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May 25, 2008
The Good German (2006). Stephen Soderbergh
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!
Apple Trailers for The Good German
Dimendberg Edward 2004. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge (Mass) Harvard University Press.
April 30, 2008
British Crime Films
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):
Revenge is a kind of Wild Justice, which the more Man’s Nature runs to the more ought Law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the Law, but the Revenge of that wrong, putteth the Law out of office.
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:
The intertextual referencing, disorienting editing, dynamic cinematography fractured and elliptical storytelling and sardonic and amoral sensibility of postmodern film style is everywhere on display. (Chibnall, 2000: p 289).
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:
‘a distinctive national cinema is still identifiable in the way international influences are applied to texts that are decidedly British in their subject matter. But in contrast to the determined efforts of many indigenous films of the last twenty years to present an inclusive, multi-ethnic portrait of modern Britishness, the gangster cycle indicates a retrenchment and narrowing of view.’ (Chibnall, 2000: p 289).
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.
Senses of Cinema on Mike Hodges
NFT Interview with Mike Hodges
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)