Small Men

I watched some old films. They were all about guys who didn’t add up to much and had gotten quite bitter and cynical about it all.

The Small World Of Sammy Lee (1962) gives us 24 hours in the life of sad, sleazy Sammy, MC at a Soho strip club, having to crack the funnies whilst the sets are rearranged. The wealthy punters are only here to leer, and in an early scene in the dressing-room one of the girls mentions that one of these filthy horrors was going a bit too far all by himself at a recent show.

We are also told that some very distinguished gentlemen like to attend though of course they do not give their correct details if they are in the vicinity when the joint gets raided by police. In this era there are still strict rules about degrees of permissible nudity and when the lights have go off before everything comes off.

Sammy has got himself in a bit of trouble with gambling debts with a big important man about Soho and now has been given an ultimatum to settle up by the end of business or be made an example of by a pair of enforcers. The actual debt is £300 -adjusting for inflation that’s £6546.66 in 2020 money (according to the Bank Of England).

Sammy played by Anthony Newley

Sammy does have people who like him, though he doesn’t appreciate them much in return. Joan, the lady in the next door flat, who is what we now call a “sex worker”, and doesn’t like him regarding her as a “cheap brass”. He won’t borrow money off her as he’d feel like a ponce.

Sammy’s also not happy about Patsy the teenager who’s come down to London from Yorkshire, enthralled by his performance doing a summer season at a holiday camp last year.

Patsy puts herself through an audition with the very cheap and nasty club-owner Gerry Sullivan, and gets added to the crew.

Sammy’s day is a whirl of action, trying to raise cash by setting up deals and relying on cheques (going out but not coming in) to keep the bills away whilst the cash is in hand. A meeting in a smoky snooker hall gets him the tip-off that someone would like to buy dope; Sammy of course has no idea where to get it. So he goes to ask the jazz pianist he knows, and sours another friendship by showing himself up as another prejudiced white guy who assumes “they” all know about drugs (the dope is obtained from a different club, the dealer isn’t a musician. We are near the world of Barons Court, All Change).

Sammy also remembers that his surname was originally Leeman before he went on stage and so he goes to ask his old brother for a loan, but his sister-in-law turns up at the shop and halts the deal.

Sammy’s brother played by Warren Mitchell

Perhaps it’s time to think about selling that old armchair that his mum died in.

It all ends up in an encounter in the darkness, on one of those old bombsites of post-War Britain that were extremely useful for British gangsters.

For a different mood, let’s watch a bit of a serial killer movie with 2 guys who know it’s rubbish, because they’s making it.

It’s Blow Out (1981), and there’s a new edition of it available now, but why not just watch it on a grainy old DVD instead.

Jack is the sound man on some lousy horror/exploitation films. He’s got to get a more exciting scream to use in the latest slasher, and he realises he needs to improve his effects stockpile anyway, and so he is out one night recording the ambient noises when he witnesses a car going off the road and into the river.

He does a great job of jumping in and rescuing a lady stuck in the back seat of the limo, but the driver was dead already. Someone else can be seen hurrying away from the scene of the accident. At the hospital there are a lot of cops around and it turns out the dead driver was the Governor, who had been about to run a credible Presidential bid in this year’s election.

The lady in the car is Sally, who also seems to know Manny, a guy who was nearby taking film of the accident that night.

Jack goes over his recording of the night, checking against the clips of Manny’s footage that have appeared in the press, and think that he’s got evidence that a gunshot caused the burst tire that led to the accident.

He used to do serious investigative work before, helping to bust crooked cops with recordings from wiretaps. That’s why he’s not too popular with the local force when he tries to interest them. He got out of that game when one of the undercover agents he was working with got killed due to his carelessness.

Although the local TV are interested in his story, a creepy guy is also going around trying to eliminate the evidence and anyone connected to it. We never know who this guy is working for, although he is on the phone to some important bosses, who were directing him to take action against the political candidate.

Our cynical, deadbeat hero gets his old righteous energy back just to be beaten up by the tough reality of a world where the bad guys can pretty much fix anything and get away with it.

But back to black&white for something a bit less cartoonish and with no car chases. We open with an idyllic scene of several generations of a family enjoying life in the open air.

These are memories of Europe 25 years ago, by old Sol Nazerman now living with relatives in New York.

Time to go back into the big city to work.

The Pawnbroker (1964) is the story of old Professor Nazerman of Leipzig who has ended up running a cheap business in New York, for customers he regards as “scum” and hopeless.

In between his academic career and his current occupation he was a prisoner at Auschwitz. We see very fast flashbacks, the flickers of his suppressed memories, interspersed through the earlier scenes. It’s hard to locate some of these images even with a digital copy to playback, so the original cinema audiences would have been slowly unsettled by these interventions, which build up to longer coherent flashbacks to the camp and the journey to it in the cattle truck.

Another technical feat in the construction is the use of tracking and circling shots, and following characters running back and to in the crowded New York streets around the shop. Most of the running is done not by Nazerman but by Ortiz, the young Puerto Rican who works as his assistant and wants to be taught the tricks of the trade, such as how to identify real gold.

Ortiz knows some of the dubious characters who are hanging around and often trying to hock clearly stolen goods in the shop. Of course he can’t help himself bragging about how much money they have in the safe.

There’s a lot of cash in the safe because the truth about the shop is that it’s really being used for money laundering and other phoney accounting practices, under the control of Rodriguez, the top gangster in Harlem. Rodriguez regards Nazerman as an object of curiosity and wishes him to play a role of court jester. But the gloomy old nihilist has no desire to perform for him or the optimistic liberal youth worker who has arrived in the neighbourhood, who thinks everything could be fine if we all learn to get along.

This world has small time crooks gathering in smokey billiard halls just like Sammy’s, but in this one they have guns and aren’t looking to raise money with complex lines of credit.

Tormented by the past and the present, Nazerman goes on a night-time odyssey and we can see the fancy new offices under construction, as well as inside some of the latest modern apartment blocks, quite unlike the dingy slums that Ortiz and his girlfriend live in.

Quincy Jones worked on the soundtrack, and Morgan Freeman had his first film appearance as a guy in the street. Unlike Sammy’s saga in London, this New York story ends with its violence out in broad daylight. At the end, a man is cutting his hand to try to feel something.

All these anti-heroes were small men up against big men, with minor triumphs set in a valley of deep failure. They all know what they are doing is rubbish for creeps, and it doesn’t make them feel better about themselves.

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