British Lion Film Corporation

The Sound Barrier (1952, David Lean)

There’s a lot to The Sound Barrier. Outside the truly magnificent aerial photography, not much of it has to do with the film itself. Other than director Lean and writer Terence Rattigan rewriting actual history to make it so a private British aircraft company “broke” the sound barrier some five years after Chuck Yeager did it for the United States Air Force. And Rattigan and Lean didn’t keep it technically accurate? I guess… anglo-pride or something.

So the gross historical inaccuracies aside, Sound Barrier adds up to being about why toxic masculinity is wonderful and women–like de facto lead Ann Todd–are silly for doubting men in their heartless pursuits. See, Todd’s dad is the owner of the private aircraft company–Ralph Richardson in a performance far better than the film needs or deserves–and he’s willing to sacrifice anyone to break that sound barrier.

Five years after it actually happened. But whatever.

I mean, even if the film’s set in 1947 or whatever–one of the events portrayed happened in 1946–it should’ve been technically accurate. Lean goes out of his way to use that amazing aerial photography of the test flights and so on, why not have an accurate script. But there’s also the problem of John Justin, who’s got kids presumably born after the war ended and they’re not three or four.

The film starts during the war–another weird thing about Sound Barrier is how assured everyone is the war’s end is imminent even when, you know, it’s not–with Todd marrying flier Nigel Patrick. Patrick and Justin are pals. Todd brings Patrick home to meet dad Richardson and brother Denholm Elliot. Elliot’s the best thing in the movie, though Justin’s all right too. Rattigan and Lean don’t have much use for Elliot, however, because he’s not the real man flier Richardson wants him to be. Thank goodness Todd married one in Patrick.

After the war, Patrick starts test piloting jets for Richardson. They’re going to break that sound barrier, even though the whole thing traumatizes Todd. She goes off to the movies during his flights so she doesn’t have to hear it. She’s just a silly woman, however. Patrick tells her so, Richardson tells her so, and by the end of the movie, The Sound Barrier tells her so.

The film’s a melodrama without much in the way of melodramatics. Todd’s performance is flat, ditto Patrick’s. Patrick at least seems like he should be superficial and (not maliciously) insensitive, but Todd is ostensibly the heart of the film. Not so, because she’s not a man. And only men, it turns out, can really experience things. Women are too busy worrying about winter coats and trying to one up the Joneses. Dinah Sheridan, as Justin’s wife, has the entirely thankless role of exemplifying how Todd’s worry-warting is so dumb.

And even though Richardson is awesome, he’s utterly devoid of any humanity. The film revels in it.

There’s no tension, there’s no suspense (the ending is forecast from literally the first scene), there’s no romance. Todd and Patrick do manage to have some chemistry, but it’s only because they’re being held prisoner by controlling Richardson. Silly Patrick even thinks Todd might be right about Richardson being bad news. Thank goodness he comes around; so the film’s not just great fodder for toxic masculinity discussions, there’s also the exceptional patriarchal bent.

Lean’s direction is competent. Rattigan’s script is exceptionally boring. Maybe at the time, if you were a British moviegoer who really hated Americans and willfully ignored recent history, you could get jingoistic about it. But not really, because it’s not about British ingenuity or anything, it’s about Richardson being awesome because he’s a bastard and Todd better come around to realizing it and embracing it. It’s about Todd realizing she’s a silly woman who just needs to listen to the man. It’s all very yucky.

Great photography from Jack Hildyard.

The Sound Barrier is never good. It’s never compelling. It’s absurdly lacking in any kind of insight, whether into its paper thin characters or its made up flight science. It’s not even interested in technical minutiae, which–for a while–seemed like it would be. But it’s never anywhere near as bad as the third act turns out to be. Maybe having a full stop false ending in the second act hurt. It doesn’t matter. The third act and then the finale crash harder than the jet planes do and they make these huge holes in the ground.

Not even plane designer Joseph Tomelty, who’s lovable from five minutes in, can survive that last act.

The Sound Barrier’s bunk.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by David Lean; written by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Jack Hildyard; edited by Geoffrey Foot; music by Malcolm Arnold; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Ann Todd (Susan), Nigel Patrick (Tony), Ralph Richardson (J.R.), John Justin (Philip), Denholm Elliott (Chris), Dinah Sheridan (Jess), and Joseph Tomelty (Will).


The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Nicolas Roeg)

The Man Who Fell to Earth is an endurance test. The film runs 138 minutes and has a present action of… dozens of years? Eventually Candy Clark and Rip Torn are in old age makeup, milling about the film from scene to scene, like being forgotten by it would be worse. Everyone’s a drunk by the end, their lives ruined throughout. Man Who Fell to Earth is one of those rare pictures where if it were more melodramatic, it might get better mileage out of the script and cast.

