Category: Kitchen sink drama

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Gary Oldman’s passion project is a punishingly raw, unforgettably tough drama of marital abuse

Director: Gary Oldman

Cast: Ray Winstone (Raymond), Kathy Burke (Valerie), Charlie Creed-Miles (Billy), Laila Morse (Janet), Edna Dore (Kath), Chrissie Cotterill (Paula), Jon Morrison (Angus), Jamie Foreman (Mark)

Gary Oldman called it his Lamborghini. Where other stars poured money into fast cars, Oldman pumped millions into this passion project. Writing and directing, Oldman’s film was not autobiographical, but an exploration of working-class themes that had surrounded him during his life. Nil By Mouth is a punishing look at the self-destructive cycles of some working-class lives, trapped in ruts with little opportunities or aspirations, tinged with humour but smothered in an aggressive and toxic masculinity where women so often become the victims.

Raymond (Ray Winstone) is married to Valerie (Kathy Burke). They live in a council estate in London, along with Valerie’s junkie brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles). Raymond makes a living in casual crime and carries a seething, barely controlled temper that explodes at the slightest provocation. Often that comes from his own family and his shocking and brutal capacity for extreme, vindictive rage will leave physical and mental scars on all around him.

Oldman’s Nil By Mouth doesn’t really have a plot as such. It’s more a ‘slice of life’ film – or a kitchen-sink drama, but one where the sink is ripped from the wall and used to smash someone in the face. Nil By Mouth is visceral, difficult to watch and relentlessly, almost overwhelmingly, powerful in its grimness. Oldman doesn’t allow a shred of romance about working class life. There is no nobility inherent in poverty, and for every piece of human decency there are those stuck in self-destructive cycles. Often this means men barrelling around causing pain, while women pick up the pieces.

Oldman shoots the film with an alarming immersiveness. Handheld cameras, awkward turns and a deliberate shunning of the careful and conservative distancing of two-shot set-ups, makes the viewer feel uncomfortable close to the characters in all their exceptionally flawed whole. The film is designed to make us feel as much in the room as possible, an increasingly helpless witness to the aggression and violence that bubbles under the surface of every moment. Just like Valerie’s young daughter, who watches everything with a mute silence, we are helpless witnesses.

Working-class London is an overwhelmingly male – and toxic – environment. No one can go more than a few words without effing and blinding. All the male characters guard their personal space like pit bulls. The slightest accidental touch can be met with nose-to-nose spittle fuelled fury. While there is a homespun humour to some of the conversations, the content is pitch-black. Anything that could even be vaguely interpreted as weakness is aggressively shunned.

It’s clear that all the man are emotionally stunted, frightened little boys behaving with the aggression of angry teenagers and the muscles of fully-grown men. Oldman’s gift with the film is to look at some of the most appalling people, with an understanding that never tips into sympathy. None more so than wife-beater Raymond. Raymond is a monster. A bleeding fist of anger, who sheds self-pitying tears in the aftermath of the latest atrocity he has inflicted upon his wife (“I do it because I love you”). Raymond sees himself as “the Daddy” but is actually a weak-willed bully, drowning in self-loathing and crippled by misdirected anger and grief at his own bullying father.

None of this excuses the appalling, terrifying behaviour he dishes out to Billy and Valerie. He nearly bites Billy’s nose off in an incandescent fury when Billy steals his drugs. That’s nothing to the jealous beating he meets out to Valerie when he witnesses her playing pool with a man. This shockingly violent outburst of kicks, punches and stamps to the prone and weeping Valerie is impossible to watch (mercifully Oldman keeps it mostly off camera). It’s felt inevitable: Raymond looks on the edge of handing out a beating every time we see him.

But then, Oldman is making the point, it’s inevitable to the characters as well. None of Valerie’s family are surprised by it – even if there is a vague attempt by her mother Janet (played excellently by Oldman’s real-life sister Laila Morse) to accept Valerie’s detailed story of a hit-and-run leading to her disfiguring injuries. Raymond is translating the pain handed out him onto his own family, dishing out treatment he received from his father but a hundred-fold worse. Just as his mother accepted treatment like this from his father, so Valerie will accept it from him. Her daughter will see this behaviour, and likely accept the same from her husband in the future.

Why do women accept it? Because what choice do they have? There is so few opportunities. Aspiration hardly comes into it – even if it clearly doesn’t exist for many – because quite simply the idea of there being another way of living your life than this just seems impossible. Women are there to pick-up the pieces. Janet has been doing it for years, nursing her son through a drug-habit with cash when he needs it (all of which goes into his arm). They need to keep the family, dysfunctional as it is, strangely functional. To let the dust settle, to welcome the abuser back in when he promises to change, give the junkie who has robbed them one more chance.

Nil By Mouth is at its strongest when it implies this terrible cycle. This can’t be the first time Raymond has struck Valerie (there is mention of an earlier estranged marriage, which presumably ended for the same reason). The film comes full circle to the family back together again – but no problems have been solved, no changes made, no revelations made. People have simply come together because, at the end of the day, what other choices are there?

Nil By Mouth isn’t perfect. Its grim power is sometimes overstretched at its two-hour plus run time. Much of the first half hour focuses on Billy, with Oldman’s camera a little too in love with the observational tragedy of this slightly shallow character (Creed-Miles does a good job, but the character is never quite interesting enough to sustain his screen-time). This is particularly obvious once the focus returns to the raw, unwatchable power of Raymond and Valerie.

Here Oldman also shows his strengths as a director of actors. Winstone – who a year before was making episodes of One Foot in the Grave and Murder Most Horrid – saw his whole career change with a performance of such stunning intensity, commitment and sheer visceral horror matched with self-pitying weakness, that he makes Raymond one of the most pathetic monsters of cinema. Kathy Burke is astoundingly good as Valerie, suffering, patient but unable to conceive of a change to her life. Both have never been better, turning a domestic tragedy into something of elemental force.

Oldman’s film is hard, grim, difficult viewing – but also essential. It marks him, after Laughton, as one of the greatest sole-directing credit actors (so far!) ever. Nil By Mouth, once seen, is impossible to forget.

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Bresson uses an animal to make a powerful spiritual point in a simple but insightful movie

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Anne Wiazemsky (Marie), Walter Green (Jacques), François Lafarge (Gérard), Philippe Asselin (Marie’s father), Nathalie Joyaut (Marie’s mother), Jean-Claude Guilbert (Arnold), Pierre Klossowski (Miller), Jean-Joel Barbier (Priest), François Sullerot (Baker), Marie-Claire Fremont (Baker’s wife)

Robert Bresson valued naturalism in his actors above all things. So much so he would make them rehearse even the simplest actions hundreds of times, to drain all artificiality and performance from it and make it as ‘real’ and controlled as possible. He worked best with non-professional actors, whose lack of training meant there was one less barrier of artifice for him to break down. So, its perhaps not a surprise that one of his best collaborators, in one of his finest films, was such a non-professional he wasn’t even human. He was a donkey.

