Warm-Up Acts

I’ve been watching Short Sharp Shocks 2, the follow-up to the previous BFI release of old short features that were shown in British cinemas from the 40s to the 80s. It’s an even wilder show this time, and the good news right away is we don’t have Algernon Blackwood reading his old stories out loud this time.

Quiz Crime No.1 (1943)

Detective fiction is awfully popular, even more so when distractions are needed in war-time.

So here’s “Detective Inspector Frost” to talk about some cases from his old notebook and give the viewers a chance to figure it out before he tells them the solution.

The recounting is enlivened by simple dramatisations of him inspecting the crime scene and then interrogating witnesses.

It’s not much of a boast to say that I did solve “The Crooked Billet Murder”, using the massive clue that the only witness we saw Frost talk to had done it. I didn’t follow too closely on “Back Stage Murder” as I didn’t really like the tone of voice he used in telling an imaginary cinema audience to buck up and try harder at solving these imaginary cases.

Quiz Crime No.2 (1943)

Same format but this time the crimesolver is The Detective Inspector.

I admit I wasn’t paying too much attention to “The Case Of The Stolen Boy” or “The Hairless Boarder” as I intrigued by the fact that the Inspector’s eyes were often wandering off to the leftof the camera, as though he were reading off a board somewhere in that direction; and also the curious faded-out art deco designs on the wall behind him. Where exactly is this recording being made, what rearrangements had to be done to create the illusion of a private study in what might have been a foyer?

According to the BFI site there were a total of 6 Quiz Crimes made up to 1945. The booklet describes some of the other commercial attempts to make interactive detective entertainments, another one it could mention would be the “crime dossiers” made by Dennis Wheatley and J.G.Links.

The Three Children (1946)

A short public information film about the dangers to children. This does not go the way modern audiences might expect it to.

We see 3 young children who meet up to play in the park before going to a party.

They meet a mysterious Stranger…

…who wins their trust before taking them off on a terrible journey they will never return from.

But the conclusion is that they died in an accident, and the message is to take more care on road safety. So the Stranger is just a symbol of danger… or are we to also make a literal, de-interpreted reading about a less-savoury topic as well? According to the notes very little is known about this film.

Escape From Broadmoor (1948)

The opening minute shows a figure coming in to a darkened room, surprising the occupants and getting shot… and then we go to the title sequence, and the long note from the writer that he was told this tale and does not know whether to believe it or not.

Housebreaker and killer Pendicost has escaped from Broadmoor prison where he was jailed as criminally insane. He was part of a robbery that ended in a maid getting shot, and he survived by giving evidence against his accomplice (who was hanged) whilst he was declared insane. Now he’s hiding out and having supplies brought to him by young hopeful Jenkins, who doesn’t have the full story on what he’s done.

Those of us who grew up watching Dad’s Army will have trouble accepting John Le Mesurier in any other role, and here he’s a gruff and nasty bit of work. As expected by police he decides to hit the same property again with his new sideman, and they have an unexpected encounter.

Victoria Hopper as Susan is rather wonderful, especially compared to the prim ladies we heard from in the Quiz Crime films. Smart, assured, unimpressed by the tough guy, telling Jenkins to demand his union rights from the shop steward, not posh but not a gorblimey phoney either. For some reason I’m put in mind of Ann Savage as Vera in Detour.

Mingoloo (1958)

We start with a vision of the mysterious dog figure Mingoloo.

Artist Mark Langtree saw it in a dream and was inspired to create a physical version, although he detests it and it’s nothing like is usual work.

A client sees it and procures the original in order to have copies manufactured as toys… which can also be used for hiding drugs transferred in his night club.

It all works out ok in the end.

Jack The Ripper With Screaming Lord Sutch (1963)

Just a 3 minute pop video, before they were called that. Joe Meek did the music, and Sutch was as entertaining as he ever was.

The Face Of Darkness (1976)

We’re now in the properly mad paranoid 70s. This feels like Penda’s Fen rewritten by a Hammer hack who decides to drop all the airy-fairy nonsense about Elgar and public school boys and get to the real business: the link between right-wing politics and loony cults of the undead.

After commencing with the medieval burial of the cursed undead enemy of God, we get on to the activities of backbench Tory MP and reactionary-at-large Edward Langton, who is in the news with his demented private member’s bill calling for massive new police powers to clamp down on potential terrorist extremists, as well as reintroducing ID cards and capital punishment. His mate in the City doesn’t think it has much chance, and they only care about tax levels anyway. The media are giving him plenty of interviews.

