Category Archives: Black and White

#75 – Rivers of Blood

(1970, UK, 48 min, b/w) Dir Ted Malcolm

Shot for the BBC and set in 1983 Malcolm’s film, as the title might suggest, takes as its starting point Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 speech to hypothesise a right wing anti-immigration victory in British politics and what that would mean for Britain. This gritty docudrama crosscuts between footage of the Dover camps in 1983 as shot by a news crew of the time where West Indian and Pakistani deportees are interviewed and talking head sections where historians and politicians detail the mechanics of racialist policies both historically and contemporaneously. Notable by his absence, unsurprisingly, is Powell himself. Malcolm found himself following in his compatriot Peter Watkins’ docudrama footsteps in more ways than one with his film as it was not broadcast in the year of its making (an election year with a Tory win) but was instead “shelved indefinitely”. It has only been seen since as part of film festivals or retrospectives but, as of writing, has never screened nationally or been released on DVD or video. That could all change and were it to be belatedly released it would underline it’s continued relevance now that immigration has once again come to define British politics.

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#71 – Hadley Close

(1966, GB, 100 min, b/w) Dir Eric Conway Bryce. Cast Dirk Bogarde, Denholm Elliott, Billie Whitelaw.

Based on the infamous real life case of the so-called ‘Bloody Blonde’, Hadley Close comes second only to 10 Rillington Place in my mind in it’s portrayal of humdrum post-war Britain and in their depictions of squalid murder – both films seem to exist in a sooty pall. The more unsettling thing about Hadley Close however is the fact that the case remains to this day unsolved – the one 1952 murder in an abandoned house in, yes, Hadley Close yielded no convictions, no plausible motives and no likely suspects. Dirk Bogarde in convincingly haunted as Detective Samuel Gately who headed the investigations and never, it is said, let it go. Denholm Elliott and Billie Whitelaw are the victim’s parents whose grief runs through the film like the writing in a stick of rock, their undying faith in Gately battering him down more and more as the years go on. A grimly solid depiction of the times and of the terrible effect of murder on a people.

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#65 – Vélo du diable (Devil’s Bicycle, The)

(1920, Fr, 27 min, b/w) Dir Patrice Vasqueaux.

Friendly postman Alain kisses his wife good day and makes to leave for his rounds on his bicycle but upon leaving his house finds, in dismay, that it has been stolen. Thankfully a passing bicycle selling gypsy offers him an astonishing discount for a new one which Alain can’t help but take. The salesman – it is revealed to us once Alain is gone – is none other than Beelzebub himself and the bicycle he sold Alain is demonically possessed. Poor Alain soon finds himself flying through the countryside at a terrifying speed, flinging his letters left and right as he vainly tries to do his job regardless and setting into motion all kinds of catastrophes. Due to a Rube Goldbergian confluence of events spurred by a flying parcel the devil gets his comeuppance by the end. The ingenuity of the filmmakers in realising the hilarious accidents caused by the careering postman is to be applauded. Though never mentioned by the man, this was undoubtedly an influence on a young Jacques Tati (in particular, of course, on his short film L’École des facteurs) and it’s a miracle to have survived in the pristine condition in which I saw it.

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#56 – Captain Clock & Co.

(1938, GB, 42 min, b/w) Dir Albert Clock. Cast Albert Clock, Samuel Teats, the Workers of Yew Street Pot Factory.

