Coal Face

The vast amounts of coal required, the daily labor to get them, the “transport and distribution” that double the price, where it all goes.

“The basic industry of Britain.”

Score by Benjamin Britten, verses by W.H. Auden.


Went the Day Well?

A mad film properly remade as an American comedy by Norman Jewison in The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming, and still remembered at home vividly in Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned.

British troops billeted on Bramley End one weekend are a Nazi regiment with radar-jamming equipment for the Monday morning invasion. The style is noteworthy for the representation of lucky chances turning against the Germans as the villagers strike back.



Nicholas Nickleby

“The wilderness of this world.”

The Ealing Nickleby would be Charles Dickens’ Kafkaesque tale of the careers of a disinherited gentleman that was a model to Marcel Pagnol, and was filmed by Cavalcanti almost entirely in deep chiaroscuro (the technical term for this is “Rembrandt lighting”) as practically a biopic of Shakespeare (or Eliot, or Mallarmé). The Man with the Golden Arm has a similar dénouement.

This is among the best of the Dickens adaptations, and a brilliant success, a great film, inestimable even, because of the forthrightness of Dickens and the attentiveness of Cavalcanti. As soon as the author had dipped his quill and indited the name of Dotheboys Hall, no director of Nicholas Nickleby could ever succumb to temptation and “do Dickens,” on pain of bringing forth a nonentity, wind. Cavalcanti realizes this, and it keeps him jumping, as great wits are said to do. He is, in fact, so keen to let no superfluous second of his film dishonor the founder of the feast, that he not only acquires a scalpel-like acuity of perception in his rapid cutting, he finds inspiration and time for a bit of business like the end of the scene at the Hall.

Nickleby has been silently attentive during Mr. Squeers’ morning lesson in ignorance and servility, and now is called upon to read to the class. Cavalcanti stops his apparatus at this moment and slowly dollies in on Nickleby reading the first few lines of The Pilgrim’s Progress. On the words, “I dreamed a dream,” he dissolves to Nickleby’s sister in black, seated amidst the trappings of a fashionable establishment, and dollies out from her at an angle, before resuming his discourse.

The effect of this, like everything else Cavalcanti does with Nicholas Nickleby, is to create a constant cinematic discourse running along with Dickens never out of its sight, and only relying on him entirely at moments of great delicacy, as when his description of the Infant Phenomenon is worth a close-up of the creature.

The acting of course is shown to advantage by this directorial method, as it becomes structural in that Cavalcanti cuts away at the precise moment when the fullest expression has been reached in any particular shot, and initiating at once the response and continuation.

From Dotheboys Hall to The Saracen’s Head (debtor’s prison has bars on the windows and a turnkey at the door), Lord Berners’ score is the charming cap lifted over the jolly thing.


They Made Me a Fugitive

Cavalcanti’s Oliver Twist, set at the time of filming, just after the war.

The man from the RAF falls amongst thieves and, being abstemious when it comes to the drug trade and the murder of a policeman, sets them off thinking he’s an amateur not to be trusted, they frame him for the murder he tried to prevent.

He escapes from prison and returns to set things right at the undertakers’ used by the gang as a front.

The two strands of invention are jocularity and viciousness, and both come from Dickens though another novelist is credited with the modern framework, so that Cavalcanti’s Nicholas Nickleby might almost be seen as a study.

Otto Heller has the cinematography on the director’s characteristic style.


For Them That Trespass

Time of the Abdication. Young poet’s first time in print, afterward secretary to the vicar. Says mum, “how splendid, and if you find you’re not clever enough to be a writer, you could always be a clergyman.”

The Wild Swan, Lenten Town, in the name of Kit Marlowe.

Cavalcanti’s “the one that pulls the train, the engine only ‘elpsim,” cinematography Derick Williams, script J. Lee Thompson with Douglas-Home from the author of Gallipoli (dir. Peter Weir), music Philip Green.

“I find the witness’s comments on the police superfluous.”

“Aye, I agree, my Lord...”

“A poet of considerable genius who flourished in the days of Queen Elizabeth...”

“A first-class play,” The Area Steps.

Lean’s Oliver Twist was the year before.

A volume in the prison library at Pentonville, Psalms of London, a shelf of books. “There’s nothing like a murder on the premises for keeping down the rent,” sphinx and all. “As an author I’m accustomed to being pestered by lunatics.”

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, “a drab and dreary little film”. Time Out, “the poetry and the squalor”. TV Guide, “an interesting programmer”. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “tedious”.

And so, the homicidal railway fireman turned engine driver dies struck by a train in a tunnel, the rich rewarded author goes down for misprision of felony, the burglar awa’ in Glasgow that night’s a free man, cf. Pinter’s The Dwarfs.