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August 31, 2008
Happy-Go-Lucky(2008): Mike Leigh
Trailer for Happy-Go-Lucky from YouTube
I have just got the DVD of this film and sadly I wasn't too impressed despite generally liking the films of Mike Leigh. I have included a short synopsis of the reviews of other critics reactions to the film's theatrical release and have saved my own brief review until the end.
Synopis and Comment
Mike Leigh's latest film Happy-Go-Lucky is now on general release. It has proved successful in the recent Berlin film festival with Sally Hawkins who plays the lead role of Poppy picking up a Silver Bear. The film is promoted as a comedy drama which focuses upon the character of Poppy a London based 30 year old single primary school teacher. Poppy is a a cosmopolitan urbanite who takes life lightly but seriously. In fact she is "absurdly cheery" (McNab) in the face of life's minor set-backs such as getting her bicycle stolen. (Surely not a reference to Bicycle Thieves.)
Despite this 'comic' (idiotic?) side to her and the ability to be comic in the face of adversity is balanced with her commitment to good teaching and a stated concern about issues such as children 'playing too much on video-games' (Hopefully Leigh isn't contributing to moral panics about children's media consumption here).
Dave Calhoun in a Sight and Sound feature (May 08) has commented that Poppy, the central character of the film, needs to be analysed in relation to the Zeitgeist when as viewers we consider her actions and behaviour. He quotes an interview with Mike Leigh:
I don't think Happy-Go-Lucky is any less political than my other films... its as much about dealing with life and coping with issues as anything I've made.
If it is a Zeitgeist film Leigh would argue it represents a humanistic solidarity with fellow beings at a time when in a post-political (in a party sense) world there is little else one can do. After all it's hard to rise above the cynicism and disappointment displayed by an older man of late sixties in the bank in front of me expressing his horror at how the banks had been bailed out by a Labour government of all things. Well Poppy is clearly a survivor in a topsy turvy world. Calhoun describes Poppy as:
...a modern, urban woman, as comfortable with her friends as with her family, able to balance pleasure with work, and confidant in being single while retaining romantic ideals.
Importantly Calhoun is pointing out that underneath Poppy's extremely lively 'in yer face' character there is an issue of whether she is repressing something or trying to compensate for a fundamental insecurity. Many critics have described this as a comedy and then argued that this is a change of heart from Leigh who is often held up as a "miserablist".
Leigh comments that the structure is different to his other films in that there is really no parallel narrative unfolding:
The only thing that makes this film unique apart from two tiny scenes, there's no parallel action. The entire action focuses on what's happening to Poppy, whereas even in Naked there's a lot going on with other characters.
This change in narrative structuring is a significant break from Leigh's normal working practices where he tends to work in a semi-improvised way with the actors who are often only introduced to the turns in events in the story as they would happen to the character in real life. It is an important break for as Leigh points out:
Rather than a causal narrative, here I'm more concerned with a cumulative narrative that evokes an atmosphere and evokes Poppy's spirit.
The review in Sight and Sound by Geoffrey McNab makes the important comparison between the picture postcard London promoted by Working Title produced films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill. Unlike these films Leigh notes the racism and also the racial and ethnic complexity of London. This makes a film which is giving a more honest representation of Britain rather than being a film which is a cultured British pearl for the American market, this is 'True Grit' one might say.
McNab makes a comparison between the permanently ebullient Poppy and Vera Drake in Leigh's film Vera Drake. For him there is a certain näivety yet ability to empathise with people common to both characters. At the same time Poppy appears to want to avoid responsibility. This is sharply pointed up when her pregnant sister Helen who is less than satisfied with her lot pressurises Poppy about marriage and a family: Poppy though, is having none of it. This would appear to be the Zeitgeist, if you can't change much better to think about the present than the future. Is this a Leigh critique of the postmodern condition?
Not everybody agrees with David Calhoun's interpretations of Mike Leigh and his approaches to this film and others in his oeuvre. The 'Letter of the Month' in the July issue of Sight and Sound is scathingly critical of Leigh:
Happy Go Lucky is about as accurate a study of British society as Four Weddings and a Funeral (David Secombe Sight & Sound July 2008 p 96)
Secombe continues arguing that Leigh is a middle class film maker making films for the middle classes. He bases the argument on the notions that Poppy is nothing like any primary school teacher despite the fact that:
...her overall presentation is intrinsically immature and occasionally suggests that she may be in need of remedial attention herself.
After spending some time commenting on what a change this makes for Mike Leigh the "miserabilist" the Channel Four reviewer sees the film in a rather less misanthropic light:
Poppy is the perfect primary school teacher. Her character's realism is found in memories of that supply teacher everyone once had, when their regular and boring teacher got pregnant or went to Pompeii, the one who let you do projects on space aliens and collect woodlice. Yet somehow you remember every word she said while the rest of those years are a Tudors-and-fractions blur.
The Telegraph reviewer argues that:
Leigh [admits that he] set himself a challenge: to make Poppy initially irritating, and then to allow her goodness to win audiences round. He embarks on this task subtly.
The divergence of opinions can perhaps be put down to everybody's memories of primary school teachers. Remember to bring yur memories with you when you get to the the film. I can't say I've really considere Leigh as a miserabilist anyway rather more an astutue observer who works in a sort of 'tragicomedy of the quotidian'.
When it come to thinking about the state of British cinema in general the interview with Calhoun ends with some thoughts about what Leigh would like to make in the future. He expresses frustration with the fact that he can only access budgets of 5-6 million. Talking about a desire to use a larger canvas his metaphor becomes very obvious when he talks about wishing to make a film about Turner, nobody, he says is interested. He admits that his ways of working haven't proved attractive to financiers and here one is remonded of Godard's Le Mepris with its ironic critique of an American producer trying to work in sex at the right point to make the film sell. Godard's film of course ended up a long way from what was being expected by his producers.
Strange that in these days when appaerently the notion of 'cultural industries' is accompanied by notions of getting British identity up and running again that it appears to be impossible for a well respected film maker to be able to make a film about an iconic and extremly important painter. Turner certainly preceded the French Impressionists when is came to being modern as he applied some of Goethe's theories of colour into his work amongst other things but then of course the Olympics in already into its expected tripled cost overrun, which will doubtless keep the consultants happy if not the taxpayer. As for Mike Leigh making a film on Turner.....
Special Preview Performance Q & A with Mike Leigh on Happy-go-Lucky
Having summarised some of the issues around Happy-go-Lucky identified by other reviewers when the film had a thaetrical release I have now had a chance to view the recently released DVD. I must say I found the film extremely disappointing. Admittedly I have high expectations for mike Leigh films and Abigail's Party (TV Play), Meantime, Secrets and Lies & Vera Drake are outstanding examples of his oeuvre over the years. This film bored and irritated me in roughly equal amounts.
There were some splendid examples of Leigh at his best when he brings a sense of shock to the actors which tranmits itself onto the screen because of the way he works. The Flamenco teacher was splendid, the scene at the house of Poppy's sister Helen worked brilliantly and the Eddie Marsden driving instructor was generally excellent.
By comparison the character of Poppy quite simply didn't add up. There is a difference between being 'happy-go-lucky' and a complete airhead. For most of the film Poppy was a complete immature airhead. There was a clear disjunction between Poppy as represented in her professional life as a primary school teacher and her life outside. There has been much made of Poppy's warmth, empathy etc by Leigh & Hawkins in interviews on the DVD as well as by some of the reviewers above. I totally don't buy into this idea at all.
Poppy is intensely irritating, unserious in terms of her own future and unserious when she takes the role of a student. She is a total clown in both the Flamenco class and in the driving lessons. Far from being warm and empathetic she is totally self-obsessed and I find it hard to disagree with the comments from the letter of the month in Sight and Sound
...her overall presentation is intrinsically immature and occasionally suggests that she may be in need of remedial attention herself.
Whilst Leigh makes a virtue of there being non-parallel actions within the narrative and a lack of causality this would be fine if the scenes such as the one with the tramp actually advanced some depth of character. The scene with the tramp is totally artificial. Poppy is going down a rough looking street at night and then hears some drunken singing offscreen. she follows this sound into a derelict factory which is apparently open to all the world and finds a tramp behind a pillar. no-one in thier right mind would have domne this in the first place as it wouldn't have been possible to see properly. Later in the scene after the tramp has changed positions there appear to security lights blasting out in the same derelict factory. OK so McNab's point that this isn't the tourist gaze of London is correct but this representation of the seamy side doesn't really come across well.
From the outset Poppy is the sort of person you want to shake some sense into. Her visit to the bookshop in the opening scenes represents her as a complete idiot. She displayed no interest in any books whatsoever and seemed intent on trying out some light flirting with the bloke running the shop who was entirely bored by her. Poppy's playing with chicken fillets as breast enhancers with her mates after the night club when they carried on drinking to the point of stupefaction is clearly what we expect from 30 year old professionals. What was more astounding if not surrealistic was the ability of her and her friends to make miraculous recoveries after a heavy night. Poppy was a complete idiot when she got into the car for the first time with the driving instructor and carried on being an idiot. Poppy was also a complete clown when she turned up at the Flamenco sessions. This kind of a approach is unlikely to say the least from someone who is a practitioner in the educational system. She was behaving throughout like an immature office worker with no education at all and flirting with all and sundry. Had she not been a primary school teacher then the character added up, but Leigh by wanting to have it both ways and giving Poppy hidden depths in her professional life ends with a character that makes it impossible to suspend disbelief. Meet her in a pub and you'd probably be bored out of your head in two minutes. No she wasn't a malicious character but so what?
Even when there is a danger of Poppy entering serious discussions, such as when discussing the issue of children and video games or issues of parental responsibility for their children after a hard day at work, she skims the surface. The scene in Helen's house was sterotypical in terms of its content, with the sort of sharp binary positions being displayed which might have shocked in a 1960s play but just seem old hat nowadays. Poppy defends her freedoms from being tied down with a house and children against her sister who seems to be stuck out in an amorphous suburbia and is nearly 9 months pregnant. Helen is even made to act like a 70 something year old as is made up and dressed in an appropriate manner which again just didn't gel. Poppy even scorns a pension, except that as a teacher she would get a pension deducted from her salary anyway. Inexact detail lke this irritated.
