Monthly Archives: April 2021

Little Sister Is Watching You… I START COUNTING Reviewed.

BD. BFI Flipside. Region B. 15

“Terror Grows Like Weeds In The Lollipop World Of Wynne…” (Original trailer).

Coming of age in a suburban backwater, under the heavy, dead hand of the Catholic Church, can be a crushingly dreary affair. Neither I Start Counting (1969) director David Greene, screenwriter Richard Harris nor Audrey Erskine Lindop, author of the original novel, would get any argument out of me on that score. Schoolgirl Wynne Kinch (Jenny Agutter, then 17, playing slightly younger) carries a torch that sustains her through the diurnal dullness of Dalstead (actually Bracknell) New Town. Like Calamity Jane, she nurtures a secret love, specifically a massive crush on her older stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall). Something else that “adds colour” (in the words of the film’s sensational publicity copy) to the drudgery of what passes for life in a New Town (not quite the hell hole depicted in the Slits track of that title, but getting there) is “a little blood”. Enter local serial killer (of young women), “The Dalstead Strangler”…

Imaginatively connecting a collection of circumstantial clues, Wynne concludes that George is the culprit and weaves his guilt into her increasingly elabourate fantasies. If anything, this conviction only increases her ardour. She fancies herself the only one who understands George (though in truth she understands precious little and when a measure of comprehension is later forced upon her, she suffers much on account of it), the only one who can protect and ultimately save him.

There’s got to be a good reason for what he’s doing, right? Little Jesuit Jenny even rationalises her shaky moral stance during internal discourses with JC himself.

JA and JC. Morbid religiosity…

As far as the neutral viewer is concerned, George is far from the only contender for Stranglerhood. Winsome Wynn’s other brother, Len (Gregory Phillips) is a budding libertine, dabbling in drugs and secretly salivating over his collection of Dalstead Strangler press clippings… and Simon Ward’s creepy “jack the lad” bus conductor (below) would be handed his P45 (and probably worse) today for the way he “flirts” with Wynne and her precociously provocative school pal Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe, who was actually about 25 when this was shot).

Some might take retroactive offence at the fact that the adventurous Corinne falls victim to the strangler while virginal Wynne survives, but as well trained Catholics, both of them would have known only too well that it’s possible to sin (and reap the wages thereof) in thought, word and deed. Wynne is only virtuous in the sense indicated by Plato and Freud, i.e. content to dream (and she daydreams plenty) about what the wicked actually put into practice. And when she gets sloshed, she attempts to step over that line with the alarmed George, to cringe-inducing effect.

‘”Who you getten, bratty? The Heaven Seventeen? Luke Sterne? Goggly Gogol?”

So, what we got here… the sexual awakening of teenage girls, the murder of teenage girls, a wannabe accessory to murder (after the fact), (kind of) incest… it’s a good job David Greene (whose feature debut was the 1967 Lovecraft effort The Shuttered Room and who later found success in American TV productions) rather than a less tasteful director (and there’s never been any shortage of them) was entrusted with this material which, thus recounted, approximates a random sampling of subject matter from Homeric epics and the Attic Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides… which is, I rather suspect, central to what Greene is trying to say here. Despite the promise of a new start and a new life in a New Town, Wynne and her dysfunctional family are no more free from the ghosts of their past (it’s in what remains of their dilapidated former home that Corinne ultimately contracts her fatal liaison and Wynne has her own encounter with the killer) than any of us are free from the consequences of fallen human nature. As it was in the palace of Agamemnon, so it is in Dalstead / Bracknell’s Point Royal…

… which is pretty much the point that Peter Shaffer and Sidney Lumet were labouring in Equus (1977), another film graced by Agutter’s presence. I Start Counting pitches its tone somewhere between the High Art of that one and the out and out Exploitation of Sidney Hayers’ Assault (1971).

Of course Blaise Pascal took a dissenting view of human history, arguing that it might have followed a completely different course had, e.g. Cleopatra’s nose described an alternative trajectory to the one it actually took. Had that eminent French philosopher lived to witness the cute cut of Ms Agutter’s pert proboscis, I’m certain he would have recast that particular aphorism.

This most captivating of British actresses has given so many splendid performances in so many quality films (see also our appraisals of Walkabout and An American Werewolf in London) that I can’t even bring myself to begrudge her the easy money she’s currently making in the BBC’s awful Call The Midwife. Agutter’s adeptly nuanced turn in I Start Counting (a picture which, with no disrespect intended to the rest of an admirable cast, she effectively carries), delivered at such a tender age, lays down an unmistakable marker for cinematic and stage glories to come (lovingly documented in Ian Taylor’s All Sorts Of Things Might Happen). Kudos, as ever, to the BFI for unearthing and reactivating this lost little gem of a thriller, scanned and restored in 2k from the 35mm interpositive.

