The High Bright Sun

I’m not sure how many movies have been set during the guerilla campaign in Cyprus in the 1950s, but The High Bright Sun (1964) is the only one that I can recall seeing. It’s all too easy for a story which makes use of such a background to become bogged down in politics and thus dilute the drama. However, this film has the good sense to avoid becoming too mired in ideological matters and instead concentrates on telling a suspenseful yarn that could have been relocated to most any conflict zone without losing its edge. As such, we end up with a well paced thriller that builds tension relentlessly and holds the attention right to the end.

The tale is all about finding oneself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Juno Kozani (Susan Strasberg) is a Cypriot-American student visiting the island where her father was born and staying with some old family friends. Having witnessed the aftermath of the fatal ambush of two British soldiers by EOKA guerillas, she is interviewed by an intelligence officer, Major McGuire (Dirk Bogarde). Although Juno can only tell him the few mumbled words of a mortally wounded sergeant, McGuire’s suspicions are aroused. He’s one of those jaded colonial campaigners who has grown accustomed to the guarded silence of the locals, and routinely takes it for granted that details will be withheld. In this case though, Juno has told him all she knows, but he has a hunch that the guerilla leader, Skyros (Gregoire Aslan), was involved. What both he and Juno are unaware of at this stage, however, is that her host is using his flawless respectability to cloak his involvement with the paramilitaries. Following a vaguely unpleasant dinner party attended by a family acquaintance, Haghios (George Chakiris), Juno blunders into the library and sees too much for her own good – a secret visit by Skyros. This is the point at which the story really shifts into gear, with Juno having inadvertently placed herself in a very dicey position. She now has to do her utmost to convince her hosts – and in particular, the hostile and dangerous Haghios –  that she didn’t notice anything untoward. In the meantime, McGuire is playing his hunch that Juno knows more than she can or is willing to say. By the by, it’s decided that Juno represents too great a threat and she finds herself the quarry of the seemingly unstoppable Haghios, first in a hunt across the beautiful countryside, and later holed up and under siege in McGuire’s apartment.

Director Ralph Thomas isn’t best known for his thrillers but he did dabble in the genre, including among his credits the excellent The Clouded Yellow and the unloved remake of The 39 Steps. The lion’s share of his work concentrated on comedies, but he plays down that aspect in The High Bright Sun, and succeeds in producing a tight thriller that draws you in as it goes along. The scene where Juno learns that what she thought was going to be a trip to the airport and safety is really a ploy to see her assassinated by the roadside is nicely shot. It also leads into the chase across the island where Thomas, and cameraman Ernest Steward, gets great value out of the stunning locations – Italy apparently standing in for Cyprus. The script, by Ian Stuart Black and Bryan Forbes, does contain some risible and admittedly clunky dialogue at a few points yet it also maintains its focus throughout and does its best to tell a story rather than descending into political diatribe. If anything it points out the dirty and indiscriminate nature of guerilla warfare, where the innocent often suffer the most at the hands of both combatants.

I thought all the actors turned in nicely measured performances, with Susan Strasberg doing fine as the girl caught out of her depth in a situation that’s spinning out of control. For the most part she underplays, and that’s fine as she’s supposed to be someone who must keep a careful check on her emotions lest she should betray herself. Dirk Bogarde wasn’t overly stretched in this one, though he does bring just the right degree of weary cynicism and self-effacing humour to his role. As the villain of the piece, the fanatical and homicidal Haghios, George Chakiris shows a surprising menace. He really did the coldly determined bit well, only the prospect of indulging in some physical violence bringing a gleam to his eye. There’s also a wonderful supporting part for Denholm Elliott as the apparently dissipated and alcoholic friend of McGuire who proves himself to be both ruthless and resourceful.

The High Bright Sun comes to DVD in the UK via Spirit, who have recently begun distributing a growing number of British titles from the ITV library. On the positive side, the film looks pretty good despite an apparent lack of restoration, without any major damage on view. The colour fares well and does justice to the location photography. The downside is that the movie opens with the credits letterboxed at about 1.66:1 before reverting to 1.33:1 for the remainder of the running time. I think we’re looking at an open matte transfer here, though it might be slightly zoomed too, judging from the extraneous headroom in some shots. This is by no means perfect, but it’s not a totally botched job either – a 1.66:1 movie doesn’t suffer as badly from a compromised aspect ratio as is the case with those composed for wider presentation. The disc is a very basic affair offering no subtitle options and no extra features. I found the film to be a well produced political thriller, with the emphasis on the thrills rather than the politics. It may not be an outstanding piece of work, yet the performances, scripting and direction are all professional and polished. Crucially for a thriller, it does deliver the necessary amount of suspense, tension and excitement. I’d call it a solid piece of entertainment that looks good and doesn’t outstay its welcome. I recommend giving it a chance – it’s certainly worth a look.

