British Invasion

Good evening, class.   

Hopefully you enjoyed Musicals.

This week, we're back on the other side of the Atlantic for a British Invasion.

Yes, this is very, very late.

This is most effective if you watch it and write a short review of it on Letterboxd. Why the short review? A work of art will stick with you longer if you force yourself to reflect on it, even if for only a few minutes, before you move on to another episode of The Office.   

Feel free to post your reviews on the social media platform of your choice and tag Stay-at-Home Film School. You can also use the hashtag #StayatHomeFilmSchool.

this week's films

There's more to British cinema than Shakespeare adaptations and period pieces. 

The Third Man               

[1949 | Carol Reed]

Watch: IndieFlix | Amazon (rental)

We're not done with Orson Welles just yet. Although it's easy to think he directed this, especially with the casting of Joseph Cotton, but this the work of British director Carol Reed, fresh off an Oscar nomination for The Fallen Idol.

Reed's American producers wanted a much lighter film, without Welles, but Reed won the day and film history is all the better for it. 

He also gives Welles one of the great introductions in all of film. 

By the time Lime finally appears we have almost forgotten Welles is even *in* the movie. The sequence is unforgettable: the meow of the cat in the doorway, the big shoes, the defiant challenge by Holly, the light in the window, and then the shot, pushing in, on Lime's face, enigmatic and teasing, as if two college chums had been caught playing a naughty prank.

The famous speech comes during an uneasy ride on a giant Ferris wheel; at one point, Lime slides open the door of the car they are riding in, and Holly uneasily wraps an arm around a post. Harry tries to justify himself: "You know what the fellow said: In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love--they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." (Greene says this speech was written by Welles.)
[Roger Ebert]

The Third Man is one of those rare films that captured its audience immediately and was regarded as a classic almost from its first release. It marks one of those unusual conjunctions of script, director, subject, cast and setting—and, of course, music—in which everything works. Graham Greene’s script, based on his novel, is a brilliant evocation of the urban battleground of good and evil, with just the right proportions of drama, atmosphere, action, rich character and tense construction. The acting ensemble is superb, with the mixture of Americans and Europeans in the cast creating an ideal balance: Trevor Howard as the pragmatic and brutally unsparing Calloway; Bernard Lee as the gentle Sergeant Paine; Wilfred Hyde-White as Crabbin, the slightly addled literary entrepreneur; Ernst Deutsch as the sinister, ferrety “Baron” Kurtz; Alida Valli, exuding fatalistic romance as Anna; and those two refugees from Citizen Kane, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, as the two old friends torn asunder, the dark side and the light, Harry and Holly—their names so similar Anna often confuses them. Welles’ relatively brief performance as Harry Lime is perfection itself: the bemused, lightly condescending, affectionate look with which he greets Holly; the murderous fluency of his Machiavellian story of the cuckoo clock (which Welles himself wrote); or the wild desperation as he flounders in the sewer. This is magnificent, highly charged film acting.
(Michael Wilmington)

Lawrence of Arabia               

[1962 | David Lean]

Watch: Amazon (DVD)   

To quote Omar Sharif, "If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that's four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert--what would you say?”

If that man is David Lean, you say "yes."

If there was ever a film to see on the big screen, this is it.

To see it in a movie theater is to appreciate the subtlety of F.A. (Freddie) Young's desert cinematography--achieved despite blinding heat, and the blowing sand, which worked its way into every camera. “Lawrence of Arabia” was one of the last films to actually be photographed in 70mm (as opposed to being blown up to 70 from a 35mm negative). There was a hunger within filmmakers like Lean (and Kubrick, Coppola, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa and Stone) to break through the boundaries, to dare a big idea and have the effrontery to impose it on timid studio executives. The word “epic” in recent years has become synonymous with “big budget B picture.” What you realize watching “Lawrence of Arabia” is that the word “epic” refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision. Werner Herzog's “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” didn't cost as much as the catering in “Pearl Harbor,” but it is an epic, and “Pearl Harbor” is not.
(Roger Ebert)

Watch: TCM | Amazon (rental)

Widely hailed as the greatest black comedy ever filmed, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is Stanley Kubrick's subversive take on a common Cold War theme. Deranged Brig. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has sent his squadron of planes an order to attack the Soviet Union as they held at the fail safe point, and subsequently made it impossible for anyone other than him to call the planes back. When news of this reaches Washington, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) calls his advisors to the war room, where General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) suggests the best plan of action may be to back the planes up with a coordinated all-out offensive that's sure to cripple the Soviet forces and limit American casualties to twenty million, tops. But the Russians, to everyone's surprise, have just completed a "Doomsday Machine" designed to destroy all plant an animal life on the planet, and even they cannot prevent it from retaliating.

