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Twenty British Films – A Guided Tour by Brian McFarlane

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

British film specialist Brian McFarlane has an excellent new book on British cinema, old and new.

Here’s a remarkable new book from the seemingly indefatigable Brian McFarlane, Honorary Associate Professor, School of English, Communication and Performance Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, and Visiting Professor, Film Studies, University of Hull.

In choosing twenty films, many of them classics of their kind – think of Brief Encounter, The Third Man, Genevieve – as well as some less well-known titles, Brian McFarlane communicates his enthusiasm for the sheer range of British cinema as well as a keenly critical interest in what has made these films stay in the mind often after many decades and many viewings.

The book ends in the present day with titles such as Last Orders and In the Loop and it is intended to provoke discussion as much as recollection. Though it is rigorous in conducting its “guided tour” of these films, it does so in ways that make it accessible to anyone with a passion for cinema.

“Brian McFarlane is one of the best friends British cinema has ever had. An Autobiography of British Cinema, an assembly of his enthusiastic interviews with British filmmakers, is valuable, informative and enjoyable. An Encylopedia of British Film is indispensible and without equal.

Now, in Twenty British Films: A Guided Tour, a highly personal but carefully argued choice of ‘twenty films to cherish,’ McFarlane takes us into the heart of a lifelong obsession that became an academic pursuit without losing any of its passion.” — Philip French

You don’t have to be a specialist to enjoy this tour.

Video: Things to Come (1936) – H.G. Wells’ Vision of the Future

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come is one of the most prophetic visions of the future ever created for the screen.

H.G. Wells wrote many novels about the possible future of mankind, all of which have been filmed in various adaptations, but he wrote only one futuristic vision with a film adaptation directly in mind; his 1933 magnum opus The Shape of Things To Come, which Wells then adapted into the screenplay for the film Things to Come in 1936.

The production designer and director of the film, William Cameron Menzies, is lately having a run on this blog, with posts on his film Invaders from Mars and James Curtis’ book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, but it’s only right that this film, perhaps the only time that Menzies really had a decent budget at his disposal as a director, gets its own entry here.

The collaboration between Wells and Menzies – as well as the actors, including Raymond Massey, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Sir Ralph Richardson – was stormy at best, with the major stumbling block being that Wells, who had almost no visual or dramatic sensibility for the cinema, kept insisting that his long, declamatory speeches remain intact on the screen, despite Menzies’ and the cast’s insistence that judicious cuts to the material would make the end product more effective.

But Wells wouldn’t hear of it, and so there are, in truth, about thirty minutes of the film that could easily be cut – something that all the contemporary reviewers of the film readily pointed out – and Wells, disappointed with the film’s initial reception, amazingly blamed Menzies for this – but it simply isn’t so.

Despite this problem, however, Things to Come remains an astonishing film, accurately predicting the onset on World War II, for one thing, as well as such technological advances as television, space travel, enclosed cities, social breakdown bordering on feudalism in some areas, and clearly posited science as the savior of mankind.

It’s essential, of course, to see Things to Come on a big screen; it’s one of those films that calls insistently for large scale projection – and for many years, when the film fell into the Public Domain, inferior 16mm and video copies circulated from a variety of sources, none of which approached the scope and grandeur of the original film. However, in recent years, the film has come back under copyright.

Legend Films has thus brought out a superb DVD and Blu-ray of the film, completely restored, which can be seen either in its original black and white version (my choice), or in a remarkably good colorized version, supervised by the late special effects master Ray Harryhausen. So, thanks to Curt Bright, here’s a short video essay on the film as part of the Frame by Frame series, and now, you can see the film for yourself.

Don’t miss a chance to see this classic if you can; click here for a video essay on the film.

Ration Books and Rabbit Pies: Films from the Home Front

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Here’s a fascinating collection of British wartime short films – another treat from the British Film Institute.

As CineOutsider reports, “continuing the BFI’s work of unlocking film heritage in Britain, this fascinating DVD collection brings together a selection of public information films, propaganda shorts and adverts from the Second World War, drawn from the BFI National Archive, and contains films that give essential advice to a nation living in an age of austerity.

Originally shown in cinemas to British audiences during the Second World War, these films served to boost morale, covering topics which include rationing, staying healthy, how to grow vegetables, cooking tips and salvaging and recycling. These films were crucial to the British war effort and the campaign messaging has been much reproduced in modern advertising to this day.