In the past Leigh has been a master at creating quirky characters but believable ones not -as a correspondent in the September letters column of Sight and Sound suggests - surreal characters. People do not behave like automatons and Leigh has brought out this aspect of life significantly in the past. Leigh is associated with realism rather than naturalism but it has been a realism at the micro level which has focused upon the the dynamics of relationships between people and their individual choices rather than a realism such as Loach's which is always trying to strip bare the surface of the social world and identify and challenge what the structuring agencies within society are.
For me Poppy just didn't add up as a character. Her liberal ideas seemed to be without foundation and it is hard to believe that a person who had worked her way around the World as a teacher with sessions in Vietnam and sometimes classes of 60 wouldn't by the age of 30 have some deeper things to say. At times too there was a sort of faux-naivety in her dealings with other people. Far form being warm and empathetic she totally fails to understand the driving instructor, and the scene with the physiotherapist was ridiculous. Her flirty innuendos are fine coming from an 18 year old but they just made Poppy look stupid. Does the argument that Leigh is a surrealist save this film by giving it a different reading? I don't think so. Certainly Leigh is able to appreciate the surreality of the quotidian but the defense that Leigh and Hawkins put up in defence of Poppy's character scupper this idea from the outset.
In the end this film was disappointing and frequently bordered on the vacuous despite being interspersed with some good sections. The films of Leigh's that I'm familair with and mentioned above are far more worthwhile and it is worth adding High Hopes to the list as well. I'm a little surprised that the reviewers have been as soft on the film as they have. Maybe I'm turning into a complete misanthrope but I can't remember anything in it which struck me as funny. This isn't to say that there wasn't an enormous amount of skill and effort involved. Hawkins was great at making you sqirm, its just that the character as originally conceived didn't gel leaving an impossible task for the actor. There is nothing very satisfactory in this film in terms of the relationships. The central interaction between Poppy and the driving instructor was also difficult to buy into, if you have ever actually taught anybody to drive. The best one can say of this was that it was a representation of post-modern pap skimming the surface and skittering onto the next thing, certainly it lacked depth despite sympathetic reviewers trying to root it out. There are quite literally hundreds of good films to see and spend time and money on, sadly this wasn't one of them.
Independent review Johnathan Romney
Independent Sarah Sands on Happy-Go-Lucky
BBC on Happy-Go-Lucky with video interview available.
June 25, 2008
Film Magazines and Film Journals
Like the Film Festivals entry this is another page which is designed to provide visitor with links to the increasing range of film magazines available in hard copy format. Despite the increasing online presence regarding films the film magazines market still seems to be healthy. Whether the current economic downturn will wed out weaker organisations remains to be seen, currently the situation is healthy. Magazines included will normally have an English language version.
British Film Magazine British council comment it fills "the gap between the muesli of Sight & Sound and Vertigo
and the popcorn of Empire." Its online presence states:
Britishfilmmagazine is designed to celebrate British films and British film talent acting in and making films around the world.Having launched the title and begun to explore this world in depth, it is staggering to discover just how much is going on.Indeed, it is difficult to keep track of everything that is happening, even when publishing online, as here, it is possible to add any number of new articles every day. The reality is that the British film world is booming.
Empire Magazine. The "popcorn" of the film magazine world?
Screen International. Screen's weekly trade paper, Screen International has been serving the needs of the international film business.
May 25, 2008
The Good German
I don't stray much into Hollywood (well American independent) territory at present, however, a cheap deal on The Good German (Soderbergh 2006) tempted me. The film was worth its £5-00 although I wouldn't rate it as brilliant but well worth seeing. The mise en scene seemed to be a straight derivation of Rossellini's Germany Year Zero combined with Carol Reed's The Third Man. There were also shades of Michael Curtiz's Casablanca. This tells us a lot about the aspirations of the film, however, setting itself against these standards the film was very unlikely to excel. These sort of judgements are relative after all and I have found that, despite any shortcomings measured against the iconic films of the 20th century referred to above, the film leaves a reflective viewer with much to think about. Other films that contain a melancholic air of mystery, in a Berlin in which nothing and nobody are quite as they seem are 1960s spy-thrillers such as The Quiller Memorandum. Although although shot in colour Soderbergh seeks a mise en scene that is downcast and dirty like that of The Good German which is shot in black and white.
Shooting in black and white is a deliberate aesthetic device which, for a film literate audience many of whom have seen documentary footage from the time, is probably a more effective way of being placed in that time period than shooting in colour. The device serves to heighten the reality effect of the film in a way reminiscent of Spielberg's Shindler. The film is very auteurist in the sense that Soderberg did his own cinematography and editing as well with the film's credits to Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard being pseudonyms. According to the Guardian DVD release review the film 'tanked':
The Good German tanked about as badly as it's possible to tank (from an estimated $32m budget, it brought in $1.2m in the US). (Rob Mackie The Guardian Nov 2007)
I think it is a pity it didn't do well. Flawed it might be but given the amount of real rubbish that people spend their time watching this film rates. When it comes to getting into the pantheons of the great, better to have tried but failed than not tried at all. This film raises underlying issues about society which Rossellini, Carol Reed nor Curtiz managed; that alone makes it worth seeing.
Cate Blanchett put in a memorable performance although sometimes I felt her accent didn't quite hold together. The film's aesthetics were generally very good and the use of the chiaoscuro lighting worked very effectively. Many would attribute this style to 'film noir' although of course both German and French films pre-war used this type of lighting a lot. The Times online review is a classic fudge in this respect. The reviewer specifically denies the core political issues underlying the film and tries to critique the film as a bad rehash of a "film noir", a category which primarily exists in the eyes of a certain group of critics in any case. This is the sort of bad reviewing which one might expect from a Murdoch paid hack in thrall to the status quo. Although the Channel 4 review is considerably better, it too sees the film in a hackneyed way as a 'film noir' to describe the category.
I largely agree with the estimates of the performances from Erica Abeel writing an insightful review in Film Journal International. Like her I initially felt that the Clooney character didn't quite gel and lacked the necessary deep erotically driven obsession required by the part. Perhaps our view of how Clooney should have played the part is highly romanticised in relation to The Third Man and Casablanca. Perhaps the direction of Clooney is precisely to show up to audience their dependency upon conventions of romance. Only when Lena declares that she wants to make love with Geismer does the audinece understand that the pre-war relationship really had extremely powerful erotic resonances. Perhaps it wasn't meant to be like Casablanca after all? In Abeel's suggestion that Tobey Mcguire was a serious miscasting error to play the deeply unpleasant Tully rather missed the point. Precisely because nothing in Berlin was as it seems allows the typecasting of Hollywood genredom to be broken. Because Lena saw in him a 'boy' just like her husband, the innocent looks of McGuire provide an explanation of Lena putting up with him albeit to further her own agenda.
Lena Brandt shouldn't be associated with the notion of the 'femme fatale' - at least one blog has- certainly she is the object of desire for Clooney who leads him to put himself into danger. His desire also put him into conflict with the wishes of authority. These aspects don't make her a femme fatale as such. Arguably her character functions as a trope for a Berlin which is entirely different to the prewar Berlin of Geismer's experience. Lena Brandt doesn't evince any interest in Geismer, and her determination to achieve her aim would go up to the point of shooting him. The scene in which she pulls a gun on Geismer is underpinned by a change in the diegetic sound track for the audience to experience her thoughts as she makes her way down sewers towards her husband, who we are about to see for the first time in the film approximately three quarters of the way through. This is an excellent aesthetic device and well handled, as an audience we are convinced that this is a very different Lena from the one that Geismer knew prior to the war. This shift to interiority is unusual and as a device moves the audience into the realm of the subjugated female voice which is unable to tell its tale out loud. This is hardly traditional femme fatale territory. For the knowing audience too who might wish to think about the gun scene as a 'pastiche' of Phyllis Dietrichson shooting Neff (Double Indemnity), worth remembering that Phyllis couldn't finish the job. This interiority tells the audience that Lena is on a mission and would shoot Geismer.
The occasional sceptical comment has been made about redemption, yet this is what the core motivation for Lena was. It was her raison d'etre, were she simply a survivor she could have easily left Berlin, but in a psychoanalytical way this characterisation was right. Whilst apparently some audiences took the line 'It is impossible to leave Berlin' as an overpompous statement the fact that the film exists at all and creates resonances tells us something about the position of Berlin as a city at a synechdochal and mythical level. What has easily been dismissed as pastiche by 'knowing' audiences might be an artistic flaw but in terms of the underlying meaning perhaps shouldn't be quite so quickly dismissed.
My own doubts about aspects of authenticity within the film relate to the prewar experiences of Geismer and Lena Brandt. What held to to Berlin at a time when she might have been still able to get out. After all until 1938 the emphasis of the Nazis was one of pushing Jews out of the country rather than mass extermination. Given that she was in an adulterous relationship with Geismer at the time justified by Geismer on the grounds that the husband was hardly ever around what was the nature of the relationship with the husband. Given that Geismer was of Jewish extraction surely these issues would have been discussed at the time?
Films set in Berlin frequently use the sewers and the underground as a spatial trope to express the subterranean desires, activities and practices in post-war Berlin. Here Lena Brandt is making her way towards her husband's hideout.
Edward Dimendberg is concerned with examining the representation of spatial relationships of the city within 'Film Noir'. He particularly focuses upon the constructions and representations of centrifugal and centripetal space. However these spatial representations don't really seem to work with films that are better charactersied as 'Rubble films', where the breakdown of the precepts of modernity and the need to re-establish this discourse is of primary concern. Taking this architectural / geographical discourse into account allows us to think of The Good German as separate from but linked to the critical construction 'Film Noir' tempting though it is to entirely conflate it with 'noir'. These rubble films certainly introduce 'the tensions permeating centripetal space' (Dimendberg p 91), the centrifugal though is associated with the powers and tensions of the state at the international level which will eventually lead to the Berlin Airlift in 1948-1949 and the establishing of the Berlin Wall which became a synechdoche of the 'Cold War'. The subterranean spaces of the 'rubble film' need to be worked into a fuller analysis of the spatial representations of modernity.