Au Hasard Balthasar (or Balthasar, at random) also throws in Bresson’s other great strength: a profound, but not overbearing, spirituality, a mark of Christian faith that turned simple stories told on an intimate scale into searching and intriguing metaphors for the human condition. He achieves something quite remarkable here, with a film that places a donkey near its centre but then becomes a meditation on the human condition and our capacity for cruelty and selfishness. And the donkey himself becomes a passive, Christ like figure, undergoing his very own passion on the way to his own Calvary where he will literally die because of – and maybe for – our sins.

Balthasar’s life is one of seemingly random, disconnected movements from one owner to another, all of whose lives loosely entwine. First, the kindly Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) who, as a child, adopts Balthasar and brings him into her home. This blissful life lasts a short time before the donkey is palmed off to farmhands then a baker whose delivery boy Gérard (François Lafarge) is a tearaway and criminal. Gérard treats the animal poorly – largely because he envies Marie’s love for it. They enter into an abusive relationship, while Balthasar is taken on by alcoholic Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) who uses him to guide tourists up the Pyrenees. Balthasar works as a circus animal and a beast of exhausting labour for a miller, while in the background the threat of Gérard and his malign influence on Anne and his abuse of Balthasar lurk.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Au Hasard Balthasar is how readily Bresson embraces the nature of the donkey. Balthasar is never anything other than a dumb animal. He has no insight into what is happening around him. Instead, he stands passively chewing. He only rarely seems to recognise and respond to people. Events happen to and around him, but there is no attempt to show them having any impact on him. He is – and remains – simply a donkey, incapable of anything other than what a donkey can do. Bresson allows not a second of anthropomorphism. Babe this isn’t.

Instead, what happens to this donkey tells us more about the humans he encounters around him. This gives us a stunning insight into humanity and how we treat those below us. To most the donkey is not a person or even a creature, it is just a tool. As the miller says, it will be worked until it can work no more and then it will be euthanised. Gérard sees it as a petty scab to pick, a chance for a bit of casual sadistic fun, tying fire-crackers to its tail and watching its distress. The closest to a companion he has, outside of Marie, is Arnold – and even Arnold works him incessantly and drags him back to servitude from a brief release at the circus.

What Bresson does with this, is invest this donkey’s story with immense spiritual impact. The events that happen to Balthasar parallel the stages of the cross, moments of tenderness from strangers and friends mixed with labours dragging his own cross and the mockery of those who watch him. He’s met with indifference and disregard so many times, that his suffering eventually seems to be providing some sort of chance of retribution for the deeply flawed characters around him, that by treating him well the might save their own souls. Instead, Gérard will drag him over the border carrying smuggled goods and he will, uncomplainingly, suffer the punishment for him.

We can but hope that it is to give Gérard a second chance. But I doubt it. Bresson’s impact with his actors, beating the ‘acting’ out of them gives them a flat naturalness – but also allows us to layer our own feelings on top of them. Gérard is a choir boy with an angelic voice – but he’s also a selfish sadomasochist and a bully, charismatic but naturally cruel. Nevertheless, he has a demonic charm. The baker’s wife willingly covers him his theft and showers him with gifts.

And of course, Marie is drawn towards him with self-destructive yearning. She should love her childhood friend Jacques, but he’s a dull, uninspiring, sap. Gérard is rough, tough, wears a leather jacket and can sing like an angel and (you imagine) cuss like a demon. Their first encounter sees Marie torn between fear, fascination and attraction, as a roadside encounter leads to a sexual encounter in a car that has the whiff of lack of consent. Despite this, Marie returns again and again to Gérard, throwing away parts of her life and family to hang on his arm.

It’s only Balthasar it seems she can connect with. Perhaps because they are both sacrificial figures. Marie’s father loses his farm due to pride and stubbornness. She devotes herself to a bad man and rejects the one who idealises an idea of her. Marie’s motives defy logic to us – but maybe this is because she is closest to the donkey and, like him, content (condemned?) to lead a life where she is buffeted by events and people rather than controlling them.

Bresson plays this all out with a quiet, unfussy, contained camera, playing shots out in controlled takes and carefully selecting moments to cut to Balthasar. He avoids moral judgements but presents actions as they are. After all, shouldn’t a miller work a donkey hard? Shouldn’t a baker need him to walk miles? Don’t we go to the circus or zoo all the time and not think about the animals performing for us? Things are presented as they are and we are not pushed towards one view or another.

Except at the end as Balthasar makes his final sacrifice, lying down on his personal Calvary as Schubert plays on the soundtrack (the film’s only real sustained use of music). Quietly, life drains from this animal as sheep flock around him as if to pay tribute. It’s profoundly simple but somehow intensely moving – as if the pointless culmination of this life somehow sees the donkey transcend into something higher and more meaningful, and eternal symbol of virtue and sacrifice.

It’s what makes Au Hasard Balthasar linger in the memory. Bresson’s signature simpleness and restraint, his deliberate, observatory distance from characters and events leave it open to us to interpret what we will. Maybe it’s just a story about a dumb animal. Maybe it’s a story about all of us, about how we exploit things around us and how we treat each other with selfishness and greed. Eventually Bresson leaves it up to us to decide what we can take from it.

Summer with Monika (1953)

Summer with Monika (1953)

Bergman’s early kitchen-sink drama, as idealism turns sour after a seemingly blissful Summer

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Harriet Andersson (Monika), Lars Ekborg (Harry), John Harrysone (Lelle), Georg Skarstedt (Harry’s father), Dagmar Ebbesen (Harry’s aunt), Åke Fridell (Monika’s father), Naemi Briese (Monika’s mother), Åke Grönberg (Harry’s friend)

Summer with Monika is, in many ways, the story of two shots. The first follows Monika (Harriet Andersson) as she strips down and runs across the rocks to the sea during her summer escape from the dullness of life with Harry (Lars Ekborg). It’s the shot that excited a generation of sweaty-palmed gentlemen watching the bizarre exploitation-cut of the film released in the US. The second made auteurs the world over swoon: returned from that summer and trapped in the cramped apartment, childcare life of her parents, Monika goes for an illicit drink with her lover, accepts a cigarette and then turns to stare straight down the camera at us, the shot held for a long minute as all light fades around her, as if challenging us to object to what she is obviously about to do.

Summer with Monika (largely thanks to the first shot) remains Bergman’s most watched film in America. In Stockholm, the children of two working-class families meet in a café and go on a date. Harry works joyless shifts, bullied by bosses and the other staff, in a glass shop. Monika sleeps in the living space of her tiny apartment, where her parents are frequently drunk and indifferent. The two of them chuck it all in to run away to the countryside in Harry’s father’s boat. At first its idyllic, but they can never quite escape the burdens of modern life. When they return, Monika’s pregnancy, a rushed marriage and a tiny apartment sees any dreams they had of youthful freedom drain away.

