Just a few days ago I realized I had probably seen enough British films in 2017 to create a separate category, but I had no idea just how many – over 20! Many of these (no surprise) are film noir or, as we like to say, “noir-stained.” I certainly want to explore more British films in 2018 so for those of you in or from the UK, I would love to hear your favorites or “must see” films I should explore next year. Until then, these are the British films I most enjoyed in 2017:
Brief Encounter (1945) David Lean
FilmStruck streaming (1:26)
Brief Encounter has already appeared in my 1940s list, but I just can’t leave it out of my Best of the Brits list. Here’s my original post.
Black Narcissus (1947) Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Criterion Blu-ray (1:40)
This one also appeared on my 1940s list. With each Powell and Pressburger film I see, I keep thinking, “These guys just can’t top themselves any further” and yet they do. Black Narcissus certainly deserves far more space than I have time to devote to it here, so I’ll only say that this story of a group of Anglican nuns being placed in a remote Himalayan mountainside dwelling examines so many themes and emotions you could write dissertations about them. (People probably have.) The use of Technicolor combined with Jack Cardiff’s brilliant cinematography will literally steal the breath from your body.
The Ladykillers (1955) Alexander Mackendrick
Noir City 15, Castro Theatre, San Francisco (1:37)
And here’s another that appeared earlier, from my Best of the 1950s list. Although it played at Noir City this year, I can’t really bring myself to think of it as a noir, although I probably had more fun watching this film as any other at the festival. The Ladykillers is the last comedy made at the famous Ealing Studios in England and if that’s your final comedy, what a way to go out… Alec Guinness stars as Professor Marcus, the leader of a criminal gang planning a heist. He and his co-conspirators (Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, and Cecil Parker) must meet in the professor’s apartment and fool his landlady Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson, who steals the show) into believing that they’re all members of a string quintet meeting for practice. Is Mrs. Wilberforce going to do too much snooping around? Will the professor and the boys have to knock her off? This is a priceless comedy. If you haven’t seen it, you simply must.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) Val Guest
BFI Blu-ray (UK) (1:39)
I’m always glad to see some of the classic British science fiction films receive new releases and hopefully new exposure. Two years ago I saw and greatly enjoyed The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) from Kino Lorber and recently purchased The Day the Earth Caught Fire, released on Blu-ray from BFI in 2014. (A U.S. release in 2017 was scheduled from Cohen Media Group, but that clearly has been put on hold.)
Mostly told in flashback, the film is told from the point of view of newspaper reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) as he reflects on the events leading up to the catastrophic aftereffects of nuclear weapons testing. With the post-apocalyptic craze still going on, I’m surprised this film isn’t discussed more. It’s quite good, but takes its time in developing its situation and characters, mostly without a lot of special effects. The performances are good and the film includes some of the fastest newspaper room talk you’ll hear this side of His Girl Friday (1940).
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) Robert Hamer
Alec Guiness 5-Film Collection DVD (1:46)
Wonderful Ealing Studios black comedy with Dennis Price (right) as Louis Mazzini, a man whose mother was shunned by her aristocratic family for running off with an Italian opera singer. Louis seeks revenge for his mother’s mistreatment by murdering each family member in line to become the Duke of Chalfont, leaving no one in his way. Alec Guinness plays nine roles in the film, including several of the D’Ascoyne family who get knocked off. Guinness is amazing as always, but every aspect of the film is excellent.
Kill List (2011) Ben Wheatley
DVD – interlibrary loan (1:35)
Previously discussed here
Green for Danger (1946) Sidney Gillat
DVD – library (1:31)
Highly entertaining and suspenseful, the story of murder at a London hospital during the August 1944 bombings is clever, often humorous, and very smart. Alastiar Sim gives an incredible performance as the investigating inspector. I’d love to see a Criterion Blu-ray upgrade of this one and I’m sure I’m not alone.
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) Charles Crichton
Alec Guinness Collection DVD (1:21)
Delightful Ealing Studios comedy with Alec Guinness playing a mild-mannered bank clerk who decides to recruit three other men to help him hijack the Bank of England’s gold supply. I still prefer The Ladykillers (1955), but I’ll take The Lavender Hill Mob any day of the week.
