Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Barry Norman’s list of top British films revisited: here’s my second fifty

Following Barry Norman’s perfectly acceptable list of Top 50 British films, I recently published my own version (here). Here’s the second fifty, in alphabetical order. Some of these are probably American, in terms of financing – but I can’t be bothered researching this aspect: they feel British to me, and that’s that. This time, I’ve excluded individual TV dramas, because there were simply too many – I’ll save them for another post.

The list inevitably reflects the fact that I watched lots of British movies growing up, while I generally go out of my way to avoid them these days because new ones often very bad, almost invariably set on council estates, and overwhelmingly left-wing.

The Angry Silence (1960)
Factory worker Richard Attenborough finds himself ostracised as a scab when he crosses the picket line during a communist-inspired strike. Great central performance, and so right-wing it wouldn't get made today:

Becket (1964)
Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton chew the furniture, but it's the kind of movie that brings history alive for nippers.

Black Narcissus (1947)
Powell and Pressburger on top form with this tale set in a Himalayan nunnery - emotionally and visually sharp-edged, glittery and febrile.

The Card (1952)
Ronald Neame directs Alec Guinness as a  young Edwardian on the make in the Potteries. Charming and breezy and immensely likable.

Casino Royale (2005)

Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)
Flawed but original - another film that makes history live.

The Commitments (1991)
People who bought the soundtrack instead of the Stax originals should go to confession - but a lovable film, nonetheless, which treats great music with verve and respect.

The Dambusters (1955)
Well, it can't not be in, can it (despite the dog's name).

The Deadly Affair (1966)
James Mason in a version of an early John Le Carré novel - I much prefer this to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold:

Dr No (1962)

Dr Strangelove (1964)
Yes, I know this is legally American, but the hell with it. Peter Sellers' deranged Nazi is his finest-ever creation:

Dr Zhivago (1965)
Omar Sharif is about as good an actor as I am, but the film is worth its place for this gorgeous scene alone:

The First of the Few (1942)
Leslie Howard invents the Supermarine Spitfire - 'nuff said.

The Four Feathers (1939)
Okay - this should have been in my first fifty. A British officer guilty of cowardice redeems himself in the battle against (as the trailer puts it) "hordes of savage, war-crazed fuzzy-wuzzies" - steady on! Stiff-upper-lip military classic offering definitive proof that the Empire was actually a bloody good thing:

Goldfinger (1964)

Green for Danger (1946)
Alastair Sim and Trevor Howard in a little gem of a whodunnit set in a country hospital.

The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)
Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim are both wonderful as the headmistress and headmaster of two schools inadvertently sharing the same premises. Quintessential English humour, with a sparkling script.  Sunshine captured on celluloid:

The Hill (1965)
Rough, hairy men - including Sean Connery and Harry Andrews - sweat their doodads off in a WWII army prison in North Africa. Overwrought, but undeniably powerful.

Hobson’s Choice (1954)
Charming David Lean film starring John Mills as an Edwardian bootmaker employed by the monstrous Charles Laughton in Salford - great performances from both.

The Innocents (1961)
Deborah Kerr in supernatural horror, based on Turn of the Screw

King & Country (1964)
First World War court-martial drama starring Dirk Bogarde.

The King’s Speech (2010)

King Rat (1965)
Stalag 17 transferred to the Far East - Bryan Forbes directs George Segal as the sleazy Mr. Fixit prisoner-of-war.

The League of Gentlemen (1960)
Jack Hawkins crime thriller about ex-soldiers who've failed to make it in civvy street resorting to crime.

A Man For All Seasons (1966)
Robert Shaw shouts a lot and Paul Scofield turns Thomas Moore - a nasty piece of work in real life - into a saint.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
Peter Lorre is splendidly weird in this early Hitchcock film based on the Seige of Sydney Street.

Midnight Express (1978)
The Alan Parker movie which recalls that line about Smithers from The Simpsons, "I never knew a man take to a Turkish prison so quickly".

The Naked Truth (1957)
Terrific, under-rated comedy. Here Peter Sellers - a TV presenter who's being blackmailed - poses as an IRA terrorist to try to get hold of explosives in an irish pub.

Night of The Demon (1957)
Unlikely as it may sound, an extremely effective horror film based on an M.R. James short story, starring Dana Andrews, who sounds spectacularly pissed throughout.

Night Must Fall (1964)
Incredibly unpleasant and generally loathed remake of a 1930s horror classic, starring Albert Finney as a Welsh psychopath - I loved it!:

Odd Man Out (1947)

Our Mother’s House (1967)
A mother dies and her children keep it secret so they won't be split up. Then their estranged dad (Dirk Bogarde) turns up and it all gets very, very nasty.

Performance (1970)
Mick Jagger is a truly dreadful actor - but James Fox is terrific as a gangster on the lam.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

The Quatermass Experiment (1955)
Top-notch 1950s British science fiction (not a phrase you'll hear very often) - the astronaut who starts turning into a killer mutant vegetable when he gets back to Blighty is truly creepy.