Extras include (alongside the expected trailer and generous image gallery) an audio commentary by Samm Deighan and an interview with Agutter, in which she vividly recalls the film’s making and confesses to being a bit of a compulsive counter herself. In addition you get 40 minutes of writer Richard Harris reflecting on his long running career in cinema and TV and Chris O’Neill’s video essay Loss Of Innocence. The Children’s Film Foundation’s Danger On Dartmoor (1980), directed by David Eady and written by Audrey Erskine Lindop, shares some of the main feature’s thematic concerns and plot devices, as well as warning its audience of the perils inherent in foggy moors and remote natural splendour (subject on which Jenny Agutter would have been eminently well qualified to lecture its protagonists). There’s also a bunch of archive shorts bigging up the New Towns project and the jaw dropping cautionary tale Don’t Be Like Brenda (i.e. pregnant and abandoned)… it’s amazing that they were still making stuff like this in 1973! Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by Matt Needle. With the first pressing only comes a fully illustrated collector’s booklet comprising new writing on the film by the BFI’s Jo Botting and its cast and director by Jon Dear. Finally Johnny Trunk (of Trunk Records fame) profiles composer Basil Kirchin and readers of a certain age will remember the 1972 cover of ISC’s main theme by the divine Dusty (who’d already, memorably, closed her eyes and counted to 10).

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Welcome To The Jungles… Jules Dassin’s BRUTE FORCE & THE NAKED CITY Reviewed

BD. Arrow Academy. Region B. 12.

“High heels on wet pavements…” Cons yearn for the women outside in Brute Force.

“Sometimes I think this whole world is made up of nothing but dirty feet!” A weary scrub woman in The Naked City.

Overcrowded Westgate Penitentiary is nominally run by Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen), a weakling who has, in reality, ceded authority to Captain Munsey, a power hungry sadist (played, believe it or not, by Hume Cronyn) delighting in the physical and psychological abuse of its inmates.

The men squeezed into Cell R17, typically enough, divide their daydreams between the women who are (possibly) waiting for them on the outside (or whose conniving put them there in the first place), fantasies of parole… and getting even with Munsey. Dreaming won’t cut it, though, for tough Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster in a truly galvanising performance). “Nothing’s OK… he tells his roomies: “… it never was and it never will be until we’re out! Got that?”

Burt’s determined to see his ailing girl (Ann Blyth) before she dies and pieces together an audacious escape plan that hinges on him and his cell mates being conscripted to the dreaded drainpipe detail. As Munsey minces around in a singlet, attempting to beat the poop on what’s brewing out of a Collins confidant (while Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture blares from his record player!) the jailbreak erupts in an Apocalyptic climax…

It’s instructive to compare and contrast Jules Dassin’s Brute Force with Howard Hawks’ 1930 prison melodrama The Criminal Code, recently reviewed in these pages. In the latter, for example, Boris Karloff’s dispatch of a snitch, in compliance with one interpretation of the phrase “criminal code”, is effectively but suggestively rendered. Dassin’s film, although ostensibly hampered by another code (the one named after Will Hays) depicts one of Munsey’s abandoned pigeons being summarily executed in altogether more, well, brutal fashion (pulverised in workshop machinery), showcases all manner of other incidental nastiness and concludes in riotous scenes of charnel house intensity… how did he get away with it?

You suspect that Dassin’s searing critique of The American Way was too artfully cloaked in allegory for the assorted Watch Committees and Legions of Decency to grasp. Plus (SPOILER ALERT) the aspiring escapees and their supporting cast of rioting cons are violently suppressed. Sure, the big authority figure also gets his well deserved and spectacular comeuppance but (and I’m being ironic here, just in case anybody needs that spelling out) he’s such an obvious fag, he probably had it coming, right? Perhaps the calypso commentary of Sir Lancelot (a familiar figure from those wonderful Val Lewton films) convinced the censorious that what they were watching was a “mere” piece of entertainment. The one thing Dassin couldn’t get away with indefinitely was his brief (terminated by the Hitler / Stalin pact of 1939) membership of the American Communist Party. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

