The Best House in London (1969) *

One of the worst – and certainly among the most repellent – films ever made. A hymn to misogyny under the guise of the not very difficult task of exposing Victorian hypocrisy, it labors under the bizarre thesis that all women want to be prostitutes. Screenwriter Denis Norden’s befuddled sense of history is awash with the same kind of contempt for audiences. Elizabeth Barrett (of Wimpole St fame) rubs shoulders with Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde’s illicit lover) even though they lived half a century apart, the Chinese Opium Wars and The Indian Mutiny feature despite being separated by 15 years.

Sex workers had proved the basis for many good (and occasionally excellent) pictures in the 1960s ranging from Butterfield 8, Never on Sunday, Irma la Douce and Go Naked in the World at the start of the decade to Midnight Cowboy at its end, but these all featured well-rounded characters facing understandable dilemmas. But here the cynical and demeaning plot –  more Carry On Up the Brothel than political satire – makes you wonder how this concept was perceived as either plausible or an acceptable subject for comedy

The monocle joke. Dany Robin sports the manacles her idiotic girls were supposed to wear rather the monocles they did wear.

Feminist philanthropist Josephine Pacefoot (Joanna Pettet) – a character based on the real-life campaigner Josephine Butler – has set up the Social Purity League to rescue fallen women. Walter Leybourne (David Hemmings) is hired as a publicist to bring the issues raised to a wider audience. When Josephine inherits the fortune of Uncle Francis (George Sanders) the pair come up against the nefarious Benjamin Oakes (also played by Hemmings), her cousin and his half-brother, who has purloined his uncle’s mansion in Belgravia as the premises for London’s first brothel – The Libertine Club. This venture is backed by the Home Secretary (John Bird) as a way of getting streetwalkers away from upmarket shopping streets where their presence discourages wealthy females. Josephine also has to deal with a caricatured “evil” Chinaman (Wolfe Morris) through her uncle’s investment in opium. There’s also for no particular reason apoplectic airship inventor Count Pandolfo (Warren Mitchell).

All the women rescued from the oldest profession by Josephine are soon recruited by Oakes and a good chunk of the middle section of the movie involves various excuses to give the viewers intimate glimpses of what goes on in the brothel, involving an abundance of nudity.  Oakes also aims to seduce Josephine while the shy Walter struggles to entice her into romance.

Excepting Josephine and Oakes’ mistress Babette (Dany Robin), the women are uniformly stupid. The story begins with Oakes’ duping a woman in a hot air balloon into removing her clothes on the grounds that it was the only way to reduce height enough to land. And it does not get any better. Women supposedly forced onto the streets after bad experiences with men turn out to be the seducers. Walter has the devil’s own job getting any of the girls to agree they had been raped. Walter, hoping to sell a story to The Times, is no less crass: “I can get five columns for a good rape.” Flora (Carol Friday), rescued much to her displeasure, is “gagging” for it. And there’s just an awful scene where a young girl sings about her “pussy” which even in the 1960s surely raised adverse comment.

The humor is largely of the sniggering variety. The brothel girls wear monocles instead of manacles, the only game on display in the Card Room is strip poker, and naturally there is a peeping tom, lawyer Sylvester (Willie Rushton).

As if to display his erudition, but without raising the laughter quotient, Norden chucks in literary cameos by the score – Charles Dickens (Arnold Diamond), Alfred Lord Tennyson (Hugh Burden), the aforementioned Elizabeth Barrett (Suzanne Hunt) and Lord Alfred Douglas (George Reynolds), Sherlock Holmes (Peter Jeffrey) and Dr Watson (Thorley Walters), plus explorer David Livingstone (Neil Arden) and department store entrepreneurs Fortnum (Arthur Howard) and Mason (Clement Freud).  

That the movie actually gets one star is thanks to a number of excellent visual jokes: one scene of Uncle Francis defying the mutineers by raising the Union Jack cuts to the blood-splattered flag decorating his coffin; Sylvester frustrated at the keyhole but still hearing the moans of seducer-in-chief Oakes is followed by the sight of the wannabe lover struggling to get out of his bonds, having been attacked by Chinamen.