But director Roeg rejects melodrama. He rejects exposition as well, which you need for melodrama but you also need for character development. Torn’s in the film from near the start–his self-destructive university professor subplot is initially juxtaposed against the main one–and Torn stops getting any character moments. He doesn’t get to develop. He gets established, a little more in-depth than other cast members, but then he stops perturbing. He just ages. With makeup assistance.

Clark doesn’t even get that initial setup. She gets one memory, but it doesn’t inform her character at all. She’s initially a big plot foil, then she’s background. Eventually her life is ruined off-screen, just like Torn’s.

Only Buck Henry gets any active resolution, along with the film’s most overt reference to him having a male love interest. That reference comes at the very end, after setting Henry up as a bifocaled visual punchline for an hour or so. Maybe longer. Time loses meaning at some point during Fell to Earth. You’re just waiting for Roeg to get around to something.

He doesn’t, of course, which is sort of the point. You can suck the energy out of any story, no matter how fantastical.

The whole thing revolves around David Bowie’s eclectic genius recluse millionaire who arrives out of the desert with some gems of technical ingenuity. Those gems lead to patents, patents lead to attorney Henry. Then it’s off to New Mexico (again) for Bowie, where he meets Clark and begins his reluctant descent into hedonism.

Bowie’s performance is rather flat. Not unlikable, sometimes rather sympathetic, but always flat. For a while, it’s Clark’s job to give the scenes some buoyancy. She’s got to make up for Bowie’s flat affect. Eventually, Roeg doesn’t even bother having Clark do it. By the time she’s caked in old age makeup, it’s in her scenes without Bowie where she gets to show that buoyancy. Only in scenes not needing any.

It’d lead to a third act drag if the whole thing didn’t drag.

Roeg wants Man to operate without the story having to be the compelling part. Each individual scene has its own internal logic–especially when Bernie Casey, as either anti-capitalist American government agent (Bowie’s inventions are just too good and they’re throwing the economy out of whack) or a rival company man. Casey’s got this whole setup with his family, juxtaposing him against Bowie, who’s temporarily abandoned his own.

About the only thing Casey has in common with Bowie is the butt shots. Roeg goes all out with nudity in Man Who Fell to Earth–initially all Torn is doing is rolling around naked with his female students, which ends up being the most interesting character development in the whole movie–and it gets rather tiresome. It never goes anywhere. The long lingering shots of Bowie’s emaciated form? They’re just long lingering shots.

Technically, the film’s more than competent. Excellent photography from Anthony B. Richmond, decent editing from Graeme Clifford. Roeg’s direction is sort of tedious, just like everything else.

The Man Who Fell to Earth builds until it stops building–pretty much with the introduction of Casey–and there’s nothing to go in the place of that building. Working up some sympathy for Bowie, maybe, but it’s far too late.

When it finally does getting around to stopping, it finally embraces Bowie as the rock star–the beginning of the film, with stranger in town Bowie bewildered by a desolate American town, could be the opening for a Bowie concert film with him ambling around before the show. Only it’s not much of an embrace, because Roeg never wants the film’s pulse to get too high.

The film tries hard with some of its symbolism, some of its dramatic echoes (though, really, with this one I’m being polite), but nothing else. Roeg’s sense of scenic sensationalism wears off. There are only so many times you can be shocked by everyone in the cast except Henry running around naked.

Roeg’s so dramatically restrained, he can’t even get Man to a pretentious state.

The acting’s okay, most of the time. Torn’s probably the best. At least, once people’s regular appearances become more sporadic, Torn’s the only one you’re happy to see again. Clark’s eventually just around to scream and cry. And tumble around naked with Bowie in proto-MTV music videos.

Henry might be better if the exagerrated bifocals didn’t get in the way. Well, that change and some better writing. Mayersberg’s script–or Roeg’s direction of it–doesn’t give the actors much to work with.

Roeg’s got problems with verisimilitude (the film’s got none), which is more than clear during the flashforward third act. In its place, he has his flat, protracted artiface. It’s exhausting. And Man Who Fell to Earth should be anything but.

Also, frankly, Clark doesn’t shoulder the weight of the picture puts on her. Her character’s too thin, her performance is too thin. Old age makeup a performance does not make.

The film doesn’t completely flop until the finale, when Man shrugs at the idea of adding up to anything for any of the cast–everyone lies to one another throughout, so much so their actions seem “dramatically” (quotation marks because drama would help too much) mandated versus naturally occuring.