Langton is played by Lennard Pearce… granddad in Only Fools And Horses. He does a very convincing posh accent. I don’t think he’s supposed to be based on Powell or any similar figure. His stated motivation is that his wife was killed by anarchists who “drank her blood” and (this bit is obscure) he’s found the instructions of how to dig up The Undead and revive him. Unfortunately he doesn’t do it quite right as he doesn’t bite out the tongue when snogging the body back to animation, and (as The Undead helpfully explains) that means he isn’t fully under Langton’s control and will be following his own Godless way regardless, once he has completed the assignment Langton wants him for.

The mission is to carry out an atrocity that will swing public opinion, and thus the easily-swayed House Of Commons behind Langton’s bill. To do this he must first snog a blood-relative of the intended victim. This means Eileen (played by Gwyneth Powell, Mrs McClusky in Grange Hill), mother of Angie, who will be killed later.

The Undead is gamely taken into custody later, and I suppose the film could be taken as making a point against modern psychiatric practice by having John Bennett playing both the shrink examining him in 1976 and the priest tormenting hundreds of years earlier. Or it could just be that they needed him to double-up and take both roles as they couldn’t afford another actor. The writer/director/producer Ian F.H.Lloyd provides a long description in the booklet, and he makes it sound like the whole project was practically guerrilla-filmmaking. He states that the work started in an unpublished novel called The Levelling Machine, and I wonder if he could have been influenced by David Benedictus’s 1966 work This Animal Is Mischievous, which also featured a terrorist bombing in central London as a political provocation.

The Dumb Waiter (1979)

Nothing to do with the Pinter play, this is a story of what we would now call “stalking”.

Geraldine James plays a solitary female who is being taunted with phone calls from a male pest who says he has been following her in his car. Unfortunately she is only listed as “Girl” in the credits, but since her tormentor is only “Man” that makes them at least nominally equal.

After he tries to grab her out of her car she gets home and locks everything up safely, and calls a friend to come round to give support. Doodly synthy menace music soundtrack.

Man tries to several ways to get in, before eventually discovering the titular access route.

Hangman (1985)

Proper men doing proper jobs on building sites but not following proper procedures – LEAVE IT OUT.

After a montage of staggering mishaps mostly caused by Britain’s most careless and indifferent workers, we get a blokey lecture from The Hangman, checking that we spot all the stupid mistakes that were made – some of which involve corner-cutting on basic safety features, which would not be the responsibility of the victims, who might not have had any luck complaining about them. But let’s not dwell on that aspect.

This is a training video, and I suppose it gets the points across. I did wonder at times if The Hangman was unsure whether he was in fact The Grim Reaper, and perhaps that was one of the possible concepts considered. I have no idea where this figure fits in to contemporary discourse about toxic masculinity, “men’s rights”, and so on and so on, though maybe he could make a valuable intervention.

The Mark Of Lilith (1986)

A film about modern vampires but also a film about a cultural theorist’s ideas of the role of The Other as revealed in horror fiction, and a film about these two films colliding with each other and the “real” world of the film enclosing them, simply breaking off with nothing resolved.

Lillia and Luke are two posh modern vampires feasting around central London but Lillia isn’t happy with her identity or pattern of life

At the same time Zena is making her film about representations of the fearful marginalised groups and the suppression of the alternative knowledge and counter-narratives, and she does it in lectures in The Ritzy in Brixton where the audience sat behind her wear masks. Presumably these are parts of the film she is making that we also see the clapperboard for when she does her outdoors sequence.

Lillia turns up to meet her in Brixton (how does the taxi driver know she is in the back seat, if she has no reflection?) and they try to start a relationship. At this point there is a shift over to issues of intersectionality (not called that at this point) and Lillia’s vampirism is itself played as a metaphor for her relationship as the white feminist “preying” on the minority woman, although she wants to transform into something else and get beyond the liberal vampirism of Luke and his contentment with the status quo. “Visibility” is also an issue as the two go out and present as an openly gay couple and provoke children to ask “Why are those women kissing?” And so it ends, with half a dozen issues raised in just 30 minutes.

I don’t know if it was shown on Channel 4 but it would be ideal for them, an absolute paradigm of what they were doing and getting in trouble for in their first decade. It is very good. And some of what Zena has to say about the presentation of women in film is illustrated by The Dumb Waiter.

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