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… before those little red chickens came home to roost, Dassin reassembled his principal Brute Force crew collaborators (Art director John DeCuir, DP William H. Daniels, Miklós Rózsa scoring) for a bravura 180 degree stylistic shift with The Naked City. This one kicks off in classic Noir style, as we view (through the tilted venetian blind slats of her apartment) a blonde being strangled then drowned in her bath tub. Thereafter Dassin eschews elaborate sound stages, within the likes of which the pressure cooker plotting of Brute Force was brought to the boil, in favour of the cityscape of New York itself. I’m not totally convinced by the claim that this film contains no studio set ups at all, but the lion’s share of its (fairly routine) forensic crime storyline unfolds over a hundred Big Apple locations as gently ironic Irish cop Barry Fitzgerald and his Jimmy Stewart-alike rookie sidekick (Don Taylor) pursue their principal person of interest (a harmonica playing wrestler) through its streets, markets, offices, fire escapes, gyms, hairdressers, jewellery stores, lunch counters, building sites, bridges, construction sites, subways, tram cars, offices, wharfs, police precincts, tenement blocks and all the rest of it. NYC is both the film’s story and its main, hyperforceful character (perhaps nothing else could have have followed Lancaster!)

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If Brute Force can be said to have strongly influenced individual films (most obviously Sidney Lumet’s 1965 effort The Hill, with which it would make a splendid double bill), The Naked City’s stylistic innovations exerted enormous influence over the whole crime film genre. Hitchcock, who recognised Dassin’s promise when the latter assisted him on Mr. And Mrs. Smith (1941), clearly owed something to him for Vertigo (1958) and the debt is also apparent in another film from the same year, Don Siegel’s The Lineup, though both of those are (at least in part) hymns to San Francisco rather than NYC.

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Whether the voice over by “colourful” producer / sometime journalist Mark Hellinger enhances or works against Dassin’s design remains debatable. It would be interesting to watch The Naked City with his narration deleted, as Harrison Ford’s eventually was from Blade Runner (1982)

This is Noir shot under the influence of Italian Neorealism rather than German Expressionism and Neorealism, of course, is but a wisp of capellini away from social realism… not to mention (ulp!) Socialist realism. Refusing to rat his friends out before Joe McCarthy’s Senate sub committee, Dassin was blacklisted, becoming persona non grata in Hollywood… which, gratifyingly, didn’t cramp his style one jot. Relocating to Europe, he plied his trade successfully in France (effectively inventing the heist genre with Riffifi, 1955) and Greece (where he married Melina Mercouri).

Melina, I think you're losing your Marbles...
Melina, baby, I think you’re losing your Marbles…

As an added “fuck you” to McCarthy, Dassin returned to Hollywood when red-baiting had abated somewhat and resumed making successful movies (notably Topkapi, another heist effort, in 1964). Like Rocky Graziano, somebody up there must have liked him…

For this limited edition set, both films have been painstakingly (it took two years!) restored in 4k (from miserably conserved elements) by TLE, also recently responsible for that much misunderstood and maligned Suspiria restoration. Both films look and sound marvellous though, in each, visuals and soundtracks aren’t always in perfect synch… not on the discs I watched, anyway.

Brute Force extras include Josh Nelson’s commentary track and a visual essay (“Nothing’s Okay”), courtesy of David Cairns & Fiona Watson. Josh Olson, Oscar winning winning screenwriter on Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) talks about the life-changing impact on him of a youthful exposure to this movie. Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life, takes a look at the star’s Noir-heavy early career. Plus theatrical trailers and image gallery.

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For The Naked City, David Cairns has collaborated on an audio commentary with actors Steven McNicoll and Francesca Dymond, while Eloise Ross kicks in with an original visual essay. New York and The Naked City is an analysis of the film’s influence on subsequent cinematic portrayals of New York, in efforts ranging from the mainstream to indie / underground / avant garde, delivered by Amy Taubin (somebody who “was there”). The Hollywood Ten is a 1950 documentary short arguing the case for free speech and against the blacklisting and imprisonment of 10 filmmakers who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, including The Naked City’s screenwriter Albert Maltz. In a 2004 personal appearance at LA’s County Museum of Art, Dassin (pictured above) proves himself a winning and waspish raconteur, taking time out to compare America post-9/11 with the McCarthy era. Plus trailer and a gallery of production stills by renowned photojournalist Weegee, whose work was so influential on the look of The Naked City.

An illustrated collector’s booklet includes writing on the films by Alastair Philips, Barry Salt, Sergio Angelini, Andrew Graves, Richard Brooks and Frank Krutnik. The reversible sleeve offers the options of featuring original and newly commissioned artwork.

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All The Colours Of Bleakness… Sergio Martino’s SILENT ACTION Reviewed.

… but violent!

