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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