The Woman in Question

Years ago, when I was growing up anyway, television offered the opportunity to see lots of obscure and half-forgotten movies. The fact that the choice of channels was limited, in contrast to the dizzying array available today, meant that you ended up exposed to these films regardless of whether you would have originally opted for them or not. Of course that’s all changed now; mainstream channels stick rigidly to the mainstream, and viewers have to make a conscious effort to seek out the rarities – supposing they even have the desire to do so in the first place. DVD has gone some way towards plugging this gap, and it’s especially important when it comes to vintage British cinema. Apart from the better known titles, the British movies that were once a staple of off-peak TV schedules have virtually disappeared from view. The Woman in Question (1950) is a good example of what I mean: a well crafted thriller, full of immediately recognizable faces, and now pretty much unknown. This isn’t a film that occupies a position in the front rank of British cinema but its construction and a fine lead performance mean that it’s worthy of some attention.

It’s the story of a murder investigation, opening with the discovery of a woman’s strangled body in her seaside flat. There’s no shortage of suspects or apparent motives, but the key to the whole affair lies in the character of the victim. This woman is Astra (Jean Kent), a fairground fortune teller. Normally, murder stories like this develop along the lines of a police procedural, but here we stray a little from the standard formula. It soon becomes clear that the only things we can say for certain about the victim are her name and occupation. In the course of the police interviews we get to see Astra from five different perspectives, and each one presents a contrasting portrait of the dead woman. The landlady (Hermione Baddeley) remembers a sophisticated lady who’s fallen on hard times, the sister (Susan Shaw) recalls her as a slatternly tramp, the would-be showbiz partner (Dirk Bogarde) feels she was a predatory opportunist, the lovelorn shopkeeper (Charles Victor) nurses visions of a virginal ideal, and the rough Irish sailor (John McCallum) carries a torch for a woman who’s not wholly bad but could stand a little reforming. So, there we have the woman in question, and the real question is: which of these contradictory perceptions is the correct one? Before the police can discover who killed Astra, they must first establish who she really was and, therefore, why someone would want her dead.

Anthony Asquith did a really polished job as director on The Woman in Question, working in tandem with lensman Desmond Dickinson he taps into the slightly seedy and down at heel world his characters inhabit. The shadow of WWII hangs over the drab boarding house where much of the action plays out, and there are frequent references to the aftermath of those painful years. There aren’t too many show-off type shots in evidence but there is a necessarily shabby ambience about everything. What stands out most though is the structure of the film, a collection of flashback sequences that are tied together by the ongoing police investigation. Each successive character describes events in the way that he or she remembers them, offering varied interpretations of the same scene. The chronology remains clear throughout and the shifts of emphasis and characterization are excellently handled. Thus we see essentially the same scenes being shot from different angles, with different lighting and subtly altered performances to reflect the bias of whoever is narrating at any given time.

Asquith’s real skill, however, was in coaxing the best out of his cast, and that’s particularly noticeable with Jean Kent (who just turned 90 the other day). Her role as Astra was a very demanding one, requiring her to pull off five variations on the same character – from saint to slut, and everything in between. It’s quite a feat, demanding adaptations of wardrobe, hairstyle and tone of voice, to create someone who’s both markedly different and recognizably familiar at the same time. This storytelling technique obliges most of the cast members to shift the tone of their performances too to some extent, but it’s Ms Kent who is asked to bear the greatest burden, and she does so very successfully. There’s plenty of good support on view though from Bogarde, Shaw, Baddeley, McCallum and Victor, not to mention the likes of Anthony Dawson and Duncan Macrae.

The DVD of The Woman in Question from Odeon in the UK is a fine presentation of the film. The cover says it’s been remastered and it does look very good indeed. Aside from a few speckles here and there, the print is clean and sharp with nice contrast and definition. As usual with most Odeon titles, there’s not a lot in the way of extras – a collection of trailers for other releases and a booklet providing brief notes on the movie and potted biographies of the director and principal cast members. The film is one of the more interesting British noir/thrillers, a picture that’s not talked about a lot but is definitely worth watching.

As a postscript, I just want to say that it’s almost time for me to take a holiday. As such, I won’t be posting anything for a while – maybe late August, maybe September. Anyway, thanks to all of you who have read and followed/commented on my stuff – it really is rewarding to get so much feedback and information. Cheers for now folks, and I’ll see you again soon.