BD. Fractured Visions. Region Free. 15.
Buy direct

A succession of Italian military bigwigs die in a series of suspicious “accidents / suicides” (notably a spectacular train decapitation), investigated by feisty femme journalist Maria (Delia Boccardo). Her boyfriend, maverick Police Inspector Giorgio Solmi (Luc Merenda) discovers a connection between these high profile deaths and the case of a man whose brains were apparently beaten out by a call girl at his luxury crib. “I want to know how a whore-mongering electrician can afford to live like an oil sheikh”, straight talking Giorgio tells his assistants. When they rescue the call girl in question (Paola Tedesco) from another staged suicide, an alternative narrative begins to emerge, one of sedition in high places. Solmi shoots from the lip (“Hawking pussy is one business that never goes into recession”), don’t take no shit and can’t be intimidated into dropping his investigation, but the closer he gets to the unbelievable truth, the faster the bodies keep piling up…

Two years on from his seminal The Violent Professionals (Milano Trema: La Polizia Vuole Giustizia, 1973), one of the films that imparted real box office momentum to the Poliziotteschi / Crime Slime band wagon, Sergio Martino amplifies its hints that the criminal and political violence which characterised Italy’s “Years of Lead” were intimately and conspiratorially connected, in Silent Action (La Polizia Accusa: Il Servizio Segreto Uccide). This theme is more frankly handled in the Italian dub / English subtitles, which explicitly allude to preparations for an upcoming right wing coup. The English language version more vaguely references a gun running operation’s connections to Establishment figures. As early as the opening montage, in which career slime criminal Antonio Casale and heavy pals stage the suicides of some inconvenient Generals, Luciano Michelini’s relentlessly staccato minor key march brings to mind Ennio Morricone’s score for Elio Petri’s Investigation Of Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) and suggests that the film you’re about to watch has more in common with that kind of pointed political comment than with any amount of those “guns and gurning” Umberto Lenzi efforts in which Maurizio Merli mercilessly slaps down the scumbags.

Don’t get me wrong, Silent Action emerged from the same Martino family stable as many of those pictures and has no qualms whatsoever about packing in such crowd pleasing exploitation elements as punch ups, shoot outs, double crosses, a swaggering, indecently handsome male lead, judicious helpings of gratuitous female nudity, a prison riot, Rémy Julienne’s car crashes… all very enjoyable, as is the helicopter attack on a paramilitary camp which (though skilfully executed and featuring a memorable micro cameo from director Sergio) could probably have been omitted without any perceivable damage to the narrative.

It does, however evidence levels of sophistication and pessimism inaccessible to a director like Lenzi who, by his own contention, was weaned on the films of Edgar Ulmer, Robert Siodmak and Raoul Walsh. Martino’s message is summarised, at the conclusion of Eugenio Ercolani’s impressive supplementary featurette, The Age of Lead – 1970s Italy, as: “American films are very concentrated on defending a system, a way of life. Terrible things might happen but eventually things work out, the system still works whereas in Italian cinema it’s about the system not existing, it’s not really there. It’s just a hologram, an illusion… we don’t really know what’s happening to us. There are powers we can’t even grasp and ultimately even a police officer, a Commissario or whatever, is just a victim, as are all Italians. That’s really the difference between Italian and American films. We’re not defending anything. It’s all darkness, all bleak”.

Gorgeously remastered in 2K (Giancarlo Ferrando’s crisp cinematography has never looked better) and representing a world BD debut to boot, this nicely packaged 2 disc set (you get Michelini’s OST as a bonus CD) is limited to 3,000 units and comes armed to the teeth with nifty extras. In addition to Ercolani’s documentary, you get interviews with Martino and Michelini (each socially distanced in a public spaces) plus two conversations (one archival and another more recent one) with Luc Merenda… wow, what a silver fox he’s turned into! During all of these anecdote rich interviews, much is made of how the film makers had to pussy foot around Tomas Milian, who appears in a pivotal albeit very brief role (said brevity just as well, perhaps, given the career worst haircut somebody has inflicted on him here).

Tomas’s fragile ego is further dissected in archival featurette The Milian Connection. In a special collector’s booklet there are essays by Ercolani (elaborating the argument of his documentary) and Francesco Massaccesi, assessing Mel Ferrer’s career in Italy (like Milian, Ferrer appears only briefly in the film as Solmi’s superior, a suave, detached and deeply ambiguous character). I’ve left the best till last. The audio commentary from “tough-guy film expert” Mike Malloy (director of Eurocrime! The Italian Cop And Gangster Films That Ruled The ’70s) touches lightly on the actual feature, focussing instead on personal reminiscences of growing up fanboy and as such, will strike some serious chords with the target audience. It’s witty and engaging stuff, one of the most enjoyable commentary tracks I’ve heard in a long time… so much so, I can even bring myself to forgive Mr Malloy for his self-declared indifference towards gialli!

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