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Columbia Comedies, Brit Noir

theodora os small

The films are uneven, but the transfers are gorgeous in Sony’s two volume “Icons of Screwball Comedy,” which includes two films each from Columbia contract players Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne and Loretta Young. For me, the highlight of the set is William A. Seiter’s lovely “If You Could Only Cook” (1935), which finds Seiter swinging with his usual aplomb between warm-hearted romance (between working girl Jean Arthur and millionaire-in-disguise Herbert Marshall) and crowded, fast-paced farce (courtesy of gangsters Leo Carillo and Lionel Stander). Beautifully restored, Richard Boleslawski’s “Theodora Goes Wild” still demonstrates Boleslawki’s indifference to film technique (more mismatched shots that a Michael Mann picture!), but proves that this early proponent of the Method (and one-time member of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater) played an important role in liberating Irene Dunne’s inner comedienne. More detail here in the New York Times.

And on a completely different page, I’ve got a rather breathless survey of the extensive Brit Noir retrospective that Bruce Goldstein has put together for New York’s Film Forum. It’s now apparent that the postwar British commercial cinema is a treasure trove of unexplored material; auteur cases can be made for Roy Baker (“The October Man”), Lawrence Huntington (“Wanted for Murder”), Val Guest (“Hell Is a City”), John Harlow (“Appointment with Crime”) and no doubt several other filmmakers who labored in the long shadows of Reed, Lean and Olivier.

144 comments to Columbia Comedies, Brit Noir

  • Brian Dauth

    Barry: I agree that miscasting can ruin a film, just as using the wrong brush will not get the effect a painter is after. The painter may have an advantage in that he can change brushes more easily than a director can change actors, but it is still a case of a wrong artistic implement in need of substitution.

    Also, the fact that an actor brings her own ideas to a role still necessitates a director accepting those ideas and using them in his mise en scene. As you wrote: directors may be inspired to change their conception by an actor’s suggestions, but the controlling vision still remains with the director. When Pollock started using sticks instead of brushes, the properties of the sticks changed Pollock’s conception of what was possible with painting. An actor’s ideas work the same way in revealing new possibilities to a director which she is free to accept or reject just as Pollock could have thrown the sticks away and returned to his brushes.

    A brush is inanimate and an actor sentient, but this difference requires a difference in the way each is used, rather than in the product resulting from such use. In both instances, an aesthetic element results from an artist’s work with the tool.

    As for TOO MANY HUSBANDS: if the director had been better, he could have shaped the other filmic elements so that the performance that was possible from Jean Arthur existed in an expressive aesthetic relationship with them. When Cukor made BHOWANI JUNCTION, he wanted Trevor Howard and got Stewart Granger. He said that he wanted Howard in order to get a particular performance from Ava Gardner. Getting Granger, he got a different Gardner performance, and, ultimately, a different film. But Cukor being Cukor he made it work. In fact, Cukor was so good with actors that there are few roles in his films to which the label “miscast” can be applied. Wesley Ruggles, competent but no Cukor, had a script that went one way and an actress who went another and not the talent to create a dynamic (harmonious or otherwise) between them.

    I agree that with you that there are complications when human beings are involved, but as I have said: the difference lies in the way the elements are treated. Maybe a better director could have shaped the script or Jean Arthur’s performance so that there was not a mismatch (or created a mismatch that was expressive). But clearly, Ruggles was not the person for this job.

    I do not know about Bruno Walter, but do members of an orchestra usually follow the tempi set by their conductor or go off on their own? Also, do the musicians try to produce the sound that the conductor wants or just make whatever sound they feel like and the conductor just has to take it or leave it?

    As for Ellington: there is also the question of how much of Ellington’s sound was due to Billy Strayhorn. It is clear that Ellington was happy to let Strayhorn and others take over, and he never denied their contributions, but to me this not so much an instance of suggestions being made, but of the co-creatorship of a work of art. I do not think that an actor who has her suggestion adopted by a director rises to the level of co-creator.