So Long at the Fair


We spend a lot of time these days bemoaning the lack of originality in cinema, citing the number of remakes and the fondness for rehashing plots and concepts. However, the truth is that this isn’t an especially new phenomenon; it’s been going on for almost as long as people have been going to the movies. So Long at the Fair (1950) is an example of a film that’s based on a hoary old tale, an urban myth if you like, which has been used in a number of productions – The Lady Vanishes (1938), Dangerous Crossing (1953), and an early episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to name a few, have all borrowed to a greater or lesser extent from the same basic idea. The point I’m trying to make here is that a perceived lack of innovation in the central plot theme is not necessarily always a bad thing – the real test is in the execution of the script. Even the most familiar of stories can still grip the viewer as long as they are presented in an interesting way.

Events in the film revolve around the Paris Exhibition of 1889, and a young brother and sister, Johnny and Vicky Barton (David Tomlinson and Jean Simmons), who happen to be visiting the capital. Thinking themselves lucky to have secured accommodation when all the city is awash with tourists, they proceed to enjoy their first night out on the town. The bustling, thronged atmosphere is nicely conveyed through scenes of cafe life on the pavements of Montmartre, and later at the Moulin Rouge. These two young people, having sampled the cosmopolitan night life, return exhausted to their hotel to get some rest and prepare for further excitement the next day. However, that’s not to be. When Vicky awakes she finds herself confronted with a situation that at first arouses puzzlement, but soon descends into despair and fear. What has happened is that Johnny has disappeared, but that’s only the half of it. As soon as Vicky starts to ask questions she’s presented with the even more perplexing problem that not only does nobody seem to remember seeing her brother but they insist, to a man, that he was never there in the first place. As if that’s not bad enough, there’s the downright chilling discovery that the room Vicky remembers her brother occupying doesn’t even exist, despite her having visited him in it. The unfolding of this nightmare scenario is nicely handled, with each new shock being added incrementally and the girl’s panic growing accordingly. Finding no solace at the hotel, Vicky turns to the authorities, the consulate and the police, who both display sympathy but also a healthy, and understandable, dose of scepticism. While the distraught girl witnesses one possible avenue of inquiry after another relentlessly closed to her, and her belief in her own sanity being stretched to the limit, the viewer is made subtly aware that something dark and inexplicable is taking place behind the scenes. Enter George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde), an artist struggling to make a go of his new-fangled impressionist works and an unlikely but welcome ally for the increasingly desperate Vicky. With the backing of someone who’s willing to take her story at face value our heroine now has the opportunity to get to the heart of the mystery. The solution, when it comes, may seem a little contrived but it is logical and ties up all the loose ends in a very satisfactory manner. Added to that, and perhaps most importantly, the whole thing is achieved both stylishly and without any relaxation of the tension.


Terence Fisher shared the directing credits with Antony Darnborough, and the sumptuous and stylised sets bring to mind the look of the Hammer films that the former would go on to make his name in. Despite a number of outdoor scenes, there’s a real sense of claustrophobia to the whole production that emphasises the shortage of options open to Vicky. When the action returns to the ornate, overdecorated interior of the hotel this stifling feeling is heightened even further – the intricacy of the decor being highly suggestive of unpalatable secrets that need to be disguised by an opulent exterior. There are also two fine set pieces that grab the attention, the first being a horrific accident that befalls a hot air balloon carrying the one person who may be capable of corroborating Vicky’s unlikely story. The other is an extended sequence that sees Hathaway stealing through the hotel by night in an effort to secure evidence that will convince the authorities to act. Fisher really piles on the suspense as the young artist slips in and out of shadow along corridors and staircases, narrowly avoiding the staff as they go about their regular nightly rituals, to get his hands on the tell-tale receipt books.

Jean Simmons was asked to carry the picture for long stretches, and she brought it off very well. She had that doe-eyed innocence that almost guarantees sympathy and used it to maximum effect. However, there’s more to her performance than mere pouting for the camera; her mounting feeling of hopelessness as one door after another slams shut in her face is always believable. Dirk Bogarde’s role was a good deal more straightforward, but he too played it to perfection. There’s a nice mix of the gauche and the determined in his portrayal of an unexpected knight in shining armour. As for the supporting cast, there are welcome turns from familiar faces such as Felix Aylmer, Andre Morell and a young Honor Blackman. The strongest work though is done by Cathleen Nesbitt as the forbidding hotel manageress, whose sour features are perfect for conveying a very subtle menace.

