When gambler Johnny Mansell (George Baker) overextends his bookie debts, he flees London, returning to his working class hometown of Rawborough to visit with his steel mill accountant brother Dave (Terence Morgan), who has embezzled from the company to buy expensive baubles for his ersatz girlfriend, the oversexed bar hostess Calico (Diana Dors), who conveniently lives in an adjoining rooftop flat which will make the constant frantic exits and entrances demanded of the film’s increasingly fevered inclinations toward excited strategic arguments between the three (after Dave’s attempt to rob the mill’s payroll to disguise his earlier theft goes sour, resulting in the shooting death of the night watchman, the father of a childhood friend) that make the film, at times, seem as if it intends to be a melancholy film noir version of a door slamming bedroom farce (this may also hint at the film’s stage origins). Complicating the growing stress between the threesome over the homicide (Johnny was spotted at the scene attempting to halt the robbery, while Calico supplied Dave with the murder weapon) is a sexual tension between Johnny (who feigns resistance) and the faithless Calico that adds further grist to Dave’s rapidly deteriorating grip on reality.
Gordon Parry’s film impressively takes fairly routine material and cranks up the tension by manipulating subtle variations in editing tempo and through the use of ingeniously effective camerawork by Douglas Slocombe in which Dave’s consuming paranoiac panic is reflected in the film’s visual design. Interestingly, the movie is shot in a relatively dispassionate workmanlike style until the robbery scene, in which the mise-en-scene shifts into a dark descent into chiaroscuro fueled images symbolic of a fall into an abyss of moral damnation. (The exceptions to the earlier unaffected visual design, are anything but subtle punctuations which make no mystery in identifying Calico as an amoral succubus, who preys on the weakness of Dave’s clueless affections; she is often shot in provocatively come hither poses, with the film cutting to the steamy expulsions of the steel mill as if the entire town were in the throes of an orgasmic discharge generated by her overheated sexuality.)
Ultimately, the movie rests solely on the claustrophobic chamber drama in the confines of the rooftop flats; in a keen maneuver to keep the audience unsettled as to whether Dave’s gnawing panic has merit, the progress of the police investigation is concealed. Only the suspicions of the dead man’s son Paddy Ryan (Patrick Allen) are dramatized, and these are filtered entirely through Dave’s paranoiac haze, making the actual status of the investigation elusive save for his psychic delusions which begins to chip away at Calico and the outwardly cool Johnny, who finally unravels in the film’s last second twist.
The screenplay by George Minter and Denis O’Dell (based upon the play Blind Alley by Jack Popplewell) follows a familiar film noir path with an innocent sap seduced into bad acts by the siren call of a gold digging seductress, though in the case of “Tread Softly Stranger”, the corruption is doubled, first with the lovestruck Dave, and secondly with his brother Johnny who, despite being a layabout whose sole source of earnings is gambling, is nevertheless possessed of an honorable code of conduct (he is against the idea of a robbery from the outset), especially loyalty toward Dave, a weakness exploited in the rather cruel machinations of the plot. Even Calico, who initially seems irredeemable in her hunger for reward (in men’s attention which leads to exorbitant gifts that are treated as victorious trophies) later recants her behavior as a product of desperation, in a confessional to Johnny when she realizes that she has actually fallen for him. Weakness of character is actually the key to the rather interesting character dynamic which turns the narrative wheels, not in a natural affinity toward criminality, but in the lack of resistance in finding a more responsible plan of action than in the eventual concession to a catastrophic event meant to redress what was, in ironic retrospect, a far more minor offense.
With the exception of one important cast member, the performances are commendably accomplished, with Diana Dors outstanding as the embittered yet vulnerable Calico and especially George Baker, as Johnny, creating a sympathetic portrait of a man who too late tries to summon a sense of responsibility that has long lay dormant; a not so tough guy who unwittingly finds himself the last defender of the ill-fated. As the overwrought Dave, Terence Morgan is the only weak link in an otherwise superior if minor drama, his prematurely hysterical performance giving away his complicity to such a degree it renders the need for any investigation unnecessary.
__________________________________________ “I Am a Camera” (1955)
The first thing one notices in “I Am a Camera” is that the tone is completely wrong. In Christopher Isherwood’s Farewell to Berlin, the second of two novels comprising The Berlin Stories, the quote comprising this film’s title is a seemingly offhand but indelibly important moment of self-assessment both explaining his function as narrator to his story, and as a remarkably astute thumbnail characterization of his observational method of writing, in which he manages the neat trick of assuming neither the role of protagonist nor antagonist during the events which form the narrative, but strictly as observer, offering astute and colorful trails of objective description for which his subjective voice is skillfully neutralized, allowing characters and events to speak for themselves; his literary surrogate relinquishing the role of an active instigator of events. In this manner, Berlin is able to be experienced by the reader with a remarkable nonjudgmental clarity in all of its manifestations: mysterious, decadent, dangerous, yet vibrant, exotic and startlingly alive.