  • Barry Putterman

    Brian (and Blake somewhat), I understand you to be saying that the director is responsible for blending all of the elements of a film into a harmonious work of art. On that we are in complete agreement. However, that is a far cry from claiming that directors can use actors the way that painters use brushes (or writers use words), or that a Johnny Hodges solo chorus lifts him to the level of co-creator of a Duke Ellington composition (or a Billy Strayhorn composition, or a Billy Strayhorn arrangement).

    There are questions of degrees. There are questions of different dynamics in different mediums. I am suspicious of the romanticized notion of the heroic lone artist even in mediums such as painting and writing, but in music and film they certainly need a more nuanced approach.

    I think that Blake’s story is instructive. The interpretations of Blanchard, Payton and Miles Evans were original artistic creations which in no way challanged the authorship of Evans or his collaboration with Miles Davis on the performance.

    Would the Evans work be different had it not had Miles Davis performing it on the recordings? Certainly. Did Evans have a thumbs up or down on every musical idea that Davis put into the performance? Hardly. But it is still Gil Evans’ orchestration just as much as every George Cukor film is his direction.

    Unfortunately, while we can hear SKETCHES OF SPAIN played by different trumpeters; we will never know what BHOWANI JUNCTION with Trevor Howard or TWO MANY HUSBANDS with Carole Lombard would have been (Brian, I’m assuming that you are in complete agreement with Dave on the latter by your remarks). But they certainly would have been different movies by the same directors.

  • dm494

    Brian, an orchestra will follow the tempo set by the conductor–imagine what would happen if all the musicians followed their own lead. And conductors like George Szell would never tolerate orchestra members’ making their own sounds. The offenders would all be fired. That doesn’t mean it all boils down to the conductor, as Barry wonders. Orchestras led by great conductors are stocked with the best players around. And the motivation for that practice explains why an analogy between Cukor and Bruno Walter doesn’t work–Walter isn’t free to alter his conception of the music when confronted with inadequate musicians.

    It may also interest you and Barry to know that there is a historical correlation between developments in a particular form of Classical music (e.g., piano sonata) and increases in the technique of the musicians who played it. (There are well-known examples of pieces composed for particular players, e.g., Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, which was written for Richard Mulhfeld.) Charles Rosen’s THE CLASSICAL STYLE discusses this phenomenon briefly on page 46.

    Although like Barry I find your analogy between brushstrokes and performing artists more than a little open to question, I don’t have any quarrel with your point about Lana Turner vis-a-vis the technical aspects of acting which I listed in my reply to Gregg’s reply. To rephrase more precisely what I said before, those technical features of acting are neither sufficient conditions on good performances nor even necessary ones. In that regard, however, they’re just like the visual criteria of directing. It’s considered important for a director to be able to compose beautiful shots, to move the camera expressively, to have a sense of color and light, and so on. But it’s possible to be a good director without being particularly visual in this sense. Visual mastery doesn’t occur to me when I think of worthwhile figures like Elaine May, early Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Albert Brooks, or (in some of his films) Charles Burnett. Likewise, a director isn’t necessarily good just because he excels at the easy-to-check visual aspects of filmmaking. Spielberg, for example, is plainly good at those things, but Kent–and many others I assume–dislike him on the grounds that he’s lacking in the more elusive qualities of a great director. But these points about May et al. on the one hand, and about Spielberg on the other don’t invalidate the larger point that visual criteria are generally important in evaluating a director.

    Even though your remarks about conductors cast some doubt on this (you appear to think of Bruno Walter as a creative artist like a filmmaker, rather than as an interpreter of Mahler and other composers), I’m inclined to believe that the difference between our views comes down to this: you don’t accept the idea of an interpretive artist–“artist” means creative artist; everyone else is a craftsman. Me, I don’t think that most actors are creative artists; then again, I’m fine with the notion of interpretive art, and against your claim that performances are not works of art, only elements in a larger work, I would ask, What happens when the larger work is a failure? Do performances, cinematography, scores, etc. become bad when the movie they’re in is bad? Or do value judgements about these elements simply become impossible in that case? Neither of these alternatives seems terribly plausible. (If you want an example: I don’t think STATE OF GRACE is a good movie, but I love Morricone’s for it, and Jordan Cronenweth’s lighting seems like the work of an artist; to me, it’s highly counterintuitive to reject the artistic worth of these components because I dislike Joanou’s film as a whole.)

