Sunday, 25 February 2018

London Belongs to Me, The Passing of the Third Floor Back, Tiger in the Smoke - and other vintage British films perfect for a Sunday afternoon

London Belongs to Me (1948) (US title: Dulcimer Street)
Based on the Norman Collins novel of the same name, this is yet another old British movie set in a London boarding house. Worth seeing for Richard Attenborough's terrific performance... a young car mechanic who gets himself in a whole heap of trouble after he steals a car so he'll have money to impress a sweet girl who lives in the same boarding house. As he's trying to drive the hot wheels into a lock-up, his former girlfriend - a vengeful ratbag - jumps into the passenger seat and refuses to get out. Spotting a bobby on the beat heading their way, Attenborough drives off into the night. Outside London, a policeman at the scene of an accident tries to wave him down, but, panicked, Attenborough steps on the accelerator and speeds off. The ex-girlfriend demands to be let out of the car and grabs the steering wheel. Attenborough pushes her away, the passenger side door accidentally swings open, and she falls out onto the road - and dies. Eventually, the detective (who's dating the girl Attenborough fancies0 arrests him. He's tried for murder, convicted, and sentenced to hang.

That makes it sound like a fairly standard crime film, but there's more to it. The real point of the film is the way the other boarding house residents all gang together to save Attenborough's life. First, the husband of the girl Attenborough fancies spends money earmarked for a retirement cottage on hiring a (useless) barrister to defend him: then the rest of them pitch in and organise a petition to have the mechanic's death sentence commuted - only to discover, as they're walking over  Westminster Bridge through the pouring rain on their way to Downing Street that clemency has been granted. There are one or two dodgy performances (36-year old Stephen Murray as an old communist bore is dreadful - surely there were enough old actors knocking around?), but Alastair Sim as a fake medium and Hugh Griffith as the leader of a ridiculous religious sect are in fine, fruity, Dickensian form - and the down-at-heel London atmosphere is convincing. Not quite a gem, but good for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935)
The residents of a London boarding house (again) - mostly impoverished middle class folk barely clinging to respectability - find their rather desperate lives altered for the better by the arrival of a mysterious stranger, played by the sinister German émigré actor Conrad Veidt, here cast against type as an angel. Based on an old stage play by Jerome K.Jerome, it's a bit creaky, but the acerbic relationships between the various boarders are fun, and the battle between Good (Veidt's distinctly aristocratic angel) and Evil (an obnoxious self-made lout of a businessman whose impending arranged marriage to a respectable girl who can;t stand him is scuppered by Veidt) gives it a bit of depth. It's hard to accept Veidt as angel - he was born to play demons - but his intense, rather frosty presence, his Teutonic "otherness", keeps sentimentality in check, and makes the film more spikily interesting than it would have been with a kindly, twinkly English actor in the role. There's a very good turn by Rene Ray as the mistreated but spunky little maid, 'Stasia, a reformed teenage tearaway. (The Stage and screen actress later enjoyed a successful career as a novelist and TV scriptwriter, and eventually became the Countess of Midleton, no less). Definitely worth catching.
"Coo, Larry, you're ever so dashing!" "Aren't I just."
Fire Over England (1937)
How did I never see this? 92 minutes of fast-moving historical hokum and sheer, unadulterated fun. Dastardly Spaniards, plucky English privateers, Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth (it's the film where she does her "I may have the body..." speech on a frisky horse - the one they're always showing), Laurence Olivier leaping around as the dashing young Michael Ingoldsby, Vivien Leigh as one of Good Queen Bess's ladies-in-waiting (and the object of Michael's ardour), James Mason as an English traitor, and Raymond Massey as King Phillip of Spain. The message of the film? England sent the Armada packing, and we'll do the same to you, Adolf! First British film to have a Los Angles premier, and Vivien Leigh's performance is reputed to have secured her the role of Scarlett O'Hara.
Tiger in the Smoke (1956)
Weird, but eminently watchable slice of Brit noir. It's based on Golden Age crime writer Margery Allingham's most famous novel, but wisely leaves out her annoyingly amorphous amateur sleuth, Albert Campion. What we get instead is lashings of London fog that turns '50s London into 1880s Limehouse, a delightfully macabre atmosphere which is part Dickens and part Sherlock Holmes, a gang of ex-servicemen scraping a living in the murk as a band of street musicians led by Tiddy Doll (Bernard Miles), their psychopathic former sergeant escaping from prison and murdering people left, right and centre, a dead husband who may or may not have risen from the grave - and a rip-roaring climax involving a search for treasure hidden in a Brittany chateau. Another treat for a wet, windy Sunday afternoon.
Mr Perrin & Mr Traill (1948)
What a find! Based on a 1911 novel by Hugh Walpole about his experiences as a teacher at Epson College, the story has been updated to post-WW2, and the school has been moved to the Cornish coast. Vincent Perrin (Marius Goring) is a prickly, middle-aged, long-serving teacher who harbours a ridiculous fantasy of winning the heart of a toothsome young female colleague (played by the Norwegian actress, Greta Gynt), when an ex-serviceman - Mr. Traill - joins the staff. The handsome, dynamic Traill - played by David Farrar, who is slightly less glowering and troubled than was his wont - is popular with the pupils (unlike Perrin), and soon wins Greta's heart. This all drives prickly, petty, pathetic Perrin potty, and his brittle psyche psyche rapidly disintegrates.  When the headmaster, played by Raymond Huntley in sadistic bastard mode, bullies Perrin past the point of endurance, the teacher really loses the plot and... well, it's not pretty. Top-class acting (playing boarding school teachers seemed to bring the best out of British actors in that era), a waspish script, moody cinematography, snappy direction, multi-layered characters and an absence of sentimentality make for a very impressive film: I'm surprised it isn't better known.

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