Highlights of the collection include Tea Making Tips (1941), with ‘the six golden tips’ for making the perfect cuppa; director/artist/animator Len Lye’s When the Pie Was Opened (1941); Did You Ever See a Dream Talking (1943) starring comedian Claude Hulbert playing a Home Guard volunteer; Wisdom of the Wild (1940), a wartime twist on the long-running Secrets of Life natural history series; the Wicked Witch (1943), an advert for Rinso and A-Tish-oo! (1941), an instructional film on how to make a face-mask.”

There’s also a collection of Food Flash mini-shorts, each about 15 seconds long, which cover everything from ‘victory meals’ to the necessity of reporting rat infestations to the local council to prevent them from raiding food supplies. All the films are very brief, and together they give a fascinating look at a time and place long vanished from authentic recall for most people.

There’s nothing like living history – which this DVD supplies – to bring the past back to life before our eyes. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy from the BFI, and it’s a pip! You won’t see these films anywhere else – pick up a copy, and support the BFI, and international film history.

A fascinating collection – absolutely worthwhile, and beautifully restored.

Sidney Hayers’ Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) Restored to Blu-ray

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Sidney Hayers’ 1962 Burn, Witch, Burn, finally gets the Blu-ray treatment - click here for the trailer.

As an anonymous reviewer on the website Movie Review Query Engine notes, “Night of the Eagle was the second film version of Fritz Leiber Jr.’s novel Conjure Wife (the first was Reginald Le Borg’s Weird Woman (1944), perhaps the best of Universal’s low-budget Inner Sanctum series of the 1940s). The film’s title was possibly meant to invoke memories of Jacques Tourneur’s earlier Night of the Demon (released in the US as Curse of the Demon, 1958); both films involve a rational scientist (in the case of Night of the Eagle, Peter Wyngarde) forced to accept the existence of the supernatural. All evidence points to the conclusion that the scientist’s American wife Janet Blair is the reincarnation of a witch, and a practitioner of voodoo. The actual villain is supposed to be a mystery, though the identity was made clear in the Leiber original and in both other film versions of Conjure Wife (there was a 1980 parody version titled Witches Brew). The supernatural aspect of Night of the Eagle is convincingly handled, including a knockout sequence with a wild eagle rampaging through the scientist’s tranquil study. With a screenplay by Twilight Zone stalwarts Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, the British-made Night of the Eagle was released in the US as Burn, Witch, Burn.”

Margaret Johnston in Burn, Witch, Burn – click here to see this scene from the film.

Adds David Pirie, an expert in British Gothic cinema in Time Out London, “made on a comparatively low budget, [the film deals with] is about a hardheaded psychology lecturer in a provincial university who gradually discovers that his wife Tansy and some of his closest colleagues are practicing witchcraft (in furtherance of campus politics). From the opening sequences in which Tansy (Blair) scrambles frantically round her house searching for a witch-doll left by one of the faculty wives, the whole thing takes off into a kind of joyous amalgam of Rosemary’s Baby and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? . . . Sidney Hayers shoots the whole thing with an almost Wellesian flourish, and the script (by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson) is structured with incredible tightness as the sane, rational outlook of the hero (Wyngarde) is gradually dislocated by the world of madness and dreams.”

Peter Wyngarde in the classroom, lecturing to a group of skeptical students.

These frame blowups from the new Kino-Lorber Blu-ray release of the film come from the excellent website DVD Beaver, which regularly reviews new DVD releases, grading them both on image and sound quality, as well as content and historical value. I’ve loved this film for many years, as an excellent example of black and white British Gothic filmmaking at its finest, and though she isn’t mentioned in any of the press materials, I think it’s only fair to give the deeply underrated Margaret Johnston a nod for her excellent, malevolent work in the film.

As Gary Tooze noted on the DVD Beaver website, “Burn, Witch, Burn is wonderful. I immediately got impressions of Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. I loved the story, the suspenseful build-up and Reginald H. Wyer’s (Island of Terror, Night of the Big Heat) cinematography. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray has immense value – a superb 60’s horror production looking very impressive, a Richard Matheson commentary and an interview. This is close to a masterpiece of its genre and we give it our highest recommendation!”

As do I – check it out now, if you’d like to see a real masterpiece of the macabre.

This Is Widescreen – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is running an excellent new series on widescreen cinema.