By 1938 the film world had been taken over by sound and even holdouts like Japan had been converted. The islands of resistance were few. One such island was that of Northern Irish auteur Albert Clock who quietly produced sixty films from his base in the city of Belfast from 1910 to 1942, all of them silent. “Sound perverts the purity of the medium,” he once said and while the ideal is shared by many, it seems unusual for Clock to be invoking the notion of purity when his films are of the quality he achieved. Albert Clock was the last in the line of the once great Clock family who sold his inheritance so that he could realise his dream of becoming to Belfast what the studios were for Hollywood. The only difference was that while the studios made films made by lots of different people, Clock’s studio had only the one artist – Albert Clock himself. On the one hand Clock had a firm grip on the medium technically, deploying all the tricks that would have Griffith revered but lacking the populist touch for sure, being that all of his films depicted usually made up tales from Clock family history. In Captain Clock & Co his grandfather (played by Clock) is portrayed fighting the Zulu (local pot makers in blackface) at the Battle of Blueford (which is made up). Despite the variable quality of the acting and the fact that the battles take place mostly on the beaches of Murlough Bay (for the sand, presumably) it’s stirring stuff with the kind of grit and realism that would be commendable were it in the service of actual history.

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#55 – Lodge-House, The

(1915, US, 65 min, b/w) Dir Rudolph Henry Barrett. Cast Thoda Deane, Thomas Meecham, Alice Batt.

One of only six films made in the space of eighteen months by the unknown Thoda Deane who was being positioned by upstart company Star Film Productions as a ‘vamp’ rival to the likes of Theda Bara, Valeska Suratt and so on. Unlike the other five The Lodge-House was a success, even inspiring a minor craze in ‘cat’ collars (although I’m not sure what these are exactly). Unfortunately for Deane that success didn’t transmute into popularity for herself and soon enough she was, like so many others, tossed aside for the next in line. With all prints lost pretty much everything we know about The Lodge-House comes from posters and lobby cards that survive and there aren’t many of those. The most substantial source is an issue of Film Explosion found in a Long Island coal bunker in 1982 which includes a summary of the plot as such: “Mean Deane is at it again and this time she has Meek Tommy Meecham in her sights. Can he resist? Can YOU? Sweet Alice Batt will have to fight for her man in the ‘Lodge-House’ of SIN that she calls HOME! She demands PEARLS! She demands DIAMONDS! She demands THE WORLD!!” As you’ll admit, that’s some pretty vague stuff. The pictures show a pretty boilerplate melodrama of the day enlivened by the striking Deane with her slim face and big, dark, cavernous eyes and the set of the Lodge-House itself, which looks like an Orientalist’s opium nightmare.

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#44 – Claws of the Damned

(1946, GB, 100 min, b/w) Dir Alberto Cavalcanti. Cast Elisabeth Welch, Miles Malleson, Frederick Valk.

A worthwhile addition to the horror subgenre of killer kitties, Claws of the Damned features Elisabeth Welch in a rare lead role as Rose, the maid hired to work at the decrepit Howe Hall without there seemingly being anyone to serve under save a couple dozen black cats roaming the house. It teeters into rote mystery solving by the end with dread family secrets and all that but what the film has to offer in spades is atmosphere – thick, eerie atmosphere. Those who have seen the film (few and far between they may be) all talk in hushed tones of the scene in Rose’s dark bedroom as she finds herself drifting off to sleep. The camera becomes her eyes, the hazy darkness of her lids opening and closing slower each time. With each blink the room grows darker and with each dial down of the darkness the room, it seems, becomes populated more and more with the black cats of the house. The genius of it is like that of The Innocents where the viewer, like the protagonist, is never quite sure of what it is they’ve seen. Of course she wakes with a jolt and, fumbling with the light, gets the room illuminated to find that the cats aren’t there. Just about finished when Cavalcanti left Ealing under a cloud this didn’t receive the kind of a release that it should have and was reportedly disowned by the director too. A truncated version from a scratchy print is up on YouTube for the curious and uninitiated.

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#33 – Ghost in the Floor, The

(1962, GB, 95 min, b/w) Dir Eric Conway Bryce. Cast Denholm Elliott, Janette Scott, Martin Stephens, Freda Dowie.

