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The Gentle Gunman

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The Irish “Troubles” have gone through many stages of development, and most of those stages have been represented on film down the years. That little island on the periphery of Europe which, despite long absences, I still call home seems to exist in a permanent state of conflict. Although there are sporadic outbreaks of peace, one always feels that it’s only a matter of time before we retreat behind our respective barricades once again. The Gentle Gunman (1952) is set in the border country during WWII, a period of relative calm when compared to the frenzied blood-lust that overtook us in the 70s and 80s, and deals with those themes that go to the very heart of the Irish character – loyalty, betrayal and identity. I suppose it could be said that the film simplifies things a little, but that’s a criticism that can be levelled at a lot of movies. In fact, I always think it’s a bit unfair to fault filmmakers too much in that regard since trying to explain or understand the complexity of the conflict in Ireland, even for those of us who lived through the worst of the horrors, is an almost impossible task. The Gentle Gunman, by boiling the politics down to its essentials and focusing on two brothers, does a fair enough job.

Terry Sullivan (John Mills) is an IRA man who has been living in London for some time. When rumours start to drift back to the old country that Terry may have turned, his younger brother Matt (Dirk Bogarde) decides to pay him a visit and see if such slights on the family honour are justified. To his horror, Matt discovers that what he’s been hearing may well be true – Terry is no longer trusted and, in the aftermath of a botched bombing, seems to have become (that lowest of words in the Irish vocabulary) an informer. The arrest of two gang members is too much for Matt, and he warns his brother that if he values his life he’ll not set foot across the Irish Sea. However, Terry wouldn’t be much of an Irishman if weren’t stubborn and contrary, so he comes back to the land of his birth and the not so welcoming arms of former friends and relations. The roads and lanes along the Irish border have seen more than their fair share of death. The usual outcome of a charge of informing was a brief inquiry and a sentence handed down by a kangaroo court, before a man was taken for his last walk down a lonely road at dawn to get a bullet in the head and be dumped in a ditch. Why, therefore, would anyone take such a risk? The answer in this case is the bond of kinship. Terry sees that his younger brother is being groomed for a life on the run by local commander Shinto (Robert Beatty) and his own former fiancee, the fanatically patriotic Maureen (Elizabeth Sellars). The question is whether Terry can haul his brother back from the brink and prove his own innocence before his comrades in arms decide to dispose of him.

John Mills & Elizabeth Sellars playing a very dangerous and very Irish game in The Gentle Gunman.

John Mills was at his peak when this film was made and it seemed he couldn’t put a foot wrong. He’d reached the age where he was perfect for the kind of roles that called for an idealism that had been tempered by bitter experience. The ability to convey much while seeming to do very little has always been the mark of the best actors and Mills had it in spades. At his best he was wonderful to watch, the cast of his eye or the fleeting shadow of a smile or a grimace saying so much more than pages of dialogue ever could. His Terry Sullivan is a first class combination of bravado and nervy unease that’s entirely appropriate for a man walking the tightrope of self doubt and political duplicity. Dirk Bogarde, here at the height of his matinee idol period, is less satisfactory as the young man torn between loyalty to his brother and the idealism that has always formed the cornerstone of his existence. In short, he’s a bit wet but that’s as much a criticism of the script as Bogarde’s performance. That same year, Elizabeth Sellars appeared with Mills (again as a former lover as it happens) in The Long Memory, and I was less than complimentary about her. I think her limitations work in her favour here though, her immobile features fitting the character of a woman more in love with an idea than with any man. When Maureen (who’s clearly spent far too much time poring over the writings of Padraig Pearce) speaks with passion of the near sacred act of bloodletting, the only truly apt word to describe her is terrible. As usual in films of this period, the supporting cast does a sterling job. Robert Beatty is very believable as the tough OC with an unshakable self-belief. Joseph Tomelty is just great as the rural doctor dispensing wisdom while he carries on an amicable war of words with his old friend Gilbert Harding. These two add a touch of light humour and get to deliver a great last line that’s pure blarney.