From May 1st through June 19th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a running a widescreen “retrospective” of the some of the most innovative CinemaScope and related processes films from the 1950s and 1960s – with the 1960 arguably being when the format reached its zenith. As their program notes for the series comment, “cinema has endured for decades through changes in technology and competing visual platforms, and now you can discover how studios and filmmakers – long before tablets, smartphones and the Internet – responded when audiences began trading regular visits to the movies for the ease and affordability of the first small screen: television.

In response, many impressive widescreen cinematic formats were rolled out around the world and capitalized on the breathtaking width of the projected image, not to mention the heightened fidelity of stereophonic sound, to achieve effects far beyond the reach of TV sets.

This Is Widescreen offers a colorful assortment of films (including classic musicals, crime films, sci-fi chillers, ghost stories and more) that demonstrate how filmmakers found new means of engaging the flexibility of the cinema and the key larger-than-life film formats in the ’50s and ’60s – from the launch of Cinerama in 1952 and the subsequent widescreen boom that included CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO and others – plus highlights from the first wave of ‘Scope filmmaking from around the globe.”

Admission to each screening, projected immaculately in 35mm format, is a mere $5 (!!), and the opportunity to see these remarkable films on the big screen in their original aspect ratio shouldn’t be missed. All screenings will feature pre-show presentations including shorts, trailers, cartoons and/or behind -the-scenes footage. Feature films screened during the series are:

Cinerama Holiday – May 1 at 7:30 pm
Lola Montès - May 7 at 7:30 pm
Carmen Jones and Bigger Than Life – May 8 at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm
The Hidden Fortress – May 14 at 7:30 pm
To Catch a Thief
and Artists and Models – May 15 at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm
Shoot the Piano Player and Lola – May 21 at 7:30 pm and 9:20 pm
Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – May 22 at 7:30 pm  and 9:05 pm
Last Year at Marienbad and The Innocents – May 28 at 7:30 pm and 9:20 pm
Oklahoma! - May 29 at 7:30 pm
A Woman Is a Woman and Cruel Story of Youth – June 4 at 7:30 pm and 9:10 pm
The Vikings – June 5 at 7:30
Kwaidan - June 11 at 7:30
Grand Prix – June 12 at 7:30
The Big Gundown and Dragon Inn – June 18 at 7:30 pm and 9:35 pm

For more information on each program, click on the links above – not to be missed!

Filmmaking Tips from Mike Leigh

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Landon Palmer offers six filmmaking tips from master British realist Mike Leigh in Film School Rejects.

As Palmer writes, “Mike Leigh is one of few filmmakers who could say something like, ‘given the choice of Hollywood and poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins’ without suggesting even a hint of hyperbole. Leigh is deeply principled in terms of the dramatics, process, and politics of filmmaking, and we’re all the better off for it. The filmmaker made a name for himself with acutely humanist works of British social realism that bore some inheritance to the ‘kitchen sink’ tradition, but imbue drama with a type of wit, spontaneity, and empathy that is simply inimitable. Leigh’s patient, improvisatory, and collaborative process appears seriously counterintuitive from the perspective of commercial filmmaking, and as a result produces human dramas that are deeply felt and strikingly insightful.

And in his early seventies – after making a dozen feature films and even more TV programs – Leigh is still finding new, seemingly unlikely means of representing life through the moving image. His most recent film, Mr. Turner, was his first to be shot digitally. It’s a surprising move for a period piece, but Leigh and longtime cinematographer Dick Pope use the relatively new technology of capturing 21st century images in order to depict how painter J.M.W. Turner found new ways of capturing 18th century images. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who has realized the best performances by your favorite British character actors.”

You can read the whole article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Essay on Fisher’s To The Public Danger (1948) by David Cairns

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Here’s another Terence Fisher film worthy of a second look – if you know it at all.

Well, having just discussed the restoration of The Devil Rides Out, up pops another Fisher rarity. In my book length study of Terence Fisher, The Charm of Evil, I devote considerable space to this deeply undervalued film, which was Fisher’s second directorial effort after his debut “curtain raiser,” Colonel Bogey. When I wrote that book, I had to travel to the British Film Institute to see a 35mm print of the film; now, here it is on YouTube, in a very good version, too.

It was posted there by David Cairns, who also wrote an essay on the film for Mubi, which notes in part that “1948 was one of the great years of British film, with Powell & Pressburger, David Lean and others on top form. Terence Fisher, later to make his name at Hammer (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, etc.) was only just beginning his career, but he began it well: soon he would co-direct the gripping Hitchcockian yarn So Long at the Fair (1950), but before that came 40-minute short subject To the Public Danger, a thriller revolving around drunk driving.