  • dm494

    That should be “I love Morricone’s score for it”…

  • Gregg Rickman

    The fact that I am reading some very stimulating discussions of acting using terminology drawn from painting and music proves my point about there being no commonly accepted vocabulary for discussing acting in and of itself. It certainly can be discussed, and very intelligently, as the discussion of Cukor’s film demonstrates. Off the top of my head I can think of several excellent discussions of acting that help chart its evolution in film: Scott Simmon on early Griffith, Charles Affron on Bette Davis and others in 1930s melodrama, Steve Vineberg’s book on Method acting. Dan, I agree we could probably discuss John Gielgud or Marlon Brando’s diction without too much dispute as to what is meant, but I still saying preferring one over the other would be a matter of taste.

    Some directors try to dominate every move of their “models” (Bresson’s term. Hitchcock or Preminger had nothing on Ozu), while others grant them enormous freedom (Renoir is the shining example here, freeing them to do their very best). Even in cases where a director pretty much lets everyone do what they want, with little or no direction (which is what we hear from the actors on Woody Allen shoots) the result is still all-Allen, or all-Renoir, or all-Altman.

    Dave, I knew you weren’t trying to list all Brit noirs, just flag some landmarks. While everyone thinks of Ford as the great director of the American West, one could compile a very nice season of Ford’s films set in the British isles or environs (THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, anyone?).

    Doug, thanks very much for the good words.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I understand from the way you frame the issue in your first paragraph that preferring Gielgud to Brando would be a matter of taste. But from the way you frame the issue in the second paragraph, wouldn’t preferring Renoir to Ozu also be a matter of taste?

  • Tony Wiliams

    Gregg, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is Welsh territory since the final part comes from 0’Neill’s “Bound West for Cardiff” (or is it East?)

  • Joseph McBride

    THE LONG VOYAGE HOME takes place in the Atlantic, and partly
    in the Tropics. Anna Lee (who described herself as a proud Churchillian Englishwoman) mentioned to me that Ford’s often-negative view of the British changed as World War II came. True, and he even showed his Welsh villagers singing “God Save the Queen” in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. WEE WILLIE WINKIE,
    a real gem, has fun with the British military but has many similarities with his later films about the US Cavalry.

  • Joseph McBride

    And partly in London, I should add — “Ole go home,” etc. What a wonderful line reading by John Qualen.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, nothing in my graf about directors’ treatment of actors was meant as criticism of Bresson, Ozu, Hitchcock or Preminger, all of whom directed great movies, some of which I prefer to some of Renoir’s. Overall I prefer Renoir to all of these filmmakers, but then I prefer Renoir to everyone (as a matter of personal taste). I do think his free handling of actors, while not always successful in every instance, is one reason for his greatness, which is his openness to life. That openness is reflected in the choices he made in his mise-en-scene, his editing, his selection of material, as well as his work with actors. Am I making an objective argument here? No, but if pressed I could define “openness” in specific detail and give examples of this quality in his work from the 1920s through the 1960s, and if pressed again I could work up a philosophical cri de coeur in favor of Renoir’s approach. Obviously, Ozu and the other greats I mentioned took a different approach to directing actors, and obviously it worked for them.

    I was thinking about acting recently as I happened to watch SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS the other night. In my opinion, actors can be called artists in just the same way you can call a musician, painter or film director an artist, and many actors are among the greatest artists of the past century. In a film, however, the director is usually dominant, both because s/he is literally “directing” the actor, and also because of his or her control of both mise-en-scene (lighting, placement of the actor within the frame) and of course the editing, where performances can be made or broken. In this case, Alexander Mackendrick, as the director-for-hire on a project packaged by the star (Burt Lancaster) and produced by his company, would seem to have little power. (The need to serve the operatic, deservedly admired screenplay by Lehman and Odets would also seem a weight on Mackendrick’s authority.) According to Kate Buford’s biography of Lancaster, the star saw the whole film and particularly its finale as a duel for two stars only – he and Tony Curtis – and resisted Mackendrick’s plans to give the powerless character of Lancaster’s sister (Susan Harrison) any weight in the scene. Through skillful direction of the scene’s blocking, however, Mackendrick carried the day. Lancaster, Curtis and the rest of the cast (“I want to chastise you, Sidney” – Emile Meyer) are of course great in the film, but with all due credit to the great script (and James Wong Howe’s cinematograpy), it’s a “film by Alexander Mackendrick.”

