Reviewed today: Beat The Devil, Hell Drivers, Paterson, Stockholm My Love.
I'd like to imagine that some of you out there are thinking that these LFF films are all well and good, but what we really need are more movies where the hero is a bus driver. Well, good news: found your film.
By pure coincidence, Paterson (Adam Driver, in the role he was obviously born to play) works on the 23 route to the New Jersey district that shares his name. Over the course of a week, we get to experience his daily routine. He gets up and walks to work, listens in on his passengers' conversations while he's driving, writes poetry during his breaks, and then in the evening comes back home to his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) to see what new artistic activity she's been using to fill her day. That's about it, apart from taking their dog out for a walk and stopping off at a bar along the way.
It may not seem like much of a structure for a life, or indeed a film. But the bus only runs Monday to Friday, so he gets to break up the routine a little at weekends. Besides, it's all about the people Paterson meets on the way: fellow poets, surprisingly frequent twins, and a whole host of oddballs at the bar. And because this is a Jim Jarmusch film, those characters are a joy to meet and spend time with. For me, Jarmusch has been going off the boil a little in recent years: the last film of his I saw, The Limits Of Control in 2009, disappointed me quite a bit. But here, because the film's structured around a character rather than a plot conceit, the rampant digressions into other areas don't feel as forced as they did in the earlier film.
Paterson is very much one of those hanging-out-with-the-characters movies, rather than having a focussed narrative. And once you've relaxed into the repetitive structure, that's a perfectly fine way for the film to operate. Paterson's bemusement at Laura's continual artistic experimentation doesn't need to hit some sort of peak during the week of the story: the fact that it bubbles along at a steady level, just like it would in all our relationships, is charming enough. In fact, when something actually happens towards the end of the film, it almost feels like cheating. But it gets back on track again by the end, not by hitting a big reset button, but by unfussily integrating the incident into Paterson and Laura's lives. I've been enjoying Jim Jarmusch's strange little worlds at the LFF since my first one in 1989, and it's a delight to be invited to another one.
(Because some of you may want to know: Paterson appears to be a pretty good bus driver. On the one occasion that his vehicle has a breakdown, he handles the removal of passengers from it calmly and effectively. Some people have a very odd idea of how dangerous a flat battery is, though.)
6.15pm: Hell Drivers [trailer]
I have a very clear memory of watching Hell Drivers on telly as a young child - or, at least, watching the first ten minutes of it. I can definitely recall the opening titles, with the cast's names appearing over shots of lorries barrelling down English back roads at dangerous speeds. It took me ten minutes or so to realise I'd misread one of those cast names, and that the star of the film was in fact Welsh movie star Stanley Baker, not genial Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter. Disappointed, I changed channels, unaware that I was missing out on one of the great British action movies of the 1950s.
Still, I've made up for it now with this beautifully restored copy. (Meanwhile, elsewhere in BFI Southbank, The Belated Birthday Girl was watching another hellish restoration: see below.) Stanley Baker plays Tom, a man who's carrying around all his clothes in a brown paper parcel, and is looking for a job from anyone who's prepared not to ask too many questions about his past. He ends up working as a driver at a supremely dodgy haulage firm, where you have to break the speed limit on every run just to achieve your basic pay. It's the perfect recipe for the best kind of health and safety nightmare.
All this seems thrilling enough, but then you discover the staff list at the haulage firm. The boss is William Hartnell: the foreman of the driving crew is Patrick McGoohan: and Baker's co-drivers include Herbert Lom, Alfie Bass, Gordon Jackson, Sid James and Sean Connery (in what might be his first speaking role). That's a cast which baby me rejected several decades ago because Stanley Baxter wasn't in it. Baby me was a twat, quite frankly.
Writer/director Cy Endfield was apparently more interested in co-ordinating the truck-driving sequences than the actors, according to female lead Peggy Cummins, who gave a splendidly rambly introduction to tonight's screening. (She's talking about a film she made sixty years ago, she can ramble as much as she bloody well likes.) To be fair, the scenes of trucks barging each other off the road at top speed are still impressive. But this is a cast that's solid enough not to be overshadowed by some spectacular stunt driving, with McGoohan's scenery-chewing turn as Irish hardman Red the absolute high point of it. Looking like a cross between an early spaghetti western villain and Shane MacGowan during his amphetamine period, he's the utterly over-the-top baddie that a film like this needs, and the perfect foil to Baker's quiet integrity. If Hell Drivers ever turns up on telly again (and given ITV's involvement in the restoration, it probably will), don't make the same mistake that I did.