Superior chiller, like an MR James story for Christmas that was never written, and impeccably shot by Freddie Francis. Victorian schoolteacher Reginald Benway (Elliott) is assigned to Oldgrey’s college in the moor bound village of Hampton. The reception, as one would expect in such a film, is chilly. That night, as he sits on his bed, his head in his hands in despair, he makes out what seems to him to be a face in the floorboards made from the whorls in the wood’s grain. As time goes on things improve – he makes friends with one of his pupils, the lonely and awkward Alec (Stephens), and a relationship is tentatively begun with his fellow teacher, Miss Devonshire (Scott). Of course everything goes wrong after that, with false rumours being spread about his relationship with the boy and even Miss Devonshire begins to keep her distance. As his troubles mount each night the face in his bedroom floor changes and grows larger… This all plays out at a superbly measured pace, all leading to an end that’s all the more terrifying for its inevitability.

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#20 – Skull and Jones and the Return of the Scarlet Ghost

(1942, US, 83 min, b/w) Dir Irving Pichel. Cast Preston Foster, Susan Hayward, Rita Johnson, Joe E. Brown.

Two years from the Scarlet Ghost’s first appearance and for America the war is now in full swing. Joe E. Brown is shipping magnate Forster Blueford who hires our crime fighting hero and his disembodied pal to investigate the sabotage happening in the docks, sending his secretary Hayward along for the ride. Of course the Germans are responsible and at their head is the Ghost herself, who by this time has morphed into the blonde Rita Johnson and has been rebranded as the head witch of an occult wing of the Nazi party. She kidnaps Skull and hypnotises Jones into a hallucinating stupor and reprogrammes him with anti-American sentiment to act as their stooge. Of course he can’t follow through, stopping before he can strangle Blueford as bidden and rescuing Skull but getting the slip from the Scarlet Ghost, who makes off in a U-boat to plot another day. Great fun that belies it’s propaganda purposes with Preston Foster now wearing the role as comfortably as an old jumper, chatting away to his skull in a bag as though it were the most normal thing in the world.

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#19 – Skull and Jones and the Scarlet Ghost

(1940, US, 70 min, b/w) Dir Albert S. Rogell. Cast Preston Foster, Claire Trevor, Ogdon Marshall.

The fourth film in the S&B series and the first to star their longest serving Jones, Preston Foster. Filming began about five minutes after cut was called on The Laughing Darkness and this is belied by a crossover in the cast, including a tiny role for Lugosi, uncredited, as an Oriental stereotype. Not a supernatural caper, this one – Skull and Jones here find themselves on the trail of a Nazi saboteur called (as the title would suggest) the Scarlet Ghost, who is at large in LA agitating  in some manner or another.  A twist in the tale reveals it to be none other than his socialite pal from the previous feature, the lovely Claire Tracey in a mask seemingly without eye holes and a sparkling ball gown, both of which seem odd attire for a Nazi saboteur. She tumbles from some docks into thick sea fog and is presumed dead in the final act but returns as Skull and Jones’ first recurring villain in later features. A slapdash affair, not a great start to Foster’s tenure (though he equips himself well enough) nor a great introduction such a strong a character in the series history as the Scarlet Ghost. Things pick up subsequently, leaving this one for the history books and completists only.

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#18 – Skull and Jones and the Laughing Darkness

(1939, US, 73 min, b/w) Dir Albert S. Rogell. Cast Paul Fix, Claire Trevor, Bela Lugosi.

The notion with the Skull and Jones series – as popularized by Generation X viewers of the nineties such as Quentin Tarantino – is that Jones himself is insane, that Skull isn’t talking but that Jones is in fact a great detective throwing his voice into it. This theory is given credence in this, the third in the series (and the only one with a miscast Paul Fix, best known as a Western actor), where in the execution of his detective duties Jones finds himself locked in an asylum, hallucinating his cranial companion in his moonlit cell. Of course he escapes with the help of his knock-out socialite friend Tracey (Claire Trevor in a slinky silk number and ill-advised heels) and uncovers the warden’s dastardly plot to exploit the mad for his own financial gain via faux spectral apparitions. Lugosi’s casting as said warden makes the third act reveal a bit of a foregone conclusion but this is a fun romp with its eerie moments nonetheless.

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