How the film manages to undercut Isherwood’s unique voice, almost immediately, is to dispense with the author’s artful objectivity and replace it with an uncharacteristically acerbic voiceover, ill-served by the harsh intonations of a misdirected Laurence Harvey as the author. The actor’s manner, from the start, reeks of condescension; exacerbated by smugly dismissive observations that often times make the narration feel like cheap film noir pulp. Isherwood’s narration neither observes nor sympathetically commentates, but rather disagreeably grumbles while throwing petty barbs. It’s not that Harvey is irretrievably damaging to the film, but that the film seems to find comfort in conforming to his rather distant actor’s persona.
There is so little interest shown in the observance of Berlin and its people, that when Isherwood later achieves a small triumph of writer’s success in publishing an article A Portrait of Berlin, one cannot help but wonder where his insights come from since he spends an inordinate amount of time sulking in his room, removed from both people and experience? Worse yet is the film’s resistance to depicting Isherwood’s Berlin as anything more than a featureless back lot; the rich sense of place in the novels replaced with a setting so generically homogenized that the story might be taking place in Canada. There seems to be a deliberate dearth of German characters essential to the film’s depiction of what is supposed to be the German capital, and while Isherwood’s novel(s) are brimming with expatriates, they function in concert with characters of local origin in ways that both expose a seedy underbelly of corruption and act as human barometers in anticipation of the rise of the Nazi as a political force. Yet, in “I Am a Camera”, even the Nazi presence is perfunctory and the foreigners act as mere inebriated party guests without connection to (or notice of) local society or national politics. The inevitable rise of fascism is granted a few brief mentions, without any consistent sense of impending dread, nor is the mounting tension against Jews depicted with any sense of immediacy; represented mainly with an offhand disparaging remark or in one character’s late crisis of identity, which, considering the absence of a sufficiently dramatized historic context, reeks uncomfortably of screenwriting prescience. If one were entirely ignorant of history, nothing of the forthcoming horrors nor of the atmosphere which incubated them would be detectable in the colorless events to which the rich tapestry of the novels have been reduced.
We do, however, get a healthy portion of Sally Bowles. Far too much, in fact. Isherwood’s most recognized character (though by no means the most interesting), has been ill-served by repeated authorial tinkering by the time screenwriter John Collier’s reimagining (after John Van Druten’s theatrical adaptation) transforms the idiosyncratic libertine into a flighty fugitive from a tepid screwball comedy. The theatrically hyperactive interpretation of Julie Harris doesn’t help, as her performance is notable for an unbecoming tendency to consume the screen. On a brighter note, as the Jewish furniture heiress Natalia Landauer, Shelley Winters is soft and affecting, if a bit too old for the part, and Anton Diffring is silky perfection as her inamorato, the conflicted gigolo Fritz Wendel.
Director Henry Cornelius never gets a handle on the material nor seems to know what sort of film he is working toward (an inexplicably lengthy and unnecessary party scene is staged as a scrap from “Hellzapoppin” until it shifts gears into mock Gothic horror), while John Collier’s screenplay eviscerates every provocative element from the original source material, from creeping Naziism to Communism to Isherwood’s own homosexuality (muted in the book, but perceptible nonetheless). In this unfortunate cinematic incarnation, Isherwood is no longer neutral but neutered.
In their peculiar and particularly unsatisfying production of Anthony Shaffer’s play “Sleuth”, scenarist Harold Pinter and director Kenneth Branagh have fashioned not so much a reworking of the popular thriller, nor even merely a reinterpretation, but a savage evisceration that reduces a fizzy confection to mere bad faux Art. If Pinter’s adaptation is characterized by only the trace remains of the plot outline of the original, he seems quite content to stuff the empty carcass with his own signatory brand of elliptical, obtuse conversation and stony pauses. Compounding the felony is it is aesthetically matched- and then some -mise-en-scene, engulfing the action in a suffocating shroud of creeping, claustrophobic blue-tinged paralysis by the director and his cinematographer Haris Zambarlookos. Seldom has an entire filmmaking team seemed laser locked in perfect unison to the production of a singular vision so spectacularly wrongheaded on every visible level; a vision which encompasses not only a total substantive reconception of the original’s thematic core, but of the willful desire to deny entertainment. While there is nothing expressed wrong with the concept of remake by way of reinterpretation (this is actually preferable than a retread based solely upon commercially impelled creative sloth), it becomes fair critical game to question the reasoning compelling those responsible for said interpretive shift; especially with the marketing materials shamelessly s blaring BRANAGH….PINTER, as if the mere mention of the names were a generic signpost to a consumer guarantee, promising a cultural epiphany.