9.15pm: Stockholm My Love [official site]
For the first time at this year's festival, we've got ourselves a world premiere: the chance to see Mark Cousins' latest movie before anyone else, with all the major personnel in attendance. And inevitably, you start running a sweepstake in your head: just how pissed is cinematographer Christopher Doyle going to be? Very, is the answer. It dawns on me as he staggers onto the stage that on the two occasions when I've seen him in public in the past - at the LFF in 1996, and at Edinburgh in 2004 - it's always been before lunchtime. This appearance kind of explains why: by this point in the evening any questions he's asked are given totally unconnected replies, albeit thoughtful and generous ones that emphasise how he's merely working as part of a team. "It's all his fault!" he yells at least twice, pointing at Cousins.
If this film is anyone's fault, it's a combination of Cousins, Doyle and sole cast member Neneh Cherry. The film they've come up with consists of two parts, possibly more depending on how you look at it. It starts with Cherry leaving her Stockholm house on a misty morning: she's meant to be giving a lecture on Swedish architecture, but is playing hooky instead. As she wanders round Stockholm, in her head she more or less gives that lecture to her dead father: but it slowly morphs into a confession, and an explanation of why she's taking the day off. The next day, she goes out into the city again: the mist has gone, and things become a lot more cheerful.
Cousins has described this film as 'docufiction' - it's largely a study of the city of Stockholm, using a fictional narrative as a hook to hang it on. Unfortunately, if tonight's audience is anything to go by, people seem to be getting very confused about which bits of the film are fiction. Part of this is obviously down to the deliberate overlaps between Neneh Cherry's background and that of her character. But the audience seems to buy heavily into her story without realising that it's just a story, which makes for an exquisitely awkward Q&A session afterwards. Despite the addition of that narrative thread, this is really a study of the many moods of a city. And capturing the differences between those moods is where Christopher Doyle really earns his money: not just in the obvious contrast between the first and second halves of the film, but in the subtle changes in colour palette from scene to scene, used to illustrate the state of Cherry's head.
It's a film crammed with terrifically realised elements, but in the end Stockholm My Love didn't quite come together for me. Like yesterday's Ascent, it's an art film where you can appreciate all of the different components, but they never quite cohere to give you the emotional response that Cousins is obviously aiming for. And there's no denying that Cousins is an emotionally driven filmmaker: intellectual detachment isn't the problem here, more a desire to cover all the emotions in a single film. Still, there's no denying his ambition and intent, and that pissed bloke shoots it all magnificently.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Beat The Devil [trailer]
The Belated Birthday Girl - Harry and Gwendolen Chelm (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones) are in a port town in Southern Italy waiting to catch a ship to Africa. Gwendolen passes the time inventing back story for some other characters she sees whom she correctly presumes may be waiting for the same boat: a group of four men of a variety of nationalities led by Peterson (Robert Morley) and including the decidedly non-Irish Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre). Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) and his wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) are also in the town waiting for that same passage, and while Gwendolen is making Billy’s acquaintance, the ship’s purser arrives to tell Billy that the ship won’t be leaving that night, and so they are all stranded a while waiting for the ship. Billy is in Paterson’s employ, and they are travelling to Africa to carry out some nefarious money-making deal connected with Uranium, and so Harry and Gwendolen end up getting involved with Paterson’s group through Billy.
Beat the Devil is listed in the Thrill section of the LFF, and so although I had read the write-up in the program which described it as a send-up and satirical, I hadn’t realised quite how laugh-out-loud funny it was going to be. The performances are delightful, especially Jennifer Jones as Gwendolen, someone who, as Billy at one point puts it, “uses her imagination rather than her memory”. The script, ranging from witty, Coward-esque lines, to almost Carry-On style antics, is very funny, and while there is a noir-ish thriller plot of sorts, and some romantic sub-plots, the delight of the film lies not so much in plot as in the various characters, the lines they deliver and the ways they interact. The script was written on the fly by director John Huston working with a 28 year-old Truman Capote, when Huston was unhappy with the original script. What they came up with is a hoot, and if some of the lines seem very improbable for the characters to utter, that only makes them all the more perfect for them, and is part of what makes it so funny.
Beat the Devil was a box-office flop but later became a cult classic, and with the 4K restoration from Sony Pictures Entertainment making it look lovely, too, this is a great opportunity to catch up with this enjoyable film.