    Of course, we can all think of examples where a star/producer is the dominant power on a film, or sometimes a producer/screenwriter (John Hughes, anyone?) or some other individual. Two subordinate points: this is all relevant to the original thread about British noirs, as can’t Mackendrick’s THE LADYKILLERS (and THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, for that matter, with its final chase that echoes Widmark’s run through London in NIGHT AND THE CITY) be thought of as “Brit noirs” of sorts? And: thinking of Lehman and Odets takes us straight to Budd Schulberg, whose death the other day has gone unremarked here. Surely someone on this board met the man or has an opinion on him. I’ll toss one out – of the three filmed Schulberg screenplays I’ve seen recently enough to have an opinion on, I prefer Ray’s WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES (unremarked on in Schulberg’s obituaries) to the two famous Kazans, precisely because of Ray’s superior command of the medium. (Sick as Ray was at the time, and even if he didn’t direct everything in the picture.)

    Finally, I thought Wales WAS part of “the British isles and environs.” (Regarding VOYAGE, I was hoping I could include the Atlantic Ocean in the “environs.”)

  • Fresh from the LACMA petition site:

    # 1,229: 11:32 pm PDT, Aug 7, Alessio Della Carta, Italy
    As a former assistant to M. Antonioni, I object to the presumption this museum “director” makes to film being “not a draw” with the museum audience. Antonioni not a draw? How insulting to great filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers everywhere. Particularly those who waited in line to see Michelangelo in one of his last public appearances at LACMA. I am proud to have known a brilliant “director” and Mr. Govan, sadly, is not one.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I think that everyone in this discussion (you, me, dm, Brian, Blake) are in basic agreement about the need to examine films through the prism of the director’s organizing control. Disagreements break out regarding emphases and nuances on particular points. In this case; film acting vs. film directing. Is there a qualitative difference in one field over another between there being both an objective language to analyze style AND personal preference for one style over another being a matter of individual taste?

  • Tony Wiliams

    Gregg, In terms of devolution (pre- and post-) Wales has always been thought of an as independent country despite its incorporation into the British Isles. This is very similar to Ireland’s resentment of being regarded as part of Britain, pre-Independence, as well as the continuing question of Northern Ireland.In the 1950s Siobahn McKenna shocked a British audience by saying “We’ve never regarded Ireland as part of Britian.

    That is “fighting talk” and you are very lucky neither John Ford nor Richard Burton are around to read this heresy or a QUIET MAN situation could result!

  • Gregg Rickman

    So “the British Isles” means England only? What about “and enviorns”? This John Ford festival is going to be shorter than I thought.

    “Is there a qualitative difference in one field over another between there being both an objective language to analyze style AND personal preference for one style over another being a matter of individual taste?” So near as I understand your question, Barry, there are agreed ways of defining and quantifying what it is a director does, but much less so for what it is actors do. Indeed, what musicians do can be quantified (by recording and analyzing the notes used, tempo selected, etc of the musicians at Blake’s concert) in a way what actors do can’t be. As live performers musicians and actors do have access to what I understand is an incredible, highly personalized and electric relationship with their audience. This is less true of course for musicians and actors performing in a studio for a recording or a film, but they are still interacting physically with their material, and with their fellow performers, allowing for potentially intense and ecstatic experiences inaccessible to audience members save in a second hand fashion (the way Blake can appreciate the nuances of the trumpet soloists in the Davis concert he attended).

    But as you may be able to tell I am much more comfortable discussing a specific film or body of work, than engaging in theoretical speculations. Do you or anyone feel you can make an objective case for the superiority of any given actor over another? Let’s assume competence: the actor isn’t blowing lines or missing their cues. Maybe you could objectively say that a performance doesn’t mesh well with the other players (Marty Milner in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS seems to be acting in his own, more traditional Hollywood movie, where he’s the self-righteous hero) but then I feel in this case that this is a function of Mackendrick sensing this weakness in the character as written, and reacting to it by visually isolating Milner from the other players. (I’d have to go back and rewatch the film to see if this is actually the case; I remember thinking about it at the time.)