The Viennese sewers in The Third Man offering quite literally underground networks of crime and transitions betwen differetn sectors of the city. In 1945 Vienna too was an internationally run city between the American, British, French and of course the Soviets.
At times the sets seemed a little too artificial, such as the high angle shot of the airport strip at the end where all the crates seemed just a little too perfet and things smacked of CGI. Rossellini's Germany Year Zero shot in Berlin a few months after the setting of this film (which was July 1945) had a certain dustinesss to it.
Soderbergh makes great play of restricting himself to camera lenses and equipment of the day. This means The Good German unspools with the requisite one camera set-ups, screen wipes, even the flickering, linking archive clips it would have utilized had it been made in 1945, rather than just set then. (Channel 4 Review)
At times there was a visual contrast between the archive footage and the modern set footage. For example when Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) pulls a gun on Geismer (George Clooney) and there is a low angle shot which shows a clouded sky through a shell or bomb hole in the roof of the building. There was something which was too carefully constructed about this.
The film raised two especially interesting issues. Firstly it was a clear political attack on the US and its preparedness to cover up certain issues in order to gain superiority in any forthcoming arms race. The fact was that Geismer had been unwittingly brought to Berlin to help the Americans track down Lena Brandt with the hope that she would lead Geismer and then them too the whereabouts of her husband Emil Brandt who they wished to eliminate.
Geismer with the driver he has been assigned called Tully (Tobey McGuire) meet Lena Brandt in a Bar. Tully is a convincingly unpleasant amoral opportunist who is Brandt's current lover. Unbeknownst to Tully Geismer and Brandt had a relationship prior to the war.
The film is a conspiracy type of thriller which has a political message that contradicts most of the films within this genre. These usually pit an able but näif hero against some mavericks within the system (the Bourne series for example). The hero with the help of an insider who upholds the true value of the constitution eventually manages to defeat the mavericks who become power obsessed.
Here the 'mavericks' were the most powerful people in the country and they were determined to get their way. It was made clear that the future next hundred years was what was being played for as the high stake Potsdam treaty discussions unfurl in the background. Soderbergh's film raises the question of how much Nazi activity was engaged in by the scientists on the advanced nuclear and rocket weapons programmes, and as a concommittent how far America was prepared to sweep history under the carpet for the sake of gaining the expertise for its own postwar weapons programme.
A futher question which is raised by the film is jsut how much we should be judgemental of those Jews who ended up collaborating with the Nazi programme in order to save their own skins (quite literally). The denouement at the very end Lina finally admits the awful secret she has been hiding from Geismer, however Clooney had to press her to get her to admit it. He wouldn't have done this without Bernie (Leland Orsner) having pointed out that what was in her file could have her put away for life in terms of crimes against humanity. But in a world where everybody is feverishly following their own agendas, love intersts, money, reasons of state regardless of any attempt to stick to moral codes is Geismer's moral judgementalism fully justified or should we be looking to "the mote in our own eyes"?
Soderberg's The Good German certainly provides food for thought. It raises questions of moral ambivalence, questions of loyalty, truth and morality when the traditional mores of society have been broken down by war and the complete breakdown of civil society where the rule of law needs to be re-established and become respected. In this sense a contemporary reader could apply the situation to post-Saddam Iraq as much as to Berlin, but that conflict will doubtless generate its own specific stories in due course.
Dealing with the film it gradually dawning on me just how important the representations of Berlin in film are within a Western consciousness. Whether it is the pre-war Berlin of Joe May or Fritz Lang, the post-war Berlin of Rossellini, Le Carré there is a human geography of fragmentation, displacement, division, disillusion, ambivalence and masquerade in which Berlin has become a key synedoche. If somebody isn't doing a PhD on this very subject they ought to be!
Dimendberg Edward 2004. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge (Mass) Harvard University Press.
April 30, 2008
British Crime Films
Poster of the Boulting Brothers Brighton Rock from the prewar novel by Graham Greene
Chibnall and Murphy (1999) note that whilst in other cinematic cultures such as the USA, Japan and France there has been a lot of discussion about the crime genre and its relation to the respective national cinemas this has not happened in Britain. It has been estimated that approximately 26% (just over a quarter) of British films released between 1930 -1983 can be classified as crime films. Of course many more have been released since. They argue convincingly that there is a critical lacuna or gap between production and audience and the critical establishment.
Chibnall and Murphy argue that many writers on film in the 1940s who pursued the notion of a ‘quality’ British cinema:
largely dismissed indigenous attempts at making crime films as both imitative of American originals and in poor taste. Their views reinforced an ideology of censorship that approached any sordid subject matter with suspicion and viewed an emphasis on criminality as essentially un-British.’ (Chibnall and Murphy, 1999: 1).
Chibnall and Murphy note that this critical attitude extended to an overt political attitude coming from the future Prime Minister Harold Wilson who as President of the Board of Trade in 1948 condemned gangster films and wanted the industry to promote ‘more films which genuinely show our way of life’. Wilson’s attitude is unsurprising as the post-war Labour Government of the time was concerned with reconstruction not just physically but with promoting morale linked to maintaining a post-war consensus built around the welfare state and meritocracy. Representations of criminals which could be seen as positive in any sense or as representations of a social reality that the government was desperately trying to eradicate were not to be encouraged. Breaking of rationing could be seen as undermining the Government’s attempts to stabilise the post-war economy. Furthermore, a positive representation of Britain at a time when overseas capital was desperately needed to help with post-war reconstruction was a diplomatic requirement. For further details on the parlous state of the British economy of the time one can refer to the rather polemical thesis promoted by Corelli Barnett (1986 /1995) of Britain in dire decline or the more optimistic but critical Hennessey (1992)
Alongside this more repressive outlook from the government, various forms of critical orthodoxy effectively conspired to void the crime film as an area of academic and critical interest. The supposed 'naturalism' of the crime film received little sympathy from Marxist criticism as the representations of an underclass that was anti working class in terms of social solidarity promoting selfish, egotistical forms of adventurism. Liberal and conservative critics were also complicit in marginalising the genre. Chibnall and Murphy highlight the position of Jeffrey Richards who they categorise as a ‘sentimental student of British identity’. Richards who has a long-time reputation as a British film historian sees the crime drama as source of concern as ‘there has come to be greater interest in , and sympathy with , criminals than victims’ (Richards cited Chibnall and Murphy p2). Feminist critiques of the crime film have largely considered these films to be strongly patriarchal celebrating forms of unreconstructed masculinity. Paul Dave (2006) notes that recent crime films such as Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch combine:
...an excremental vision of the city and nostalgic images of 'unreconstructed' forms of working-class masculinity found in Guy Ritchie's films fits closely with Stallabrass's account of the urban pastoral in contemporary Britart'. (Dave 2006 p 12)
Whilst there is much to sympathise with in some of the above positions it is still necessary to actively critique rather than be dismissive of powerful cultural discourses within society.
In their 1999 edited study of crime films Chibnall and Murphy have chosen to focus upon a specific sub-genre of what they describe as ‘underworld’ films which they note are outnumbered by murder mysteries and espionage thrillers. In general they note that thematically these films have not followed the themes of US underworld films. They are less about the rise and fall of a gangster, there are few films about police infiltration into gangs and police corruption tends to be downplayed. There is more about the gang bosses with empires spiralling out of control, and revenger style films which focus less upon the avenger’s character than upon the moralistic aspects of rough justice. There are few films which cover actual robberies with the best known ones such as The Italian Job (1969) Collinson being strongly comic in orientation. A few focus upon the tough criminal hero who often are not made out to be so bad after all.
Richard Attenborough as 'Pinkie' in Brighton Rock
‘Spiv movies’ of the 1940s epitomised by Brighton Rock (1947) are focused around doomed figures. Whilst films like this can be thought of alongside more internationalised ones such as The Third Man (1949) and can be seen as having expressionist or noirish tendencies thematically they are more complex in terms of their female characters who are less the femme fatale stereotype playing the temptress than as victims and helpers although Chibnall and Murphy comment that it is the hero’s weakness and naiveté which leads them into trouble. But weakness and naiveté are also a hallmark of the doomed anti heroes that people those films constructed as classic films noir. By comparison the difference in the form of masculinity represented in The Third Man is more of a clear moral stance with Holly torn between bonds of friendship and masculine bonding and the need to make a choice to the greater but more abstract needs of citizenship and reconstruction in a war-torn Europe.
The 1940s Spiv Cycle
Post-war Britain was a country of rationing and shortages with a strong black market which had emerged during the war. It was a market which was controlled by those dubbed as ‘spivs’. This had a paradoxical effect of shifting the margins of criminality. Many, otherwise ‘respectable’, people would bend the regulations to satisfy short-term desires colluding with illegal subcultures yet would not count themselves as criminals in much the same way as there are currently thriving micro markets for cigarettes and lager brought in Calais superstores for ‘personal consumption’.
Films such as Dancing With Crime (Carstairs 1947) with Richard Attenborough as its ex-soldier taxi-driving protagonist deals explicitly with the post-war transition to civilian life. An ex-military mate of Attenborough’s tries to take a ‘short-cut’ to societal success becoming mixed up in the black market and being double crossed and shot. Attenborough gets the blame and spends the rest of the film clearing himself. The handling of the content is more graphic than pre-war films with more brutal scenes emerging. In this film the criminals aren’t specifically identified by an iconography of ‘spivishness’ unlike later films in the cycle such as Noose (1948). In this film journalists finding evidence of vice in the sports world are threatened by the criminals. As an ex commando Farr the sportswriter mobilises old comrades in arms to overcome the threat, with the police mopping up. Whilst Pulleine finds this a ‘frankly incredible subplot’, this very much mirrors a theme present in the American film noir by Fritz Lang The Big Heat. Here too, social solidarity cuts across class to defend the values fought for by active participants in the war. The film can thus be seen as supportive of the "what we are fighting for" theme central to wartime propaganda films. Visually Noose is innovative with a sense of disequilibrium maintained aesthetically through the use of inverted reflections in puddles, cocktail cabinets and so forth. At the end of the film the mirrors in the criminal leader’s office are broken and the world takes on a ‘normal’ perspective again as its narrative resolution.