There’s not much difference, beyond hair color, between the characters essayed by David Hemmings (Alfred the Great, 1969). Both are one-dimensional, the pop-eyed virgin astonished by the goings-on at the brothel, the suave villain who might as well be twirling his moustache for all the depth he brings to the role. Thankfully, Joanna Pettet (Blue, 1968) is at least believable though even she could not act her way out of scenes where she was suspended by the Chinaman above a vat of boiling acid.

George Sanders (Sumuru, Queen of Femina aka The Girl from Rio, 1969) has a ball as the hypocrite-in-chief who knows how to monetize vice while Dany Robin (Topaz, 1969) brings some finesse to an otherwise one-dimensional part. But everyone else is a cipher which is a shame given the talent on show – John Bird (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968), John Cleese (A Fish Called Wanda, 1988), Warren Mitchell (The Assassination Bureau, 1969), Bill Fraser (Masquerade, 1965) and Maurice Denham (Some Girls Do, 1969). Among the girls, you might spot Veronica Carlsen (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1968) , Margaret Nolan (Goldfinger, 1964) and Rose Alba (Thunderball, 1965).

Director Philip Saville (Oedipus the King, 1968) should have known better and certainly made amends later in his career with among other projects BBC series Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). But Denis Norden (Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell, 1968) never wrote a more misguided piece in all his life.

For sure, a film like this is not going to do down well in these times but I was surprised how vilified it was on release, critics like Roger Ebert insulted by its endless attacks on women, the public no less hostile and it died a death at the box office.

Alfred the Great (1969) ****

The Prince Who Wanted To Be A Priest. The King Who Didn’t Want To Fight. The Husband Who Raped His Wife.

Not exactly taglines in the grand tradition of Gladiator (1999), but a succinct analysis of a Film That Wanted To Be A Roadshow. This is almost an anti-epic, a down-n-dirty historical movie far removed from El Cid (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). And one element that has to be taken into consideration when making a historical picture set in Britain in AD 871, if you are aiming for realism, is the rain. The battles in the three movies mentioned, as with virtually every historical movie of the decade, took place in bright sunshine on hard ground, not in the rain on mud-soaked fields. Director Clive Donner lacks the genius of an Akira Kurosawa who turned rain into a glorious image in Seven Samurai (1954) or even Ridley Scott whose first battle in Gladiator took place in a snowstorm. But he does make a battleground reflect the grim reality.

Alfred (David Hemmings) was fifth in line to the throne – and just to a small region of England called Wessex – and as was common practice all set, quite happily, for a career in the priesthood. So it was not surprising, envisioning religion as a mark of civilization, and the priesthood guaranteeing an education, that he was loathe to become a warrior just because his brother King Ethelred (Alan Dobie) was a useless leader. The price of taking on the warrior’s mantle and, after his brother’s death, of ascending to the throne is that Alfred must not only cast away his priestly ambition but his chastity in order to get married to unify rival kingdoms and produce an heir. So there’s a good deal of the religious quandary of El Cid and the sexual ambivalence of Lawrence of Arabia.

So repelled by what he is forced to do, that on his wedding night Alfred rapes new wife Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome) and when the marauding Vikings win a decisive battle and the price of peace is the wife taken in hostage Alfred offers no great protestation. So Alfred is hardly an appealing character. His wife hates him so much that she conceals her pregnancy from him. If you were an Englishman you might well prefer the straightforward lustful Viking leader Guthrun (Michael York) whose men are not restrained by Christianity – “it’s a strange religion,” he mulls, “ that wars with everything your flesh and your blood cries out for” – who makes a better fist of wooing Aelswith, whom he could as easily rape, than Alfred.  