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I can’t make a totally objective case for the superiority of one actor over another. I can’t make a totally objective case for the superiority of one director over another. I can only describe to the best of my ability what I believe them to be objectively doing and then describe to the best of my ability how I subjectively respond to it. Can you do otherwise?

  • Gregg Rickman

    I think we’re on the same page, Barry. Does anyone want to make a “LARGELY objective case” for Brando over Cary Grant, or (to use TOO MANY HUSBANDS, which you and others wrote about so well upthread) Cukor over Wesley Ruggles? Or is criticism always an art and never a science? This was at the root of the push to professionalize film studies back in the 1970s, which led to auteurist studies losing favor in the academy to the allegedly scientific semiotic/structuralist approach (which in turn shortly gave way to the highly idiosyncratic mix of Althusser and Lacan which comprised the ideological approach to film studies represented in the west by Screen… something which Andrew Britton wrote about so well).

  • Tony Wiliams

    Yes, and his essays “The Ideology of Screen” and “The Philosophy of the Pigeonhole: Wisconsin Formalism and the `Classical Style'”, the latter of which I’m currently re-reading, emphasize the alternative practice of deep critical reading – which the best posts on this site reproduce.

    Despite the fact that it is not complete, Grant’s edited BRITTON ON FILM contains many exemplary and stimulating essays relevant to what has been discussed so far.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, It is also why I left academia in the mid 70s and have never looked back.

  • Tony Wiliams

    Well, Barry, That was a bad time. I remember hearing somebody agonizing outside the NFT bookstore in the 70s that he had trouble distinguishing a paradigm from a syntagym. What ever happened to “la grande syntagmatique”?

  • Gregg Rickman

    I deeply admire Britton as “a fugitive from the camp of victory,” as he criticized both dominant paradigms in academic film theory since the 1970s – the Screen generation of the 1970s, and the Bordwell-Thompson “Neo-formalist” (as they prefer) school, prominent in the US at least since the 1980s. He paid a heavy professional price for his lese-majeste(s), however, I understand.

  • Tony Wiliams

    Actually, during my last phone conversation with him in Toronto, he mentioned his dissatisfaction with North American culture and his desire to return to England. He did not really know how badly Thatcherism had affected that culture (a malaise that continues today under New Labour.

    He had some difficulty finding work when he returned but did get appointed to Reading University two years before his death. Neither Robin nor Andrew (and to some extent myself, despite the fact that I’ve carved out a tentative position for myself in the enemy camp) never really cared for the lures of institutional professionalism. However, had he lived,I believe that Andrew would have produced more distinguished works (in addition to those he has left us with) and gained the status of England’s “greatest film critic” as Robin states – not that he ever thought in such terms. But he would have been working in an oppositional capacity outside the “belly of the whale” (his favorite Orwell term) and continued to influence positively those both inside and outside the university environment.

  • jbryant

    For those of us on a budget, Turner Classic Movies will be airing IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK and TOO MANY HUSBANDS on the night of Sunday, August 30th.

    They’re also showing a Val Guest film I’ve never heard of on the 31st, a 1963 effort called 80,000 SUSPECTS, starring Claire Bloom and Richard Johnson. Anybody?

  • I’ve long been a champion of British cinema and this series is a real treat. So it’s a pity I’m not in New York. I’ve seen many of these films but rarely on the big screen. But Dave, The Man in the White Suit is hardly just a charming comedy. It’s just as bleak, cruel and dark as many of the films in the brit noir series. Mackendrick’s (and Robert Hamer’s) films have always been more subversive than the ordinary Ealing film. It’s also worth pointing out that J. Lee Thompson (his great film Tiger Bay is included, as well as Yield to the Night) was a superior drama/thriller filmmaker in the 50s, before he succumbed to big budget follies and nasty Hollywood thrillers. Passionate and with a strong visual style. Speaking of Tiger Bay, in 1952 Charles Crichton made a film called Hunted, with Dirk Bogarde as a fugitive on the run with a child. But a boy, instead of a girl as in Tiger Bay. It’s also good, but unfortunately not shown at Filmforum. (It was called The Stranger in Between when released in the US and worth hunting for. Not available on dvd in the US or UK. I bought it in France, but I think it’s only available in Australia nowadays.)

