The Last Bus (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

As we saw with Stillwater, great performances can rescue films. And there are two stunning performances on show in this alternative road trip, one from star Timothy Spall (Mr Turner, 2014) and another in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene from supporting actress Grace Calder. The story here is pretty slim, Tom, aged over 90, sets out on 800-mile pilgrimage by bus from John O’Groats at the very top of Scotland to Land’s End at the very south of England. The trip’s purpose is concealed until the climax but hardy cinemagoers will easily guess it. He has various encounters along the way. That’s it, pretty much.

Most films about the old have redeeming features, a charming character and if grouchy with a last chance at redemption, and if played by a star generally bring with their performance a whole parcel of screen memories that have an audience rooting for them. Tom ain’t like that. He’s old the way really old people are old. He’s not an attractive sight. His bottom lip sticks out most of the time like an aged trout. He shuffles along, in battered old clothes clutching a battered old suitcase. Most of the time he’s out of his depth, occasionally rescued by passersby, occasionally not.  

The most you can say about him is he has grit, standing up to a drunk abusing a Muslim, fixing a broken-down bus, offering a shoulder to cry on to a weeping teenager. In another time, in another place, such characteristics would have propelled a story. Here, they are mere makeweights. He’s so self-effacing he’s easy to ignore.  

Scottish director Gillies Mackinnon (Whisky Galore, 2016) takes the bold decision not to make him overly sympathetic. Scenes that would have been played for all they were worth in any other film almost pass without comment, just minor ingredients in a larger tapestry. The most Tom achieves is retaining dignity at a time when body and mind are starting to betray him.

That this is just the smallest of small pictures is amply demonstrated when, trapped between a bunch of rowdy boys enjoying rowdy banter with a hen party, he starts singing “Amazing Grace.” Tom doesn’t have an amazing voice. He doesn’t even seem to recognise that he gradually attracts an audience. He is in a world of his own. And the director lets him stay there.

I was so convinced by Timothy Spall’s performance that I hoped they had used a stunt double to film a scene when he has to gingerly negotiate a path down rugged rocks. I had not realised that Spall is only 64 and not close to the aged specimen I had been watching. Spall has that quiet genius of the great actors even though rarely given a leading role and if you recognise him at all, unless you are an arthouse devotee, it will be from The Last Samurai (2003) or Vanilla Sky (1999).  

What of Grace Calder? Occasionally I deliver lectures on film and in one of these I use the final scene of Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) to demonstrate the power of female close-ups, how women far more than men are capable of a greater range expression, showing a shifting series of emotions through their eyes. And I saw that same astonishing quality in Grace Calder (Love Sarah, 2020). She appears as the lover of an arrogant male who taunts Tom in a B&B. As she reins her lover in, her eyes rapidly change in a matter of seconds to conveying a depth of different emotions.  None of the other actors, who are all fleeting two-dimensional cameos, come anywhere close in a part that was not a part until she made it so memorable.

Most critics have been pretty sniffy about The Last Bus and you can see why. Television writer Joe Ainsworth making his movie debut tries too hard for diversity, the social media trope sticks out like a sore thumb, affords overmuch footage of glorious Scottish landscape to recompense Creative Scotland for its financial input, and never quite resolves the question of how a 90-year-old guy who can hardly manage a bus pass manages to work out a convoluted route in at least a dozen local buses to retrace a route he took 70 years before.

But it is all held together by a stunning performance by Spall.  

Books by Brian Hannan – “Paisley at the Pictures, The Sequel, 1951”

A couple of years ago, I wrote a book about cinemagoing in 1950 in my local town of Paisley in Scotland which at that time had eight cinemas screening over 1200 movies a year to the 93,000 inhabitants. Six of the theaters were first run and two second-run. A standard program consisted of main feature, supporting feature, newsreel and cartoon and in two cinemas a serial.

Jane Wyman in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright.

I got so engrossed in my research for this book that I went back to the source a second time and examined what happened in pictures houses for the following year. This treasure trove of cinematic memories turned into a bigger book with double the number of illustrations and also included a section on reminiscences and a look back to when the two biggest cinemas in the town had opened in the 1930s.

Anyone who was born outside the capital cities of their countries and a few other major cities besides will know that way into the 1970s there was a food chain in operation for movie distribution. Although the reference books and Imdb will show movies as having been made, for example, in 1951, most cinemas would not get to screen them that year. In Paisley, for example, only 11.5 per cent of the movies made in 1951 appeared in the town during the same year. More people went to the movies in those days than now – two or three times a week was not uncommon.

The biggest films of 1951 in Paisley included musical Annie Get Your Gun, marital comedy Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger in MGM blockbuster King Solomon’s Mines, Gregory Peck as Captain Horatio Hornblower, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford western Rio Grande and Greer Garson in sequel The Miniver Story.

Also topping the popularity league were Mario Lanza in biopic The Great Caruso, British war film Odette starring Anna Neagle, Alfred Hitchcock thriller Stage Fright with Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich, Anglophile Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in thriller State Secret, David Niven musical Happy-Go-Lovely (filmed in Edinburgh), Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic Samson and Delilah, John Garfield in The Breaking Point – a surprisingly speedy remake of To Have and Have Not – and comedy duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in At War with the Army.

The beginnings of the sci-fi boom.

The year’s number one star in Paisley was Jane Wyman – judged on how many days her pictures played in the town. In second spot came John Wayne. Joan Bennett was third. Glenn Ford and Virginia Mayo rounded out the top five. Cowboy star Gene Autry topped the B-movie brigade.

Among the serials show were Batman and Robin, The Purple Monster Strikes, Atom Man vs. Superman, King of the Rocket Men, The Adventures of Sir Galahad, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, The Monster and the Ape, Pirates of the High Seas and The Daughter of Don Q.

Books by Brian Hannan – “Paisley at the Pictures 1950”

Although this Blog focuses on films made in the 1960s, I have written various business histories of Hollywood as well as this book about cinemagoing in 1950 in the town where I live. Paisley, in Scotland, at that time had eight cinemas for its 93,000 inhabitants. Over 1200 movies were shown that year in the town, far more than you would see at your local picture house these days. Six of the cinemas were first-run and two were second-run. Most cinemas changed their programs mid-week, but one house, the Astoria, changed its program three times a week.

Although national statistics on the annual popularity of films and stars are readily available, what is less known is that the experiences of few cities or towns fitted in with that. Each area had its own favorite movies and stars. In Paisley, in 1950, for example, the top star was Virginia Mayo followed by Abbott & Costello and John Wayne. Less than 10 per cent of the films shown were British. And, unlike today, when movies are shown everywhere all at once, less than 10 per cent of the movies seen in Paisley in 1950 were released in 1950. So it was quite a different experience to the present era. You could still see serials as part of the program and series characters like Blondie, Charlie Chan, Hopalong Cassidy, Tarzan and Bulldog Drummond were regularly shown.

There are over 50 illustrations and the book also includes a list month-by-month cinema-by-cinema of all the films shown in Paisley that year.