Eventually, of course, Alfred gets it together, rallies a bunch of outlaws and steals back wife and son (now four years old). However, there is no romantic reunion. Instead, he plans to imprison her for life, “the whore shall rot in silence.” Nonetheless, Alfred has acquired some tactical skills, adopting the old Roman infantry tactic of forming his troops up in a phalanx behind a wall of shields. His battlefield address is to promise ordinary people a set of laws that will give them equality with the wealthy and powerful.

Given there are no castles and this is indeed the Dark Ages as far as costume and interior design is concerned and that therefore the camera cannot, for respite, be turned onto some glorious image, Clive Donner (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1968) concentrates on character rather than scenery. There are a couple of inspired touches. For a start, in permitting various characters to offer prayers to God, he introduces a number of soliloquies which take us to the heart of troubled souls, and then he does a clever split-screen number to effect a transition. You can’t blame him for British weather and the battles are well-staged. He does show the courage of his convictions in making the film concentrate on conflicted character rather than going along the easier heroic route of underdog rallying people to a cause.

David Hemmings (Blow-Up, 1966) is both the film’s strength and weakness. He is excellent at capturing the torment, the soul divided, and the inherent arrogance as well as the preference for peace instead of war. But in terms of his leadership skills he is on a par with Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven (2005). That part was originally intended for Russell Crowe and Peter O’Toole was first choice for Alfred and you can’t help thinking both would have been a substantial improvement. On the other hand, Alfred was just 22 when he became king and for someone intent on the priesthood there would be no need for him to develop his physique or political skills. So this is a far cry from your typical Hollywood hero and in that regard the casting makes perfect sense and Hemmings a bold actor to take on such an unlikeable character.

Prunella Ransome (Man in the Wilderness, 1971) does well in her first leading role, suggesting both vulnerability and independence and while virtually imprisoned by both Alfred and Guthrun remaining principled. Michael York (Justine, 1969) was a definite rising star at this point and plays the Viking with considerably more gusto than his tendency towards passive characters would suggest.  

There’s virtually a legion of excellent supporting players in Colin Blakely (The Vengeance of She, 1968), Alan Dobie (The Comedy Man, 1964), Ian McKellen (Lords of the Rings and X-Men), Peter Vaughan (A Twist of Sand, 1968), Vivien Merchant (Accident, 1967),  Barry Evans (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1968), Sinead Cusack (Hoffman, 1970), Christopher Timothy (All Creatures Great and Small, 1978-1990) and Robin Askwith (Confessions of a Window Cleaner, 1974).

Oscar-winner James R. Webb (How the West Was Won, 1963) was an improbable name to be attached to a British screenplay. But this was a pet project he had been trying to get made since 1964. Ken Taylor (Web of Evidence, 1959) was brought in to lend a hand.

Not being a student of English history but familiar with the ways of the movie business, I am sure the picture has many historical inaccuracies, but it does present one of the most complex individuals ever to feature in a historical film of the period, when audiences preferred their heroes more black-and-white. So it is a significant achievement in the canon.

Gladiator (2000) *****

As well as being first in the queue to see The Gladiator on original release over two decades ago and enjoying countless viewings since on DVD and television, the chance to see a big-screen revival (as part of this week’s cinematic triple bill) was not to be missed. There’s always some worry in going back to see a movie you adored that time will have caught up with it or that the big screen will magnify flaws. Instead, this was a pure blast, one of the greatest epics of all time and definitely one of the most brilliant scores.

I always feel kind of sorry for people who’ve only see this kind of picture on a small screen – no matter how big your television it comes nowhere near the cinematic experience. I’m not even sure why it was showing on the big screen – the 20th anniversary has passed so maybe the draw was the upcoming British Father’s Day.

If you’re quick, you will be able to see it until June 17 at the Showcase cinema chain in the U.K. This is a new 4K print. It may run longer if it picks up sufficient demand.

Director Ridley Scott was in something of a career lull after the highs of Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991) and his previous historical adventures – The Duellists (1977) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – had been box office duds, so this was a considerable big-budget gamble for Dreamworks and Universal.

