Four in the Morning (1965) ****

Directors learned this early that you only had to point the camera at Judi Dench (Oscar winner for Shakespeare in Love, 1998, but here in her first starring role) and even without the benefit of dialog she will always be compelling. And that’s just as well because this is one of those elliptical movies that were in fashion in the wake of Last Year in Marienbad (1960).

Less twisty and self-conscious for sure two apparently unconnected tales are conjoined by a mysterious drowning in the Thames. And this isn’t tourist London, either, but the working version, a city waking up, famed fruit and flower markets coming to life, ferryboat teaming with passengers, the skyline dominated by tiny dots setting off for the office.

In fact, the picture draws its power from three women, the aforementioned Dench as a young woman smothered by motherhood, marriage disintegrating, Ann Lynn (The System/The Girl-Getters, 1965) who breaks out of the supporting role cage where her character is generally fixed from the start to take advantage of a name-above-the-title role as a reticent lover to explore a gamut of emotions. Last of the trio is the drowned woman, whose callous treatment dominates the action.

If you ever wanted to find out what happens to a drownee here’s your chance. Unceremoniously dragged from the shore, transported to a mortuary in a coffin, head laid on a block of wood, clothes cut off, naked body sluiced with water, fingerprints taken, stored in a refrigerator, indignity run riot, it’s a harrowing sight.

As if to compound the movie’s arthouse sensibilities – and it won big at various film festivals – the characters remain anonymous. The wife (Judi Dench), stuck at home with a mewling teething infant, is disconcerted to find husband (Norman Rodway) has returned from a night on the town with  buddy (Joe Melia) in tow. They want to continue partying, waking up wife and baby, resulting in non-stop argument.

Divorced manager of an upmarket bar (Ann Lynn) tries to put off a boyfriend (Brian Phelan) pestering her for a date. Eventually, she relents and they embark on an initially unsatisfying date before she finally comes alive when he steals a speedboat and they power upriver. Even when passion takes over she remains wary of commitment.

I chose this purely on the strength of the score. I first heard the theme on this album when I was in my teens. Fearing that my parents might veto the purchase because of the nudity on the cover – and since the record player was in the lounge – I showed suprising nous for a teenager, and stuck sticky tape over the offending bits. Of course, I then had to come up with a reason why there would be brown sticky tape on the album cover.

Beyond the to-and-fro of each couple’s situation, there’s little in the way of story, but the dialog is refreshing as it winds back and forth through a variety of emotions, including playfulness, a genuine sense that this is not about scoring points but exploring characters, each development the consequence of action however minimal. The mood is often bleak but always ruminative, a sense that emotions could tip at the touch of a switch, nothing quite defined, except that angst one way or another is going to hold sway.

Most British kitchen sink dramas of the period took place up north, not in the country’s capital, and the wife is too young to expect to be so hemmed in by motherhood, unable to grasp, what with the changing times, that she has still contracted, through marriage, to carry the burden of child-rearing.

The sting in the tale is that since the drowned woman is never identified that she turns out to be one or other of the women, my bet being on the wife, who seems at the end of her tether. This might have been more easily tagged as a couple of one-act plays except for the concentration on the drowning and the focus on girlfriend and suitor exploring various parts of the capital at its least tourist-y. But it’s almost a ghostly city, hardly the location for romance.

Judi Dench is superb – she won the Bafta that year as the Most Promising Newcomer – as she captures a character twisting and turning in a situation she never expected to be so depressing. But Ann Lynn, whose career did not have as much upward mobility, is equally expressive as she changes from morose to excited until heightened romance is sufficient to kill off any expectation of fulfilment. Norman Rodway (The Penthouse, 1967), Joe Melia (Modesty Blaise, 1966) and Brian Phelan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) has less room for  development, tending to be more focused on pleasure than emotion.

This didn’t open too many doors for writer-director Anthony Simmons (Your Money or Your Wife, 1960) and he didn’t get behind a camera for another eight years and only made four films in total. Quite why he was so ignored remains a mystery because this is a haunting piece of work, with an excellent script. John Barry (The Lion in Winter, 1968) wrote evocative score.  

Worth seeing for Dench’s performance alone.

Belfast (2021) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Except for people trying to kill him, this would be a heart-warming tale of young Buddy (Jude Hill) growing up in a tight-knit community in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. In the vein of John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) with war – civil war in this case – seen through the eyes of a child, instead we witness how religious differences taken to the extreme tear neighbourhoods apart.  