Basil Dearden does fine work as director, moving the camera around enough to help disguise the fact that this is an adaptation of a stage play. The opening scenes in London have a noirish quality with lots of deep shadow and uncomfortable angles. He also handles the attempted Tube bombing well and cranks up the suspense by having a group of kids dart innocently around Dirk Bogarde’s lethal, explosive-laden suitcase – although he does use essentially the same device again during the later ambush in Belfast. For the most part though, the action is confined to the lonely border garage which doubles as the IRA HQ. Instead of letting this be an encumbrance, Dearden turns it to his advantage by using the limited space and some clever lighting to focus on the claustrophobic atmosphere and ratchet up the tension.

The Gentle Gunman has been released on DVD in the UK by Optimum only as part of the John Mills – Screen Icons set. Optimum can be variable in the quality of their transfers, but this is one of their better ones. It’s presented in its correct academy ratio and, despite some speckles and light damage, is mostly clear and crisp with excellent blacks and contrast levels. I’m not sure how much resonance this film would have with viewers unfamiliar with the subject matter. I think it does a good job of telling a very human story and the performances and visuals are hard to fault. Given my own Northern Irish background, I’m probably a little biased in my judgement – but I loved it. There’s a lot of honesty in this little film, and a lot of themes that still hold true over fifty years later. As such, I give it a big thumbs up and recommend it wholeheartedly.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, Dirk Bogarde, John Mills

 

The Long Memory

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I seem to be on a bit of a Robert Hamer kick at the moment. Having recently enjoyed Pink String and Sealing Wax, I decided to give The Long Memory (1952) a spin. While the former is a Gothic/Victorian noir which may stretch the definition for purists, the latter is the real deal. It has the contemporary setting, stark photography and relentlessly downbeat moodiness that should satisfy all who have a penchant for dark cinema. The story is classic noir wherein an innocent man is persecuted for a crime he has not committed and subsequently finds himself consumed by his thirst for revenge on those responsible for his plight.

Phillip Davidson (John Mills) has just been released from prison, having served twelve years for murder. An early flashback establishes that he had been wrongfully convicted, and that the false testimony of his then fiancee (Elizabeth Sellars) played a significant part in securing that conviction. In a neat twist, it also transpires that the treacherous fiancee has, in the intervening years, married the policeman originally in charge of Davidson’s case (John McCallum). Aware of the fact that Davidson still bears a grudge, the authorities track him Kent where he takes up residence in an abandoned barge along the desolate Thames estuary. As Davidson grimly sets about the task of seeking out his former tormentors the action alternates between his search and the slow unravelling of the idyllic domesticity of the policeman’s life. Running parallel to this is the development of a relationship between Davidson and a refugee girl (Eva Bergh) working as a waitress in a dingy cafe. This plot thread is not mere romantic padding but an essential element that clearly demonstrates just how deep Davidson’s scars run. By the end of the movie the quest for revenge has transformed into more of a journey towards spiritual redemption.

Eva Bergh & John Mills

The acting is out of the top drawer all round with the only weak link in the chain being Elizabeth Sellars. Her performance comes across as even more wooden given the emotional depth shown by almost everyone else around her. John Mills does a fine understated turn in the lead role. The scenes he plays in the old barge with Eva Bergh have such a touching and heartrending quality. These are two people who have spent so long living within themselves that the effort of reaching out to another is close to physically painful. John McCallum is also fine as the decent cop who gradually comes to realise that the woman he married is not all she seems, and who must resign himself to the fact that his career cannot continue if he’s to come out of it all with any sense of honour intact. There’s plenty of good support from a selection of familiar British character actors; special mention going to Michael Martin Harvey as Mills’ slightly kooky neighbour. Where Pink String and Sealing Wax suffered from an undisciplined and unfocused script, The Long Memory can boast tighter writing and pacing. Hamer moves his camera around effectively and makes maximum use of the barren Kent coastline. He also controls the flow of the story very well, and cuts tellingly between the gradual flowering of the Mills/Bergh relationship and the simultaneous disintegration of Sellars and McCallum’s. All of this is backed up by the excellent cinematography of Harry Waxman who manages to throw in some welcome deep focus shots.