Extract from YouTube of Alberto Cavalcanti's They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)
Alberto Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), for Pulleine is ‘British cinema’s most elaborate, as well as most expressionistic, study of post-war malaise’. The aesthetic approach is strongly expressionistic. The action takes place largely at night and the narrative resolution is a little ambivalent with the innocent Clem (Trevor Howard) who has been pursued by both police and criminals being condemned by the dying breath of Narcy a criminal. There is hope that justice will be done but a policeman who is reasonably sympathetic to Clem comments that the process of justice will take a long time to complete with many forms. A sideswipe at a rapidly bureaucratising post-war society perhaps?
The Seventies Closure on Peace and Love: Get Carter
Michael Caine starred in Hodges 'Gangster Heavy' Get Carter (1971)
The late sixties and early seventies saw a cinematic reaction to the swinging sixties era of peace and love. In the US Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver saw differing reactions to sexual commodification / sexual liberation and Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was soon withdrawn as it was seen as encouraging mindless violence. Get Carter (1971 Mike Hodges) was more of a revenge tragedy and unlike the Dirty Harry film which spawned sequels celebrating a cop able to administer ‘rough justice’ in the face of failure by the state a precursor to ‘zero tolerance’, arguably Get Carter can be read as a meditation on what were becoming at the time anachronistic forms of masculinity.
1971 saw the release of Get Carter starring Michael Caine who had risen rapidly in the 1960s as a working class recalcitrant hero represented as an anti-Bond hero in the character Harry Palmer from adaptations of Len Deighton novels. Later he was a comedic criminal in The Italian Job following on from his comic 1960s a-moralism in Alfie. Gilbey reviewing Hodges most recent film describes Get Carter as ‘one of the most purely miserable experiences in English language cinema'. Murphy notes that the film was produced by Michael Klinger a man who had entered the entertainment business running strip-clubs in Soho. His production company had also been responsible for Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), and Cul de Sac (1966) alongside some typical exploitation films. Klinger had decided to exploit the recent interest in English gangsterism stemming from the trials of the Richardson and Kray gangs in the hard-hitting realist style and had bought the rights to Ted Lewis’ pulp fiction novel Jack’s Return Home. Hodges adapted this for Get Carter.
Hodges persuaded Klinger to cast John Osborne (of Look Back in Anger fame) for the part of Kinnear whilst Klinger was keen to cast Michael Caine building on his developing star status. The choice of Newcastle and the North-East as a location combined a resonance with the recently exposed corruption of the T-Dan Smith era with a backdrop which was still in a phase of transition between modernist conformity in its planning with older urban spaces. Hodges at an NFT discussion of Get Carter noted that he had come from a World in Action documentary TV background. Investigating Newcastle as a potential location he:
...came across this story of the murder of a man outside of a nightclub called ‘La Dolce Vita...It was remarkable how far that sort of thing went on in reality’ (Hodges in Chibnall and Murphy, 1999 : p 119).
Critical reception of the film in Britain was often centered around the plot with Elsaesser for example, attacking British films in general as ‘seeking realism on the level of location and atmosphere’ whilst ‘ exploiting a social milieu simply for its spurious exoticism’. (Cited Murphy, 1999: p 128). The plot was seen by many as incomprehensible to mechanical. Other criticisms centred upon the violence. As far as the violence went most of the worst scenes were actually off-screen. It is about a sense of implacable violence which will stop at nothing until the end is achieved. Murphy describes Caine’s acting as central to achieving this ambience His nuanced realist acting is central to the film’s achievement in combining the mythological and the mundane’. (Murphy, 1999: p 129).
The plot is convoluted but linear eschewing flashbacks and sub-plots. Sub-plots usually function to give psychological depth to a main character whilst affording an opportunity to explore themes. Carter though is incapable of forming relationships, an old mate and someone who helps him is sacrificed and although Carter has three sexual relationships within the film none reach any emotional level, rather the characters can be seen as being subordinated to the needs of the plot. Elsaesser describes the film as a protracted sado-masochistic fantasy’ and Murphy notes that the film is an uncomfortable reminder that nostalgia for unacceptable pre-feminist representations of women accounts for ‘Get Carter’s current popularity...’ (Murphy, 1999: p 131).
As a Revenge-tragedy it is clear that Carter must die once revenge is exacted and indeed the ethos of Carter throughout the film is less concerned with his own survival per se than achieving his end. Here it is interesting to pursue the construction of a sense of 'family honour' which persuades men to perform these acts of vengeance. In his essay on Get Carter Murphy draws upon an extract from Francis Bacon (the philosopher):
Bacon’s analysis points to the establishing of Enlightenment notions of the State and the responsibilities and rights of the citizen within it at least in principle. Whilst some Marxist analyses of the state see it as little more than an institution dedicated to the protection of capitalism, a state which depends upon notions of citizenship with responsibility also requires reason as a fundamental feature of both state and citizen. Those who position themselves outside of the law as in the case of Carter are unable to access any benefits of the state when it is needed. Older more tribal responses based upon notions of blood and honour are features of pre-Enlightenment societies and are usually based upon intensely patriarchal ideologies. Perhaps Carter’s tragedy is less that he is doomed to be killed than that he caught up in criminal system which at one point impinges on his own status when his niece is involved in pornography. Yet his own income and his sexuality are anyway constructed by commodified sex. From the perspective of narrative resolution this doom laden film imparts a sense of the implacability of repetition. The unknown contract killer of Carter is only another Carter character after all.
Perhaps what is most disturbing about this film is that in retrospect it is less a film about a dying breed of gangsters as the world continues to modernise but a harbinger of a reassertion of the more unacceptable and retrograde constructions of masculinity which have surfaced since the turn to Thatcherism during the 1980s and the subsequent globalization of the market.
Get Carter has achieved cult status amongst the readers of Loaded the ‘lad mag’ representing a current crisis in masculinity and in Men Only has received ‘5 Hammers’ for ‘hardness’. These are the sort of magazines which have flourished under post-modern consumerism contributing to a recuperation in the cultural sphere of gains made by third wave feminism. The collapse of the Soviet system afforded new opportunities for criminality globally much of which was related to sexual commodification and the growth of criminal gangs to run the operations. At the same time the growth of cheap global tourism has allowed new sex capitals of the world to develop only a few hours flying time away.
A recent Radio 3 interview with Hodges discussed the issues of masculinity in which Hodges discussed his time in national service and the fact that he is a small man. Much of the representation of masculinity of the film was not a celebration of violence but rather a social-realist mode of representation of constructions of working-class masculinity at the time. Research on gang-land Newcastle of the early 1970s had revealed this side of life. It wasn’t according to Hodges conceived of as any sort of celebration. Arguably the recuperation of Get Carter by the readership of Loaded is a reading ‘against the grain’ of the film however unlike most readings against the grain which are seeking a perceived progressiveness to a text Get Carter has found a retrograde readership. Arguably as a well made thriller Get Carter transcends the genre to act as a critique of regressive masculinity with its refusal to accept the norms of the enlightenment project.
British cinema has so far largely failed to explore issues of revenge and masculine constructions of honour in relation to British Asian society with the partial exception of Gurinder Chadha’s Bahji on the Beach. Yet revenge and or patriarchal control is a serious issue within these social groupings which operate on feudalistic relationships rather than enlightenment ones, it is not just the traditional gangster society.
The 1980s Underworld Allegories of Globalisation
The changing nature of genre cinema in Britain as TV continued to grow and cinema audiences continued to decline, tended to weed out the worst of the practitioners. Cultural space was opened up in which genre codings were eroding or mutated into new hybrid forms. A little strangely the underworld crossed over with the world of ‘art’ cinema. Some of the best known British underworld oriented cinema of this period represents a range of ideological conflicts as they emerging in Britain during the decade. The Long Good Friday (1979-81) was not only prescient about the rise of Thatcher / Reagan marketisation but represented the heady mix of competing discourses of the moment. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) emulated this mix of ideological confusions, the leaky edges of criminality and legal businesses interlaced with emergent sexual and ethnic identities which are simultaneously overlapping and contradictory. Mona Lisa (1986) explored the rapidly changing 1980s through the eyes of a minor gang member recently released from jail having played the fall guy which makes him an honourable crook.
Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa
Changing opportunities within the deregulated marketplace have also changed the nature of the criminal operations fordist style payroll robberies are replaced by networked sexual commodification which constantly weaves in and out of legality but in a strongly hierarchical way. Older white male heterosexual monogamous desire is represented as outmoded as the notion of ‘honour amongst thieves’. It can be read as a post-modern’ representation of the conflicting mores and social realities of the Victorian era. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) promoted high aesthetic values of the art film which cocked a snook at the Thatcherite nouveau riche besotted with power and imagined status yet lacking the cultural capital to carry it well, leading ultimately to downfall.
The Long Good Friday (1980): Case Study
The Long Good Friday was the first of the underworld films to really register the new era of deregulated market economics and the impact that this was likely to have. The film explored the strange bedfellows of global criminal capital always on the look out for rich opportunities which can also legitimise and consolidate its gains set against parodies of naive and outmoded British patriotism, set against a ruthless ideologically motivated enemy , the IRA, itself a hangover from an imperial past, contemptuous of a bourgeois ideology which for them creates an artificial divide between politics and criminality in which the ends justify the means. Shand the gang leader played by Bob Hoskins displayed a lack of politics in terms of recognition of nationalist ideologies. The way in which the IRA operates leads to his Dunkirk spirit evoked early in the film when he was laying out his dreams to the Mafia team he was hoping would bankroll him.