Few historical epics begin with action. Directors tended to want to build up the various characters before any battle got under way. But apart from a few seconds of an idyllic pastoral setting establishing how much Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) wants to get back to his Spanish farm, we are immediately, with foot-tapping music by Hans Zimmer, into one of the best battles ever filmed, not just for the tactical detail, and the sense of danger – an emissary is returned missing his head – but the ferocity of the action.

Backgrounding this is politics. Dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) distrusts his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and want to make Maximus the power in Rome. The reaction of Commodus is to smother his father and murder his rival. Maximus escapes but ends up a slave in a gladiator camp in North Africa and eventually returns to Rome plotting revenge.

Into the mix comes Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) who had romantic yearnings for Maximus in the distant past and various senators plotting to remove Commodus from office. The story basically shifts from dramatic action in the arena to outside intrigue with Maximus being seen as a man who could potentially unseat the emperor.

But Ridley Scott has such a fine eye for everything, genuine locations mix in brilliantly with CGI, the action sequences are astonishing, and emotions are kept at a peak. Even when the main narrative pauses here and there to allow philosophic and patriotic speeches they are so deftly written they often amount to the best pieces of dialogue in the picture.

Few movies have as many memorable lines. Sample: “what we do in life echoes in eternity;” “death smiles at us all, all we can do is smile back;” “people should know when they are conquered;” “father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, I will have my vengeance in this life or the next;” the “little bee” sequence;  and the lines that ended up as taglines on the advertising posters” a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an emperor.”

While he could easily have let the action speak for itself and who would not have welcomed more battles with Roman foes or more combat in the arena – and many other movies with a character in a similar predicament have succumbed to that temptation – Scott ensures that the tensions between the characters are never lost. So Commodus is driven both by wishing to please his father and desiring an incestuous relationship with his sister. Lucilla is torn between protecting her son (Spencer Treat Clark), her growing attraction to Maximus and trying to keep her brother at bay while plotting against him. Maximus, who has no head for politics, finds himself involved in intrigue as a way of gaining revenge on Commodus.   

Nor does Scott get bogged down with too much exposition or the intricacies of character as has often been the downfall of epics. The story has been whittled down to essential conflict.

It’s hard to pick a winner from the various action scenes – the opening clash in the forests of Germania with snow beginning to fall; the first gladiatorial combat where Maximus takes control; a small band of gladiators fighting what seems a losing battle against chariots; Maximus being unexpectedly attacked by tigers in the arena; or his climactic fight with Commodus.

And there are substantial cameos for British stars – Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, David Hemmings – who have lost their box office luster but not their acting ability. Connie Nielsen was a revelation.

Russell Crowe became instant superstar with his majestic portrayal. His name had already been on the lips of Oscar voters, having been nominated the previous year for The Insider (1999), but he took the Best Actor Oscar here. Although the film was named Best Picture Ridley Scott lost out – unfairly I felt – in the Best Director category to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic. (How do the two films compare now, I wonder). Joaquin Phoenix and Hans Zimmer were also nominated and the movie also picked up nominations for cinematography and screenplay (David Franzoni, William Nicolson and John Logan.) All told it won five Oscars and seven nominations.

This was the climax to my cinematic triple bill this week and since it also included Nobody and The Father, it could well turn out to be one of the best days I have ever spent at the cinema.

CATCH-UP: I reviewed The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) a while back and if you compare both pictures you can clearly see how much Ridley Scott owes a debt to the previous film.  

There’s a company called Park Circus – http://www.parkcircus.com – which has the rights to show on the big screen virtually all the old movies made by Hollywood studios and it’s worth checking out whether this might be coming your way soon.

Only When I Larf (1968) ***

Terrific, elongated, 20-minute pre-credit sequence sets up this brisk con-man thriller as the trio of Richard Attenborough, his younger lover Alexandra Stewart and apprentice David Hemmings fleece a couple of greedy businessmen in New York.  The action moves with military precision, the trio so appealing, the scam so well-worked, you want them to escape.