  • Barry Putterman

    Fredrik, I came across YIELD TO THE NIGHT in a Diana Dors box set and found it absolutely harrowing. The most effective film I’ve ever seen about capital punishment because of the way the film keeps stretching out and pounding away at both the tension and boredom of day to day life on death row. Long before the climax I was practically shouting at the screen; “Just END THIS for her one way or another!” Maybe Thompson and Charles Bronson made so many films together later because they enjoyed comparing notes on how thoroughly they sold out to hackdom.

  • Tony Wiliams

    Fredrik, I believe TCM is running (or has run) a Dirk Bogarde season and members of the Sir Dirk Bogarde yahoo. group have been recommended to thank the company and request films such as HUNTED which i do have on DVD thanks to a UK source.

    Your comments reveal that there is another “lost continent” in British cinema still awaiting exploration as with the insights that both you and Barry provide about YIELD TO THE NIGHT and TIGER BAY. On a recent BBC radio interview Sylvia Syms spoke highly of Thompson’s WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN also denigrated by the MOVIE critics who mostly hated British cinema.

    I think these films are really interesting in expressing a post-war malaise mood stemming from the failure of the 1945-51 Labour Government, 50 repressiveness, and the 1950s war movies where class returned with a venegeance. Both you and Barry have stimulated my thoughts over this matter and I may run a British film noir class to complement the British gangster movie one I ran some years ago. This all depends, of course on the availability of good DVD prints since I had to run a transferred VHS of NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH then. But this did not stop the really aware students from seeing the film as representing a tension between threatened British values (exemplified by Linden Travers RADA accent) and Jack LaRue as Slim Grissom. Also, NEVER LET GO, which I’ve just viewed is another allegorical post-war masculine melodrama in terms of the Richard Todd character trying to scrape a living in the “never had it so good” era of Harold MacMillan.

  • Dave K

    Hi, Fredrik,
    Thanks for your remarks on the Brit Noir series, but I’m afriad you missed my saracsm (not so hard to do) about the “official” British classics as promoted by Ms. Kael et al. Of course, I agree with you completely about Hamer and Mackendrick, two brilliant filmmakers whose work — dark, indeed — I am still discovering. Mackendrick’s “Mandy” is one of the greatest British melodramas as well as a slashing indictment of a whole social system, and if “Man in the White Suit” is more benign in appearance, it’s just as disillusioned beneath the surface.

    Tony, a sanctioned DVD of “No Orchids” is now available in England. The image is much better but the movie is as crazily uneven as ever. I guess I need to see more J. Lee Thompson films to be convinced of his early talent; a lot of those late turkeys are too firmly lodged in my memory.

  • Hello Dave, The sarcasm is now obvious, but I permit myself to blame in my error on the late hour and the sleepiness that came as a consequence. I agree about “Mandy”, it’s very good, and covers a lot of ground. And it’s cruel. Mackendrick always had a thing for public humiliations.

    An esteemed film professor once said to me “If you tell me you like J.Lee Thompson I’ll wash my hands of you”, but he was then also thinking of the films of the 70s and 80s. Other than the films already mentioned, his “An Ice Cold in Alex” (1959) is actually among the best of war films (and desert films) and “North West Frontier” is like a western set in British India. I haven’t seen “Yellow Balloon” (1950) and “The Good Companions” (1954), but I believe they might be of interest as well.

    A film missing from the Brit Noir series is “Across the Bridge” (1957), with Rod Steiger on the run from Scotland Yard. And perhaps “The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951) might have been qualified as well. (I wrote something about it on my own film blog the other day).