Bergman’s film feels like the advance guard of the British Kitchen Sink drama. Our two young heroes are full of dreams for a perfect, bohemian life totally different from their parents that neither of them really have the initiative to deliver on. Harry is, at heart, a timid individual – to timid to even smash a glass when he quits his job, instead pushing it as near as he dares to the edge of a shelf and glancing round in fear when it falls. Monika is full of desire for something but even she seems unsure what this is, other than knowing it’s not this.

Together they head into what they want to think – and desperately tell each other – is a perfect summer of utter freedom going where the water takes them in a boat. And at points it is perfect. They drift, relax in the sun, make love. Monika strips down and runs towards the water. The two have a sharp sexual longing for each other. It’s all wildly different from sitting in Harry’s house and hurriedly buttoning their clothes up when they hear his father arrive home early. They have no responsibilities, no requirements, nothing.

From their first meeting together, there is the feeling that they are trying too hard. Both of them wants to see the other as an escape from their own lives. On an early date they watch a classic Hollywood romance at the cinema, but while Monika stares rapt at the screen, Harry seems less engaged – she dreams of a romantic future, he’s basically happy with one where he has Monika. While she wants to plan no further than the next hour, Harry won’t let his mind move on from his long-term dream of becoming an engineer (and the years of study it will require).

They rush together in an impulsive summer, as if trying to hide the fact from themselves that deep down they are unsuited and incompatible. Monika wants to be a free spirit, Harry might enjoy a holiday but always sees himself as taking a place in the world at large. But for a few moments they can enjoy the freedom. Together they flee from a crowded pier to dance alone on a romantic abandoned one. Monika sunbathes on the small boat while Harry steers it. They vow to be together forever, but this romantic moment feels like what it is: a fantasy.

Bergman won’t let us wallow in this romantic fantasy. The drift along the coastline takes place in a tiny boat, with only two suitcases worth of possessions. A fellow tourist attacks their boat, forcing them to defend it (the aftermath is their last moment of passion – before this they were arguing over Harry’s bad dancing). They have very little money for food: they start running out, leading to arguments, scavenging and eventually Monika stealing a roast from a farmhouse after she is caught rifling through the outhouses. She eats this like a savage, tearing flesh from the joint with her teeth and berating Harry for failing to help her (he was off gathering wild fruit – a clear reminder that he is a dutiful but far from exciting hunter-gatherer).

When they return though, it is not to a freedom Monika imagined but the world of her parents. Oppressive, full of responsibility, lacking in joy, every hour spent responsible for a child. Harry starts his training and is rarely seen outside of a suit. Monika is ill-suited to domesticity and bemoans the fact it’s forced upon her. She’s young and she wants the freedom she thought she had been promised – and having her sleep disturbed by a baby in a one-room apartment ain’t it.

And so, we get that defiant stare down the camera. Harriet Andersson is quite extraordinary in this role. It’s arguably the challenging glare that really fired the sexual pistons of the American distributors who re-cut the film into a 60-minute exploitation film (with added insert boob shots of someone else). It’s the stare of a woman who is determined to get what she wants from life and challenges us to judge her. Andersson makes Monika both passionate and challenging, but also vulnerable. She wants tenderness and love, but not at the cost of being trapped in a world where decisions are forced upon her. She’s young and selfish, but also honest and strangely gentle.

Bergman’s work here explodes the simplicity of romantic narratives. Instead, it fits wonderfully with that Kitchen Sink realism, where hopes are worn down by the realities of life and people cling to moments of freedom hoping they will last forever and translate into eternal realities. As Harry (Lard Egbork is very good as this young man constantly trying his best) and Monika increasingly argue, they become more-and-more identical to her parents. Youth eventually gets crushed by the truth of life and dream-like cruises on small boats become long years of childcare and professional training. Heartfelt, challenging and very sad it’s a key early Bergman work.

Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

Bresson’s fascinating message of hope, simply but superbly deconstructs the addiction of a life of crime

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Martin Lasalle (Michel), Marika Green (Jeanne), Jean Pelegri (Police Inspector), Dolly Scal (Michel’s mother), Pierre Leymarie (Jacques), Kassagi (First Accomplice), Pierre Etaix (Second Accomplice), Cesar Cattegno (Inspector)

A man watches with fixed eyes, breathless and tense, as another man’s hands artfully dodge out from beneath his newspaper to caress the lapels of his fellow train passenger, coming away with a wallet clasped between the folds of his paper. It has a clammy sense of the illicit, a tempting underbelly of the world, where the normal rules don’t apply and the special can take advantage of others because they deserve the world’s benefits more. It’s about being a pickpocket, but it could be about any shadowy world just under what society permits, where the attraction is being part of the club more than any of the actual awards from the act.

No wonder pickpocket Michel (Martin Lasalle) starts to believe his own pumped-up hype: he’s no ordinary man, but a superman, an uber-mensch who has a right to help himself to the gains of others. Getting caught? It will never happen: after all just fools and little people stumble into that trap. Instead, Michel walks through the streets of Paris with the fixed glare of the addict, who can’t wait for his next stealing fix. He’ll take from anyone (even his own mother), ignore the pleas of friends, taunt a police inspector and hoard his gains in a secret nook under his bed. Even the glances that come his way from the daughter of his mother’s landlord, Jeanne (Marika Green), can’t win him away from his longing for the buzz of crime.

Bresson’s perfectly formed novella of a film (it clocks in at a trim 74 minutes) turns this into a profound journey into one man’s soul, where he will constantly dance between temptation and redemption. Loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (the criminal who thinks he is a better man, the police officer he engages in a battle of wits), Bresson uses this underlying idea to craft a profound, articulate and focused study of the emptiness behind indulging our worst instincts.

Because that’s what Michel is doing. He’s clearly smart enough to find a proper job, casting aside the offers of his friend Jacques to fix him up. But he can’t raise the passion for a normal life. Bresson, whose style embraced the rawness of unnatural performers, almost literally plucked Martin Lasalle from the streets. Carefully tutored by Bresson, all artificial effects were hammered out of him, leaving Lasalle a blank and exact performer. It works perfectly for Bresson’s concept of the criminal as a dysfunctional human, unable to relate to or understand others, unable to engage in the world, coming to life for his crimes and plodding through the rest of time with monotony and a striking lack of emotional engagement. (It admittedly works less well for those scenes where Lasalle must demonstrate emotion, which he plays with a mechanical dutifulness.)

Michel can’t bring himself to see his dying mother, dropping money off with Jeanne to pass over for him (money, it later transpires, he had stolen from her in any case). His friendship with Jacques sees him go blandly through the emotions. We constantly see him trudging up and down stairs, opening and closing his door, moving his few possessions around, all of it with clockwork regularity that seems relentless. He falls in with fellow pickpockets but doesn’t even learn their names. The most he ever seems engaged is during his sly exchanges with a police inspector (avuncular Jean Pelegri) who seems certain he’s a thief.