But when their next sting fails to come off, roles are reversed and it is floppy-haired Hemmings who takes charge, organizing the scheme, and making moves on Stewart. Meanwhile, Attenborough is planning to double-cross them. The first and last schemes work a treat but the middle one sags, even allowing for cracks to appear in the relationships.

Attenborough is the pick of the bunch, switching accents and personalities, one minute a suave businessman, the next a nervous Lebanon banker, while at other times his stiff upper lip contends with his sergeant-major attitude. Hemmings’ accents are less convincing, all over the place at times, but the switch from junior partner to operation controller is convincing especially as he clearly enjoys putting Attenborough in his place, forcing him to shave off his moustache and giving him the name Longbottom. And Stewart is never quite what she seems, willing to indulge either man to suit her purpose. Scottish actress Melissa Stribling, wife of director Basil Dearden, is a late addition to the crew and colder-eyed.

This was a departure for author Len Deighton, better known for The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin.

This was Attenborough’s first starring role since Guns at Batasi (1964) – Best Actor at the Bafta Awards – and although he had featured roles in Hollywood productions The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and The Sand Pebbles (1966) – his screen person was quite confined in those pictures. Here, it feels like he has been let free. Hemmings was coming off three heavy roles in Camelot (1967), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and The Long Day’s Dying (1968) so it felt like he, too, had a spring in his step. This was a distinct mainstream jump for Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart, although she had small roles in Maroc 7 (19670 and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968),

Basil Dearden slipped this one in between the more lavish Khartoum (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969). There is a slapstick chase reminiscent of the latter but, basically, he keeps to the story and allows character to develop. This being a British film, you might find some outdated British attitudes. This was bestselling author Len Deighton’s first stab at production.

The Flight of the Phoenix, Khartoum and The Assassination Bureau have previously been reviewed in this blog.

Catch this on Amazon Prime.

Blow-Up (1966)***

Movies can break all sorts of rules but they can’t cheat.

A film has to stick to an internal logic. For example, it can’t portray a photographer so obsessed with his calling that he even takes a camera with him to an antique shop and starts shooting off roll and after roll capturing the area’s rundown streets but then the one time he really could do with a camera – to prove there is a corpse at his feet – he is somewhat remiss. Especially when the movie turns on that plot point.

Setting aside what’s a somewhat contrived snapshot of “Swinging London” there’s a lot to admire here. The absence of music for one thing. Most of the movie runs without musical accompaniment, a bold move since so often we rely on the soundtrack to provide guidance for a scene or an overlay for the entire film. Here, Antonioni makes us falls back on our own interpretation.

David Hemmings, all mop-top and intense stare, is a high-flying high-living fashion photographer in the David Bailey mold (casual sex with wannabe models a perk) who turns investigator on being confronted in a park by Vanessa Redgrave after taking snaps she wants back. Tension is sustained by her sudden appearance at his studio, willing to pay with her body for the return of the photos, and then by Hemmings’ careful, photo-by-photo blow-up-by-blow-up analysis that slowly comes closer to the truth.

Everything in his world is judged through a lens, as if he can capture elusive truths, and he has aspirations to being more than a mere fashion adjunct, having spent time taking portraits of down-and-outs. He judges Redgrave as he would a model, she has a good stance and sitting posture. Even by the standards of the permissive society, he is a bit of sexual predator, taking advantage of two giggly model wannabes.

But the photography scenes are well done and Antonioni captures the intimacy between model and photographer that create the best images. If you can get past the cheat and the deliberate obtuseness this creates – and the tsunami of artistic interpretations it inspired about the director’s intent – then it remains intriguing.

This isn’t Hemmings’ greatest work – Fragment of Fear is much better – but it certainly provided him with a marketable movie persona. Redgrave is excellent as the nervy woman willing to do what is required and the movie might have worked better had she had been allocated more screen time and their duel had continued through other scenes. But then that would have been Hitchcock and not Antonioni.   I’d have given it a higher score except for the cheat.

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