    Considering the interest shown I was about to make a list here of my favourite British postwar films, but as I consider that period as perhaps being the true golden age of cinema, the list would be too long. (I’ll instead make one, with comments, on my own blog eventually.) For the moment let me instead round off with another name. Victor Saville. Before he went to the US to produce the likes of “The Mortal Storm” (1940), “Keeper of the Flame” (1942) and “Kiss Me Deadly (1955) he was a director in his native Britain, trying to do quality genre work. A good example is the spy film “The Dark Journey” (1937), set in Stockholm staring Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt. Together with the early work of (the much more personal and artistically accomplished) Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock, Saville is a testament to the fact that the 30s is also a period in British cinema in need of retrospectives.

  • Barry, I agree, “Yield to the Night” is sometimes painful to watch, much like Robert Wise’s “I Want to Live!” (1958).

    Tony, I haven’t seen “Woman in a Dressing Gown”, but I will as soon as I can get my hands on it. Fortunately, more and more British films are released on DVDs in Britain now. What’s interesting about “Tiger Bay” is that it’s so very much a film about immigrants and the multiracial Britain, seldom seen in those days.

    I wouldn’t mind writing about, or teaching, Brit Noir, but unfortunately I’m supposed to focus on Swedish cinema. But there are treasures there as well. Just not as many…

  • Tony Wiliams

    Dave K, Fredrik is correct about early Thompson and I agree that late Thompson/Charles Bronson can put anybody off. However, in addition to the titles Fredrik has mentioned there is a very interesting monograph on Thompson in the Manchester University Press British Cinema series that covers the pre-Bronson/CAPE FEAR era.

    I’ve never seen TIGER BAY but visited that area for a New Year’s Eve Party in the late 80s before the area became gentrified. Yes, it was a stimulating mult-racial community and no sense of threat appeared at that party.

    Also Dave K, in addition to NO ORCHIDS there is also JOE MACBETH (1955) starring Paul Douglas as the doomed Thane with Ruth Roman as “Lady M”, the future CARRY ON star Sid James as “Banky” and UK cinema’s archetypal Yank Bonar Colleano as “Fleance.” If Roy Ward Baker once said, “If you haven’t seen THE SINGER AND THE SONG you haven’t lived, the same is true of Chicago in a UK 1950s British studio!

    Finally, Fredrik, I think David Bordwell would regard your comments about Swedish cinema as heresy but, at the same time, we all like “forbidden fruit”!

  • Tony,

    well, being a heretic isn’t what it used to be. No, actually, it’s not that I have anything against Swedish cinema, in fact I’ve spent the last three or four years trying to enlighten people about Swedish cinema, from “Ingeborg Holm” (1913) and onwards, until the late 50s. (After that it kind of takes care of it self.) My aim is to make people realize that, good as he is, there’s more to it than Ingmar Bergman. Especially my own favourite, Hasse Ekman. But taken as a whole, I’d say that there were probably more great films made in Britain between, say, 1940 and 1955, than in the last 100 years of Swedish cinema. I wouldn’t mind talking it over with mr Bordwell.

  • Johan Andreasson

    You tell’em, Fredrik – the world needs to know about Hasse Ekman!

  • Tony Wiliams

    Well Fredrik, This parallels several of us who wanted to show that Vietnam War Cinema went well beyong APOCALYPSE NOW and THE DEER HUNTER as Dave K. is also doing with COMBACT SHOCK.

    Yes, you tell ’em about Hasse Ekman!

  • Johan and Tony,

    thanks for your support! Do you actually know the films of Ekman, or are you just naturally supportive?

    I’ve spent the last three years organizing Bergman exhibitions and festivals all over the world, whilst talking about Ekman whenever I got the chance. Now I feel I’ve come to the point when I can concentrate on Ekman (with a bit of Bergman on the side, that name opens all doors after all).

  • Tony Wiliams


    As the chorus goes in GREASE, “Tell us more, tell us more” since we’d love to hear about Ekman.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Fredrik, I know Ekman’s films fairly well – I haven’t seen everything he’s done but I try to tape them when they turn up on television and I agree with you that his best works from the 40s 50s, like KUNGLIGA PATRASKET and FLICKA OCH HYANCINTER (I have no idea if they have titles in English), matches Bargman’s films from this period.

  • Johan Andreasson

    That’s FLICKA OCH HYACINTER and Bergman – where’s spellcheck when you need it?