Bob Hoskins in the Long Good Friday
Unlike the period of the Second World War the power of American capital runs to safer pastures when the going gets tough. Criminal capital like real capital prefers to apply risk reduction strategies to its investments. The 1980s is the moment of hot money circulating the world through legitimate and illegitimate enterprises seeking low risk high return opportunities. Like Britain Hoskins hasn’t fully recognised his place in the world order. Betrayed internally Hoskins’ refusal to negotiate with a more powerful enemy once he established who the enemy is and why they have taken vengeance upon his organisation leads to his downfall.
All the participants are seen as cruel and ruthless. Hoskins has intimidated and corrupted the local police as well as local politicians. It is his connections to the corrupt local politicians that is of real interest to the international Mafia. This film clearly shows that ‘the underworld’ and the world of enlightenment democracy and progress don’t run in parallel along separate lines of development but constantly interweave between, the world of politics, finance, desire, greed and ideology. It has been pointed out that the representation of the IRA in this film chimed with a British government led discourse that branded the IRA as gangster organisation undermining the rule of law and becoming a self-serving group of criminals living off the proceeds of protectionism, drug-dealing and other criminal activities. Hill has argued that the film reproduces a stereotype of IRA violence which seems largely unintelligible. Certainly it is the case that on mainland Britain to most of the populus the Northern Irish situation was made unintelligible through a combination of weak reporting and a political military consensus which saw the IRA as the main enemy rather than the terrorism and political violence embedded within the Loyalist supremacy.
The worm is turning as the understudy of the gangster hierarchy tries to get a bit too familiar with the gangster's 'moll' played by Helen Mirren in The Long Good Friday (1980)
In one sense The Long Good Friday could be read as a need to understand the enemy better. Until this process is achieved other plans for the future would always be exposed to destruction. At the same time the film could also be read as representing a need for a more open, less corrupt and more consensual state. When the state loses its way there are pickings to be had but the competing forces of chaos and anarchy could make no-one a winner. Originally made in 1979 although released in 1981 the film could be seen as an allegory of Britain which seemed directionless torn between recursive and recidivist quasi-political violence, week instruments of governance and a land of opportunity for quasi-gangster capital. That the London Docklands project came to fruition through state planning overriding local interests is indicative of the need for even quasi gangsterism to operate within the embrace of state which offers stability.
The generic gangster aspects of Long Good Friday are redolent of the violence and brutality of Get Carter (1971) released at the beginning of the decade. Gangster Number 1 made at the end of the nineties also emulates this gangland violence. These are films which have become cult ‘movies’ and have a strong appeal to an unreconstructed form of misogynism although in each of these films the narrative resolution ends in the death of the main protagonist and in that sense an unreconstructed machismo based in cultures of violence, brutality and betrayal are seen as self-destructive. Rather than being in some way ‘tragic’ in the sense that an essentially good character but as with all people having weaknesses, falls due to some combination of fate or contrivance by those seeking to bring about a downfall.
Gangsterism in British Cinema of the 1990s and early 2000’s
Steve Chibnall (2000) in a recent overview of the British gangster film suggests that the end of the decade and the beginning of first decade of the millennium argues that the British Gangster genre can be seen ‘...British cinema’s most significant cycle of films since the New Wave of the 1960s. ’ (Chibnall, 2000: p 289). This is a strong claim does the reality match up or is this an academic hyping his favourite cinematic object of study?
Chibnall’s enthusiasm for his subject evokes a piece of writing more redolent of a film critic writing about the French Nouvelle Vague who has just seen A bout de souffle (1960) for the first time:
Chibnall provides these examples of film form to note that Britain is not isolated from the aesthetic and narrative trends of international cinema. One thinks here of the Tarantino recycling of the early ideas of Godard but as with the shift from Godard’s representations of the modern to Tarantino’s merely humorous pastiche which takes the viewer nowhere, it is necessary to contextualise the British gangster movie within the context of he changing nature of crime itself. Whilst Brighton Rock, Get Carter and The Long Good Friday all seminal examples of the British genre owed much of their content and mise en scene to aspects of British social reality at the times of their making, what Chibnall sees as ‘Gangster Light’ and ‘Gangster Heavy’ is perhaps better seen as a form of masculinised nostalgia a ‘laddish’ heritage cycle. Palinowski’s Last Resort and Frear’s Dirty Pretty Things give the viewer better insights into the types of crime conducted by minor opportunists who can also occasionally connect with the criminal networks to which Castells refers when he discuss the rise of globalised criminal networks in his series on the informational society.
Chibnall also argues that these films can be seen as containing a regressive notion of Britishness, a conclusion with which it is hard to disagree for the white heterosexual urban lower-class ‘Englishman’ is foregrounded in combination with the current fashions of film aesthetics and form:
Chibnall also argues rather more contentiously that these films are representative of the tradition of popular film making in Britain providing a balance between social realism and the needs of melodramatic narrative. It is at this point where it is important to keep a handle upon what counts as social realism. Social realism has traditionally in Britain been associated with progressive political positions, sometimes the form has been a little patronising or representing the working class in a heroic mould as in the pre- Second World War documentaries. Social realism has also been criticised by feminist critics who have suggested that the critical establishment itself is patriarchal by devoting more attention to these sort of films and ignoring genres such as melodramas targetted at a a female audience.
Social realism of the 1950s in the form of the social problem film dealt more critically with its subjects whilst nevertheless exploring the possibilities of social reform, whilst the social realism of the British New Wave shifted the parameters of what was ‘real’ within Britain helping to legitimise a whole class of pot-war grammar school ‘wannabees’. As pointed out above The Long Good Friday functioned to note the changing nature of criminality at a global level, and the later 80s Mona Lisa picks up on the changing nature of gender identities mediating these concerns of cosmopolitan 1980s London through the genre.
Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986)
The decade’s first contribution to the genre The Krays can be seen as an alternative heritage nostalgia film hallowing a reference back to London’s ‘golden’ 1960s in an anti-heroic mould. As social realism it was at least a biopic based upon a social reality long superseded by the machinations of globalization. It seems as though the ultra-macho films such as Gangster No 1 and others modelling themselves on Get Carter are targeted at a respectable sized niche market of youngish men into the laddish culture espoused by lifestyle magazines such as Loaded. The films have a clear but fixed market, can access the multiplex system of distribution and can make a fairly predictable profit.
Chibnall has identified two primary modes of British gangster film within the generic cycle. Firstly there is ‘gangster light’ which encourage a more distanced viewing position from the ‘Gangster Heavy’. The spectator is more likely to be aware of the artifice of film-making with characterisation and one-dimensional performances often highly stylised and exaggerated played upon for laughs. How else can one view Vinnie Jones in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Ritchie 1998) for example?
Above YouTube extract from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Viewing conditions and their relationship towards the perceived and seemingly actual audience for the British gangster cycle and links this into these two fundamental sub-genres he has identified within the British 1990s gangster cycle:
'Gangster light’ is not for solitary spectators but invites a more gregarious viewing situation in which comments can be exchanged and excesses of style and performance noted. These are the conditions associated with video rental (and to a lesser extent the viewing of sell-through videos) rather than theatrical exhibition. A greater success on video is also suggested by ‘gangster light’s’ lack of cinematic spectacle and elaborate special effects best appreciated on the big screen, and the masculinist subject matter which renders these films problematic as ‘date’ movies. (Chibnall, 2000: p 283).
The narrative structures accompany the kind of viewing and audience expectations that Chibnall has outlined above. They are more fragmented and episodic with a plot that is reliant upon complexity and surprise. They attempt to create ‘cool’ moments.
This is an important point which goes beyond the sues of the generic category itself and raises issues about developing successful strategies for audience development which focuses upon a guerrilla approach to the Hollywood domination of Cinemas as the main exhibition space which is reinforced by the distribution systems. If production casts can be kept relatively low their is always likely to be audience and an exhibition combined with a system which allows for audience fragmentation.
Chibnall considers that these films require a suspension of disbelief rather than a parallel critical engagement by the audience. A depth of characterisation, convinced and powerful performances, naturalistic dialogue alongside close attention to the details of period and place. The narrative structure of these ‘is usually one of tragedy in the Shakespearean or Jacobean mode. (Chibnall, 2000: p 282).
The use of Malcolm McDowell in Gangster No 1 neatly summed up by Chibnall as a ‘grim tale of cruelty and damnation’ was a clever use of intertextuality as McDowell will be associated in many minds with the anti-hero of Clockwork Orange which in its strangely choreographed violence in the beating of the tramp, the gang fight and the rape still contains the power to shock audiences now far more used to representations of violence on screen than they were in the beginning of the 1970s. McDowell also provides a link into British social realism as well as radical fantasy through the director Lindsay Anderson. If (1968) was Anderson’s shift from the social realism of This Sporting life in 1963 as an essential aspect of the British New wave. If was a film of its moment in which a rebellion in a public school against the harsh and petty disciplinary regime again starring McDowell. This film acted as an allegory of British social rebellion against the empire ridden ideologies as well as echoing the youth rebellions across Europe.
Above extract from Gangster Number 1 (2000)
As a film Gangster No 1 eschews comedy: ‘It deals with weighty themes of classical drama: obsession, ruthless ambition, treachery deception, moral decay and the possibility of redemption’ (Chibnall, 2000: p 287). The film’s production designer saw it as The Duchess of Malfi but with guns. This description links into a ‘heritage theme’ within a contemporary setting. As a character-driven story rather than a cause and effect driven Hollywood style story a lot of attention was paid to the style. Great Train robber Bruce Reynolds acted as a consultant providing another intertextual link into the 1960s a golden period of British film-making. This helped to create a convincing criminal milieu and sub cultural sense of style of 1960s London.
This attention to the construction and representation of place again links intertextually to Hodges Get Carter with its exceptional representation of Newcastle echoing a degenerating industrial landscape with the post-war reconstruction of the late 1960s with in this case oblique references to the corruption of T. Dan Smith and the architects of the time. An implicit recognition of different types of crime. The mise en scene favoured by Hodges was also a link to British social realism of the beginning of the decade.
This complex type of intertextuality which is consciously playing upon British cinema history allows the film to be attractive to a wider audience than would have been the case had the film been totally reliant upon the relatively unknown actor Paul Bettany.