Perhaps Michel is so relatively animated in these exchanges because he’s desperate to be caught. Because how can you be a superman, if no one can really see what you are doing? The bitter irony is, your genius for theft can only be publicly acknowledged by being caught, the greatest failure of any thief. But Michel longs, in some part of himself, for recognition, praise and to stand-out. His life – in a grimy bedsit, wearing the same ill-fitting suit (which hangs about him, as if exaggerating his blankness) – is strikingly un-special. His best attribute as a pickpocket is that he’s a non-entity you wouldn’t look at twice. Is there a bigger slap in the face for the man who would be king, that his greatest strength is his ability to not be seen?

It must be particularly harsh, as Bresson makes clear Michel isn’t even a particularly adept pickpocket. He fluffs his first few attempts, his heart pounding so much that he can’t bring about the steady hands needed. His early crimes are clumsy and ineffective. At a race meet that opens the film, he filches cash from a lady’s handbag and only a lack of evidence saves him when he is immediately picked up. When he is finally found by his expert accomplice (played by real-life thief, and master of sleight-of-hand, Kassagi), his crude techniques are ruthlessly exposed.

This would-be superman never reaches the heights of Kassagi. Bresson’s shooting of the pickpocket’s crimes are edited like the greatest heist thrillers, tense moments of balletic beauty. We see hands carefully unbutton jackets from behind. Wallets knocked out of pockets and caught as they slide down a person’s body. Wrists are clasped and stroked as watches are removed. The pickpockets work in a team of three: one takes the wallet, passes it to a second who palms it instantly to a third who escapes. All this is caught by Bresson with all the grace of Gene Kelly. It’s exciting, dynamic – and also (you can’t escape it) sensual. You can see why Michel gets such a thrill out of it.

But he’s also the least of his team of three – and when the other two get nicked, he really should take the hint. He practises at length to make his fingers more supple, his ability to grasp watches and wallets more fluid. But his movements are never quite graceful enough, his face always a little too sweaty, his eyes flicking a little too much as if worried about being caught in an assignation. Later he travels to London but returns penniless, too inept to keep hold of his cash from card-sharps.

Bresson’s film reaches, gently but highly effectively, for a spiritual message. What joy or grace is there for Michel? Crime and the dreams of being someone special fill a void in his life. That void has no room for friends or family. Not even for God, who he’s touched by “for three minutes” at his mother’s funeral. Even the (to us) evident love of Jeanne can’t really touch him enough to change his ways. Or at least, perhaps not until he hits rock bottom where, like Paul on the road to Damascus, he will have a sudden vision, trapped behind bars, that life can be different.

To give that impact, Bresson has to show (and understand) the lurid temptation of a life beyond the rules and the norms. Pickpocketing was his tool – and it perfectly conveys the addictive glamour of feeling superior to others – but really it could have been the buzz of any addiction, the thieves hunting each other out with the knowing eyes of fellow addicts. These sensual delights are false though, engaging and absorbing as they are. Told without melodrama, it’s a stunning, hard-boiled thriller that ripens into a profound, subtle and intelligent parable, assembled with a cool, exact genius that makes filmmaking look simple.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Classic 80s romance? Or is it, in fact, a searing kitchen-sink drama about class and depression? One of the great mis-remembered films of all time

Director: Taylor Hackford

Cast: Richard Gere (Zach Mayo), Debra Winger (Paula Pokrifki), Louis Gossett Jnr (Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley), David Keith (Sid Worley), Lisa Blount (Lynette Pomeroy), Robert Loggia (Byron Mayo), Lisa Elbacher (Casey Seeger), Tony Plana (Emiliano Santos Della Serra), Harold Sylvester (Lionel Perryman), David Caruso (Topper Daniels)

An Officer and Gentleman is remembered as a sweep-you-off-your-feet romance, with power-ballads underplaying attractive Hollywood stars passionately proclaiming their love. It ain’t anything like that. This proto-Top Gun – a film it has strong similarities to in structure and design – is actually a kitchen-sink drama masquerading as a feelgood movie, with a final romantic image and “Up Where We Belong” leaving a deceptive memory behind. Where Top Gun is loud, brash and fundamentally reassuring and straight-forward, An Officer and a Gentleman is jagged, surprisingly difficult and unsettling. Put it this way: Tom Cruise doesn’t call anyone the c-bomb in Top Gun.

Zach Mayo (one of Richard Gere’s legendary performances, the memory of which guided much of the rest of his career far more than its reality) is a Navy-brat determined to be nothing like his alcoholic, whoring dad (Robert Loggia). He’s going to graduate from Naval Flight Candidate school and become “an officer and a gentleman”. Zach is a damaged soul, defensive, closed-off and selfish, a smarmy, cruel loner interested only in what he can get out of any relationship. The film is about whether Zach will learn to become a sympathetic, caring person, rather than a resentful douche.

There are three influences that might just change him. Firstly, fellow trainee Sid (David Keith), from a Naval officer family, attending because his deceased brother can’t. The second is training officer and uncompromising disciplinarian Sgt Emil Foley (Louis Gossett Jnr). And, finally, factory worker Paula (Debra Winger), one of the local women officer candidates are warned are intent on bagging a husband by fair or foul. Each will play a different role in making Zach a fully rounded person.

Hackford’s film is a tough, hardened one that takes a long hard look at mental health, guilt, suicide, parental resentment and a host of other complex issues. Any romantic moment is matched with one of pain, fury or characters doubled over with guilt and shame. It dives deep into its flawed hero and shows how someone can, almost unwittingly, be reconstructed into something warmer. It does all this in grimy, scruffy settings with characters making desperate choices motivated by poverty and lack of choices.

It opens with a shaggy-haired, scruffy Gere starring into a mirror in a dark motel room while his father is passed out in bed with two prostitutes. We are constantly reminded of Zach’s working-class background, his life growing up trailing behind his (largely indifferent) father after the suicide of his mother, left to fend for himself in the rough and tumble of the Philippine streets. At naval school, the same chippy resentment of how people perceive his roots persists – along with the lessons he has spent his whole life learning: that he should count on no-one but himself.

Zach doesn’t believe he’s worth loving. Facing abandonment issues (of different kinds) from both his parents, he doesn’t give a toss about anyone and expect them feel the same. He sets up a grift selling pre-polished buckles and boots to his fellow candidates, only helping them for a price. He completes exercises alone, cheats in aeronautical class, and gloats as he passes anyone on physical trials. When dating Paula, he frequently retreats into cold rudeness when conversation turns to anything emotional, and repeatedly claims he wants nothing more than a bit of fun. It all stems – as Paula realises – from a defensive hostility, pushing people away before they can leave him.