Again, if Roeg had just like the natural melodrama come through–and maybe had a better production design than Brian Eatwell–Man Who Fell to Earth might be something other than an exasperating, if inoffensive, waste of time.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nicolas Roeg; screenplay by Paul Mayersberg, based on the novel by Walter Tevis; director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond; edited by Graeme Clifford; music by John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley; released by British Lion Film Distribution.

Starring David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton), Candy Clark (Mary-Lou), Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce), Bernie Casey (Peters), and Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth).


The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy), the final cut

The Wicker Man can never decide on a tone. Director Hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer are both interested in minutiae of the film’s fictional setting, but never the same minutiae at the same time. Hardy is more interested in how the people live, cut off from the mainland, while Shaffer is more interested in how it all concerns the mystery.

Only Hardy isn’t much interested in the mystery. He’s too busy giving a folk feeling to a decidedly not folky setting. Stylistically, it’s a wonderful disconnect–a bunch of islanders, living in the modern world, but with ancient religious beliefs, all different ages, all apparently co-existing peaceably. The mysteriousness of the island, however, proves a problem as it’s supposed to be this utterly controlled environment–private property owned by lord Christopher Lee–yet Shaffer’s characters aren’t a bunch of isolates, they’re “normal.” Or normal enough the audience should be disturbed by them.

However, the unevenness aside, The Wicker Man’s a fine picture. Hardy does a good job directing–he and editor Eric Boyd-Perkins cut a constantly foreboding (but not necessarily threatening) experience, with Edward Woodward a solid lead. Woodward’s mainland police officer is sympathetic without being likable. The film sends him to the island in search of a missing girl; Woodward (and the viewer) are left to imagine her awful fate.

It should be more exploitative than it comes across. Hardy doesn’t exactly hurry through anything, but he keeps a different, brisker pace during certain sequences.

However, once Lee shows up, he starts running circles around Woodward. Lee’s not just better, he has a far better part. There’s a lot more he can do with it, while Woodward’s pretty much stuck.

There’s some good support from Britt Ekland, who has a sense of humor about it. Lee has one too. It helps–especially since Diane Cilento and Ingrid Pitt, as blonde harpies meant to fill Woodward’s mind with impure thoughts, play it all way too seriously.

The Wicker Man has numerous significant rewards (like when Harry Waxman’s photography gets to shine), even if it stalls quite often on Shaffer’s various narrative shortcuts.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robin Hardy; written by Anthony Shaffer; director of photography, Harry Waxman; edited by Eric Boyd-Perkins; music by Paul Giovanni; produced by Peter Snell; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Edward Woodward (Sergeant Howie), Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle), Diane Cilento (Miss Rose), Britt Ekland (Willow), Ingrid Pitt (Librarian), Irene Sunters (May Morrison) and Lindsay Kemp (Alder MacGreagor).


An Inspector Calls (1954, Guy Hamilton)

For the majority of An Inspector Calls, I thought Alastair Sim’s delicate, thoughtful performance was out of place. The film’s incredibly melodramatic and contrived. After the twist ending… well, I’m pretty sure it’s still melodramatic and contrived, but it gives the impression of having an escape clause.

Regardless of title, it is not a mystery. Rather, it’s a British class piece (see the way I used the word “rather,” thought that choice was classy). But it’s a forceful class piece and not a subtle one. Subtlety probably would have helped some.

Even though he’s top-billed and he’s the best actor in the film, Sim is not the protagonist. He doesn’t even have the most screen time. But his every move is perfect.

Jane Wenham gets the most screen time and she’s good. Her role’s difficult, mostly because she never gets to act in a scene for herself; her scenes are always played for the other actor. Even when she’s alone in it.

Of the supporting cast, Eileen Moore and Bryan Forbes are good. Forbes is actually rather excellent, something not immediately clear because of the narrative structure. Brian Worth is sometimes good and sometimes bad. More bad than good. Both Arthur Young and Olga Lindo are comically bad. One has to wonder, especially at the end, if director Hamilton was instructing them to up the sinister.

Hamilton’s direction is solid and occasionally inspired. Francis Chagrin’s overblown score doesn’t help.

Sim’s great… but I’m not sure he makes it worthwhile.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Hamilton; screenplay by Desmond Davis, based on the play by J.B. Priestley; director of photography, Edward Scaife; edited by Alan Osbiston; music by Francis Chagrin; produced by A.D. Peters; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Alastair Sim (Inspector Poole), Jane Wenham (Eva Smith), Brian Worth (Gerald Croft), Eileen Moore (Sheila Birling), Olga Lindo (Sybil Birling), Arthur Young (Arthur Birling), Bryan Forbes (Eric Birling), Norman Bird (Foreman Jones-Collins) and Charles Saynor (Police Sergeant Arnold Ransom).