The British Gangster 2000 Onwards
Gangster No 1 arrived on the cusp of the new Millennium as a ‘Gangster Heavy’ film. As a heritage reference has been followed by Alex Cox’s Revenger’s Tragedy (2002) a highly stylised futuristic version of the original 1607 play set in Liverpool. Again the intertextuality is reinforced by Cox’s contributions to the film noir ‘genre’ in the 1980s.
Mike Hodge’s latest film I’ll Sleep when I’m Dead (2004) although another revenge theme crime thriller moves away from the solid misanthropy of Get Carter. Gilbey comments (Sight and Sound May 2004) that the film attempts to question the macho values expressed in recent British crime genre. Based around vengeance for a male rape of his brother the insertion of two pauses in the narrative around encounters with a coroner and a counsellor inject a tone of realism into the revenge fantasy genre which acts as a disjunction to shock the audience. Doubt about the sexuality of Davey the murdered brother’s sexuality and the possibility of bisexuality fracture the more typical discourses of the male gangster film genre.
YouTube extract from Mike Hodges' I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003)
Chibnall (2003) notes Hodges’ relationship with film noir stylistics, the ‘neon-washed streets, shimmering nightscapes, sudden violence, tough gangsters and a resolute investigator’. (S&S No 9: p 13). Most interestingly is Hodge’s take on the question of identity. The concept that identity is not something fixed has become commonplace amongst many in recent years. In ‘Get Carter’ Margaret tells Carter that ‘We are what we are, like it or not’. In I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003) this theme of the fixity of identity re-emerges when a London gangster tells Will (Clive Owen) that “You think you’ve changed. You haven’t changed. People like us don’t change. Not deep down.” In interview with Chibnall Hodges argues that ‘We do tend to remain the same... the core self is still there’.
Hodges is in some senses sentimental about the working class idealising them against his perceptions of the middle class where the latter has a certain coldness at the centre of family relationships noting that is why ‘we’ (a personal slippage) want to escape them compares to an inculcated sense of family as demonstrated in Get Carter as well as I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. Hodges considers that the elements of the Jacobean tragedy within Get Carter are absent in his latest film rather he considers it as about the changing role of the male within society. Male rape and homoeroticism is usually set within the prison in cinema. Revenge is usually about jealousy and control of women here the existence of male rape and the possibility that the victim enjoyed it (perhaps not really rape?) Counters the ideas of fixed identity perhaps leading to an underlying ambiguity within the film. As an intertextual piece the casting of Malcolm McDowell as the brutal rapist echoes his brutal role in Gangster No 1.
2007 saw the launch of a successful budget gangster film with a twist in London to Brighton:
Above YouTube trailer of London to Brighton (2007) Paul Andrew Williams
Whatever else the film does the glorification of British gangsterism isn't part of it's Zeitgeist.
For Bibliographical References please follow this link to the British Cinema Bibliography. If you wish to make frequent reference to the bibliography it may be useful to have another tab open which can be doen in both Firefox and now Explorer.
Recent Guardian Blog on the apparent demise of the British gangster film. Deeper critical insight is lacking but it's all part of the discourse around British gangsterism. It rates Gangster Number One highly however there is dissent in the comments box.
The Cinema, Culture and Society site has a useful page here.
Get Smarter. A Sight and Sound (June 2000) article by Danny Leigh on the contemporary state of British gangster films.
A British Crime Filmography (Under construction)
Blue Lamp The
Dancing with Crime
Gangster No 1
Hell Drivers (1956)
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
Informers, The (1963)
It Always Rains on a Sunday, (1947): Robert Hamer
Joe Macbeth (1955)
Lavender Hill Mob
Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
London to Brighton(2006)
No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948)
Passport to Shame (1959)
Small World of Sammy Lee The (1963)
Spin a Dark Web / Soho Incident (1956)
Strange Affair, The (1968)
They Made Me a Fugitive
Third Man (The)
January 03, 2008
Atonement, 2007. Dir Joe Wright
Still under construction. Critical review to follow later but the links will be useful.
This has been the most vaunted British film of 2007 and was chosen to open the 2007 Venice film festival which is an accolade in itself. Based upon the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan the film is a literary adaptation which works within the heritage format as it can be seen as a costume drama and a reflection upon a particular historical period but not based upon events, rather historical events act as a backdrop for the drama. It may well be possible to offer a reading of this film as one which partially deals with a crisis in national identity. The 'Dunkirk spirit' has become a metaphor for the creation of national unity and determination to succeed in the face of victory. The film itself comes from Working Title Productions which indicates that the film is not going to have a seriously critical social ar political edge.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that another cinematic repreat of an historically great moment and an equivalent potential turning point the Spanish Armada is coming up in the form of Kapur's Elizabeth the Golden Age a mainstay period of reconstituting national identity. This does seem a rather overweighty response to the perceived threat of the mythical 'Polish Plumber' from Britian's cinematic establishment. I'd have thought something from Edgar Wright combining a sort of slapstick 'Carry On: Sticking it up Your Pipes' launched at the ICA would be a more appropriate response to BNP paranoia but there you go...
By the middle of December following an early autumn release the film had been nominated for seven Golden Globe awards and on the shortlist for another 8 prizes. The nominations have been forwarded by the London film Critics circle.
What are the Golden Globes?
The Golden Globes, handed out each year by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, is one of the main events in the film awards season in the run-up to the Oscars. Unlike the Oscars, the Globes ceremony has one set of categories for dramas and a separate set for comedies and musicals.
Venice, London and Redcar is an unusual mix of cities and towns to visit to promote a feature film. But Wright is passionate about his need to fullfil his promise to the people of Redcar, to return once the film was completed. (Northern Film and Media).
December 26, 2007
Dirty Pretty Things: 2003. Dir. Stephen Frears
(See also Kinoeye Reference on Globalisation)
Warning: Teacher and Lecturer Warning. It is possible for students to subscribe to a response to a question on this film !
This entry is currently going to be limited to being a webliography. It is part of an ongoing analysis of contemporary British cinema and its responses to the processes of globalisation and diaspora which are a major feature of contemporary networked society. As such it is cross linked to this entry: Contemporary British Cinema: Representing the World Locally
Awards and Accolades
BIFA awards won by Dirty Pretty Things
- Best Screenplay (Steve Knight)
- Best Director of a British Independent Film (Stephen Frears)
- Best British Independent Film
- Best Performance by an Actor in a British Independent Film (Chiwetel Ejiofor)
- Best Screenplay (Steve Knight)
- Best Director of a British Independent Film (Stephen Frears)
- Best British Independent Film
- Most Promising Newcomer (Chiwetel Ejiofor)
- Best Performance by an Actor in a British Independent Film (Chiwetel Ejiofor)
- Best Performance by a Supporting Actor or Actress in a British Independent Film (Sophie Okonedo)
- Best Performance by a Supporting Actor or Actress in a British Independent Film (Benedict Wong)
Camera Obscura article on Dirty Pretty Things. This requires subsription access
Film Availability :
October 21, 2007
Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment: (1966). Director Karel Reisz
Morgan isn't one of the best known films from the 'Swinging Sixties' period nevertheless it is a film by one of Britain's best directors of the time and somebody who had been central to the quiet revolution going on in British cinema during the late 1950s. He worked with Lindsay Anderson on Sequence and wrote a book 'The Technique of Film Editing' which has become a classic within the field. He was programme planner at the National Film Theatre which helped to bring into being the 'Free Cinema Movement.' He also directed one of the classics of the British Social Realist movement Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Reisz's work always had a socio-political edge to it and Morgan was no exception. Morgan does capture the infectious mood of the times which would have been appreciated by many of its target audience whilst raising in a humourous way the issues of what the outcomes in society of having a better educated group of people of working class origin were.
Karel Reisz: Director of Morgan a Suitable Case for Treatment
The screenplay was by playwright David Mercer one of several dramatists such as Harold Pinter who were to make major contributions to British television drama, as well as theatre and film scripts in the 1960s. Mercer was probably the first major English dramatist to emerge directly from television rather than through the theatre system. Many of these playrights were from the social background of the 'Angry Young Men' and were throwing up challenges to the status quo.
The screenplay for Morgan was adapted by David Mercer from his original TV play, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1962), transmitted by the BBC as a 'Sunday Night Play'. In the film adaptation of the play, Morgan wears a gorilla suit to gatecrash his ex-wife's wedding and becomes incarcerated / committed (depending on your point of view) to a psychiatric hospital. Neither of these elements were present in the play. Other changes are that Morgan is an artist rather than a writer, and correspondingly Napier is an art dealer instead of a publisher. The world of visual communications does make for better viewing and art is a more class based thing in terms of who can afford it. Arguably the use of art heightens the sense of class division. It certainly reflects the zeitgeist or spirit of the times for many art students were providing the dynamic for the burgeoning pop / rock industry which was expanding dramatically as the disposable incomes of the young went up. Those art students were less likely to be going to Hamlet than Beatles concerts or jazz clubs.
Historically we can look back and see this time in London as part of the transition towards the ‘postmodern’ when art becomes popularised through artists like Warhol in the States and Peter Blake in Britain. In retrospect we could offer a reading which is reflecting upon the changes in the world of art at the time. The use of the writer / publisher binary from 1962 would seem to reflect upon the ‘Angry Young Man’ of the 1950s which relates to the British New Wave social realism so in this sense the screenplay has been updated to reflect a decade of rapid social change. Morgan as an artist who has gained his art education as part of the growing affluence of the country is still socially excluded from the upper middle classes and the stuffy world of art as a space of collectors versus those who wish to produce for others is a core social tension explored throughout the film. As such Morgan is a metaphor for the Lambeth boy of Reisz's earlier documentary film who has made good intellectually but is still excluded socially. The manic images of Morgan in the car provide a direct visual link to the Lambeth lads as they return from being patronised playing the cricket team of a public school. There is the same joie de vivre and refusal to obey outdated social strictures without resistance.