With violence taking up so much of the foreground, there was a danger the lives of the characters would be solely dictated by their reaction to the conflict. But, in fact, a whole world of family comes very much alive, mostly in understated and often subtle fashion, with Buddy very much on the fringes of the adult world. Just as a film about childhood it is simply marvellously evocative, the boy wanting to join a secret gang, stealing from a shop, playing in the street, going to the pictures, agog at old westerns on television, dressing up as someone from Thunderbirds. On top of that you had to somehow accommodate the deranged habits of teachers that you accepted without question, priests that scared you half to death and trying to work out in your head the insoluble problems of a universe nobody can understand anyway.

Buddy is at just at the right age of wide-eyed innocence before teenage problems take their toll and his wee romance with the girl he fancies is as cute as this rough-edged movie gets. Romance is a big thing here. Clear-sighted romance, not the kind that sends characters spinning off into passionate delirium or screaming at their partner non-stop. His mother (Catriona Balfe) is a vividly-drawn character, mother most of the time while her husband (Jamie Dornan) is away working, the kind of mother who is forced to be stoic, with bills mounting up, and yet high on romance when the opportunity arises, the Everlasting Love sequence a stand-out.  

The father, except for not paying his taxes, is almost a Gregory Peck of a father, an upright, stand-up type of guy, a fount of wisdom for a son, and yet as a man never backing down. And any grandfather (Ciaran Hinds) that has the savvy to continue a half-century of romance with his wife (Judi Dench) by singing the love song from Camelot will rise in anyone’s estimation. In some senses, this is simply a rite of passage picture, Buddy engaging in first romance, doing some good things and some bad, encountering the death of a loved one.

Some of the scenes of violence are stunning, the tanks rolling through the streets, men patrolling at night with flame-lit torches, the riots. But you are more likely to remember the moments of tenderness and the family coming together whether opening presents at Xmas or thinking they are going to hurtle over the cliff along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang though you were more likely to be interested in duelling dinosaurs at that age than Raquel Welch at her most “Raquel” (One Million Years B.C).

And all of this gets you asking: Kenneth Branagh, what have you been doing all this time? Almost two decades of throwing away your directorial talent and only Hercule Poirot memorable on the acting side. This is a brilliant autobiographical story with a crisp script with superb performances all round.

But why on earth was it in black-and-white? Directors film in black-and-white due to a) artistic pretension b) shortage of money or c) because they disdain the mass audience. Sticking on a few minutes of touristy Belfast stuff in color at the start in order to satisfy the funders seems bizarre. My hope is that worth of mouth will bring it the audiences it deserves and that people are not put off by the arrogance of a mainstream picture being made in black-and-white.

A Study in Terror (1965) ****

Excepting Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) the world’s most famous fictional detective had been absent from the big screen for over two decades so it seemed an inspired decision to set him on the trail of the world’s most infamous serial killer – Jack the Ripper. The result is high-class comfort food – the first of the series made in color – classic deduction coupled with barbaric murders in a fog-bound London replete with cobbled streets, Dickensian urchins and sex workers apop with cleavage and corset. Throw in sensitivity towards the abject poverty of the period, female exploitation and a nod towards an upper-class cover-up and you have a movie with a surprisingly contemporary outlook.

This is a tougher Holmes, handy with his fists, sporting a spring-loaded knife in his walking stick. The investigation draws in the Prime Minister (Cecil Parker) and the Home Secretary (Dudley Foster) as well as Sherlock’s pompous brother Myron (Robert Morley) and the ubiquitous Inspector LeStrade (Frank Finlay).

Pretty quickly it is Suspects Assemble. Due to a scalpel being the murderer’s instrument of choice, doctors are immediately implicated, the most likely candidate the philanthropic Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle) who operates a soup kitchen. Publican Max Steiner (Peter Carsten), with a sideline in blackmail, is another possibility. And there is the mysterious disinherited son of a lord, Michael Osborne who has married sex worker Angela (Adrienne Corri).

The Italian ad campaign combined a more conservative Sherlock Holmes
with exploitative illustrative detail.

As ever, the plot is complicated by red herrings and sleights of cinematic hand. But the highlight of a Holmes picture is the sleuth’s mastery of deduction based on clues missed by the ordinary mortal and every now and then the story comes to a halt to allow time for the detective to demonstrate genius. Occasionally he dons a disguise. And thoroughly enjoyable these scenes are before he gets down to the main business of uncovering the killer.