Combine the plot details with the direction of Stanley Kubrick, and it's probably safe to assume that few people in 1964 automatically assumed Dr. Strangelove would be a biting political satire. But on second thought, maybe they did. In retrospect, Dr. Strangelove feels like a departure from Kubrick's normal fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987), but Dr. Strangelove pre-dates them all. So a comedy doesn't seem like a Kubrick project to us, but it makes sense when you view it in context. This is a man who had done several self-produced projects, which he had parlayed into the Kirk Douglas war film Paths of Glory (1957). When Douglas couldn't get along with Anthony Mann, he replaced Mann with Kubrick for Spartacus (1960), primarily to serve as a figurehead through whom Douglas could operate. Naturally, this didn't work. Kubrick took over, then made Lolita (1962), a lighthearted version of the Vladimir Nabokov novel that featured a supporting turn by Peter Sellers. All this is to say that when you view Kubrick's career in that sequence, a Peter Sellers dark comedy isn't all that unexpected. In fact, it's a rather natural progression.

But enough history, let's look at the film itself. The primary settings for Dr. Strangelove are deceptively simple: the interior of a plane, the War Room, and Brig. General Ripper's office. Apart from a few others, that's pretty much it. A knowledgeable audience member realizes that much of the film is shot on sound stages, but a couple of choices in staging and camera work gives the impression of so much more. The plane interiors are filmed as if the camera is being operated by one of the crew. There are no long tracking shots or wide establishing shots. The shots are instead framed in a way that at no time are we given the feeling that the production has taken out a chunk of the plane so that the camera can get the perfect angle. This gives the scenes a cramped, uneasy feeling further heightened by the borderline mental instability of the pilot, Maj. T.J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens). Our level of closeness to him and the rest of the crew is uncomfortable, especially when you consider the nuclear bombs stored below. Contrast that with the scenes in the War Room, where Kubrick goes to great lengths to show us just how big it is. He seats all the advisors around the type of enormous round table you only see in a movie, with a circular florescent light hovering overhead. Behind them is the "big board", a large map of the Soviet Union with lights indicating the position of the planes. The room itself is so big that even the widest wide-angle shot cannot show it all. Clearly rooms of this size do not exist, but Kubrick uses it to remind us of the great power the men in this room hold, but at the same time, he often puts them in the lower part of the frame, an indication that despite all their power, there is little they can do in this situation. 

And the one man in the room who should be able to prevent a nuclear holocaust, comes across as the most ineffectual of them all--President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers). Originally conceived by Terry Southern as a character with a bad head cold, the President is shocked to learn that not only has someone authorized an attack, but that there's no way to bring them back. And to top it off, the bill that enabled such a bizarre scenario is one that he approved. It is a politician's worst nightmare. Of the three characters Sellers plays in the film (Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove), this is the most memorable, or at the very least my favorite. His telephone conversation with the Soviet Premier ranks as one of the best comedic exchanges in all of cinema, and it's all that more impressive that we can only hear one half of the call. The Premier is drunk, so Muffley must explain things to him multiple times and deviate from a very important issue to reassure this man that "Of course I like to speak to you! Of course I like to say hello!" The three-pronged performance by Sellers is clearly one the best from this comedic genius. Much of Muffley's scenes are played against Gen. 'Buck' Turgidson (George C. Scott), a military advisor a little too enamored with the business of war and highly distrustful of the Russians. Scott, a criminally underrated actor, is perhaps the best thing in the film. Chomping violently on multiple sticks of gum, he's all big movements and facial contortions, ready to fly off into a rage at a moment's notice. Secretly he's thrilled with the turn of events and a little perturbed that he must waste valuable time convincing this damned politician to launch a coordinated attack. Acting-wise, Scott is off in his own little world, but it's important to note that even as he launches nearer and nearer to madness, he stays firmly grounded in the reality of the film. Few actors can chew the scenery with such vigor without detracting from the film. It's a fine line, and Scott walks it perfectly.