As four characters meet in an English roadhouse and begin the kind of inebriate evening people fresh from WWII seemed to take in their strides, recklessness and arrogance leads towards inevitable doom, with the boozing accompanied by bullying, seduction, class prejudice, cowardice, paranoia and a slew of other unattractive qualities. The result is not so much mounting tension as an oppressive, agonizing sense of suffocating anxiety and unpleasantness.

This is the world of writer Patrick Hamilton, specialist in psychological torment (Gaslight), nerve-shredding anxiety (Rope) and alcoholic madness (Hangover Square). Few other writers can abuse their protagonists, and their public, with such merciless cruelty, while displaying at the same time a pained compassion for life’s victims.

To the Public Danger is adapted from a BBC radio play by Hamilton, and abounds in sharply-drawn detail, mostly delivered as dialogue: it must have made a gripping listen, and if the film has a flaw, it’s that nearly every effect is achieved by sound and voice. Still, Fisher serves up some nice nocturnal joyriding, all via rear projection of course, but with some intense low angles from under the steering wheel.

The premise may make the film sound like a Public Information film about highway safety, and it does have a socially redeeming function, but derives its power from the vicious interplay of its quartet of dysfunctional character.

Dermot Walsh is the loathsome Captain Cole, ex-army snob, manic boozer and bully; Susan Shaw is the beautiful blonde with a heart of brass; Barry Letts her milquetoast mark who must locate his backbone amidst the drunken maelstrom; and Roy Plomley the utterly sloshed Reggie, whose main contribution is adding to the general confusion. The script very sharply delineates their varied reactions to an apparent hit-and-run accident during which Shaw was holding the wheel while Walsh, in the driving seat, was lighting a cigarette . . .

Fisher’s style tended to be straightforward, blunt, at times crude, suiting him to Hammer’s penny dreadful approach. While British cinema was supposed to favor restraint and discretion, Fisher dealt with things head-on, however unpleasant. The impressionistic flurries of montage with which he suggests car accidents here, all screaming and flash-cuts and onrushing trees, suggests the savagery that would eventually birth Christopher Lee’s mush-faced Frankenstein creature, looking, as one reviewer wrote, ‘like a road accident.’”

This is another remarkable film that deserves more attention; see it by clicking here, or on the image above.

Joseph Losey’s Classic Film “Accident” Released by the BFI on Blu-ray

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Joseph Losey’s masterpiece Accident now has a superb new Blu-ray restoration from the BFI.

As Frank Collins wrote in a brilliant 2013 essay in the web journal Cathode Ray of Accident, “the film opens with a formal shot of the exterior of Stephen’s country house. The camera begins to track in towards the house. What strikes you immediately is the use of sound – an aircraft overhead, screeching owls, dogs barking and the tapping of typewriter keys – to augment the thick, primordial atmosphere, where sound becomes another character in the film and signals, with the deafening sound of the car crash, the emotional wreckage from which the rest of the film spills out.

Losey’s use of sound booms and telescopic rifle mikes adds sonic highlights to a film in which he plays with sensual memory, including the ticking engine of the crashed car, footsteps, farmyard noises, water trickling, children playing, kettles, busy offices, frying omelettes et al in the structuring of Stephen’s memory. A fascinating aspect of Stephen’s recall is how Losey manipulates the flashback to obscure certain moments, his embarrassment at falling into the river or his reluctance to play the mock-rugby game at Codrington Hall, for example. What’s missing is just as important as what is evident.

Sound as a ’sonic flashback’ is vital when the film narratively comes full circle and Losey returns to his formal shot of the house, tracks back and repeats the sound of the car crash just before the end titles. In a sense we are entering the present moment of the crash, then travelling back with Stephen into the past to understand what happened to the victims, how it occurred, having them return to its squalid aftermath and reemerge into the light of day by the time the film ends.”

One of the most trenchant films ever made about power, class, and the halls of academe; a must-see.

Beat Girl (1960)

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Those looking for compelling early 1960s British cinema could do worse than watching Beat Girl.

Actually, the film exists in two versions; the complete film, originally entitled Wild For Kicks, and the American re-cut, shortened by about thirty minutes, entitled Beat Girl. For once, the re-cut is the better version; the original has a whole lot of unnecessary backstory, and the American version just plows right into the adventures of Gillian Hills (seen in the image above) and her gang.

