On the Fiddle / Operation Snafu (1961) ***

Unassuming but undeniably charming British World War Two comedy denied U.S. release until four years later when a savvy distributor jumped on the James Bond bandwagon. Primarily of interest these days for the opportunity to see a pre-Bond Sean Connery (Dr No, 1962) in action its merit chiefly lies in ploughing the same furrow, though with a great deal less pomposity and self-consciousness, as the later The Americanization of Emily (1964), of the coward backing into heroism.

Horace Pope (Alfred Lynch) is a scam merchant who only dodges prison by enlisting. Assigned to the RAF he teams up with Pedlar Pascoe (Sean Connery) and they embark on a series of schemes designed to keep them as far away from the front line as possible. It’s hardly an equal partnership, Pope dreams up the fiddles while Pascoe just falls in with them. It’s not dumb and dumber but a collaboration that goes no further back in the annals of movies than brain and brawn.

Needless to say, the movie lacks the the damsels in bikinis which were a prerequisite of the Bond pictures. Sean Connery takes top billing Stateside where he was originally behind Lynch.

It’s certainly a cynical number, reflecting the boredom experienced by many of the Armed Forces backroom staff, the administrators whose inefficiency turns them into easy dupes, and the determination of soldiers to take advantage of every opportunity to bend the rules. It takes the unusual position of presenting the ordinary soldier as smart and every officer as a numbskull, an approach that would only have been possible 15 years after the war ended and in marked contrast to the determined heroism of other British war films – such intrepid stiff-upper-lip behavior a hallmark of the British version of the genre.

First stop is to run an operation issuing leave passes – for a price – and the sheer effrontery exhibited by Pope is a joy to behold. Next up is selling stolen meat on the black market.

While Pedlar is the wide-eyed camp follower, and more likely to forever sit on the sidelines, cheerful but shy, and only a few pratfalls away from being a bumbling idiot, they do make a good team. Being sent to France is more of a heaven-sent opportunity to increase their bankrolls than a hazardous wartime mission as Pope sells rations to the French. Eventually, of course, their various scams are rumbled and they are forced into battle.

The only thing better than one pre-Bond Connery picture is two.

The movie switches a bit more deftly into serious mode than the aforementioned The Americanization of Emily mostly because these are actual soldiers trained to be soldiers rather than an officer who landed a cushy number and whose main effort is to avoid combat. War is presented as horrific rather than comedy and it must have been the same experience for an ordinary soldier at the time, after months of inactivity suddenly thrust into the cauldron.

The picture moves at a brisk pace and is continually amusing if not particularly laugh-out-loud. You’ve probably seen most of the set-ups before but they are reinvented with an appealing freshness and briskness  As a bonus there’s reams of British character actors and comedians – plus token American Alan King (who would appear in Connery starrer The Anderson Tapes, 1971) – along the way. The term “snafu” in case you’re interested, has a similar meaning to the “fubar” of Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Alfred Lynch (The Hill, 1965) doesn’t milk the Cockney patter overmuch and he’s got a greater international screen appeal than the likes of the more English Sid James (Carry On films) or Norman Wisdom. Think a shiftier Sgt Bilko, if the Phil Silvers creation could be any more untrustworthy.

Connery’s performance is well worth a watch as a prelude to what was to come once his roles were tailor-made. He is an effortless scene-stealer, gifted in expressing emotion through his eyes, and although verbally Lynch dominates it’s difficult to take your eyes off Connery.

The roll-call of character actors includes Cecil Parker (A Study in Terror, 1965), Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady, 1964), John Le Mesurier (The Moon-Spinners, 1964), Graham Stark (The Wrong Box, 1966) and Victor Maddern (The Lost Continent, 1968).

Cyril Frankel (The Trygon Factor, 1966) comfortably cobbles this together from a screenplay by Harold Buchman (The Lawyer, 1970, and who had ironically enough penned the picture Snafu in 1945) based on the novel Stop at a Winner by R.F. Delderfield.

When the box office supremacy of the Bond pictures was underscored by the reissue of the Dr No/From Russia with Love double bill in 1965, distributors, as had been their wont, racked the vaults for anything featuring Connery that could be re-sold to a willing public.    

While there is a readily available DVD, this turns up on a regular basis, in Britain at least, on television.

Heavens Above! (1963) ***

Surprisingly topical – food banks a key element – social satire. And a surprising box office smash – among the top 12 films of the year – in Britain, although the Boulting Brothers (I’m Alright Jack, 1959), often viewed as inheriting the Ealing mantle, had both commercial and critical form.  