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962, Tony Richardson)

Despite its title, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner doesn’t really concern itself with loneliness and the only long distance running is secondary in the narrative. The film’s really something of a social piece, made rather conspicuous in the third act, with the comparison between the public school and the reform school. That moment, with the public school students appearing to be rubes, seems a little off. Wouldn’t they be wary of the delinquents?

The film’s about a teenage delinquent (twenty-five year-old, and it shows, Tom Courtenay) who proves to be an excellent runner at reform school. Headmaster Michael Redgrave (in a throwaway part) has a big thing for athletics, having been a runner in his younger days, and Courtenay becomes his new star. But the majority of the narrative is flashback, leading up to Courtenay being caught and sent to the school. His crime is identified, in a narratively flimsy scene, when he talks to the school counselor. The counselor, who practically opens the film, is a fine example of Loneliness‘s biggest problem–it forgets about people.

With an hour and forty minute running time, one might think Loneliness had time to keep track of its principal cast, but the counselor is the first to go, followed by James Bolam, who appears in the modern action from the flashback without any solid narrative reason. So much of the film is spent in flashback, with Courtenay really doing well (if looking eight years too old) in those scenes. But it’s also in those scenes where the film reveals itself–the story’s not about a teenage delinquent off at reform school, it’s about a son adrift following his father’s death–and the reform school scenes can’t really compete, because they’re disconnected from that character.

The end, of course, tries to bring everything together, but Richardson’s style–five second repeats of earlier scenes–doesn’t work at all. Richardson’s direction here is mostly solid, even excellent, but the little flourishes (the film uses a jazz score to poor effect) distract from his otherwise fine work. There are some beautiful long shots of the training runs, with Walter Lassally’s black and white cinematography exquisite. A scene at the beach, with Courtenay and girlfriend Topsy Jane, is also very well done; Richardson can’t quite marry the technical quality and the story, however.

Alan Stillitoe adapted his own short story, but the content–and the way so much is left out–suggests he added material to make up for feature length. The result, combined with the seemingly overpowering urge to make a statement, is a confused film. It’s interesting technically (and historically), competently acted, but entirely dispassionate. Richardson’s going for a certain amount of distance, but he never quite makes the case of Courtenay’s character deserving our attention. At home, with the death of the father, definitely; at the reform school, not so much, which might be why those scenes become less and less prevalent as the running time progresses.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Tony Richardson; screenplay by Alan Stilltoe, based on his short story; director of photography, Walter Lassally; edited by Antony Gibbs; music by John Addison; production designer, Ralph W. Brinton; released by British Lion-Columbia Ltd.

Starring Michael Redgrave (Ruxton Towers Reformatory governor), Tom Courtenay (Colin Smith), Avis Bunnage (Mrs. Smith), Alec McCowen (Brown, House Master), James Bolam (Mike), Joe Robinson (Roach), Dervis Ward (Detective), Topsy Jane (Audrey) and Julia Foster (Gladys).

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

In honor of Dennis Arundell’s translation of The Tales of Hoffman‘s lyrics (into English), how visually flawless, how totally heartless.

Hoffmann is not an adaptation of the opera, rather a filmic performance. Depending on your opinion, this approach is either the benefit or failure of the film. The performances–hopefully–were meant to be judged on their singing and dancing, because there’s no real acting going on. No characters being created, no conflict being charted. I spent the entire film looking at the clock.

The film is beautiful. The Archers do color German expressionist–but manage it well, with a few moments Fellini lifted. Except Fellini added human conflict to the moments, making them more than pretty. There’s a few really amusing moments when they concentrate on one of the supporting characters, not because she’s necessary, but because they can’t totally ignore the dramatic need….

Powell and Pressburger are so good–so beyond good–everyone ought to be a completist, making The Tales of Hoffmann a necessary viewing. If you like opera, you might even enjoy it.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; screenplay by Powell, Pressburger and Dennis Arundell, based on the libretto by Jules Barbier and the stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann; director of photography, Christopher Challis; edited by Reginald Mills; music by Jacques Offenbach; production designer, Hein Heckroth; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Robert Rounseville (Hoffmann), Moira Shearer (Stella and Olympia), Ludmilla Tchérina (Giulietta), Anne Ayars (Antonia), Pamela Brown (Nicklaus), Léonide Massine (Spalanzani, Schlemil and Franz), Robert Helpmann (Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto and Dr. Miracle), Frederick Ashton (Kleinsach and Cochenille), Mogens Wieth (Crespel), Lionel Harris (Pitichinaccio), Philip Leaver (Andreas) and Meinhart Maur (Luther).


Scroll to Top