There's little doubt that Dr. Strangelove serves as the high-water mark for anti-war films, but it also ranks alongside not only the best comedies ever made, but also the best films. For such a timely film, it feels as fresh today as it did in the Cold War. But what's most remarkable is that it was even made at all. Imagine the modern equivalent: a dark satire about terrorism featuring the melody "We'll meet again" playing over footage of the explosion. It's the sort of bad taste no one would permit, but when you have people as bold and talented as Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers, they find a way to make it work. In their able hands, the gruesome becomes absurd and the horrific becomes somewhat campy and sweet. It is, hands down, one of the greatest things ever put on film.

A Hard Day's Night               

[1964 | Richard Lester]

Watch: HBO Max | Criterion | Amazon (rental)

A faux documentary of a typical day in the life of one of Britain's biggest bands, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night captures Beetle-Mania in full force as our heroes prepare for a television appearance. With Paul's grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), a "very clean" old mixer, causing trouble along the way, they escape hordes of screaming girls, visit a nightclub, and bust Ringo out of jail, while occasionally taking time to perform one of their new songs, of course. It is, from beginning to end, a delightful lark.

Our intrepid heroes play themselves (or at very least versions of themselves as presented by screenwriter Alun Owen) as four boys who want nothing more than to enjoy life. While everyone else around them is focused on the task at hand, the Fab Four are more interested in hitting on girls, playing cards on a train, and goofing off in a field when they're supposed to be preparing for the show. They seem unconcerned with mundane tasks like answering fan mail or rehearsing and show little regard for how they're perceived by the world at large. There's a memorable scene where George Harrison, having been mistaken for a member of a focus group, willingly sits down and gives his opinion on some shirts and the model for some fashion line. He doesn't bother to tell them who he is and they fail to notice. It's one of the film's delightful quirks that they are either mobbed by screaming fans or go completely unnoticed. But these people in the fashion industry never realize they are talking to one of the most famous people in the entire country, and since his opinion doesn't mesh with their market research, they dismiss it out of hand as the work of a troublemaker.

What's perhaps most remarkable about A Hard Day's Night is just how comfortable the Beatles are in front of a camera. With the influx of MTV and VH1 and the like, we tend to forget that in 1964, it was a rare thing for a musician to be on TV and rarer still for them to appear in any capacity other than a performance. So for all four of them to come off so well in an actual film where they are required to act is no small feat. But even beyond that, they are not just passable, they're actually good. Better, in fact, than some real actors. The film takes time to give each of them a storyline with which to work, from Paul's interactions with his grandfather to George's focus group to Ringo's diversion to live life and subsequent arrest, but the best of the lot is John Lennon, who has an ongoing feud with the band's manager, Norm (Norman Rossington). It is a simple feud. Norm wants the band to stay put, be well-behaved, and generally act as mature model citizens. John, being a born troublemaker, attempts to make this as difficult as possible. He misbehaves at every opportunity, and while it certainly is a childish way to be, it has the dual effect of humanizing him. As the band's de facto leader (and eventual martyr), there was always a mystique around Lennon, but the film contrasts that by showing him as nothing more than a big kid. Particularly in a scene where he's taking a bath and, as little kids are prone to do, is focused more on playing with his toy ship than anything else. It's easy to see why half the world was in love with him.

It would have been simple for director Richard Lester to just follow the Beatles around with a camera, and with the state of Beatle-Mania in full effect, he probably would have been guaranteed a hit. But it's obvious from the beginning that Lester put a lot of care into making the best film he possibly could. Lester strives to not only capture the essence (such as it is) of the Fab Four and Beatle-Mania, but also of the culture as a whole. He constantly creates scenarios where his protagonists are cast opposite the straight members of society, and at every instance they find some way belittle it, or at very least have a good time. They are unwilling to conform, and as an audience we love all the more for it. Also worth noting is that in a film like this, done largely as a documentary, you'd expect it to be noticeably flawed, for there to be stretches where the film lags and generally starts to lose momentum. It's a problem so inherent in this type of film, but somehow A Hard Day's Night avoids that pitfall. Partly because of the raw charisma of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but mostly because from top to bottom this is an expertly-made film. Without question it is the standard-bearer of the genre. But beyond that, I cannot imagine someone with any amount of appreciation for the Beatles or their music who would not thoroughly enjoy this film.