His lack of team-playing is identified early by Foley as his Achilles heel. Louis Gossett Jnr won an Oscar for his impressively nuanced work here. At first Foley seems an almost unbelievably horrible man, a bully dropping racist and homophobic slurs with casual ease, who makes it his mission to drive his candidates out of the programme (right down to bragging that he chisels a mark on his swivel stick whenever another one drops out).

However, Hackford and Gossett Jnr skilfully show this is, to a degree, a show: Foley is tough because the military is tough, and deep down he does care. Candidates slowly earn his respect (female candidate Seeger may fail to climb a wall, but goddamn he respects her guts) and he quietly goes to great lengths to support them. Foley’s act is intended to get them to excel – and he’ll be proud of them when they do, just as they will be grateful to him. The strength of Gossett Jnr’s performance mean his scenes dominate the narrative (at the cost of the romance), but this is to the film’s benefit.

Interestingly, that romance is often the least effective part of the film. Gere and Winger have fine chemistry (despite, allegedly, not getting on) but the narrative often takes sudden time jumps. From one scene to another they’ll go from together to split up, and the film never quite manages to show us naturally how this is changing Zach. Instead, it frequently stops to tell us this, with on-the-nose conversations. Winger is good, but the relationship feels forced – as if it a film couldn’t exist without a romance, when actually Paula could be removed altogether and it wouldn’t really change the film.

It’s forced perhaps because what really feels like it changes Zach is the friendship with Sid. Played very well by a sensitive David Keith, Sid is everything Zach is not. Confident, happy to help others, a natural leader and team player. Under the surface he isn’t – doubtful and insecure – but the friendship between them is the spark that changes Zach. Sid is, much like Goose in Top Gun, the sacrificial pal, but this sacrifice promotes real growth in Zach. The parallel romance between Sid and gold-digger Lynette (a fine Lisa Blount) is also an effective commentary on Zach and Paula, both characters being mirror images of the leads.

The film culminates in that romantic sweep-you-off-your-feet moment in the factory: but that feels like it belongs in a different film than the hard-boiled one we’ve been watching of a man confronting his fear of failure and lack of self-worth. Gere, by the way, is very good as Zach – his smirk a defensive screen for a host of psychological problems (few actors would have been willing to be as unlikeable as Gere is here). An Officer and a Gentleman is really a character study in working-class resentments, but somehow is mis-remembered as the quintessential 80s romance. It truly isn’t. Instead Hackford’s film – flawed as it is – is smarter and pricklier than that.

After Love (2021)

After Love (2021)

Loss, grief and family combine in Aleem Khan’s poetic, heartfelt debut

Director: Aleem Khan

Cast: Joanna Scanlan (Mary Hussain), Nathalie Richard (Genevieve), Talid Ariss (Solomon), Nasser Memarzia (Ahmed), Sudha Bhuchar (Farzanna), Nisha Chadha (Mina)

Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) is a white English woman who converted to Islam decades ago to marry Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). Ahmed works as a captain of a ferry ship, travelling between their home in Dover and Calais. When he suddenly passes away, Mary is distraught. But that’s nothing compared to how she feels when she discovers Ahmed had a second family in Calais: Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) and their son Solomon (Talid Ariss) – whose very existence is a painful memory of the child Mary and Ahmed lost decades ago. Mary travels to Calais to do she’s-not-sure-what but, due to a misunderstanding, ends up working as a cleaner in Genevieve’s house as she packs for a move, totally unaware Ahmed is not just ignoring her calls.

The debut film from Aleem Khan – whose mother was similarly a white English convert, living in Kent, who immersed herself in her adopted culture – After Love is part fascinating moral dilemma, part profound exploration of the burden of grief. Mary’s life has been shattered by the loss, not only of her husband, but the even greater loss of her understanding of what her life was. Khan captures this with a beautifully shot visual metaphor: Mary hallucinates the world literally collapsing around her, from dust dancing in the sunlight, to cracks appearing in the ceiling above her to a vivid hallucination of the white cliffs of Dover collapsing behind her as she sails to Calais.

Khan’s film is at its strongest when it centres Mary’s emotions and faith. It’s a wonderful endorsement of the power of faith. Faith is central to Mary’s life: she immersed herself in her adopted culture – from prayer to dress to food, which she cooks with love-infused skill. Part of the film’s purpose is to challenge any underlying assumptions we may have about this culture. Mary’s faith is not something forced upon her or which provides barriers to her. It has, instead, given her peace, purpose and contentment. In a world where images of Islam are not always so positive, it’s refreshing to see religion as such a positive force in a person’s life.

But the film also knows seeing a woman in a hijab carries certain assumptions. Its perhaps the biggest reason why, when Mary arrives at her door, Genevieve assumes she is a cleaner. Later she will question why Mary wears it, as if it was a set of chains rather than a personal choice that is an expression of her faith. For Genevieve, the hijab not only makes it easier to push her into a servile position, it also defines her, in the eyes some, as being on the lower rungs of society (which she isn’t). You can be confident if Mary had turned up wearing a black dress and a hat, the film would have played out very differently.

We see Mary carefully prep what she might say to this other woman, before she arrives. It all goes out of the window in tongue-tied fear and shock when she arrives. Instead, she ends up working as a cleaner. Mary accepts the misunderstanding for reasons she almost can’t understand herself. Is it meekness? Awkwardness? Curiosity? Shock that this woman is far more glamourous than she is? Does she want revenge? She hardly knows herself, using her position in the house, effectively as a servant, to learn more about this woman and the family she built with her husband.

If there is a weakness in After Love it’s the slightly contrived nature of this plot. In a film grounded in the realism of the pain of loss – Mary’s devastation, confusion and sense of being adrift is explored with a profound sensitivity – it revolves around the sort of plot device that wouldn’t seem out of place in a soap opera. It takes a bit of investment – which the film just about manages to earn – to go with this storyline, which relies slightly on contrivance to sustain itself.

But it does allow us to have our perceptions about Genevieve challenged as well. While we assume, at first, she will be little better than a hussy, we discover she is a sensitive, realistic woman, well aware that she is (and more than a little guilty about being) “the other woman”. She is struggling with her teenage son Solomon, who can’t understand why his life is so unusual and of course blames his mother more than his absent (and therefore idealised) father.

In fact, the longer Mary stays in this house, not telling the truth, becoming a confidant to mother and son, the more you start to feel your loyalty shift. From our first perception of Mary being the wronged woman, the more you start to feel she is taking terrible advantage of Genevieve and her son. That not telling them Ahmed is dead, as they long to hear from him, is wrong. That her attempt to comfort Solomon (whom she starts to feel a motherly love for) by texting him from Ahmed’s phone is inadvertently deeply cruel. You start to feel unease about this interloper, lying to this family at what is already a difficult time.