  • Johan, I take it your from Sweden. I’m glad you mention Kungliga patrasket, since it’s a favourite of mine too.

    Tony, in short, Hasse Ekman was probably the most naturally gifted filmmaker Sweden’s ever had. In his late teens he did a trip to Hollywood to learn his craft, and befriended George Cukor. He came back, wrote some scripts and directed his first film, aged 25, in 1940. A PG Wodehouse inspired comedy. Then, for 10 years, he was the best director in Sweden, doing one or two films each year. Not all masterpieces for sure, but he did maybe 10 outstanding films, mostly in a theatre setting. He was a genius for writing dialogue and wasn’t afraid to deal with sensitive stuff. His style is a mixture of realism and film noir. When at his best he takes your breath away. The first ten minutes in Girl With Hyacinths should be taught in film schools as an example of creative cutting and mood setting. The same goes for, among others, “The Girl on the Third Row” (1949) or “Changing of Trains” (1943).

    He had two problems. One was that he was restless and did not always work hard enough to reach excellence. The other was Bergman. They were competitors, trying to outdo each other. Technically, artistically, and so on. The critics were always comparing their work, sometimes Ekman won, sometimes Bergman. But in 1955 Ekman sent a telegram to Bergman saying “I give up, just so you know”. After that he did a couple of simple genre films and then moved to Spain and begun collecting art, and he stayed there until he died in 2004. The sad part is that he might not have acknowledged how good he was. But Bergman did. He always thought Ekman was a master filmmaker. And he was.

  • Dave K

    I’ve only seen “The Girl with the Hyacinths” but agree that it is extremely impressive. Is any of his other work available on video? Has the Swedish Film Institute preserved his films? Sounds like a nice opportunity for Criterion’s Eclipse line but in the current economic climate it may no longer be possible to venture beyond the established masters.

  • Glad someone saw fit to mention Lance Comfort’s TEMPTATION HARBOUR, with Robert Newton and Simone Simon, I too was disappointed when I saw it wasn’t included in the Forum’s schedule. Andrew Spicer devotes a whole paragraph to the film in the book European Film Noir, I know of no one who’s seen it. Also worth mentioning is Lance Comfort’s DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS (1948),with Siobhan McKenna, which could be considered noir in much the way that Delmer Dave’s RED HOUSE is, as they both take place in rural settings. McKenna is quite good in the film as a loose cannon, a man-killer, and it possesses some wonderfully moody cinematography.

  • Johan Andreasson

    As far as I know only “The Girl with the Hyacinths”, “The Girl on the Third Row” (also among Ekman’s best) and “Första divisionen” (“First Division” – an early film I haven’t seen) are available on dvd.

  • Tony Wiliams

    I saw DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS on UK TV years ago and finally acquired a VHS copy two years back.

    Fredrik,thanks for the Ekman information. He appears to be another lost talent we should look up but are the films Johan cites subtitled in English?

  • Dave,
    I’m glad you like it. It’s generally considered his best, but I don’t know, my favourite is probably “The Girl From the Third Row”, Ekman’s “anti-Bergman film”. “The Banquet” (1950), “Walking With the Moon” (1945) and “Changing of Trains” (1943) are also very very good. The Swedish Film Institute have most of his films in their archives. They’ve just restored “Fire-Bird” (1952), a ballet film. I’ve been talking with Criterion, since June last year, but nothing has happened as yet. They would also need subtitled screeners and there aren’t any at present. But I’m working on that as well.
    Johan, you’ve covered all three that’s available, but more will come. None of the three released so far has subtitles. “The First Division” (1941) is a good film about life on an air force base during The Second World War, always a touchy subject in Sweden.

  • jbryant

    Fredrik: Good luck with your efforts. I would love to see those films. I’ve always been a big Bergman fan, but have seen little else from Sweden in the 40s and 50s.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Hasse Ekman acted in many of his own films, and he also appeared in films by other directors. Bergman fans will recognize him as the actor Frans in GYCKLARNAS AFTON (SAWDUST AND TINSEL).

    Fredrik, an Eclipse box with the films you mention (and let’s not forget KUNGIGA PATASKET) would be a great thing – keep up the good work on Ekman!