A Study in Terror introduces social depth to the Holmes saga. When the crimes focus the media spotlight on Whitechapel, Dr. Murray draws attention to the constant “murder by poverty” ignored by the state. Female exploitation is of course the norm in the sex worker business and small wonder that such women are easy targets for the Ripper and although that is an overdone trope in this case a different angle comes into play. 

Shakespearian actor John Neville (Oscar Wilde, 1960) handles the main character with considerable aplomb with Donald Houston (The Blue Lagoon, 1949) as his often baffled sidekick Watson. Robert Morley (Genghis Khan, 1965) is a splendid Mycroft although Anthony Quayle (East of Sudan, 1964) fails to nail down his Scottish accent.

The considerable supporting cast includes Judi Dench making her second film appearance, Barbara Windsor of Carry On fame, John Fraser (Operation Crossbow, 1965), John Cairney (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963), Peter Carsten (Dark of the Sun, 1968),  singer Georgia Brown (Nancy in the original stage production of Oliver!), Edina Ronay (The Black Torment, 1964), Corin Redgrave (The Girl with the Pistol,1968), former British leading lady Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist, 1948) and future television comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd (Are You Being Served?, 1972-1985).

The picture was unusual in that it was not drawn from the existing Holmes canon but as an original devised by Derek and Donald Ford (The Black Torment), the former going onto a more extensive career as a director of British sexploitation pictures such as Suburban Wives (1972). Production company Sir Nigel Films had been set up as an official vehicle to exploit the Holmes legacy.

Director James Hill (The Kitchen, 1961) had won an Oscar for the short Giuseppina (1960) and was a year away from his breakthrough Born Free. Given the low-budget this is a highly watchable picture.

Flick Vault has this for free on Youtube or if you want to own it forever there’s a DVD.

The Third Secret (1964) ***

Non-exploitative films about the psychologically vulnerable were thin on the ground during the 1960s and although The Third Secret is a bit talky nonetheless it does explore issues normally dealt with in heavy-handed fashion. Catherine Whitset (Pamela Franklin) the young daughter of a famous psychiatrist convinces television journalist Alex Stedman (Stephen Boyd) to investigate her father’s supposed suicide. Whitset needs the murder verdict because otherwise she will lose her home (no insurance payout on suicide). Stedman, Whitset’s patient, wants a similar outcome because his world would be turned upside down if the psychiatrist had committed a deed which he appeared steadfastly opposed.

The main suspects are all patients of the dead doctor – judge (Jack Hawkins), gallery owner (Richard Attenborough) and secretary (Diane Cilento). Although all outwardly successful socially-functioning upstanding members of society each is mired in mental agony – anger management, sexual inadequacy, depression, low self-esteem among problems addressed – defenses against which are perilously thin. Under sustained pressure each of the individuals will crack to reveal the cowering creature underneath.

But are they the killer or just condemned to torment? With the one man who could keep them sane removed from their lives, who knows what carnage they can self-inflict. All, even Stedman – given to bouts of terrible rage and drunkenness – seem capable of murder and there is every likelihood (as any viewer will guess) that his investigation could lead back to himself.

Director Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951) might have been suffering from low self-esteem himself having been unceremoniously dumped from The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and certainly the atmosphere is one of severity, not just characters teetering on the brink, but the black-and-white photography rendering London a wasteland, the tide on the Thames always out so the shore is just mud. However, his compositions do have style. The title’s explanation by the way is that the first secret is what you keep from the public, the second is what you hide from yourself, but the third is the truth.

Boyd (Ben-Hur, 1959) and Franklin (The Innocents, 1961) appear often on the point of hysteria, the girl’s high-pitched voice set against his growling outbursts. Attenborough (fresh from the heroics of The Great Escape, 1963) plays against type as a hand-wringing wannabe artist stuck in a role he despises. Hawkins, too, more used to heroic roles, is convincing as a man trying to escape his past. The neurotic Cilento has the best scenes, touching in her efforts to cling to normality. Judi Dench makes her debut in a bit part. The investigation takes the form of character analysis rather than “where were you on the night of…” which gives the picture an unique flavor, but best to know that going in rather than complain about the slow pace. If the psychological does not keep you hooked, there are sufficient twists to keep you watching.

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