The fact you stick with her is due to the extraordinary performance by Joanna Scanlon. Quiet, polite, over-flowing with faith and a desire to help, Scanlon also lets us see that the loss of Ahmed (and the loss of her memories of a happy marriage) has torn her apart. Scanlon’s performance drips with grief and pain, an anguish she can barely form into words. It’s a gentle powerhouse of humanity (and rightly BAFTA winning). Richard and Ariss also give fabulously raw performances as two people only just holding their own relationship together, never mind processing the loss of a husband and father.

After Love is strongest when exploring the profound and lasting effect of grief. Khan’s film is shot with a poetic beauty, and he draws deep and moving performances from his lead actors. It revolves around a massive contrivance but carries enough impact that you’ll feel the same note of hope, of the debris settled and life going on, as the film ends on.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough are superb in unsettling drama Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Director: Bryan Forbes

Cast: Kim Stanley (Myra Savage), Richard Attenborough (Billy Savage), Nanette Newman (Mrs Clayton), Mark Eden (Charles Clayton), Patrick Magee (Superintendent Walsh), Gerald Sim (Sergeant Beedle), Judith Donner (Amanda Clayton), Ronald Hines (Constable)

Myra (Kim Stanley) and Billy (Richard Attenborough) Savage are a middle-aged couple held together by shared grief for a lost child. Myra works as a medium with the spirit of their son, Arthur, as a spirit guide. But grief has had a damaging impact on them both – and Myra believes her work can bring some life back to their lost son. Keen to gain more recognition – and therefore for their son – she urges Billy to kidnap the daughter of a rich couple, so that she can “discover” the child through her spirit guide. However, events soon spiral increasingly out of control.

Bryan Forbes writes and directs (and produces, with Attenborough) this unsettling and often tense film, which shares DNA with ghost stories (but contains no terrors) and psychological dramas. It’s also a superbly acted chamber-piece, an acute psychological study of two deeply traumatised individuals who have responded very differently to personal tragedy and found themselves locked into cycles of behaviour that are becoming increasingly destructive.

Forbes shoots the film with a fly-on-the-wall intensity, giving the exterior scenes a cinéma verité style, concealed cameras capturing unwitting crowds walking blithely through a kidnap drama. There is a kitchen-sink realism here, and elements of psychological hammer horror, with the viewer never quite sure how far this couple will be willing to go. The eerie score by John Barry, mixes in with hauntingly dominant sound designs (especially of dripping water in the film’s opening moments) to create an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere that leaves you not in the least surprised that the psyche of its two lead characters have been so badly damaged.

That sense of disturbance fits perfectly with the lack of planning around the couple’s entire operation. Despite sparks of ingenuity (many of them dependent on Billy’s bland forget-ability and bank-managerish blending into the crowd), once the child has been kidnapped, they have no idea of the next step or how (or even, it seems, if they want to) exploit the situation. It becomes increasingly clear that the plan is not a grand design, but a final desperate attempt to find meaning in their own lives and (certainly in Myra’s case) to provide some sort of connection to their lost son.

That lost son hangs over the whole film, his pointedly not-real ghostly presence having contributed hugely to Myra’s mental disintegration – and also having crushed the life out of Billy. Myra has clearly never recovered from the shock and grief – more facts of which are revealed as the film plays out, culminating in a scintillating scene of emotional confrontation between the two – and Billy, in a desperate attempt to comfort his wife, has instead become the chief enabler of her fantasies.

It makes for an elegant two-hander of stirring emotion – and requires two actors at the peak of their game. As Myra, the little-known Kim Stanley is a sensation. A Broadway star (the “female Brando”) but with only one film credit prior to this (and only three more after this), Stanley brings a brilliant method technique but also a freshness and theatricality matching perfectly the film’s theatrical roots and heightened sense of reality. Stanley delivers an immersive performance that walks a fine tight-rope between calculation, delusion and psychological collapse. It’s a show-piece role, but Stanley largely avoids overplaying, instead exploring the deep emotional scars in the character with a sensitivity that makes Myra someone to pity as recoil from.

Opposite her, Attenborough delivers one of his finest performances as the complex, conflicted Billy. Seeming at first just a brow-beaten husband, it becomes clear Billy has in fact taken on a great emotional responsibility for protecting and comforting Myra, a dedication that has (step-by-step) led to him catering to her every misguided demand. It’s a generous, very subtle performance, of a fundamentally good man who performs misdeeds because he believes it is for the greater good, confusing love for his wife with refusing to make her confront reality.

These two excellent performers perform a complex dance where our perception of the power dynamics in the relationship constantly shift. At first Myra appears to hold all the aces, brow-beating the meek Billy and lecturing him on everything from the spirit world to classical music. However, it slowly becomes clear – as does Myra’s lack of grasp of reality – that Billy is the quieter but stronger character, whose dedication and strength has kept the couple going.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is at its best when exploring the relationship between these two and provides two fine actors magnificent opportunities which their seize with relish. Its pace flags a bit over the two hours – a tighter 90 minute run time would probably have helped it – and while it’s lack of drive in the plot does reflect the confused ambling scheme at its heart, it does mean the film can drift. But this is a fine psychological study, well-made and superbly performed.

Georgy Girl (1966)

Lynn Redgrave excels as permanent odd-girl out in Georgy Girl

Director: Silvio Narizzano

Cast: Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Parkin), James Mason (James Leamington), Alan Bates (Jos Jones), Charlotte Rampling (Meredith), Bill Owen (Ted Parkin), Clare Kelly (Doris Parkin), Rachel Kempson (Ellen Leamington), Denise Coffey (Peg), Dandy Nichols (Hospital Nurse)

Made at the height of the Swinging Sixties – when London was the coolest city in the world – Georgy Girl is, in some respects, a time capsule. It was seen at the time as almost impossibly naughty and subversive, with open talk of abortions and affairs, mothers who feel their lives have been changed for the worse by having babies and young people struggling to accept their responsibilities. Now of course, it all looks rather tame. But there remains a charm to the film – helped above all by its performances – that still manages to make it a winning film, despite some of its attitudes raising entirely different questions today than its makers intended.

Georgy (Lynn Redgrave) is the plain-looking (and doesn’t the film keep reminding us of this!) daughter of the devoted butler (Bill Owen) to millionaire James Leamington (James Mason). Leamington has supported Georgy while she grows up – even letting her use his house for her children’s performance classes – but now his interest in her is changing. With his wife dying, James offers her the chance to become his mistress (with an actual contract). Georgy turns it down – not least because of her growing interest in Jos (Alan Bates), the fun-loving boyfriend of her flatmate Meredith (Charlotte Rampling), a drop-dead gorgeous violinist who treats him and everyone else with disdain. When Meredith falls pregnant with Jos’ baby, the two of them marry – but Meredith wants nothing to do with the child, a contrast to Georgy who has always dreamed of family.