The Long Memory is currently only available on DVD as part of the John Mills Centenary Collection II from ITV DVD in R2. The set is a bit pricey but it does offer a good selection of Mills films and is worth checking out. This movie comes on its own disc and, while not perfect, gets a pretty good transfer. There’s optional subs, production notes and a gallery included. I hadn’t seen this film for a number of years and had forgotten what an underrated little gem it is. I give it a big thumbs up and recommend it wholeheartedly.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2008 in 1950s, Film Noir, John Mills, Robert Hamer

 

Ice Cold in Alex

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What makes a good war film? At its best, the war movie goes beyond mere action, heroism and patriotism. It provides the opportunity to show real human drama and real human frailty under the most extreme circumstances. The small, everyday, mundane struggles between individuals, and within individuals, play against the backdrop of the larger conflict. There is also the matter of character and how its strength or weakness can shape the course of events and the direction of men’s lives. The British film industry has succeeded in producing some fine war movies, and Ice Cold in Alex (1958) is no exception. This is no epic production; it really only deals with the experiences of four people yet it touches on some very big themes, not the least of which are honour and decency.

It’s 1942, Rommel’s Afrika Korps are racing across North Africa, and Tobruk is about to be besieged. Captain Anson (John Mills) is a man nearing the end of his tether, both physically and mentally. The unrelenting hardship of the desert war has driven him to drink, and his dependency on the bottle, while superficially steadying his nerves, threatens to undermine his judgment. Having been ordered to take his ambulance out of Tobruk before the siege begins, he finds himself faced with an overland trek to Alexandria accompanied by the phlegmatic Sergeant Major Pugh (Harry Andrews) and two nurses (Sylvia Sims & Diane Clare). Along the way they pick up an Afrikaaner, Van Der Poel (Anthony Quayle) who proves to be an asset in a number of situations. It’s Van Der Poel’s ability to speak German which gets them out of a tricky spot when Anson panics and tries to outrun an enemy patrol. However, the incident leads to the death of one of the nurses and Anson’s subsequent pledge to lay off the liquor until they reach Alex, where he’ll buy them all an ice cold beer. 

Reaching their destination will be no easy task though. Rommel’s troops are advancing faster than expected and, as town after town falls, they must race to keep one step ahead. From this point on Anson’s war is no longer against an army; he must instead battle the hostile environment, suspicion and his own weakness. With the ambulance damaged, the water supply diminishing and the temperatures rising, he is forced into taking a route across The Depression, a vast desert quagmire, where one false step would spell disaster. Even as the little group pulls together to overcome each challenge nature throws at them, the seeds of suspicion are growing. Is Van Der Poel all that he claims to be?

John Mills - a man on the edge

Although the fate of the group ultimately depends on the calm resourcefulness of Pugh and the brute strength of Van Der Poel, it is Anson that you find yourself rooting for. It is a tribute to the skill of John Mills that the viewer feels such sympathy for what should be an unsympathetic character. After all, the man’s a drunk and his early recklessness causes the death of one of his charges. Yet, for all that, Mills manages to bring out the finer points of the man. There is a sense of real pain when he sees how his actions have led to tragedy for the unfortunate nurse. Throughout the film he’s all twitches and nerves and doubts and regrets and hopes – in short, a human being. Harry Andrews is all square-jawed grit and resolve; if you found yourself in a tight spot you’d love to have this guy by your side. Anthony Quayle also fits his role perfectly as the ebullient Afrikaaner who relishes every opportunity to show off his physical powers. Yet, all the while, those piggy little eyes dart around and you wonder what’s going on behind them. Sylvia Sims is the epitome of sweetness and practicality as she falls for Mills and, more importantly, believes in him and encourages him to believe in himself. J. Lee Thompson does his usual professional job in the director’s chair and makes good use of the North African locations. He manages to generate real suspense in some set piece scenes such as the navigation of the minefield and the nightmarish struggle in the quicksand. He also gets across the sense of dry, dusty heat and you feel the same relief as the characters do when John Mills sits on the bar stool in Alexandria and eyes that famous glass of Carlsberg.