Peeping Tom (1960) Michael Powell
Studio Canal Vintage Classics/Optimum Home Entertainment 50th Anniversary Blu-ray (1:41)
Previously discussed here
An Inspector Calls (1954) Guy Hamilton
Studio Canal Vintage Classics Blu-ray (UK) (1:20)
Based on a play by J.B. Priestley, a posh dinner party in 1912 Yorkshire is interrupted as a police inspector (Alastair Sim) announces that a young working class woman has just died, apparently a suicide. So what? the members of the dinner party reply, until the inspector proves that each one of them had a connection to the dead woman. Sim is, as always, marvelous and the film will have you guessing right up until the end.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
DVD – library (1:44)
I am constantly amazed at the work of Powell and Pressburger. Think about how many romance/fantasy films you’ve seen since 1946 and what’s been done (and done to death), then watch A Matter of Life and Death (released in America as Stairway to Heaven). The Powell and Pressburger film is so much more vivid, alive and impressive than any of its modern-day equivalents. David Niven plays Peter Carter, a Royal Air Force pilot flying a damaged bomber back to his British base in May, 1945. He has no parachute and realizes he’s not going to make it, so he radios in. Taking the call is June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator working in England. In just a few frantic moments, Peter and June establish a connection far beyond radio waves, although they both know Peter is doomed to crash and die.
I won’t tell you anymore about the plot of the film. To do so would be inhuman, but I will say that the opening – which immediately jumps into my Top 10 movie openings of all time – is just a taste of the Powell & Pressburger magic that is to follow. Few films can successfully combine black-and-white and color photography, drama and comedy, tragedy and fantasy so successfully. Of course it doesn’t hurt that you have the amazing Jack Cardiff as your cinematographer. See it.
It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) Robert Hamer
Studio Canal Vintage Classics Blu-ray (UK) (1:32)
Googie Withers plays a wife and mother in a working class London neighborhood after WWII. Her life isn’t exactly easy, not with a son, two teenage stepdaughters and a middle-aged husband she doesn’t love, but things get more difficult when her former lover (John McCallum) escapes from prison and wants her to keep him hidden from the police. The film also contains several other connections with other characters, making it a mosaic of sorts. The film was a British favorite when it was released and is still probably more talked about there than here. Track it down – it’s certainly worth your time.
Went the Day Well? (1942) Albert Cavalcanti
Went the Day Well? was certainly intended as WWII propaganda, but holds up far better than what we’ve come to think of as just another propaganda picture. Adapted from a Graham Greene story and produced by Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios, the film chronicles the tension-filled hours of an English village as they come to learn that they’ve been infiltrated by a group of Nazi paratroopers disguised as British troops. (Remember that this film was released in 1942 when the threat of a German invasion was frighteningly real.) Very few people talk about this gripping, suspenseful film anymore, but they should. You can see it now on Filmstruck.
Obsession (aka The Hidden Room) (1949) Edward Dmytryk
I didn’t plan on featuring several British noir films this month, but it just seemed to happen, thanks to some excellent choices lately on Filmstruck. One such film is Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession (also called The Hidden Room, my preferred title), about a London psychiatrist named Clive Riordan (Robert Newton) who discovers his wife Storm (Sally Gray) having an affair with American Bill Kronin (Phil Brown). Riordan forces Kronin at gunpoint into a hidden room in a remote part of the city, where he taunts the American. At home, he’s also taunting his wife. Who’s the real villain here? Keep an eye on Storm’s dog Monty…
If you’d like to read more about the film – including Dmytryk’s struggles with the Hollywood blacklist, the career of Robert Newton, and a Star Wars connection, please read Susan Doll’s excellent post at Streamline: The Filmstruck Blog.
Time Without Pity (1957) Joseph Losey
David Graham (Michael Redgrave) travels from Canada to England to try to prevent the execution of his son Alec (Alec McCowen), convicted of the murder of his girlfriend. Everyone scornfully approaches Graham, asking why he’s just now coming to his son’s defense with only 24 hours to go before the execution. It’s because Graham’s a recovering alcoholic who’s just emerged from rehab and no one’s sure if he’s fully recovered enough to attempt to save his son. Time Without Pity is a wonderful British noir co-starring Ann Todd, Leo McKern, Peter Cushing, and a very young Lois Maxwell.
49th Parallel (1941) Michael Powell
In Canada’s Hudson Bay in the early days of World War II, a German U-boat is sighted, bombed and sunk, but not before six German soldiers find their way ashore seeking asylum in the (then) neutral United States. Disguised as Canadians, the German soldiers find themselves up against both a democratic and Canadian lifestyle they simply can’t understand. The film may be propaganda, but it’s an excellent thriller boasting a stellar cast including Eric Portman, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Glynis Johns, Anton Walbrook and more. The film was edited by David Lean and also contains an amazingly good score by Ralph Vaughan Williams. If for no other reason, you must watch the film for Anton Walbrook’s stirring speech against Nazi leader Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman). It’s unforgettable.