It’s actually a film of cold, hard realities. Beware any film which gives you a conventional happy ending – the hero chasing a woman down a street crying out that he loves her – around the half way mark. All the characters are presented with choices, and are forced to either compromise or run away. It’s telling that the characters who most fit the mood of the era invariably run away, while those with a more traditional outlook stick it out. You could argue that far from being a celebration of the 60s, Georgy Girl is a fierce critique.

At the time, Georgy was seen as something of a free spirit. Perhaps this was because of her unconventional looks or her playful imagination when working with the children in her performance class. Maybe it was the opening sequence, which sees her getting a fashionable haircut, only to instantly wash it out in a sink. Or could it be because she treats her father’s wishes for her to listen to her elders and betters with disdain? (Let’s skirt over the fact her father seems to be effectively pimping her to his employer.) The way she makes a scene at Leamington’s birthday party by performing a raunchy cabaret number? Most of all though it may well have been due to the catchy (and instantly recognisable) Seekers song that plays over the opening and closing of the movie and serves as her calling card.

Interestingly though, watching it now, there is something incredibly conservative about Georgy – and quite possibly about the film itself. While she lives in the heart of the buzzing metropolis, Georgy’s dreams seem to come from another age: to become a mother, in a comfortable domestic setting. It’s hardly a feminist rallying cry. Georgy is so keen for this, she is perfectly willing to step (almost literally) into the shoes of Meredith, inheriting her husband, child and home. The film also misses no opportunity to remind the viewers Georgy is plain, dumpy and sexually inexperienced. Redgrave has been dressed to look like a sort of Teutonic housekeeper. The film doesn’t seem to quite know where to land between praising Georgy and slightly encouraging us, to chuckle at her.

Georgy isn’t in fact the swinging 60s icon in the film. That unquestionably is Charlotte Rampling as Meredith. Looking absolutely stunning, dressed by Mary Quant, Meredith is everything we expect from the era: confident, outgoing, ambitious, sexually liberated. But Meredith is also a stone-cold, ruthless, heartless bitch. Superbly played by Rampling, she treats Georgy as a servant, Jos as a mix between comfort blanket and vibrator, and decides to get married and have the child (rather than abort it as she has two others of Jos’ children – without telling him) because she’s bored. Once the poor child is born, the idea of sacrificing anything from her life is anathema to Meredith who promptly disappears over the horizon.

Georgy Girl is actually a film with much more mixed – even satiric – views of women and its era. The sort of liberation Meredith enjoys goes hand-in-hand with a selfish shirking of responsibility and using her beauty as a justification to treat everyone she meets as supplicants. Georgy is stuck in the middle, a woman in an era of growing freedoms but whose aims remain solidly in the Victorian era. The men are an equally mixed bag. Today we would certainly call what Leamington has been doing grooming. Jos has a happy-go-lucky 60s charm to him, but is flighty, unreliable, selfish and disappears with a smile the second the going gets tough. For all the film is sort of remembered for its joie-de-vive, it’s actually a searing look at the era with mixed feelings about its characters.

The fact we really end up caring for Georgy is due to Lynn Redgrave’s wonderful performance. A second choice for her sister Vanessa, the role typecast Redgrave in Hollywood’s minds as sort of dumpy loser (especially after her Oscar nomination). But she brings the role a real magnetism. Georgy is doomed to play second fiddle in people’s lives (and perhaps even her own). Perhaps the most 60s thing about her though is her determination to get what she wants – whether that is avoiding an affair with her father’s employer, or securing a good life for Meredith’s baby.

The rest of the cast are equally strong. Bates brings the best of his impish charm to the part (even if at times he tries too hard), as well as a metrosexual edge to Jos as someone very comfortable with joking around and being a bit camp. James Mason (who took a massive pay cut for the role, a decision which paid off with an Oscar nomination) is superb as fragile but creepy Leamington, a man who believes he is genuinely in love and is also excited at the prospect of replacing his bed-ridden wife (played by Redgrave’s actual mother Rachel Kempson, adding a nice Oedipal touch) with a younger model. Bill Owen mixes both a hilarious servility with assertions that his daughter “owes” Leamington something for all he’s done for her.

Georgy Girl works well because it is – and remains – funny as well as being dramatic and thought provoking. It might not be a feminist tract – and the character most likely to be seen as a feminist in the thing is its least sympathetic by far – and it might well affectionately scorn a woman who doesn’t look like a conventional man’s idea of attractive, and give her a traditional outlook behind a playful exterior – but it’s an energetic and rather charming film that does make you care. Separating it from the era it’s set in, might well do it a world of good.

The Entertainer (1960)

Laurence Olivier excels as a faded music hall star in The Entertainer

Director: Tony Richardson

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Archie Rice), Brenda de Banzie (Phoebe Rice), Roger Livesey (Billy Rice), Joan Plowright (Jean Rice), Alan Bates (Frank Rice), Daniel Massey (Graham), Shirley Anne Field (Tina Lapford), Thora Hird (Mrs Lapford), Albert Finney (Mick Rice)

In the late 1950s Laurence Olivier was worried about his career. While he was still doing Shakespeare and Coward comedies (intermixed with the odd film), the world of acting and theatre was moving on. Not least as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was taking the West End by storm. Olivier seemed the polar opposite of the “Angry Young Men” of British theatre, a dusty relic. So Olivier changed gears – and his entire life – by asking to be cast in the lead role of Osborne’s next play The Entertainer. Olivier’s sensational stage performance – captured here on film – radically changed the path of both his career and his life, with his long-troubled marriage to Vivien Leigh broking down during it. But he also cemented himself as the leading British actor.

Olivier plays Archie Rice, a failing never-has-been end-of-pier comedy performer at an unnamed Seaside town in 1956. Rice’s routines are old-and-tired, his comedy tinged with desperation and he’s all but broke. Archie’s audiences are tired, bored and unamused. His home life, with his faded former beauty champ wife (Brenda de Banzie) is on the ropes due to his constant infidelity. His father (Roger Livesey) – a music hall celebrity with real talent – loves him but thinks he’s a disasater waiting to happen. His son Frank (Alan Bates) adores him but his daughter Jean (Joan Plowright) is more realistic. Archie through continues to peddle the idea of a success being round the corner, trying to put together a hit revue starring his latest mistress (Shirley Anne Field) and funded by her parents. Things will not end well.

The Entertainer’s main claim to historical note is that it captures that sensational stage performance of Laurence Olivier in the lead role. Olivier had always liked to claim that, with a few zigs and zags in his career, he would have become a third-rate comedian. His performance – with its ingratiating patter, it’s seedy sexually ambivalent campness, his selfishness and self-obsession and greed – is brilliant. Archie’s entire life is a desperate struggle to get himself the career he wants – while trying to shut his eyes to his own lack of talent (of which he is painfully aware). Olivier captures superbly not only the front of a man bent on self-promotion, but also the dead-eyed horror of a man who is aware all the time that he is dying inside.