Ice Cold in Alex is available on DVD in R2 from Optimum as part of their War Collection line. It’s a very nice anamorphic transfer in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. It’s a barebones affair as usual from Optimum but the quality of the film itself is enough to sell it, and it can normally be picked up cheaply. This is no action packed affair, it’s more of a character study and an excellent example of the British war film at its best. It succeeds in delivering a deeply satisfying ending and one that serves to reinforce the basic decency of man. And who better to portray that decency than John Mills.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2008 in 1950s, J Lee Thompson, John Mills, War

 

The October Man

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British attempts at producing film noir have traditionally been regarded as a notch down from their Hollywood counterparts. There is, sometimes, that sense of the genteel that the harder-edged Hollywood movies don’t suffer from. However, when BritNoir is at its best it’s more than capable of competing with productions from across the pond. The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, It Always Rains on Sunday, Brighton Rock, for example, are all films that belong in the front rank of noir. The October Man (1947) may not be quite in the same league as those other titles but it’s not far off.

When you see a film boasting a script by Eric Ambler, you know you’re on fairly safe ground. Ambler was, first and foremost, a novelist and gave us some of the best espionage/mystery fiction of the last century. I would strongly urge anyone unfamiliar with his writing to seek it out, although I believe a good deal of it has shamefully fallen out of print. His script here contains those staples of any good noir, namely murder, guilt and psychological imbalance.

The story concerns Jim Ackalnd (John Mills) who we see in the opening scenes riding a bus and knotting his handkerchief into the shape of a rabbit for the amusement of the small girl seated next to him. The child – played by Mills’ own daughter Juliet – is the daughter of some friends, and Jim is accompanying her back home. As the bus makes its way along a  country road in torrential rain, a brake failure causes a fatal accident at a level crossing. This results in the death of the child and Mills spends a year in hospital with a fractured skull and brain damage. As Jim is released from hospital we learn that he remains racked with guilt and has already attempted suicide. He moves into a rundown boarding house peopled by an assortment of fine British character actors including a poisonous Joyce Carey, Catherine Lacey as the put upon manageress, and Edward Chapman (who should be recognizable as Mr Grimsdale from numerous Norman Wisdom movies). He also makes the acquaintance of model Kay Walsh, of which more later.

Jim’s life seems to be getting back on track and a romance with Joan Greenwood helps give him some renewed hope for the future. However, things are about to go pear-shaped – this is the world of noir after all. The model turns up dead in a park and a cheque from Jim is found close to the body; worse still he was out walking alone when the crime took place. This, combined with some malicious gossip from the other residents, leads the police to suspect Jim – and Jim to query his own sanity. With the psychological pressure mounting and distrust surrounding him, it falls to Jim to try to find the real killer before the net closes around him.

John Mills

Roy Ward Baker provides his usual solid, unfussy direction but the real star is the cinematography. Erwin Hillier lays the noir atmosphere on thick, with lots of smoke, fog, deep shadows and harsh white lighting to pin the focus on the hapless Jim. John Mills plays the role perfectly as the quiet and essentially decent man driven to the very limit. Mills was ideal casting for this kind of part and would reprise it a few years later in the similarily themed The Long Memory. In fact, the acting is uniformly strong throughout and the scenes in the boarding house are memorable.

So, where does the weakness lie? Perhaps surprisingly, the fault is with Amblers script. I always feel that this kind of movie benefits enormously from creating suspicions in the viewers mind about the hero. In this case, we are never really in any doubt that Mills is innocent, moreover, the identity of the real killer is fairly obvious right from the off. Personally, I also found the repeated use of the knotted handkerchief motif – used to point up the mental strain of Jim – a little tiresome towards the end.

Generally though, this is one of the better examples of BritNoir and I would certainly recommend it to any fan of suspense/noir. The film is currently unavailable on DVD anywhere, save grey market copies, as far as I know. I believe the rights may currently reside with Optimum/Network/ITV in R2, all of whom have released some little known gems in the past. I very much hope they get around to this one soon.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2007 in 1940s, Film Noir, John Mills

 
 
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