Beginning with a complete rewrite of the play’s text, Pinter has transformed a deliberately stylish cat-and-mouse into an exercise in groundless tedium that is under the miscalculated delusion that ham-fisted exchanges of smirky but witless japes are a substitution for cleverness. Even the conceptual set-up of an escalating game of wits is undone from the very start by placing the players are on an equitable footing (entirely foregoing the original’s blatant- but essential -subtext of classicism), as if both had enjoyed a prenumbetory insight into the script. Situations don’t arise from the natural flow and consequence of events, but at the whims of a convenient charting of narrative course (otherwise known as a concession to creative laziness), to the point where later twists begin to crumble under the scrutiny of common sense; effectively undermining the plausibility of a supposed (but necessary to a critical point of misdirection) emotional collapse which is effectively undone by the brevity of the set-up. What is the rush? Perhaps a realization the more extended the plotting, the more the danger of exposing the latent of transparency in the script’s trickery, which may explain but hardly excuses Branagh’s annoying penchant for distracting visual asides which fail to emphasize the obsessions of a particular character as did similar but more successful visual footnoting in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1972 version. In Branagh’s hands these diversions merely feel like ill-designed attempts at padding an empty scenario with a vacuous techno bric-a-brac.
Nor is the effort effective in making the story more contemporaneous by stripping the protagonist, mystery author Andrew Wyke of his status upon the pantheon of more traditional detective whodunnits and reformulating him as the writer of grittier, more profane mysteries. The resulting departure from the defense of generational (as well as class) differences of attitude deprives the narrative of one of it’s primary sources of conflict. The resulting elinimation of even a rudimentary class foundation for each character strips the scenario bare, leaving little but the exposed crude mechanics of the Tinker Toy plotting. Nor is there a plausible case made for sympathy toward either character as both emerge as equally callous, immoral, selfish and mean-spirited. Pinter’s reinterpretation presents the two main characters as being filled with the obnoxious satiation of their own cleverness; a cleverness that couldn’t possibly blossom outside of the morbid isolation chamber that is the film’s setting. When, by the glacial tone of the film, you are not encouraged to care about either of the main protagonists, it becomes fairly obvious that the gamesmanship at the heart of the play- as originally conceived -becomes, not a spirited match of cunning and wits, but a cruel and pointless meeting between two equally unpleasant antagonists for whom there is no apparent victory to which either might arrive.
The film is shot with the aura of a meat locker, with the camera deliberately and relentlessly employed in a dreary exercise in obfuscation of visual exposition. The film recaptures a little steam in what is the play’s second act with the appearance of the film’s reconceived investigating detective, a belligerently coarse agent of New Scotland Yard, but this portion of the film is short-lived and feels prematurely abbreviated as if the director couldn’t contain himself from taking a bow for introducing a modicum of energy into an otherwise moribund production. The setting has been importantly shifted from a stately Georgian manor house (a genuine character in itself) filled with objects defining Wyke’s obsessions, into a boxy manse of no character, which is supposed to have been decorated by Wyke’s wife Maggie, whose professional skills seem limited to the design of morgue drawer interiors. What is this setting supposed to reveal about Wyke, and why does so much of the production design seem to make sense only if it were specifically designed to be usable in the film’s plot? The performances contribute little in fleshing out the aridity of written characterization, with Michael Caine, so fine as Tindle in the original, finding no branch on which to take hold of the elder role, while Jude Law is inconsistent; best when assuming an eponymous role.
It is abundantly clear that Pinter’s reconception intends to move the mystery genre setting from its more traditional rooting which imposed the classicist schism between the two protagonists, to the far more graphically cynical, pathologically violent mysteries of today, and while there are ample creative excuses for such a transitional metamorphosis, the resultant scripting gives no indication that such a bold transition has been thought through, with the eventual motivational incitement being handed over to a unconvincing turn into homoeroticism which seems lifted more as a fleeting nod to an earlier Caine role (“Deathtrap”) than as a logical revelation of character. Hopefully Pinter can’t be suggesting at this late stage of his career that the very hint of homosexuality automatically imbues a character with a taint of deeper malevolence; for what seemed thematically novel in Losey’s “The Servant” now suggests prudery.