The Italian Job               

[1969 | Peter Collinson]

Watch: Kanopy | Amazon Prime | Crackle | Amazon (rental)  

The absolute best ad Mini Cooper could have possibly hoped for, The Italian Job is a sexy heist film with one of the most unforgettable endings in cinema. 

Michael Caine plays Charlie Crocker, fresh out of prison and given the plans to steal $4 million in gold. It's a detailed plan that requires a crack team of criminals, but key to it is the use of 3 Mini Coopers.

Minis were classless, very fast, and sort of cheeky. They represented the new Britain, which was kind of laddish, cheerful, self-confident, and didn’t take itself too seriously. (screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin)

They could also go anywhere.

Shooting The Italian Job’s stunts was extraordinarily stressful for cast and crew. Perhaps its most stressful shoot was all three Minis jumping between buildings. An Italian cameraman ran off in tears, and was found two hours later. Journalists were banned from the set in case of disaster. The crew placed a truck filled with polystyrene between the buildings so the drivers would at least land on something soft if they hit the wall. If things went really bad, producer Michael Deeley had a plan in place to flee the country.

Approximately 600 Fiat workers watched that day. Julienne didn’t speak Italian and believed they’d come to wish him well—in reality, they were there to say goodbye, convinced the stunt drivers would die. Julienne recalls, “They all touched their Virgin Mary medallions and made the sign of the cross. It was a time of very intense emotion… We eventually took the jump at 110 kph. One car broke its suspension, another broke its engine. Nobody died.” As soon as they’d finished the jump, Peter Collinson ran up the staircase with his jacket full of champagne bottles to celebrate. (Priscilla Page)

Is this Great Cinema™? No. 

Is it so very British? Yes.

Is it a lot of fun? Oh absolutely.

And oh that ending. Quit literally the definition of a cliffhanger. 

Spoiler Alert! 

2001: A Space Odyssey               

[1968 | Stanley Kubrick]

Watch: TCM | HBO Max | Amazon (rental)

So all those monoliths popping up around the world? 

There's a very small chance they're aliens, but more likely they're a tribute to Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey

If you're wondering how a film from 1968 is relevant to today, just imagine the apes are Republican Senators. Susan Collins is the most concerned one. Mitt Romney is the tall one.

It's a lot to process. Really a lot. 

2001: A Space Odyssey is widely considered one of the best science fiction films ever made, if not the best. 

It's stunning.

The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in "2001: A Space Odyssey," but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn't include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, “2001" is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.

No little part of his effect comes from the music. Although Kubrick originally commissioned an original score from Alex North, he used classical recordings as a temporary track while editing the film, and they worked so well that he kept them. This was a crucial decision. North's score, which is available on a recording, is a good job of film composition, but would have been wrong for “2001" because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action -- to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals. (Roger Ebert)

Of course, the thing you're already familiar with, other than the monoliths, is HAL, the computer that takes over the ship.

To Scott Brave, the co-author of “Wired for Speech: How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship,” HAL 9000 is a mix between a butler and a psychoanalyst. “He has a sense of deference and of detachment,” Mr. Brave said, adding that he saw a ripple effect on, for example, the iPhone’s virtual assistant. “When I listen to something like Siri I feel there is a lot in common.”

Even when Kubrick was making the film, the director sensed HAL’s larger implications. He said in a 1969 interview with the author and critic Joseph Gelmis that one of the things he was trying to convey was “the reality of a world populated — as ours soon will be — by machine entities that have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings. We wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures.”

So how was this particular creature created?

The “2001” historian David Larson said that “Kubrick came up with the final HAL voice very late in the process. It was determined during ‘2001’ planning that in the future the large majority of computer command and communication inputs would be via voice, rather than via typewriter.” (The New York Times

coming soon

Go west, young man! What could go wrong?

Lucas McNelly
Writer. Filmmaker. Maker of all the lip balm.

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