In a case of mistaken identity, simplistic prison chaplain Rev Smallwood (Peter Sellers) is sent to rich parish Orbiston Parva, virtually endowed by the Delpard family, owners of the Tranquillax business nearby. Smallwood, an advocate of the meek inheriting the earth and making it his mission to ensure the rich can enter the kingdom of Heaven other than through a needle, convinces Lady Delpard (Isabel Jeans) to spread her wealth. This takes the form of the Good Neighbour Fellowship, whereby she sets up a food bank whose popularity soon endangers the town’s retailers and merchants, the public, naturally enough, preferring to do their shopping at the free church outlet than spend money on a butcher or baker (possibly candlestick makers escaped the impact).

Meanwhile, to show he is up to scratch in the poverty ranks, Smallwood invites into his palatial manse the Smith family who are being evicted from their plot of ground to make way for an expansion of the Tranquillax factory. Despite ruffling feathers in the ministry, Smallwood can’t be turfed out, since religious law dictates he effectively owns the manse. However, once shops have to close for lack of trade and factories, for lack of goods being sold, make thousands redundant, Smallwood’s do-gooding backfires.

While Harry Smith (Eric Sykes) is an archetypal welfare swindler (taking home £90 a week) and inclined to siphon off items from the food bank for his own entrepreneurial purposes as well as stealing lead from the church roof, the rest of his enormous brood, led by the redoubtable Rene (Irene Handl) are converted to the joys of Christianity, enough so much so that baptism and marriage (between the couple) beckon.

Most of the humour is gentle, the biggest laughs – Smallwood inadvertently eating dog biscuits, a dog peeing on his leg, choirboy reading a dirty book, the butler initiating a miraculous intervention – are straight out of the Charlie Chaplin joke book. And the timing for many lines appears out of kilter, as though the laughs were not intended.

British films around this time often received rave reviews from U.S. critics which ensured reasonable business at the arthouses while not striking a box office chord with the general public. there.

Apart from Smallwood, his assistant Matthew (Brock Peters) and the converted Lady Despard you are hard put to find any Chistians. As one character observes “not enough decent Christians to feed one lion.” And the townspeople are generally shown as scroungers of one kind of another with the Smiths typical sex-obsessed chip-guzzling working class. The business owners, bishops, aristocrats and assorted politicians are similarly pilloried for greed and inefficiency so you could say the Boultings are being fair straight down the line.

The best scene, and the one that makes the most out of a comic situation, is when the real Rev Smallwood (Ian Camrichael) turns up, is treated as an imposter and locked up for displaying psychotic tendencies. And there’s a clever, even more topical ending, involving space exploration, which equally cleverly mimics an earlier scene. Actually, there are two scenes that echo earlier activities, and both are intelligently used.

The satire retains some of its bite. There are even more rich people around now who hold onto their wealth and there are more poor people in clear need of help, assistance that would extend far beyond food banks, a relatively recent phenomenon. You can be sure selfish big business will be as self-interested.

Peter Sellers, complete with regional accent, in pre-Pink Panther mode shows dramatic skills that he would rarely be allowed to exhibit until much later in his career and although I think he should have been permitted more leeway in his lines he doesn’t deliver them as though he is milking a joke which means dramatic intent is not diluted. He is perfectly believable as the quietly-spoken forgiving vicar surrounded by more grasping colleagues who appear to have forgotten the basics of Christianity, his immediate boss, for example, on holiday in Monte Carlo.

British television comedian Eric Sykes (The Liquidator, 1965), barely recognisable after abandoning his trademark stance and voice, is the standout as the conniver-in-chief. Brock Peters (The Pawnbroker, 1964) is effective as the bin lorry driving protégé and Isabel Jeans (A Breath of Scandal, 1960) a delight as Smallwood’s slightly dotty benefactor – her look as she realizes he has scoffed the dog biscuits worth a couple of laughs. The others, good as they are, are called upon to play little more than stock characters: Cecil Parker (The Comedy Man, 1964), Ian Carmichael (The Amorous Mr Prawn, 1962) and Irene Handl (The Wrong Box, 1966). Look out for Roy Kinnear (Lock Up Your Daughters!, 1969), the first Doctor Who William Hartnell and the future Miss Marple Joan Hickson.

Ably directed by Roy and John Boulting who easily hit all their targets, the screenplay is by Frank Harvey (I’m Alright, Jack), John Boulting and critic Malcolm Muggeridge.  

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