School for Secrets

Etymology of “boffin”, puffin + Baffin. Development of radar. The battle of Britain.

“I’m cold.”

“We only just left the ground, it’s probably nerves.”

“I don’t suffer from nerves, I’m cold.”

To see in the dark, through cloud, “in thunder, lightning, or in rain.”

A positively Nabokovian study of the species, an especially brilliant, virtuosic film.

“Still, you must admit that L.-J.’s a first class brain.”


“Well, I can’t understand a word the fellow says. Must be first class.”

A marked influence on The Quiller Memorandum (dir. Michael Anderson), and cp. The Last Time I Saw Archie (dir. Jack Webb).

“You’ve got to hand it to these Germans, they’re just as bad at losing as they are at winning!”

Hildyard cinematography, score Rawsthorne, screenplay the director (Anderson assistant).

Hn, I suppose this is first gear?”

“Experimentation is the cream of life, I’ll not spoil your pleasure by tellin’ ye.”

TV Guide, “absorbing but at times badly flawed”. Britmovie, “sprightly melodrama.” Halliwell’s Film Guide, “an unsatisfactory entertainment”.


Vice Versa

The great gift of the malachite left eye (setting made in Sheffield) of the idol in the Temple of the Laughing Hyena at Battledore, India, where they know a tourist when they see one, “worth a million rupees”.

It grants sight to the blind, a stockbroker in the borough of Paddington who believes that his fiancée, a dancer at the Metropolitan Theatre, is in love with him, and that his son’s headmaster, Dr. Grimstone, is the repository of all virtues and all knowledge, by the simple expedient of granting the man’s wish to be a boy again and the boy’s to be a man, so that the stockbroker suffers under the moneygrubbing lunatic and the pupil invests in the horseless carriage of 1896 with the bounder who stole the eye in the first place and who is in cahoots with the fiancée.

The boy goes to Harrow, the stockbroker takes up better lodgings.


Romanoff and Juliet

The basis of this is Shakespeare and the simple joke on both Cold War adversaries, they can go fuck themselves. It works both ways (cp. Left Right and Centre, dir. Sidney Gilliat).

Absolutely one of the funniest comedies ever filmed.

Critics have always slighted it under the theory of a pox on both your houses.

That is just what does not happen.


Billy Budd


The case presents no difficulties in what is simply a wartime “drum-head” court-martial aboard a ship of the Royal Navy where a sailor is wrongfully convicted of killing a superior officer who had traduced him out of incompetence. The captain and other officers are good and sensible men who in this instance fail to carry out their duty.

Variety faulted Ustinov but thought the film was “allegorical”. It is merely extremely fine, to such an extent that Crowther faulted the ending as “intellectual”, meaning it taxed his mind.

Melville’s hand is fully seen after the verdict has definitively been reached, his foretopman is the perfect merchant seaman, an impressed tar with “initiative”, only he has a stammer when pronouncing against wrongs, and so cannot defend himself when falsely accused, “speak, hands, for me!”

Everything is made patently clear, all the while Ustinov is filming aboard sailing ships at sea or perfectly synchronized interior sets that sway and groan authentically throughout.

Yet all reviewers say it is a failure in one way or another.

Lumet made The Hill shortly thereafter, Wiard Tom Horn later on, the first an especially close analysis.

The naval law admits no remedy, the captain and his court are unable to avoid a hanging.

Billy Budd is such a perfect seafaring man that, in the face of duty carried out so perfectly, as he too understands it, he dies with a blessing on his lips.

“Fumbled on almost every level,” says Dave Kehr in the Chicago Reader, confusing the representation with what is represented.


Lady L


Her mind, a modus vivendi, and that is a great relief that follows upon the torturous self-congratulatory genius of Billy Budd, precisely what one should expect, a thing of two minds, understanding established between the reasonable pair of two opposites, French anarchist and English aristocrat, for example, clochard et vieillard if the latter is rich and distinguished, just as the Corsican lady begins her career as a laundress serving a Parisian whorehouse frequented by the leaders of the nation.

Expressly her biography is the substance of the film, no biographer in England would ever dream etc.

No critic in Hollywoodland to be sure but had no use or precious little for the grand sublimate of the joke presented as the recollections of a certain Countess of Camoëns, née in Nice or thereabouts.


Hammersmith Is Out

A nose-pickin’ shit-kicker and his diner dolly rise from nothin’ to the very cream by making that deal Jesus turned down, with a mental patient.

The critics, except Ebert, didn’t like it, it made them sad and annoyed.


Memed My Hawk

A vivid masterpiece of a vivid story quite close in its way to the Arabian Nights and antiquity in general, which is all part of the fun as it’s laid in Turkey after the Great War.

A further level of comic significance is added by the filming in Yugoslavia, Ustinov might very well have taken his cue from Kazan’s America America.

Memed takes his bride away from the local Aga’s idiot nephew and goes to the mountains among the brigands, the girl is imprisoned awaiting trial, the crafty illiterate Aga is very hard to kill.

Caryn James in the New York Times thought it should have been agitprop, Time Out Film Guide up to the usual line says “hopelessly mangled and confused”.