Dead of Night (1945) Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden
Studio Canal Vintage Classics Blu-ray (UK) (1:42)
One of the first successful anthology horror films, Dead of Night links five stories told by weekend guests at a country home in Kent. All of the stories are effective, but the one everyone remembers is the final one. The stories are designated:
Introduction and linking narrative – directed by Basil Dearden
Hearse Driver sequence – directed by Dearden
Christmas Party sequence – directed by Alberto Cavalcanti
Haunted Mirror sequence – directed by Robert Hamer
Golfing Story sequence – directed by Charles Crichton
Ventriloquist’s Dummy Sequence – directed by Alberto Cavalcanti starring Michael Redgrave
The Italian Job (1969) Peter Collinson
The Italian Job (not to be confused with the 2003 remake, which I have not seen) is a comedy/heist film that contains one of the most outrageous chase scenes in the history of the movies, and for that alone it should not be missed. Yet everything about the film works in a tongue-in-cheek way with an undercurrent of charm that’s infectious. I plan to discuss this film more later, but when you’ve got Michael Caine, Noël Coward, Benny Hill, the music of Quincy Jones, red, white, and blue Mini Coopers, and an Aston Martin falling down a cliff, how can you not have a good time?
Get Carter (1971) Mike Hodges
Warner Blu-ray (1:52)
I’m betting most casual Michael Caine fans have never seen this film and if they have, they probably hate it. Caine plays London gangster Jack Carter who revisits his hometown to investigate his brother Frank’s “accidental” death. Get Carter is a gritty British crime film, one that’s lost absolutely nothing of its potency in 40+ years. If you’re into Brit Noir or just crime films in general, you can blind buy this one with confidence.
The Hit (1984) Stephen Frears
Why does no one talk about this film??? In his first starring role in more than a decade, Terrence Stamp plays Willie Parker, a London gangster who turns stool pigeon against his other gangster mates. When Parker gets out of prison ten years later, the mob’s waiting for him. Hit men John Hurt and Tim Roth kidnap Parker in Spain and take him to Paris for his execution. Along the way, though, the hit men can’t figure out why Parker’s playing it so cool, apparently unconcerned with his looming demise. Seek this one out – it’s a real gem.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967) Roy Ward Baker
Studio Canal Blu-ray (UK) (1:37)
The Quatermass story has a somewhat confusing legacy. Quatermass and the Pit (also known as Five Million Years to Earth in the U.S.) is actually the third film in a series from Hammer Studios following The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) or The Creeping Unknown in the U.S., and Quatermass 2 (1957), or Enemy from Space in the U.S. Still part of the cinematic Quatermass universe, this 1967 film was based on a live BBC TV series also called Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959). Throughout all these films, Professor Quatermass himself is played by at least three different actors. I haven’t seen the second film or the TV series, but from what I’ve gathered, they’re all loosely connected science fiction/horror stories.
In this 1967 film, a mysterious object has been discovered during repairs of one section of the London Underground. Workers also find evidence of early mankind, bones from more than five million years ago. But the object they discover may have more to do with the present than the past. Quatermass and the Pit is an intelligent, well-produced science-fiction/horror film that practices much restraint, which only makes it more appealing. Now I need to find Quatermass 2 (and maybe the TV show) and watch the entire trilogy in order.
Son of Rambow (2007) Garth Jennings
DVD – library (1:35)
Two vastly different British schoolboys meet accidentally in the hall of their school and strike up an unlikely friendship. Lee Carter (Will Poulter, left) is a 13-year-old who’s constantly in trouble for his classroom antics. Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner, right) is a shy 11-year-old whose religious mom is so strict he’s not allowed to watch movies or TV. But when Lee shows Will a pirated copy of the Rambo movie First Blood, it changes Will’s life. Lee and Will decide to make their own movie…
It’s certainly a cliché to say that you’ll laugh and cry with Son of Rambow, but you will. It’s a real treasure that many people have never heard of. I wouldn’t have if not for the guys at Pure Cinema Podcast. See it.
Cash on Demand (1961) Quentin Lawrence
Library DVD (1:22)
Also included in the Hammer Films: The Icons of Suspense collection
If you didn’t know it from reading about Quatermass and the Pit earlier, Hammer Films didn’t only produce horror films. They also made some great suspense pictures including this one, featuring Peter Cushing as a by-the-book bank manager who finds himself at the mercy of a thief (André Morell) disguised as an insurance investigator. It’s the type of film you’ve probably seen before, but Cushing is excellent and the tension is unrelenting.
Stay tuned. There’s more on the way…