Jane Moat on the Screen Online site describes the film a little disparagingly as ‘simplified’ with ‘the modishness of much 1960s British cinema in its setting, art direction, costumes, cinematography and music soundtrack.’ Viewed now it can be read as a useful document of the 1960s offering insights into the tensions surrounding the London cultural scene as artist album covers were becoming recognised pieces of art in their own right. Moat appears to miss the depth of the Zeitgeist. Just as films such as A bout de souffle and Paris nous appartient are importsant in their representations of contemporary Paris so Morgan moves through different social spaces and urban places providing us with an interesting representation of London and its institutions formal and informal of the time.
The film contains an iconoclastic spirit which is repeated the following year in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade which also celebrates the shifts in the art world through its inventive use of cartoon work which seemingly helped inspire Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There is a sort of quirky British style surrealism which also inhabited Lindsay Anderson’s Oh Dreamland. One must remember that surrealism itself had a strong radical political edge and has been present in British cinema since the time of Humphrey Jennings a mentor of British Free Cinema. Moat's analysis seems over-academicised and London-centric.
Moat also notes that the original play explored a ‘familiar Mercer theme’ examining the relationship between social alienation and madness. This is an important point and can be seen as a representation which is playing on tensions within the British cultural establishment between those who were representative of ‘high culture’ and the wider desire to break down some of the class barriers.
Warner had been used by the British 'new wavers' before playing Blifil in Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963). He then became prominent on theatre world playing Hamlet with the RSC in 1965.
MacFarlane in the Encyclopedia of British Film sees him as "...a key figure of the new British cinema of the decade."
For British audiences the leading actors were part of a rising generation who were also challenging the status quo. For Moat they were as ‘fashionable as the décor’. David Warner had recently played Hamlet at Stratford which Moat suggests with which the politically-conscious university students of the mid-1960s could identify although how many would be going to Hamlet rather than CND marches or rock concerts is debateable. Whilst the Stratford theatre was a core place for the professionals and drama students a run of Hamlet wasn't what was making the country tick. The long boom, Labour governments and a rise of educated people gravitating towards media and cultural industries, concern with the Vietnam and the rise of Apartheid generally were.
Vanessa Redgrave was beginning to make a name in films after nearly a decade of classical stage roles and had become linked to Tony Richardson a stalwart of Woodfall films and also associated with Britsh social realism. In this sense there was a developing cultural milieu in London which was fully intertwined with the process of cultural change that was taking place.
Along with the other work of Woodfall films and those involved in it there is an ongoing political and social edge to the film which links into the wider shifts in the cultural milieu cutting across a wide range of cultural forms including music, art, theatre, TV as well as cinema. At the same time it is infused with a sixties spirit of critical humour. Along with Charge of the Light Brigade Woodfall films can be seen as playing an important role in deliberately combining aspects of ‘Swinging London’ with a political edge.
Morgan Delt (David Warner) is a working class artist from a Communist background and married to and in the process of divorce from an upper middle-class wife Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave). Thematically he is obsessed by gorillas - he visits them in the zoo, fantasises about them and identifies with them. When Leonie divorces him, Morgan returns to their house, digs out his Marxist and gorilla paraphernalia paints a hammer and sickle on the mirror, and puts a skeleton in the bed. In response Leonie takes out a court junction to bar him from the house, and he makes his home in her car outside. how one reads the Gorilla is uncertain however it seems that the ineffectiveness of this powerful animal could well be a metaphor for the caging of the working class. Also gorillas were known to be coming an endangered species by this time so the linkages between Marxism and Gorillas could have been a commentary on the nature of class itself.
Leonie is still attracted to Morgan but she but there is considerable social pressure for her to normalise. Charles Napier, an art dealer is the new man in her life. Morgan goes to 'sort him out' at his gallery, armed to the teeth, but Napier is unimpressed and throws him out. Morgan then puts a tape recorder in the house and plays a loud recording of a rocket launching when Napier next takes Leonie to bed. Morgan also manages to blow up his class obessessed mother-in-law with a bomb under the bed.
Morgan's communist mother runs a café, which he drops into from time to time. Despite being accuessed of beingf a class traitor by sleeping with the enemy he accompanies her on the annual pilgrimage to Karl Marx's tomb in Highgate Cemetery.
By now Morgan camped in a vehicle outside Leonie’s house in what would now be considered as ‘stalking’. Leonie has the car towed away, but Morgan returns. He visits a psychiatrist, who considers him "a suitable case for treatment". Leonie's ambivalence allows her to sleep with Morgan agian. He wants her to have his baby, but Leonie determined to marry Napier and proceeds with her wedding plans. Clearly the message is marriage is based upon class and property rather than desire and meritocracy.
Morgan and his mother's friend Wally, who is a professional wrestler who goes under the name of 'The Gorilla', kidnap Leonie and take her to Wales, camping by a lake. Morgan fantasises that he and Leonie are Tarzan and Jane, but Leonie is still resolved to marry Napier. Her father tracks her down and rescues her and Morgan is sent to prison.
Morgan is released from prison on the day of Leonie's wedding. He sees King Kong at the cinema, and hires a gorilla suit. Dressed in the suit, he gatecrashes the wedding, scaling the hotel walls like Kong. Chaos ensues, Morgan flees but the suit catches fire. Smouldering, Morgan steals a motorbike and drives into the river. He is washed up on a rubbish tip on the shore at Battersea. He cannot get the gorilla head off, panics and begins to hallucinate that everything and everybody emotionally meaningful to him conspire against him with his enemies . Reisz provides a fantasy sequence where Morgan dreams that he is straitjacketed and shot by firing squad. These are very different fantasies to those of power and control seen in Schlesinger's Billy Liar made on the cusp of social realism to the Swinging Sixties. Morgan wakes up and is taken to hospital and here Reisz has managed to shift class differences to a mental interior instead of the grey squalid conditions of Britain's industrial heartlands represented in the social realist movement.
The finale takes place when Leonie, who is now pregnant, is filmed walking through a garden. It transpires that it is the grounds of the asylum in which Morgan has been placed. He is engaged in making a flowerbed in the shape of the hammer and sickle. Leonie tells him that the baby is his and the ending is left open.
Overall the film very effectively catches the spirit of the early to mid sixties 1960s and the changing cultural scene and the class values which are being reshuffled as challenges to the old more conservative order are being reconfigured. In the light of what is now understood about stalking and harassment of ex-partners the film might well be read rather differently than at the time as gender politics had yet to make an appearance and the intended underlying messages were more concerned with class conflict and the emergence of what we now describe as cultural industries. In this sense the humour can be seen to have a gender bias. The strengths of the film is that the underlying social pressures upon relationships are being explored in ways which simply would not have been possible 10 years previously.
The fact that Morgan is placed in an asylum might also be an early reference to the rise of radical psychiatry which emerged in the 1960s and reached a peak of influence in the 1970s based upon the work of Laing and Cooper in the Tavistock clinic. Their work was partially concerned with socio-cultural and class issues with regard to schizophrenia.
March 23, 2007
Ghosts: 2007: dir Nick Broomfield
For those of you following the theme of 'British Cinema's Reaction to Globalisation and Global Events' it is an important film to note and should be seen at the earliest opportunity in order to compare with the other British films which have been covered.
Below there are a range of links to good quality reviews plus official sites, blogs and interviews. There is the facility to hear an interview with the director amd to see a short extract on the BBC film Network site as well as the trailer on the official site. There is also a brief contextual overview relating Ghosts to other British and European films which are examining the forces driving diaspora and some of the unpleasant outcomes for those who do emigrate.
Link to Official Web Site
Click here for BBC Film Network Site. Video interview and a short scene from the film are accessible here. (You will require Realplayer)
Click here to access Nick Broomfield's Guardian Blog
Much of the film is taken from the work of journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai:
born in Taiwan and now lives in Britain. She writes for the Guardian newspaper, specialising in stories about the Chinese community. She also writes for UK-Chinese publications. Her latest Chinese-language work is Hidden Assembly Line: Undocumented workers in Britain, published in February 2006. (From Open Democracy site see webliography below).
Contextual Overview of British Cinema's Responses to Globalisation
In early April 2007 Tartan Video are releasing Ghosts which is a film bearing witness to the pain and danger endured by the undocumented workers from China who form a major part of Britian's hidden economy which has thrived under ten years of 'New Labour'. It also functions as a critique of neo-liberal economic policies at the expense of social policy. It also important to note the EU has failed to take the measures necessary to stop this trade. This includes such policy areas as agricultural policy. As such the much vaunted 'joined up thinking' aspired to by New Labour ten years ago has failed to materialise.
Ghosts bears witness to the dreadful night in February 2004 when 23 Chinese workers died on the sands of Blackpool. It was an event which finally brought the dreadful situation of undocumented workers into the limelight. It is well known that London runs on the sweat of undocumented labour in clothing, low value services such as sweatshops and the so-called 'sex industry' a name which appears to legitimise the 'new' slave trade of the 21st century of women being brought and held against their will to service British sexual fantasies (presumably mainly male). It is a subject touched upon by British cinema but to my knowledge best dealt with in Lucas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever (2002, Sweden). Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things (2002) effectively exposed many of dodges in London as well as the apalling trade in body parts. Pawlikowski's Last Resort (2001) dealt with the way in which British men exploit and mislead women in vulnerable positions in Eastern Europe. Michael Winterbottom's In this World (2002) and Ghosts can be more strongly linked with Lilya 4-Ever in that all three seek to represent the powerful forces which push people into desparate migrations often right across the World.
Of the British films dealing in differing ways with the pressures of globalisation upon the weaker countries of the World dirty Pretty Things (BBC), Last Resort (BBC) and Ghosts (Film Four - See note 1) were all backed directly by TV. This is laudable as it is clear that a Public Service Broadcasting remit has gone beyonf the artificiality of national boundaries to explore problems n the World in relation to Britain which is as it should be.
1) Wikipedia suggests Film Four were involved in backing the film however I haven't found any other evidence to corroborate this at present. This will be updated when this is confirmed.
Please note these sites were pop-up free when visited. The Times review has a pop-up and is not included.
May 08 2008 Gangmaster loses licence. BBC Report on mass exploitation of Polish Workers in UK.
