’s written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais who are best known for their sitcoms Porridge and The Likely Lads and have a real feel for the English working-class life. Vic Dakin (Richard Burton) is an East End gangster with a violent reputation and a sentimental side. He’ll carve up a grass and display him outside a building like an ornament, but he’s always pleased if you ask how his old mum is doing. 

It’s in the pub we get a sense of how he is viewed by those around him. Dakin walks in with his crew and chats happily enough to the landlord about the football and buys an auld fella a drink. He’s more guarded when it comes to work. Vic made his reputation through running protection rackets and one of his clients/victims offers up a potential money earner. Danny (Anthony Sagar) is clearly scared of Dakin and trying to avoid upsetting him. Dakin is focused, polite, but only ever asks Danny questions about the job in hand giving him nothing more. After all it’s business. Danny runs a strip club and a punter has tipped him off about a security detail carrying the payroll for a plastics factory who have yet to upgrade to an armoured van.

However Danny is also being leaned on by the Met, specifically Inspector Bob Matthews (Nigel Davenport) who’s been after Dakin for years but can never find anybody willing to testify in court. Matters are further complicated by Dakin having to team up with a rival firm led by Frank Fletcher (T.P. McKenna) and his brother-in-law Edgar (Joss Ackland) to perform the heist. Extortion and violence may be part of his repertoire but Dakin and his crew have never attempted an armed robbery.

Dakin is also infatuated with Wolfie (Ian McShane), a young hustler who makes a living as a pimp and pusher for the rich set. One such client is Draycott (Donald Sinden), a high-profile politician with a reputation as something of a moral crusader. Dakin loathes him and explodes with rage when he finds Draycott in one of his clubs. “What’s he doing here? He’s an MP isn’t he? I mean the whole country looks up to him.”

 For somebody who makes his money from crime Dakin has some rather old-fashioned views, even chastising Wolfie for selling “poppers at four in the morning to little Soho scrubbers.” He’s a contradiction then, but given the character is a composite of both Kray twins these extreme contrasts make sense. Burton keeps Dakin still for most encounters but in the scenes where he explodes with violence he goes wildly over the top, arms windmilling as he repeatedly kicks a man on the stairs or the deranged leer he shows to a croupier before slicing his face with a razor. Davenport matches him with a turn that reminded me of Ben Johnson’s Texas Ranger in Dillinger (1973). Easy-going almost to the point of joviality, but relentless in pursuit of his man.

The heist proves to be farcical. A mixture of slapstick comedy and bone-crunching violence as the the three security guards fight back against Dakin and his men injuring Fletcher in the bloody confrontation. Though they escape with the money thick red smoke from the payroll’s anti-theft security system fills their getaway car forcing them to ditch it and carjack another driver. Dakin figured Edgar for a weak link when he ordered off menu at a fancy French restaurant. These are vicious men, but they are also kind of stupid. Edgar hides out in his own house, nabbed after his wife forgets to clear a dinner table set for two. Matthews finds him in the garage. “Come in Edgar. It’s warmer in here. And you haven’t finished your milk.”

Reviews for Villain back in the day were poor. Maybe it was too close to real events coming only a few years after The Krays were jailed . Critics didn’t seem to like seeing a glamorous figure like Burton playing a seedy East End gangster or the film’s violence. Burton’s star power contrasts with the drabness of his surroundings making Dakin a believably larger-than-life personality. The dialogue wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of The Likely Lads. “Good night on the telly tonight, Donald O’Connor and Vera Allen,” says one of the gangsters at a gangland meet-up. It’s that idiosyncratic Britishness that makes it work. Villain might not be as polished as Get Carter (71, Mike Hodges) but it’s a fascinating snapshot of London in the 70s’.