Olivier’s eyes are drill-holes of death, and his life is an exhibition of selfish patter, with a constant sense of performance in every inch of Archie’s life. He’s a run-down, finished and disillusioned man trying to pluck what few moments of pleasure he can from a life he is only going through the motions in. All of it covered with a coating of self-delusion that quickly crumbles into sweaty desperation. While the film can only give a taste of the Olivier stage performance, it re-enforces Olivier’s energy, creativity and bravery. Olivier’s both bravura and tragically tired music hall performances alone are worth the price of admission.

Away from Olivier’s exceptional capturing of the washed up patter of the sleazy loser, it’s easy to overlook most of the rest of the film. But it’s directed with a kitchen-sink freshness by Tony Richardson, who brilliantly captures the faded grandeur and grubby failure of a failing seaside resort. Osborne’s play used the decline of music hall as a metaphor for the decline of the British Empire and while the film (for all its Suez references) doesn’t quite convey this, favouring instead domestic tragedy, it still perfectly captures the crumbling world of Rice and his ilk. Rice’s father – Roger Livesey, excellent and about a year older than Olivier – is a relic of the success of this era, and still carries some of its glamour, but still lives as a virtual tenant in the Rice home, eating spare cake where he can.

While the film is dominated by Olivier, this presentation of the play as a domestic tragedy works rather well. Brenda de Banzie (also reprising her role from stage) is very good as an ex-glamour puss (and former mistress of Archie) now turned into a faded, depressed matron, drunkenly bitter about what her life has (not) led to. Joan Plowright is excellent as the knowing daughter, alternately sympathetic and appalled at her father. Shirley Anne Field’s naïve lover is suitably naïve, under the control of her battleaxe mother, well played by Thora Hird. The cast is rounded out with Alan Bates and Albert Finney (both in debuts) as Archie’s sons.

While the film feels a little overlong at times, and is perhaps too much in thrall to Olivier, it offers a neat kitchen-sink view of failure and corruption in British life of the 1950s. There is, of course, no hope and no second chances here. Only the long, wearying decline and rotting as Archie’s life disintegrates under pressure and his own incompetent self-delusion. 

Marty (1955)

Betsy Blair and Ernest Borgnine are two shy people out on a date in Marty

Director: Delbert Mann

Cast: Ernest Borgnine (Marty Piletti), Betsy Blair (Clara), Esther Minciotti (Mrs Piletti), Augusta Ciolli (Aunt Catherine), Joe Mantell (Angie), Karen Steele (Virginia), Jerry Paris (Tommy)

Strange to think today, but until Parasite, only one other film had won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Picture. That film was Marty and if that fact seems odd today when you watch the film, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary a film about a regular guy with an average job and boring life was back then. Films were about larger than life guys doing big manly things. They weren’t about butchers who lived with their mamas and can’t get girls.

Our butcher is Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) and one night he meets Clara (Betsy Blair), an equally shy chemistry school teacher. They spend the whole night talking, and Marty excitedly plans to call her the next day. Problem is, a brief meeting with his mother (Esther Minciotti) is a disaster – not least because she’s worried Clara could mean her being thrown out of Marty’s home like her sister (Augusta Ciolli) has been – and Marty’s best friend Angie (Joe Mantell) doesn’t think Clara is much to write home about. Under these peer pressures will Marty make that call or not?

That plot summary by the way effectively covers 95% of the film. Today Marty seems so lightweight and slight it’s almost a puff of air. The film was adapted from a one hour TV play, and beat a host of Broadway adaptations (Picnic, The Rose Tattoo and Mister Roberts) to the big one. Today of course a TV play would never be adapted into a movie (in fact if anything Paddy Chayefsky’s play would probably be expanded into a ten episode Netflix drama), but in 1950s America a TV play would have been screened once and then disappeared forever. What better for Hollywood but to assume the one-off delights of TV could be as mined as easily as the best work on Broadway?

So Marty was made and won and it’s a decent, reasonably charming movie even though it’s really hard to see what the fuss is about now. The main delights lie in the script by Paddy Chayefsky, one of the greatest screenplay writers of American film history here winning the first of his three Oscars. The script is simple, well observed, full of cracking little lines, creates some marvellously rounded characters and is careful not to overbalance the overall low-key effect of the film. 

Chayefsky has teed the whole film up so well that most of those involved simply run with the great material they have been given. None of the actors – or Delbert Mann, who received a generous Best Director Oscar – ever hit these heights again. But then that’s about right for a film that is all about the triumph of the little guy (or at least the little guy getting a small day in the sun). Mann marshals the actors (some of whom were in the original TV production) to good effect and basically doesn’t get in the way of the script.

The story itself covers just two days in the life of Marty, but it’s still a gift of a part for Ernest Borgnine, who won an Oscar (surely to the chagrin of Rod Steiger who played the role on TV). The role subtly subverts Borgnine’s persona – Marty has the build for muscular action that matches the series of smarmy, working-class heavies Borgnine had played up to this point (characters much like some of his friends in the drama) but he moves with the nerves of a timid man. Borgnine is as gentle and careful as the picture itself, a shy man who has given up on good things happening to him but comes alive when he meets someone who sees him for who he is rather than what he is not.

That first long date – it takes up well over half the film’s runtime – sees him slowly go through stages from nerves, to stumbled confessions to an excited jabbering as he is so excited to be with Clara he keeps failing (accidentally) to let her speak so keen is he to share everything with her, through to a protective regard and a euphoric celebration. The only slight dated misstep is Marty’s reaction when denied a kiss – which he goes for with the entitlement of a Mad Men era male – but it’s swiftly course corrected in the film as another sign of Marty’s clumsy lack of knowledge of how relationships work. Throughout all this Borgnine is charming, heartfelt, tender and sweet and deserving of recognition for the role.

Opposite him for most of the film is Betsy Blair, who won the role after vigorous campaigning from her and her husband Gene Kelly (who announced he would refuse to do his next film if she was not cast). Mousy, timid and shy but looking for warmth and affection in life, Clara is just like Marty: a woman who isn’t sure what the next step in her life is but is certain that she doesn’t want to spend it growing old alone. It’s another heartfelt performance. The cast is rounded out by the sort of solid minor supporting players who don’t usually stand out, with Joe Mantell getting an Oscar nomination repeating his role as brash best friend Angie from TV. Stand out though is Esther Minciotti (also repeating her role) as Marty’s loving but domineering mother.

It all comes together into something very small, sweet and low-key and if it’s strange to see what the fuss is all about, it’s probably because there have been so many more movies made about ordinary people since then that this first trend setter now looks like nothing too special. But with a marvellous script and some wonderful performances from actors who never got an opportunity like this again, it’s truly a magic moment for all concerned, a once in a life-time film before most of them returned to jobbing roles once more.