September 29, 2006
Case Study Fritz Lang’s M
M is Fritz Lang’s first sound film registered in April 1931 but shot in 1930. The film was produced by Nero films a relatively small company very different from the UFA of Erich Pommer in which Lang had been given huge budgets to play with. With M Lang had complete independence subject to a clear budgetary limitation. The original script was by Thea von Harbou (Lang’s wife) and by Lang. The stated intention was to make a film which rejected the notion of capital punishment, but choosing the most heinous possible crime and then making a case against the death penalty. It was a theme which Lang returned to when working in the USA with his last film there: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.
The story line of M is loosely based upon the serial killer Peter Kurtin who committed his crimes in Hanover. Lang in conversation with Peter Bogdanovich in 1965 says that he was concerned to get a documentary feel to the film and specifically asked his camera operators not to try anything too fancy. Lang and von Harbou went to considerable trouble to find out about police procedure. In_ M_ the most modern techniques are examined with which to track down the murderer including graphology and psychological profiling. There is a difference here between M and the real Peter Kurtin case. In M the police eventually hit upon the idea of tracing mental health records of released asylum inmates. This puts them on the track of Franz Beckert or M played by Peter Lorre. In the case of the real Peter Kurtin the police believed that these crimes could only be committed by somebody insane. Once apprehended Peter Kurtin was deemed to be sane and was executed.
After a few seconds of black screen Lang’s film opens on a playground scene where young children are singing a song about a monster who comes to get them. A mother shouts at them to stop singing it as though it is a bad omen. A small girl fails to return from school; in a short but chilling sequence she has been approached by M whilst she is bouncing a ball against a poster offering 10,000 marks for his capture. The film cuts to the mother who is getting increasingly agitated as the girl fails to return home to lunch. Rather than use today’s typical gratuitous violence Lang signifies a horrible death through the use of empty clothes in an attic, a ball running away with no child in sight and balloons trapped in telephone wires. The last two objects being signs of innocence betrayed by what can only be imagined as an awful death.
Lang’s documentary approach becomes the study of a city which starts to turn in on itself. It is a city terrorised by an unknown demon which allows other demons to erupt. Anton Kaes makes a strong comparison between Lang and the thinking of the contemporary right-wing jurist Ernst Junger. Junger sees the city space as one of danger, fear and warfare. This required in Junger’s view a constant state of readiness as an aspect of modern living. ‘In _M _fear simultaneously unites the city in a common emotion, and fragments it, providing not community, but mutual suspicion.’ Much of the next part of the film is a series of cameos in which perfectly innocent citizens are accused of heinous crimes, the police are inundated with poison pen letters and the investigation becomes hampered with false accusations.
The role of the poison pen letter will infamously emerge in the French cinema as well firstly in Clouzot’s Le Corbeau, and later in Malle’s Lucien Lacombe. Interestingly in the latter two films these events take place in more rural settings rather than the city of modernity. The films were highly controversial and seen as unpatriotic in France because of this.
Lang’s film affords a tour of the differing sub-layers of the social make-up of the city, frequently, with a flaneurial camera although the changing camera positions are frequently from places where the point of view is out onto the street. Sometimes this point of view is a spectatorial one such as the scenes from a high angle of the police raids at street level. The audience is then taken underground into a brothel / bar environment which is the haunt of many criminals who are thoroughly turned over. There is an irony present that many other crimes are cleared up as the ‘dragnet’ both widens and deepens its search for the killer who barely appears in the first half of the film.
It is these incessant raids upon the criminal community which are beginning to effect their incomes badly which leads them to organise as a vigilante ‘other’ police force to track down the killer. The criminals are represented as being organised into divisions across the city and the discourse includes a sentiment that somehow their work is illegal but is seen as a business which just happens to be illegitimate. The underground economy of criminal networks organises the beggars of the city to be its eyes and ears, and interesting shots of the beggars spoils of cigar and cigarette butts, mimic the pristinely laid out case of burglar’s tools which has been abandoned by its owner during the raid. The beggars are organised extremely methodically with the city being broken down into units with beggars assigned to each unit mimicking in a parodical way police organisation. Lang here recognises that there are different sorts of knowledge and as the film proceeds both the local knowledge of the beggars/criminal alliance is contrasted with the rational scientific search methods utilised by the police. The police have included graphologists and psychologists to get a profile on the criminal.
Eventually, for the audience the film becomes a race between the police and the vigilante force as both start to close in on the killer. The police following up a lead from the released inmates of the asylum just miss Beckert as he emerges in search of another victim. Just as he has found a potential victim, the beggars are alerted by a blind balloon-seller who hears Beckert whistling a few bars from the Peer Gynt Suite. It is the tune diegetically associated with M and his madness signifying a monster deep inside the personality which emerges suddenly. The balloon seller heard the tune when he sold a balloon to M who had bought it for Elsie Beckmann the little girl murdered at the beginning of the film.
Throughout the film Lang’s use of sound is carefully used to add layers of meaning. As his first sound film made before sound was barely two years old Lang was relishing in the opportunities it offered to heighten the dramatic effect. Much of the film had no sound interspersed with whistles. On another occasion when the police are having a very big conference which is running in parallel to one being held by the criminals the diegesis goes off-screen indicated by the sound of a voice directing the police meeting. The audience never see the person the voice belongs to. There are subtle effects such as the balloon man putting his hands over his ears to shut out an out of tune barrel organ. All diegetic sound is temporarily suspended, to re-emerge when the balloon man takes his hands from his ears. The parallel editing of the scenes being inter-cut is also extremely well handled making the film technically innovative.
It is the criminals who find M first who has been tracked down and trapped in a modern office building near the city centre. The criminals enter the building in force and using their skills thoroughly search the building. They find M just before the police who were alerted to the break-in arrive. M is bundled off to derelict factory building a relic of the depression. In the meantime the police have found one of the burglars and are threatening to put him on a murder charge unless he tells the whereabouts of the person. At first the head of the murder investigation is doing a colleague a favour when it transpires that it is the child murderer he has been looking for, for 8 months.
In the meantime a parallel court is established in the basement of the derelict factory. It is at this point that Peter Lorre’s acting skills emerge for his powerful performance in pleading for his life is exemplary. The court scene is Lang’s opportunity to raise the issues of capital punishment very effectively. M has been assigned a defence counsel who stands up to chief criminals and the mob. The defence is at a distinct disadvantage because the criminals are acting as a judge and jury playing to the audience, however, Lorre gets a chance to put M’s case in which he pleads a dread compulsive insanity which drives him to these unspeakable acts. The acts themselves he doesn’t remember, it is only when he reads about them that he realises what he has done. This fits in with the way that M has been represented during the film. In a famous shot in front of a window framed by reflections of knives M sees a young girl staring into a shop
window. M is both visibly seen as being overcome by a madness and it is also signified by the Peer Gynt theme tune. Even though this girl escapes as she meets her mother the monster within in M has taken over as he battles with it in a cafe. M emerges to look for another victim. Lang has also shown a couple of heads nodding in the audience of the criminals’ court as M relates his tortured identity, signifying the liberal position.
The criminal leader is derisory about the madness and complains about the liberal laws on madness which might allow M to roam the streets again in a few months or years to repeat his crimes. He demands the death sentence rather than handing M over to the police and most of the crowd agree. At this point M is apprehended by the police who have arrived at the factory. However the cut to the court with the three judges two of whom appear in a black cap and the chair then donning a black cap signifies M’s execution. The last shot is of three mothers in mourning, stating that this execution will never bring their children back. The film gradually fades out as the mothers plead for parents to watch their children more carefully in the future.
Tom Gunning in his major work on Lang is fulsome about this film: ‘ The complexity and originality of its structure, the studied ambiguity and ambivalence of its themes, the power of its images and sound guarantee it a place in film history and film criticism no matter how much canons are abjured or the idea of masterpieces viewed with suspicion.’ (Gunning Tom, 2000, p163).
The film is a representation of the modern city and can be read as a return to the ambivalence expressed about the modern city in Metropolis and a continuation of the structuring of modern city space expressed in Lang’s master criminal films in which searches take on a grid oriented rational process within the communication networks of the modern city. The very binary polarities of the two main networks closing in upon M, is interesting to consider. The representations were either, of the police, or of the criminal networks organising to protect their own interests rather than from any moral imperatives.
In the film, ordinary citizens are disempowered and made a mockery of by being seen as paranoid, greedy, or just plain unpleasant. There are no positive organisations from parents nor are political parties represented as being able to tap into local knowledge. It didn’t appear as though the police had a network of informants either which is now standard fare for any TV cop-show. Perhaps given the increasing political polarisations of the time Lang felt it was better to avoid alternatives.
Perhaps a key underlying theme was that of surveillance. It was the failure of surveillance which led to Elsie Becker’s murder. It was a modernist surveillance system which enabled the beggars to track down M. It was a plea for better surveillance which emerged as the last lines of the film. If people are so alienated within the city that the people they play cards with or drink with could have been the murderer perhaps Kaes is right. He suggests that the underlying sentiments of the film urge reliance upon fear and suspicion as an organising feature of modern life.
The sentiment that these things would not be possible within a more stable rural background where everybody knows everybody could well have been a conclusion drawn by a volkish, Heimat thinking audience. The fact that Goebbels saw the film as an argument for capital punishment shows that there is a certain amount of ambivalence within the text. Gunning comments that many liberals and leftists also saw the film as sympathetic to mob justice. Perhaps Lang was content to just put the issue on the table without casting judgement at this time. Certainly it would be interesting to know how contemporary audiences read the film.
After such an excellent performance expressing a form of madness arguably the ending really fails to do justice to the issue of madness and to the problems of dealing with this and examining what might have caused these conditions. That Beckert was executed, as was Kurtin in real life, raises issues voiced by the mothers. If execution didn’t bring the children back and if execution fails to solve this ongoing social issue then neither retribution, nor reform, as types of punishment are suitable for dealing with those with mental illness. These issues are very much alive today in the UK for at time of writing the jury are out on the Soham murder trial and barely a week ago a 70+ paedophile, recently convicted for re-offending was murdered in the North-east, to a distinct lack of sympathy from the local neighbours.
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