Monday, 29 October 2007

Slightly Obscure and Underrated Film List #1 - Old British Films (PART ONE)

Snappy title, eh? I was inspired by Andy’s list here to do something similar. I didn’t want to repeat any of Andy’s choices, so no The Innocents, Dead of Night, or Went the Day Well? Bah!

##SPOILER ALERT! - spoilers for SABOTAGE and WITCHFINDER GENERAL ############

1. Seven Days to Noon - Tense 1950 thriller about an unhinged scientist who threatens to blow up London with a stolen nuclear bomb as protest against the arms race. Similar in it’s matter-of-fact, almost documentary tone and style to the later The Day The Earth Caught Fire. Filmmakers The Boulting Brothers, (who are best known for their comedies and the superb 1947 adaptation of Brighton Rock ) seem to have a lot of time for the motives, if not the methods, of the mad scientist, sympathetically played by Barry Jones.

I first saw it years ago as an afternoon schedule filler, and I’ve never seen it written about anywhere before or since. It certainly deserves to be far better known than it is, so if you ever see it hanging round the afternoon schedules, then spare it a few hours of your time. You won’t regret it.

2. Quatermass Xperiment - The late, great Nigel Kneale disliked Val Guest’s adaptation of his classic BBC SF series about an astronaut who comes back infected by an alien parasite (and he hated Brian Donlevy as Quatermass) The big, bruising American heavy Donlevy may be miscast as the eponymous scientist, but Guest does a great job. Again similar to Seven Days’ almost documentary style, he makes great use of the still bomb damaged London, and there‘s a chilling performance from Richard Wordsworth as the doomed astronaut.

For my money, (controversy alert!) it’s Hammer’s best film. See also their versions of Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit; and it’s also worth checking out what remains of the hugely influential BBC series. Incidentally, an old ex library copy of the TV script of Quatermass and The Pit was the first script I ever read.

3. The Small Back Room - A minor Powell and Pressburger classic - Conway’s got Blimp, the swine and I was tempted to go for A Matter of Life and Death, or Black Narssisissis,* but they‘re not obscure or underrated. This is yet another b&w thriller, this time about an alcoholic bomb disposal officer battling with his demons, and features one of the greatest ticking bomb climaxes.
For more obsure Powell and Pressburger fum, see also
One of Our Aircraft is Missing or the lovely and strange A Canterbury Tale.

* not actual spelling.

4. Sabotage - Talking of ticking bombs, Sabotage is a Hitchcock thriller based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Hitch has a lot of self referential fun with the dastardly foreign terrorist and his innocent English wife living in a cinema, with the audience laughing at comedy violence on screen while “real” violence occurs behind it. It’s famous for the scene where a small boy unwittingly carrying a bomb on a bus, and the bomb actually goes off. (This was 1936 when the idea of people blowing up London buses was strictly fantasy.)

(The 39 Steps is not obscure or underrated at all, but it virtually invented modern action cinema, and stands up brilliantly.)

5. Witchfinder General
Hammeresque in it’s portrayal of ye olden times, but far more morally complex than Hammer’s films, and far more modern in its concerns. And it‘s also a lot gorier! Witchfinder General is a truly horrific horror film, partly because the monster, Matthew Hopkins, played by an unusually restrained Vincent Price, is all too human (and a real historical figure) It‘s mans inhumanity to man (and woman) that is the big bad here, not some fictional creature of the night.

The ending, where the hero brutally hacks Hopkins to pieces kills and ends up as twisted as he is, is still uncomfortable viewing, even if the “violence begets violence” moral has entered the mainstream now.

Okay that got a little out of hand, for a simple list! (*coughs* displacement activity.) I’ve done most of Part Two too, but I really should do some writing, so I’ll spare you that for a few days!

In other news I’ve got onto the shortlist for Metlab, got an interview a week Monday, so big up to Lucy for spreading the word on that. Still not heard from South West Screen - the Digital Shorts interviews are Wednesday and Thursday - so not looking hopeful for that…


Jon Peacey said...

Four damn fine (under-rated) films: particularly the first two (in fact, so is The Day Earth Caught Fire)... and something by Hitchcock. The Brits always seem to have a completely different (almost indifferent) notion of the man-made end of the world. (Have you caught the Peter Sellers film The Mouse That Roared?)

I've heard nothing about the Digital Shorts either... I think your 'doesn't look hopeful' pretty much sums it all up!

Jon Peacey said...

BTW: if you haven't ever caught it, I suggest giving Kneale's The Abominable Snowman. Very interesting it is.

martin said...

Not seen The Mouse that Roared, but there might be a mention of Ealing when I (eventually) get round to part 2!

And yes, Abominable Snowman is great stuff. Quatermass rip off X: The Unknown is also on my to see list.

Ross Pruden said...

Good blog.

However, "it's" is a contraction of "it is", not a possessive, as it is used in #5. (This is a common mistake, frighteningly too common to not say something about it else it would become accepted into English dictionaries...)

Jon Peacey said...

I've only seen X: The Unknown on television many, many years ago (or at least I think I did) and can't really remember much about it. I really ought to look out a copy sometime.

The Mouse That Roared is notable for an early multi-role Sellars pre-dating 'Strangelove' by some 4 years. The director, Jack Arnold, was previously responsible for The Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Which always makes me double-take. ;-)

Do you know Michael Reeves' previous two films: The She-Beast and The Sorcerors?

Andy Conway said...

Nice one, Martin, Only just spotted this. I love every film on your list but I've never seen the first one (not that I remember). Must track it down.