So Long at the Fair has just recently been released on DVD in the UK by new label Spirit, although they are an affiliate of ITV/Granada. The transfer is a reasonable one without being especially remarkable. The film doesn’t appear to have undergone any restoration and there are the usual age related artifacts to be seen, but they’re never particularly distracting. If anything, the image is a little too soft but I wouldn’t call it a fatal flaw either. The disc itself is completely barebones, no trailer, no subtitles, just the movie. Despite that, I think the film is very entertaining; even if the plot is one that you’re largely familiar with it still holds the attention throughout. For those who have no acquaintance whatsoever with the story it ought to prove even more gripping. In brief, there’s a genuine puzzle plot, fine performances, and tight, smooth direction. I give it my recommendation.

The Sleeping Tiger


Would you consider taking a known criminal into your home as an experiment? That’s the basic premise of The Sleeping Tiger (1954), and it’s one that promises ample opportunity for drama and tension. Unfortunately, the unlikely nature of such a story leaves the material ripe for a descent into some highly strung melodramatics. Of course this is a movie, and what matters most is internal logic – the situation in which the characters find themselves doesn’t necessarily have to be one the viewers would choose for themselves so long as those characters behave appropriately within the given framework. In this movie, that is pretty much the case yet the result remains only partially successful.

Frank Clemmons (Dirk Bogarde) is a young hood with a troubled past. When he attempts a late night hold up on a deserted street he finds himself abruptly overpowered, disarmed and, to all intents and purposes, a prisoner. The intended victim was Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox), a psychiatrist with a penchant for experimentation. Instead of handing his would-be mugger over to the authorities, Esmond wants to see if he can put his theories into practice and rehabilitate the young delinquent. To this end he makes a deal with Clemmons: he will stay in Esmond’s suburban home, ostensibly as a guest, while the doctor attempts to dig into the past and exorcise the demons. So far so good, and maybe very laudable too. But there’s inevitably a fly in the ointment – the woman. Glenda (Alexis Smith) is Esmond’s young American wife, leading a life of leisure but starting to feel just a little bored. Though initially hostile to Clemmons, it’s only a matter of time before she allows herself to be seduced by his dangerous charm. While Esmond is  becoming an unwitting cuckold, he is also gradually making progress with getting to the heart of Clemmons’ problems. A rash hold up by Clemmons, and an equally rash show of solidarity on Esmond’s part, leads to the breakthrough. Clemmons is free of the chains of guilt and Esmond has achieved a major professional success. But this is only part of the story, and the adulterous triangle that has sprung up will have to be resolved in a dramatic and violent fashion.


The Sleeping Tiger was Joseph Losey’s first British film after fleeing Hollywood and the HUAC controversy. He directed the film under a pseudonym (as did writers Carl Foreman and Harold Buchman) for fear his notoriety should rub off on any others in the cast and crew. His direction is competent without being in any way flash, and the film seems to be trying very hard to be a true noir. Indeed, there are many noirish elements, but the setting and characters are an obstacle. The whole thing remains resolutely British in a way that, while not damaging in itself, just isn’t noir. Dirk Bogarde gives a good enough performance as Clemmons but, and this is a big but, he simply doesn’t convince as a hardened hoodlum. His part was so written to allow him to come from a middle-class background and help account for his sophistication. Still, it doesn’t really work and, despite his ability to play villains and cads, Bogarde is never credible as a gun-wielding street thug. In the role of Esmond, Alexander Knox is fine and draws a good deal of sympathy. The only real issue I had was the fact that there’s no explanation offered as to why this man would so obsessively (and he does go to extraordinary lengths) endanger himself and his household for the sake of curing one patient. Alexis Smith was at the end of her big screen career at this point (she was moving into television work) but she turns in an excellent performance as the neglected wife who’s the real sleeping tiger. She gets to indulge in some scenery chewing melodramatics towards the end, and does so very effectively.

As far as I know, The Sleeping Tiger is only available in poor PD editions in the US. However, there are a couple of ways to get hold of it in the UK. Optimum have released the film in two box sets, one dedicated to Joseph Losey and one to Dirk Bogarde. I watched it from the Bogarde Screen Icons set, and the transfer is fine, clear and sharp with only a few minor scratches on view. The disc itself is a totally barebones affair and no subs are provided. The film offers an interesting if unlikely mix – The Dark Past being another variation on this theme – of psychoanalysis and crime that has its moments. The melodrama is laid on a little thick at times and the casting of Bogarde is somewhat problematic. Despite this, it remains watchable and marks the first collaboration of Losey and Bogarde, who would go on to make more accomplished films together.


The Gentle Gunman


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 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.