Mr Klein (1976, Joseph Losey)

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Paris 1942. France is about to begin the mass transportation of Jews to Germany. Robert Klein profiteers from those fleeing the city by buying their possessions at a knock-down price. We first see him negotiating the purchase of a painting. He’s effortlessly polite and even claims to be embarrassed. “I assure you it’s most unpleasant for me.’ But the seller (Jean Bouise) isn’t taken in and concludes the deal as quickly as possible. As he leaves, Klein courteously opens the door and wishes the man “Bon voyage, and good luck.” Then he notices a copy of the information pamphlet sent out to all Jews lying on his doormat. Assuming his guest dropped it on the way in he hands it back to him only to find it is correctly addressed to a Robert Klein. The Jewish man offers a wry smile. “Good luck to you Mr Klein.”

Klein visits the police to tell them about the mistake. There must be another Robert Klein living in Paris. They check and find out there is. But the police are not convinced he’s the Robert Klein who isn’t a Jew. Klein has inadvertently informed on himself. So he begins to hunt his namesake through Paris visiting places he knows the other Klein to have been. Yet people seem to recognise him and often behave like he’s the same person. “Same height, same hair. Slim, the same look..” says the other Klein’s landlady when he turns up to view his doppelgänger’s apartment. The room seems to have been empty for a while, and she says this Klein would come and go during the night. The police too are hunting for this Klein and in the background there are little changes going on, signs in shops, yellow stars on jackets, anti-Semitic propaganda, and cabaret performances with exaggerated Jewish caricatures as the villain, all showing a gradual acceptance of this othering of a minority group.

Delon played doppelgängers in the Louis Malle segment of Spirits of the Dead (1968), an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Willie Wilson” about a man haunted throughout his life by a namesake who resembles him and turns up at inopportune moments. This is more like Kafka, an innocent man (who feels guilty) searching for an answer that remains forever out of reach and inadvertently bringing about his own destruction. His attempts to clear his name with the authorities just make him look all the more guilty in their eyes. Klein thought his position as a member of the middle-classes would protect him and even right at the end as his fate becomes clear he’s still insisting “This has nothing to do with me.” We never meet the double in Mr Klein, although we do hear a telephone conversation between the two men. Whether he exists or not is a moot point. Mr Klein is about how tenuous an individual can become when society ceases to function in a civilised way. Something a blacklisted exile like Losey was painfully aware of.

Dirk Bogarde in May We Borrow Your Husband? (1986, Bob Mahoney)

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Going to write short pieces about some of the more obscure titles I’m watching while on lockdown. May We Borrow Your Husband? is a TV adaptation of a Graham Green short story and one of Dirk Bogarde’s final screen appearances. By this time Bogarde had largely stepped away from acting to publish a series of memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels. He also wrote the screenplay for this film so the part of William Harris, a well-known but reclusive writer hiding away in an upmarket hotel in the South of France is a perfect fit. Expecting to get plenty of work done during the off-season, his peace and quiet is disturbed by the arrival of a pair of English couples who gradually draw them into their affairs.

First to arrive are middle-aged interior decorators Stephen (Francis Matthews) and Tony (David Yelland) who insist on moving into the room next to William’s despite there being plenty of other rooms available. William finds them vulgar and recognises in their behaviour an underlying cruelty. They are amused by him and consider him an old fuddy-duddy. Then young newlyweds Peter Travis (Simon Shepherd) and his inexplicably named wife Poopy (Charlotte Attenborough) turn up. They’re very awkward together and she seems sad. William suspects it’s probably a marriage of convenience on his part. Tony picks up on this and begins to move in on Peter separating him from his wife socially and leaving William to chaperone the unhappy Poopy around town.

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There’s a feeling of impending tragedy in these early scenes but it never develops. Green published this story in 1967 when divorces were harder to come by and homosexuality was against the law. Both outcomes could have been ruinous for a young society couple. But here the action is made contemporary so that threat is removed. Everything kind of fizzles out and it’s impossible to watch and not wonder what some of the directors Bogarde worked with in his post-matinee idol phase might have made of this comedy of manners. Still it’s worth it for Bogarde completists. After this there would only be the Screen Two film The Vision (1988, Norman Stone) and his final screen appearance in Bertrand Tavernier’s These Foolish Things (1990).