Ruthlessly exploitational, the film nevertheless boasts a truly amazing array of talent, from The John Barry Seven (yes, that John Barry) performing the title track as well as the incidental music throughout the film, as well as (get ready) Oliver Reed, Nigel Green, Christopher Lee (yes, that Christopher Lee), Adam Faith, Shirley Anne Field, Peter McEnery and numerous others, and was scripted by Eric Ambler’s son, Dail Ambler.

The plot of the film is simplicity in its extreme: Jennifer (Gillian Hills, who later appeared in Blowup and A Clockwork Orange) is bored, bored, bored, and just wants to have fun. With her nightclub pals, she roams the streets of London looking for action, finding it, and regretting it. Christopher Lee is marvelous to watch as the villainous nightclub owner who figures heavily in the film’s narrative, and Oliver Reed, just out of his teens when the film was shot, turns in a fabulous performance as one of her acolytes.

The director, Edmond T. Gréville, was French, and this was one of his last works; Gréville started his career working on Abel Gance’s epic film Napoleon (1927), and in truth, by this time, was in fairly desperate straits. But though the film ultimately falls apart at the seams, in its embrace of youthful rebellion, and the punk ethos long before anyone knew there was such a thing, Beat Girl — the American re-cut only, please — is a nifty slice of hardboiled teen cinema, as the credits above (click on the image to see them) aptly demonstrate.

So check out the main titles, and then the film itself; a real time capsule.

Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-1955

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

Here is an essential volume on the history of color (or colour) in British cinema.

Sarah Street’s groundbreaking study, Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-1955, on the development of color in the British cinema, is that rare film history text which is at once absolutely authoritative, and pitched at a very high level in terms of discourse, but still readily accessible to the general reader. In addition, the volume is richly — and I mean intensely – illustrated with numerous, exquisitely printed frame blowups from the many films it examines, all in full color, and Street’s analysis of the development of color, not only in the commercial British cinema, but also in the the experimental work of artists such as Len Lye, is meticulous and detailed.

As the British Film Institute’s website for the book notes, “how did the coming of colour change the British film industry? Unlike sound, the arrival of colour did not revolutionise the industry overnight. For British film-makers and enthusiasts, colour was a controversial topic. While it was greeted by some as an exciting development – with scope for developing a uniquely British aesthetic – others were deeply concerned. How would audiences accustomed to seeing black-and-white films – which were commonly regarded as being superior to their garish colour counterparts – react? Yet despite this initial trepidation, colour captivated many British inventors and film-makers. Using different colour processes, these innovators produced films that demonstrated remarkable experimentation and quality.

Sarah Street’s illuminating study is the first to trace the history of colour in British cinema, and analyses the use of colour in a range of films, both fiction and non-fiction, including The Open Road, The Glorious Adventure, This is Colour, Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann and Moulin Rouge. Beautifully illustrated with full colour film stills, this important study provides fascinating insights into the complex process whereby the challenges and opportunities of new technologies are negotiated within creative practice. The book also includes a Technical Appendix by Simon Brown, which provides further details of the range of colour processes used by British film-makers.”

One of the most interesting aspects of British color cinematography that Street takes pains to point out is the ways in which British cinematographers changed the “look” of the three-strip Technicolor process from the hard, bright, bold colors used in many American films during the same era, such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and other Hollywood projects. As she demonstrates, color was used in a variety of ways in the British cinema, with much more variation than in the States; effectively muted in the superb film This Happy Breed to convey the drabness of workaday British life during World War II, or strikingly bold in the films of The Archers — Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), of which my favorite is probably A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the United States).

There are a number of books presently available dealing with the use of color in film, and the problem with many of them is that in describing the works they examine, they often fall back on black and white illustrations to demonstrate their case, astonishing as that may seem. Color printing is expensive, but in this case, using an excellent and sensitive paper stock, Street has managed to create a book at a very reasonable price that is bursting with color images from the many films she discusses, so much so that the book becomes almost a coffee table book, gorgeous simply for the images it contains, as well as an excellent study of the various color processes used in the UK from 1900 to 1955.

The is a prodigious accomplishment; indeed, it is a masterwork. Essential for anyone with a serious interest in color in the cinema, British or otherwise.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of film, media and other topics in the past month - http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/

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