Reach for the Sky (1956)
God, Kenneth Moore is annoying, short-arsing around as Douglas Bader - but Bader is reputed to have been a very annoying legless war hero, so his portrayal is probably accurate.

The Reckoning (1968)
London businessman Nicol Williamson returns home to Liverpool when his father dies in an "accident", only to discover the old man was killed by greaser (as in leather-clad) thugs - it all gets very Get Carter after that.

The Ruling Class (1972)
Beyond-weird tale of an aristocrat - played by Peter O'Toole - who imagines himself to be, variously, Jesus Christ and Jack the Ripper. There are scenes involving a gorilla costume and a very loud heart beat which I can still recall over forty years later.

Sabotage (1936) - Hitchcock adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.

Separate Tables (1958)
Probably American - but sod it! David Niven gives a career-best performance as a fake English major who molests underage girls in cinemas. Not exactly standard fare at the time.

Shadowlands (1993)

Shallow Grave (1994)
Almost omitted because it features a shot of Keith Allen's genitals.

Sleuth (1972)

A Tale of Two Cities (1958)

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
Powell and Pressburger do technicolour fantasy - and pull it off triumphantly.

Things to Come (1936)
An adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel - clunky and wordy and essentially fascistic (the world is saved by the noble Airmen, who strut around in black uniforms, bellowing a lot) - but it's visually stunning and creatively ambitious.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2010)
I praised it to the skies here.

Trainspotting (1996)
I almost didn't include this because I despise just about everything it represents - but it's well-made, lively, funny, and the music's good.

Two-Way Stretch (1960)
Lionel Jeffries gives one of the best ever comedy performances as Prison Officer Crout in this endearing comedy. I wish I could find the double entendre-laden sequence where a group of female visitors stand around admiring the prison governor's unfeasibly gigantic marrow - but this will do instead:

Whiskey Galore (1949)
Unfortunately now impossible to watch without recalling the Fast Show parody, Heroin Galore.

Whistle Down the Wind (1961)
This should have been in my Top 50. Lancashire farm kids led by Hayley Mills mistake an escaped prisoner (Alan Bates) for Jesus Christ. Brilliantly directed by Bryan Forbes, great score by Malcolm Arnold, and the child actors are all superb:

The Wicker Man (1973)
Christopher Lee singing and dancing in a dress while wearing a wig. It shouldn't work, but it does - I've no idea why.

The Winslow Boy (1946)
Terence Rattigan play in which a cadet school boy is accused of stealing a postal order. Eminent barrister Robert Donat agrees to defend him. English to the core.

If you've spotted the fact that there are actually 53 films in this list, please keep it to yourself. A few classics are bound to have slipped through the cracks - don't hesitate to let me know.


  1. Thank you for a great list. It is always fascinating to hear about people's taste in films [especially when they know what they are talking about]. Also the clips are much appreciated. I was unaware of 7 of your titles and have added them to my LoveFilm list.

    Have you ever considered turning your attention to the worst British films ever made?

    1. Hope you're not too disappointed by the seven, SDG. I haven't seen enough British films during the last 25 years to do a worst of list - but I did once start a "most overated" list, which I will definitely return to, thanks to your encouragement.

  2. Excellent list.I would have somehow have found room for'This Sporting Life.'

    1. Thanks, southern man - unfortunately, I'm allergic to both Richard Harris and rugby (league and union)! Sadly, no one makes decent films about tennis (although there's a nice sequence featuring it in "Strangers on a Train") or football or cricket (Jack Warner appears as a batsman playing his last innings for England in "The Final Test", but he's about 20 years too old to be convincing - can't really imagine him doing a reverse sweep, and diving for a catch in the slips would probably have landed him in intensive care). The Damned United was an okay footer pic, I suppose - and 1939's "The Arsenal Stadium Mystery", in which one of the opposing players drops dead during a match as a result of poison, is fascinating - the Arsenal manager, George Allison, has a speaking role.

  3. "A man who does not spend time watching rugby union football ain't a man." Don Corleone. Godfather 1.

    1. But don't you remember Sonny's riposte? "Guys who like rugby like watching other guys takin' a shower. Dey ain't real men, Pop."

  4. Well done! Every last film on your list is one I'd watch over and over and with pleasure at how well they were made. Well, okay, I could take a pass on Shallow Grave, but it holds up with time.

    Cheers in tipping your hat for the marvelous Joseph Losey's KING AND COUNTRY with a fine performance by Dirk Bogarde, ditto Bogarde's work in OUR MOTHER'S HOUSE and A TALE OF TWO CITIES. While I much admire Ronald Colman, Bogarde's 1958 version is better in terms of his portrayal of Sydney Carton.

    And might we substitute VICTIM (1961) for Black Narcissus since it's already on Norman's list of 49?